The Hazards of Representing Client Brands Socially…

image_thumb_thumb[1] Last week my partners and I were discussing social media and how it fits into our spectrum of products and services.  Just like any business we want to bring as many products and services to the market as we possibly can that will increase revenue.  After all, that’s the name of the game right?  Whenever we get on the topic of social media I always run into a little resistance from my partners because they simply do not interact using social media like I do, nor do they follow the industry as closely.

This is not a bad thing at all, in fact I think this is a good thing because whenever I bring an idea relating to social media to them or to a client they will often times force me into a position of selling them on the idea and showing them how it can work. This has helped us avoid adopting things too early in a lot of cases and wasting our time and resources.  Typically if we recommend a social strategy for a client or ourselves internally, it’s usually something we have put a lot more hours into discussing than we can actually bill the client for. Granted that’s a bad thing for the bottom line but in terms of providing our clients with the best possible strategy it’s actually a good thing.

Interactive Agencies Should Make Money! Right?

Absolutely. Now, I am fixing to be extremely transparent and disclose some high level discussions between my partners and I just to make some points. We have played around with the idea of us adding social media representation to our list of products and services.  By Social Media Representation I am referring to our company monitoring our clients brands online and engaging their community on their behalf.  A social media agency of record more or less.

It Seemed Like a Great Idea at the Time…

I pointed out to my partners last Friday that I thought we should consider this as a way to increase revenue, especially since we have added new members to our team that are skilled in this arena.  The potential for clients to hand over their social media presence and paying us to manage it for them seemed pretty incredible. In fact, I had two or three clients in mind that I could walk into their offices tomorrow and sell them on this idea. Let me also state for the record, this is not a new idea by any means, a lot of companies out there are already doing this. Also, let me state for the record that I have nothing against those guys, a lot of them are probably my friends and I have a ton of respect for them but after a revelation this weekend I was forced to do a complete 360 this morning at our Monday morning team meeting.

A blog post by Sean Corcoran sort of got the ball rolling on this and then I spoke with several friends inside the industry in depth on this topic and we all came to similar conclusions…  Providing social media representation for a client can be dangerous, ineffective, and a huge liability.  Now, if you are a client, or maybe a potential client, and you are reading this, here’s a few reasons why I don’t want to provide representation to you:

We Don’t Know Your Business Well Enough…

As a founding partner in a reputable interactive agency and someone that has delivered hundreds of client projects over the past decade I will be the first person to say that in order for a project to be successful you have to practically immerse yourself in your clients business.  You need to have a good understanding of what their goals are, that’s a given, but you also need to know which products need to be in the spotlight and which ones should be on page 3.  You also need to know who the clients target audience is, and how best to reach them. These are just a few things that come to mind regarding the scope of a project.  Granted, an argument can be made that by understanding these things about a business would classify us as knowledgeable but does it really?  Let me layout an example…

Let’s say we are representing a client that sells camping equipment by monitoring their brand socially and we discover this tweet:

I bought a tent from @CompanyX yesterday and didn’t realize the zipper was defective until we got to the campsite. #CompanyX #Fail

Okay, I think we can all agree this is bad and Company X needs to respond quickly to this escalating situation. Again, Company X is completely unaware that this tweet just got broadcasted to all 1000+ of this guys twitter followers and they are relying on us to represent them in the best possible way.  I think we can all agree that whoever this guy is certainly deserves at least a new tent out of the deal, but do we have that authority to replace a $500 tent?  Probably not immediately, and it would require a few phone calls to Company X on our part to see how they wanted to proceed with this situation.  Meanwhile this tweet is still marinating for everyone in the social landscape to see, for all we know this guy may also share his tweets on Facebook as status updates, therefore further exposing the bad experience to his friends…

Let’s say we call Company X as soon as the situation arises, which most likely won’t be the case, realistically it could be an hour or two or maybe even longer before we spot the tweet and then the time it takes for us to reach Company X to see how they want us to handle it.  All of this in a world where things happen so quickly, this is not doing Company X or their consumer any favors.  Quick resolution is the only response to a situation like this.  In our phone call to Company X we get a different response than what we had anticipated, they laugh and then proceed to say that this guy must not have read the directions and then go on to inform us that their zippers have a tiny piece of plastic inserted between the pull and the track before leaving the factory to keep them from sticking together while they are on the retail shelves.  All of this over a tiny piece of plastic, but here’s the big picture, if Company X had someone internally monitoring their brand via social media, they could have resolved this before it got blown out of proportion and shared with 1000+ potential consumers.  See my point?

As a client we know that Company X has an awesome line of tents and camping equipment and we know exactly which tent models make them the most money, but how could we have ever known about that tiny piece of plastic inserted at the factory?

