Social Media: What Does An Agency Owe A Client In Terms Of Content Transparency?


Blogs and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Flicker .. Oh My! The options for participating in social media are like the Energizer bunny Rocker little, energizing bunny .. it keeps on going and going and going. Social media grows more complex by the nano second.

On the plus side: for the most part, the capital cost of these tools is free or at a very low cost. On the minus side: the price you pay for a social media program is in human capital and time. For an organization that runs lean and mean the execution of social media can be a challenge. Social media is a hungry beast that to succeed demands content.

Enter stage left - PR agencies, advertising agencies and social media consultants who are seizing an opportunity to carve a service niche from their time pressed, staff starved clients. Yes, girlfriend, the agencies are stepping in and taking over the role and responsibilities of implementing social media initiatives.

But unlike an ad campaign or dropping a media release where no one really cares what name you use, social media is suppose to be different. Tweets and posts are suppose to be from the real people who are working for the brand .. just in case you might want to develop a real relationship. Keep in mind those who hold the conversation control the relationship.

There is a a buzz brewing that reminds me of the controversy over ghost blogging. However, since on Facebook and often on Twitter "no one knows your name" seems to be the acceptable norm, 2010 will see more. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it just fact of social media marketing life? Does it really matter? These are some of the questions that John Cass, PR Communications and I tossed about. 

We thought it would be fun and an interesting exercise to collaborate on a post about the transparency of content writing and social media engagement for client social media channels. We're reaching out to people involved in social media and asking their opinions about the level of transparency owed to a a client when an agency is hired to write content for a blog, twitter account, Facebook page, etc.

  •   What are the practices that you think should be followed? Feel free to tell us if you have differences of opinions across social media channels.

We'll collect responses through January 15th and then share the learnings by cross posting on John's blog and on Diva Marketing. Read John's introduction post on PR Communications.


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Hi Toby! I was just about to write a post on "faux social media": that's when a company hires others to write for it in non-transparent and non-social way.

IMO, companies have no clue what social media is about and are customer-averse anyway, so it's easy for them to hire someone else to do it for them. But that's not helping the company be social--and these types of social media efforts often do not yield results of any kind. Maybe numbers--but do number, as in hits to sites or twitter or whatever--lead to sales? Often all these efforts are doing is putting out more junk content to compete with other junk content that's out there.

And the transparency isn't necessarily owed to the client inasmuch as it is owed to the customers who are looking to interact with the company. If they believe the company blog is from the company--not from a ghost writer--then the customer is getting ripped off. The client is only prolonging the inevitable of having to deal directly with the customer. In both, it's pretty sad and will set customer relations thru social media backwards.

Posted by: Tish Grier on Jan 7, 2010 11:22:54 AM

Great topic for a post!

I think the best role agencies, consultants, etc. can play is coaching clients so they can learn to use social media.

As you said, the tools may be free, but effective participation takes time, experience, and a realistic budget to pay for expertise.

Hell, there was once a time when you could get by with typewriters and mimeograph machines. Those days are long over and businesses need to stop whining about social media and adapt.

Just as companies had to hire IT people a couple of decades ago so they could remain competitive, they now need to hire community managers and others who can participate in online interaction.

Used effectively both internally and externally, social media is not just a time sink. It can increase productivity, and help to build sales.

However, I think some standards are necessary. I've blogged for clients on topics as diverse as clutter control and hairstyles. I always write under my own name, with my bio attached so it is clear who I am and what role I play.

My goal always is to turn the blog over to the client so they can do it themselves once they learn what's needed.

Posted by: B.L. Ochman on Jan 7, 2010 5:00:17 PM

Great post Toby, love the intro. Thanks for collaborating, I think we should get some really interesting discussion and ideas around this topic.

Posted by: John Cass on Jan 8, 2010 10:35:58 AM

Great idea for a blog post and interesting question. I'm of the mind similar to BL Ochman that company outsiders should be helping company people learn how to use social media themselves, and if they do write, its not done as 'ghost' but 'guest'...

Social media is about listening, learning and building can you outsource this? And from my own experience, how can you learn or develop your own voice without doing it yourself and experiencing the ups and downs first hand. If a company is just doing sm to 'cross it off their list' or to use it as another source of one-way communication, then its not really social media and probably isn't fair to the readers who are genuinely looking for dialog and relationship building/learning. On twitter especially, I find it disconcerting for people to post for others without at least leaving some initials so the reader knows who tweeted it etc.

