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How to Choose a Good Social Media Agency

There are thousands of agencies that claim they “do social media.” This is a flat-out lie. The truth is that there are tons of agencies that offer social media services, but it is exceedingly difficult to find an agency that really does social media well.

First, let’s dissect how we reached the current social media agency landscape:

  • Remember that social media is still pretty new. MySpace was founded in 2003, so social media is still not quite yet 20 years old as a discipline.
  • The newness of social media also means there aren’t a whole lot of ways that you can tell if someone is an expert. There are no four-year degrees in social media management (yet), and there are certainly no advanced degrees. There are very few real accreditations for professionals in this field.
  • Actual experts are hard to come by. There are only so many folks like me who have had 10+ years of experience in the space because social just didn’t exist back in the day. So the talent pool for senior-level, well-versed experts is limited, and most of them work at big companies.
  • Enterprising agencies saw the writing on the wall and skilled up existing staff or hired some folks to expand their social capabilities. But often, those people were right out of school or lacking in experience, and most of the time, they can’t bring the higher level strategic thinking or expertise required to really do social

Another even bigger issue is that the clients who are doing the hiring are also not experts in the field. This means they don’t really know the right questions to ask or how to spot a poser versus someone who is actually an expert. In many cases, people shopping for a social media agency don’t actually work in the social media field. And all of that adds up to uninformed or bad decisions being made at companies every day.

So how do you find a good social media agency? Bottom line: ask a ton of questions and don’t let them claim something without backing it up. Specifically, ask:

  • Where does social media sit within your organization? How many people work on social and what is their experience level? If a company has half an FTE assigned to do social media for six clients, you will not get quality work. If social is the ugly stepchild and not taken seriously within the agency itself, you will not get quality work. If all of the people assigned to social media graduated from college last year, you will not get quality work.
  • What types of social media work have you done for clients? Look for answers that are very specific. Ask if the agency is helping with strategy, listening, analytics and reporting, tool management, etc. If all they do is post items and respond to comments, they are only doing about 25 percent of what makes up “social media.” If all they can offer is vague answers about “community management and managing channels,” you probably should look for another vendor unless that’s truly all you need.
  • How familiar are your team members with the tools needed to manage social media, and which specific tools do you use? A good agency should have no trouble discussing the suite of tools they use – from Business Manager and Campaign Manager (which are tools offered directly by Facebook and LinkedIn, respectively) to third-party tools like social media management systems to social listening tools, etc. If someone doesn’t really know what you’re talking about, seems unfamiliar with some of these tools and terms, or can’t really list more than one or two tools, they don’t really know the space.
  • How do you use data and analytics in social media work? Data drives everything in social media. Companies that tell you the data doesn’t matter or reporting isn’t part of what they do probably should end up at the bottom of your list. If they do reporting, ask them to provide examples. You want to see a lot of discussion about engagement. If you see nothing but impressions, run. You should also ask about whether they are familiar with Boolean search language – this is the code used to drive social listening queries. Most of the tools today don’t make you code in Boolean (the old ones did!) but if you find someone that knows Boolean, you have found someone who really knows social listening.
  • How do you build social strategies with clients, and can you provide examples? A good social strategy starts with goals that align or ladder up to your business goals. So if your goal is “drive online sales by 10% YoY,” the strategy should be all about how do we use social to contribute to that 10% growth. If your agency can’t articulate this clearly, they don’t understand social strategy. If they start with the execution (i.e., how many times a week we will post and on which channels) versus your goals, they don’t know how to build a strategy for social and in fact are going at it backwards.
  • Please outline your safety and security protocols for accounts you manage. If they insist that the agency owns all of the accounts, that’s a red flag. If they seem less than forthcoming with details, that’s a red flag. They should have specific protocols in place for managing passwords, managing account access when someone joins or leaves the team, etc. If they can’t outline these for you, that’s a red flag.
  • What is your experience with crisis management situations on social? Ask for real specifics here – what was the crisis, how did they approach it strategically, how did they use analytics, how did they advise the client? You might also ask how quickly they can mobilize and if they have capacity to work late nights/weekends in the case of a crisis.
  • Tell me about how you guys manage paid advertising on social media for clients? Ask about how they do it in terms of personnel, who does the creative, how this is managed differently than organic content, how much paid advertising they are managing in a given week or month, etc. If it’s an agency that barely manages any paid, they are probably not that good at it. You need someone who is well-practiced and well-versed. The world of paid social media advertising is complicated and it changes all the time. If you are planning to do paid with an agency, you must make sure they know what they’re doing. Additionally, if you are in pharma, medicine, finance or another regulated field, make sure they know how to steer clear of the many regulations and rules for companies in those spaces.
  • Also (side note on paid) do not let an agency charge you extra for paying your invoices for paid ads. If they are going to pay the bill and charge you back, that’s fine. But make sure it’s a straight pass-through charge and not the charge +10%.
  • More specific questions. Depending on your needs, you may need to probe further into other areas. For instance, if you are going to rely on your agency to do the creative work of physically creating your posts, you may want to ask about their process for that and ask for examples. And if you are an international company, you need to make sure they are familiar with social in all of the regions in which you want channels. Specifically, if you need social in Russia, ask about VK. If you need social in China, that is a huge can of worms, but make sure to ask about WeChat and Weibo.

Bottom line: Try to weed out the imitators and find yourself an agency that specializes in social versus treating it like you’re supersizing your meal at McDonald’s and just adding on a bigger soda and bigger fries. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel secure in your choice. And follow your gut. If an agency is unable to offer truly satisfactory answers to the questions above, their knowledge in social is not deep enough to do social well. And that is truly what all companies want.

Sue Serna

Sue Serna is a Consultants Collective member consultant and the founder and CEO of Serna Social, a social media consulting agency focused on social media governance, risk, security and strategy. Sue is one of the nation’s top experts on social media safety and spent nearly nine years leading the global social media program for Cargill, one of the largest private companies in the United States. Sue pioneered many industry best practices that the world’s largest companies use to keep their social media footprints safe. While in that role, Sue managed Cargill’s more than 50 partner relationships with social media agencies around the world. In addition, Sue is an accomplished social media trainer and an established communicator with a passion for creating compelling content. In 2022, she was named to the Advisory Committee of the National Institute for Social Media.

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