That’s Why They Have Community Managers…

A trend that I have been following with many of today’s top companies is the addition of a new employee who’s duties consist entirely of monitoring their brand online.  I highly recommend clients that can afford this to do so as opposed to trying to outsource this.  Another common practice today is to hand these responsibilities off to a current employee in addition to their existing job duties.  I am not as keen on this as the first option but in a tight spot this could potentially work, the only advice I have for anyone considering this is to make sure whoever gets awarded this responsibility is trained and understands social media.

Having the Wrong Person can be Worse than Not Doing Anything…

Let’s say that Company X has a person monitoring their social brand and they don’t display compassion or interest in helping others, the idea to enter into social media can come back and bite you quickly.  One bad social media exchange can cost you down the road.  Let’s also say that you hire someone who doesn’t engage community members or is slow to respond, this can also be detrimental to your brand. As consumers, we like engagement from the brands we use.

Liability and Getting Sued…

Another reason I don’t want to represent your brand socially is the huge liability it places on me.  I am a huge proponent of fiduciary obligation and giving our clients their moneys worth.  Many times this includes going beyond the scope of a project and doing things for free, that’s just a fact of life in our industry sometimes.  In the long run if it means it will keep the client happy and add to the overall success of a project, we usually go that extra mile.  In my opinion with brand representation it’s a little bit different.

Let’s say that Company X has a competitor that is aggressively attacking Company X’s products quality and integrity.  How Company X responds to these attacks is extremely important and should be worded carefully.  Just one slip of the tongue so to speak could land Company X in a lawsuit with their competitor pretty quickly.  Anyone who has participated in a head to head marketing campaign knows that this is a reality and it happens all of the time.  In most cases large sums of money in damages are awarded to one company and the other is left holding the bag for a huge legal bill on top of whatever damages are assessed.  In the event that this should happen to a client we represent I would totally expect them to look to us as being responsible.  This is not a place that I want to position a company that I love and have worked hard to make successful. I am sure that as a potential client, and a business owner, you can respect my position on this.

It’s About Engagement, Listening to Your Consumers Helps You.

One of the first rules of success in retail is having exactly what your target audience is looking for.  The best way to do this is to interact with your target audience and get their feedback, especially if you are also the manufacturer.  I think sometimes businesses get locked into a mode where they have on blinders when it comes to their products and services and consume themselves with trying to control costs and manage efficiency.  This is definitely bad, losing touch with consumer demand can wreck a company.

As consumers we love to add input when it comes to products and brands that we love and are loyal to. That’s just how it is.  Well, the best way to keep your hand on the pulse of consumers these days is not in a focus group setting like many brands still rely on. The best way, in my opinion, is to engage your loyal consumer community socially and ask them what they would like to see. I think once many brands catch onto this they will find that my theory is right on.

Now, let’s say that a company outsources their social media representation to an outside firm, in my opinion, they have basically handed off the most important link to their consumer base that may have ever known.  Granted, any firm they outsource to is going to do their best to convey their findings to their client but I think a lot of times small details get omitted that could hinder innovation.

There are Surely Exceptions…

I firmly agree that there are exceptions to my position, small businesses present a lot less liability than larger corporations.  Smaller businesses also have completely different goals for what they want to accomplish with social media.  I think these instances are best examined and considered on a case by case basis but before entering into any agreement for representation both parties should establish clear positions and binding contracts and liability waivers need to be implemented.  I think the biggest thing is that everyone needs to understand the risks.

What Services Am I Comfortable Providing?

This is something I have pondered all day long given my complete 360 on this matter, and here are a few things that I think my partners and I may consider adding to our product and service offerings under the heading of social media consultation:

Social Media 101 – What is Social Media? Rules of Engagement – How to Use and Interact w/ Social Media Brand Monitoring – How to track your brand using Social Media
Social Media Integration – Integrating Social Media into a Web Presence
Social Media Automation – Automating Tweets & Facebook Posts w/ New Content
Social Media Coaching – Provide Inspiration, Thoughts, and Strategy

Shameless Self Promotion

While we may not want to expose ourselves as a company to anything outside of what I have outlined above, we do feel that our social media consulting services can provide your company or organization with the right tools and knowledge to establish and maintain and effective social presence for your organization. Our rates for social media consultations have yet to be established but keep watching our corporate website for news and information.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Is my line of thinking wrong?  I would love to hear from you and get your thoughts on this topic.  Do you provide brand representation for clients using social media?  What are your thoughts on my concerns?  What best practices do you have in place currently?

Update: 10/18/2010 – This blog post served as the basis for Episode 18 of The Cotton Club Podcast, you can listen to this episode in it’s entirety here…



  • Mark

    Monitoring if you explicitly tell what channels & terms you are monitoring would be a good service.

    No one who doesn't have the power to act should ever be posting or responding in an official capacity, whether external or internal in employment.

    • Cotton Rohrscheib

      Good points, I think as far as monitoring is concerned, I feel more comfortable (as the service provider) training my clients to monitor their own brands and familiarizing them with the tools to do this instead of actually doing the legwork internally (on our end). Granted, it means that I am closing the door on potential revenue down the road, possibly a lot of residual too, but in the end I would be outside my comfort zone.

