How to Choose a Social Media Agency

Here are 5 questions to ask an interactive agency before hiring them.

Aliza Sherman,
June 4, 2009
Episode #056


Hi there, The Digital Marketer here, ready to help you put the power of the Internet and technology to work for your business.

I've been an Internet consultant since about the early 90s, and I'm still floored by how little vetting people do when hiring their interactive consultants or agencies.

Part of the reason why I may not be getting grilled often is because many of my clients come through referral; hopefully some of it is a result of a good reputation in my industry. Even so, I still think that before you hire anyone to handle your interactive initiatives, you should ask at a minimum a handful of questions to understand their capabilities and philosophies.

Are They For Real?

A troubling thing about the popularity of the Internet and online tools is that many people tend to follow the hype first and then have to deal with the fallout from time and money wasted later. Enterprising individuals have always sniffed opportunity and followed the money, and as I've said before, everyone seems to be hanging a shingle out today that reads: Social Media Marketing R Us.

Hey, I admit I've jumped on that bandwagon as well, but I do have years of Internet marketing experience to back up the shiny label.

So the first thing I'd suggest that you ask someone who is presenting themselves as a social media expert is:

  • How long have you been consulting on social media?

Okay, I'm being a little sneaky here because this is a trick question. The truthful answer is "Not long because the term social media has only been in use for less than a handful of years."

Beware the fool who tells you they've been a social media consultant for eight or 10 years. A savvy social media consultant who is paying attention will tell you something like "Well, I've been providing Internet consulting services for 15 years but social media consulting more recently as the tools have evolved."

If they said that to you, I'd say chalk one up for them. Honesty is a great quality. Paying attention is good, too.

What’s Their Online Marketing Philosophy?

The next question to ask is:

  • Why should I use social media?

Now's the time to put on your BS Deflecting Shield. People who are passionate about the Internet and social media -- as well as people who claim to know what they're doing but might not -- will both wax poetic about the wonders of social media tools. But the BSers are the ones who will make unsubstantiated claims or make social media sound like the Holy Grail of Marketing. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A good consultant will be cautiously optimistic about social media and will present a more realistic picture of what it is good for and what it won't do well. Social media is not a great direct sales tool right now. The personal and social dynamics of blogs, microblogs and social networks, for example, just don't lend themselves to broadcast marketing and advertising tactics.

If you hear the phrases "brand building," "conversations," "organic," you might be dealing with someone who has a better grasp of social media. Or they may be someone who is good at tossing out the buzzwords.

So test their mettle by throwing out this next question:

  • Should I stop my traditional marketing and advertising and move my budget entirely to social media?

A sensible consultant will tell you that online marketing should work in concert with your traditional marketing efforts. Realistically, over time, social media might replace some of your traditional marketing tactics, but it should not be an either/or proposition; instead it should be a mix that can be modified over time.

An unscrupulous type will encourage you to put all your budget or most of your money toward the bright and shiny objects because that means more money for them up front before you figure out that they don't really know what they're doing.

How Do They Engage in Social Media?

The fourth question you should ask is:

  • What is your philosophy on how to engage in social media?

Again, be ready for the Buzzword Brigade but listen for genuine, thoughtful views on social media as a set of communications tools that help people connect, collaborate, and create. Okay, that sounded like a bunch of buzzwords plus it had that fancy ring of alliteration.

But think about it: social media is about people communicating, publishing, interacting, and sharing. The way we market has changed forever because the way people consume their information – and now produce it - has changed forever as well. You want to hire someone who understands how to listen and assess first, and then develop authentic outreach campaigns that build over time.

What Social Media Tools Do They Use?

The last question I'd recommend asking is:

  • What social media tools do you actively use and why?

Someone who is immersed in social media will be able to rattle off dozens of great tools; however, you aren't looking for quantity, but quality. A thoughtful consultant will give you only a handful of examples, if that many, honing in on the things that are most important to them and identifying the tools they use regularly because they really work for them.

You might want to throw in another trick question just to make sure such as:

  • What do you think is THE most effective social media tool out there today?

Please remember that I'm not trying to encourage you to trick a consultant into giving a wrong answer. In fact, the right answer to this questions is that it depends on what you want to accomplish, who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do.

Buyer Beware

A quick list of some other things to watch out for when speaking with your potential consultant are:

  1. Too much jargon and no substance and no definitions of what that jargon actually means;
  2. Lack of at least a few case studies of initiatives they've worked on that show success using social media;
  3. Badmouthing other agencies or consultants in their field, especially by name;
  4. Having an answer for every single question you ask -- nobody in this field is THAT good -- so don't be turned off if they say something like "I don't have an answer on that but can I get back to you with more information later?"
  5. Guaranteeing you anything. Social media is not a completely controllable, perfectly measurable science. It is more flexible than something written in stone. There are no guarantees.

Bottom Line: When you are looking for a social media or interactive consultant, go for someone who has a good reputation, a solid portfolio of work, and satisfied customers you can contact. No matter what services someone is selling, there are people out there who know if they do good work. Ask around. Spend time doing your homework before letting someone else spend your money.

Contact Me

That's all we have time for today. Visit the show’s website at digitalmarketer.quickanddirtytips.com for links to some resources to help you find a reputable social media consultant.

If you'd like to ask a question or request a topic for The Digital Marketer, email me at  digitalmarketer@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a message by calling 206-339-6279

The Digital Marketer's Quick and Dirty Tips for Building Your Business With Web Tools is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network at quickanddirtytips.com.

Tune in for another business boost from The Digital Marketer, the host who's not afraid to go under the Internet's hood & get a little dirty!

Resources for Finding a Social Media Consultant

Word of Mouth Marketing Association - http://www.womma.org/

Internet Marketing Association - http://www.imanetwork.org/

American Marketing Association -  http://www.marketingpower.com/

Web Marketing Association - http://www.webmarketingassociation.org/

Social Media image courtesy of Shutterstock

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