Outsourcing Community Management: Is It Out or In?

February 22, 2013
Posted by: Jenna Woodul

Community ManagerIt’s interesting to read Arik Hanson’s take on the Social Fresh Community Manager Report. He identifies 5 trends, based on the Social Fresh data, noting that “more brands are understanding they shouldn’t outsource community management.”
Here’s another point of view:
It’s critical that community managers have a deep understanding of the business they represent, are able to interpret the brand culture and speak with the brand voice, and that they have credibility, clout, and good relationships across the organization. Whether a company uses inside or outside community management personnel varies with circumstance. The crucial thing is to have the right people involved. We think the best result is often a balance of genuine outside skills, knowledge, experience, and infrastructure with inside smarts, skills, and presence.

The skill’s the thing

In the last four years or so, we’ve seen many agencies and individuals hanging out social media shingles without having the knowledge and skills for it. During the same period, we’ve seen lots of in-house people who also lack these assets. Because community management experience is a specialized field, often a genuine expert from outside will best understand how to define a socialized view of the brand and bring it forward. This is in part because the outside firm has more diverse experience across multiple clients and for many years. So it’s important to make sure that vendors have such experience — in social media, not ads, PR, or digital. Outsourcing to the right people can also bring the additional advantage of scale.
The community manager title covers positions with a wide variety of responsibilities — some of them being entry-level level; others, quite senior. However, given the components required for a successful social program, a company needs quite a range of capabilities:

  • Social Strategy: Derived from both business and community goals, identifying success metrics, and yielding a social brief and customer interaction model that integrates with and informs all the marketing and support programs across the organization. Even large companies, given their organizational structures, may find it hard to hire and empower this kind of position in-house.
  • Content Programming/Conversation Calendar: Following the strategic plan, daily social content programming. While many big companies have large marketing departments creating content, getting hold of it and appropriately framing it for use in social can be quite different. Social staff needs to program for instant engagement, and then follow up by talking with customers to take full advantage of the content’s potential.
  • Engagement: Starting and stirring conversations is at the heart of community management. It requires people who know it, like it, and understand how to effectively apply it to the business and community goals established in the strategic phase. Just to make things a bit more complex, it also increasingly involves customer service and re-purposing traditional support responses to a more social and interactive environment.
  • Monitoring, Reporting, and Business Insights: Every day/week/month, community managers can pull basic metrics and report them. They can listen to what customers have to say and pull out the top hot buttons. But the real question is, “what does it mean about our business and what we should do to better meet our business objectives?” That kind of reporting requires sophisticated levels of business and community insight, as well as cross-functional connection and clout.
  • 24/7 Moderation, Escalation, and Crisis Management: No matter how hard a community manager works, it’s just not possible to have a life and be on top of the company’s venues 24 hours a day. However, customers are on line all the time; business hours aren’t prime time. Someone needs to know how to reach the right people at the awkward moments — weekends, the middle of the night, and whenever the crisis hits. These events escalate quickly. Outsourcing can cover the clock and scale rapidly to deal with crises.

Building the right social media team

social media teamConsidering all the factors involved, you can’t always find the right in-house person (or an adequate number of people) with all the skills and experience required, especially given the talent shortage Arik also points out. As companies explore a range of social involvement, budgets and organizational structures vary widely. You may have enough budget to hire an entry level engagement position, for example — but not a experienced strategic resource. In-house personnel may have the advantage of already understanding the company, its brand, voice, and organizational dynamics. But sometimes they’re relatively new to social media, junior in the field, and not provided with the support they need to grow. Outside skill can help to build an effective team.
As companies continue to iterate their social approaches, trial and error can be expensive. In the ideal picture, a company integrates social across the entire organization and all functions are on board and ready — but not all companies are there yet, or anywhere near there. An organization making the vast cultural transition to social may find it best to bring in outsourced experience to provide multi-level resources or augment internal personnel for 24/7 coverage, escalation, and response. The role for experienced outsourcing agencies could well see expansion.
Where do you see Community Manager trends heading? Will the diverse experience that agencies bring from working across multiple clients, and the 24/7 coverage they offer, start to see a decline as brands go in-house? Please share your thoughts in the comments.