      I have all of the confidence in our team at Pleth, and I know that if we decided to offer monitoring as a service we could do a good job at it, but it's the time lapse that would transpire between first noticing the issue and formulating a response by going back and forth w/ our client that scares me. I am also afraid of our team feeling uncomfortable, or trapped in the middle of an issue that is ultimately not our own. You know as well as I do, a response on Twitter that is two days late gets looked at a lot differently than one that is timely.

      I could not agree more on your second point, Companies have to be very careful when they implement their social media policies to clearly define who has the right level of clearance to respond to certain issues. One slip up in this area can be bad. Then there is the whole,”it's my last day and I am going to quit tomorrow anyway” mentality with certain employees and interns and entry level employees that you have to worry about too that scares me too.

  • BryanJones

    Cotton, I like where your train of thought is taking you. You see the major risks that are all over this new reality of people relations, but you also see that people and businesses need help in figuring out just how to serve there customers best.

    That's the big picture that we should stay focussed on: Give them what they need. The products that we provide will evolve as the clients needs evolve. The list above is a great breakdown of present needs that you've identified. Pricing them is easy – it's all about time, just like any other service you currently provide.

    • Cotton Rohrscheib

      Thanks for the comments Bryan, I would have loved to have had you on a podcast I just recorded w/ Keith Crawford & Amy B. Hole on this topic, it should be online soon.

      Last Friday when I left the office I really wanted to come up with a way over the weekend that we could clearly define our companies role in our clients social media presence and the more thought I put into it the more I came to these realizations. :-)

  • Abbi Siler

    I completely agree with some or all of these things, as a 'Social Media …whatever', I can however tell you that regardless of the risks, the demand is still there. For me I would much rather educate a business owner or staff member of the business on how to manage their social media, not only would this be more beneficial & safe for me and the client but as you said, they know their business best. The sad truth is many business owners expect people to do this for them, and when handing out the huge responsibility of maintaining their online marketing, they hand it off to the youngest staff person — which can be even more disastrous because of lack of maturity or experience. One thing I do with my clients who just simply aren't ready to do their social media for themselves is phase out the process. I update/cleanup/maintain for the first few weeks/months while meeting with the client weekly/monthly on what I have done, how I have done it, and provide some sort of staff training all with the goal that a business can self sustain their social media by the end of a time period. Because every business is different these phases can take a few lessons, a few weeks, and sometimes months. For small businesses this allows them time to digest the vast amount of information that comes along with social media & better understand the industry. For many business owners and even corporations, the CEO is just getting a Facebook Profile started much less thinking about how to use it for business.

    I think providing social media packages/training is crucial to a web firm, but have yet to see it done correctly. Thus the reason I have left several tech firms and started local2social. At the end of the day, most clients want to have the control of their marketing efforts, but many just are afraid to jump on board with social media because its constant change, and the overwhelming information you have to digest — allowing a client to have goals set in phases and seeing that accomplishment played out not only inspires the client in learning something new, but also allows the business to walk away with sound knowledge & a comfort level that provides confidence in their online presence.

    Many people claim to provide great maintenance, etc. But the success of any social media campaign is the amount of effort given by the actual business owner or staff. My goals for local2social is to educate businesses, communities, and organizations about social media, because no one else seems to provide the answer to the daunting questions of privacy, business marketing & frankly what IS social media. Since the schools aren't teaching social media yet, some one has to do the job.

    From my business prospective, if I could ever find a web firm that would pay me to EDUCATE their clients on HOW to use social media & the pros/cons of the efforts and understanding how all the pieces fit together instead of making me feel like I was some sleazy car sales man selling them a Facebook page without any guidance, I would feel like I hit the jack pot. Unfortunately many of the firms and organizations I have worked for treat social media like a cash cow, building the page — slapping on an outrageous price and selling it to an unknowing customer who thinks they got something special. Its like giving someone the all important last piece of a hidden puzzle.

    • Cotton Rohrscheib

      Thanks for the comments, you bring up a lot of great info. I could not agree more w/ what you are doing providing education to your clients. In the end, that's the best thing we can do for them. I think the eventual goal for a business entering into an agreement w/ a consultant or provider should be to learn as much as they can involving technique, engagement, and monitoring and then eventually have their consultant phase them into the process eventually allowing them to take the reigns internally.

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  • tejones

    Cotton, I toyed with offering that kind of service too. But, if I put myself in the owner's shoes, I decided the best thing to do is to offer to build a social media (or online) marketing plan and help implement it. Further, I think you are on target with the education and coaching. I am with you in believing that the best person to speak on the company's behalf is a person on the company's payroll. The larger companies can hire someone, like you said, to monitor. I think smaller companies might consider an intern from the local college's marketing school.

    Good stuff!

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