Posted by: ellen hoenig on Jan 8, 2010 6:39:29 PM

@tish - thanks for reminding us that our mandate is to serve the customer.
@bl - it seems there should be some expectations and industry norms in regard to ethics/transparency in, call it content providers. if the industry doesn't take the lead we may see the gov't 'helping' again.
@ellen - without knowing who posts is it still 'social media' or a message written in a conversational tone? i may post today, you tomorrow does the customer care is the question?
@john - thanks for the great idea .. always fun collaborating with you.

Posted by: Toby on Jan 10, 2010 11:27:02 AM

Whether social media is outsourced or not, what matters is the end result to the customer. If the goal is to facilitate discussion, improvement of the product or service or quick easy access to 'someone' who can resolve a problem, I don't care if it is the president of the company, a designated CSR or the PR agency who is going to make sure the suggestions, complaints, promotions are handled properly from the customers perspective. What matters is the end result and the press for the company left in the wake of the interaction. Does it build or tear down the brand?

I'll give you two anecdotal situations from my own experience. I needed to reach someone in control at a furniture company. When I got to their website they did everything imaginable to avoid a customer interaction other than sending an e-mail they could respond to at some future point in time. I ended up calling corporate directly after looking them up on line in the white pages bypassing their website and getting head of quality control. I told him how challenging it was to connect with a live human being and he said that was deliberate because customers are supposed to go through their sales representatives through their stores. Needless to say I was less than impressed.

On the other hand, I had an issue with Jet Blue who is on Twitter and Facebook, has set up fan pages, etc. I knew they were on Twitter and started to air my complaint. I don't know who facilitates their account. I didn't care what their name was. But I quickly realized through this vehicle that I was able to resolve my problem because we took it from Twitter to e-mail to resolution with the company. 'Personal' in my opinion isn't about a particular 'person' is about personalized service through social media that ends with a happy customer and a positive impression which builds that company's brand.

Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel on Jan 10, 2010 8:38:57 PM

Hi Toby,

This is an interesting question.

At the end of the day, the client should be reviewing and approving any content that goes out through its social media channels anyway. So in reality, who is writing the content isn’t nearly as important as who is “approving” the content. Strict policies and procedures should be drafted by the client, so the agency knows what it can and cannot do or say, while still giving the writer enough freedom to be creative, passionate and opinionated when necessary.

As you recall, one of the reasons we decided on the use pseudonyms for our fashion blog and Twitter sites (DC Goodwill Fashionista) and mission focused Facebook and Twitter sites (Good Willy) was to enable us to maintain consistency in the “name” of the content provider, even though the individual behind that pseudonym may change…as it did when we transitioned from Em Hall to Gillian Kirkpatrick as the writer of the DC Goodwill Fashion blog. In order to be transparent, we wrote a series of “transition blogs” where Em “officially” turned over the writing of the blog to Gillian, so readers knew the writer had changed, even though we never dropped the DC Goodwill Fashionista name or image. That pseudonym and avatar represent the “writer” of the blog, not the “person” writing the blog. Not only was the blog not damaged as a result of the transition, its readership has actually grown quite substantially. And Gillian is not an employee, she is a volunteer.

We recently launched a Spanish fashion blog using the same strategy, which is also doing very well. That writer also is a volunteer.

Brendan Hurley
SVP, Marketing & Communications
Goodwill of Greater Washington

Posted by: Brendan Hurley on Jan 11, 2010 8:59:24 AM

Great topic John and Toby. Surprisingly all we need to know has already been covered by your uber smart readers. The issues as to the why are simple. Clients have neither time nor talent and in most cases knowledge to carry this out. Thus, enter in the Agency, which should have all...OK, Maybe 2 out of three. I'm still on the fence about knowledge. But nevertheless some great points were made in regards to a) end result b) transitioning the duties and c)some modicum of ownership is better than none.

At the end of the day, agencies see an opportunity and until businesses find the time and the staff to learn to do this on their own, there will continue to be this need coupled with the void supplemented by a lack or transparency.

A better question might be, Who owns the mistakes and customer service miscues that may arise?

Posted by: Marc Meyer on Jan 11, 2010 10:48:54 AM

You have not convinced me that why I should use those social media. I don't use social media at all, and I have no way to convince others to use it.

Posted by: Jenny Cane on Jan 12, 2010 4:51:25 PM

Toby, thanks for this timely and relevant discussion.

It's interesting to step back and appreciate that social media tools are communication tools [marvelous ones in my opinion!] and they can be used in the traditional push format or to engage & interact & be social. It's a subtle difference if you're in the traditional mindset and a glaringly obvious one if you're already on the social side.

To be effective in a social environment, you must be human, authentic, responsive, consistent and genuinely interested. It's what you so often remind us of: it's like being invited into someone's living room.

I recently set up the "Social Flooring Index" to monitor the social state of flooring - an extremely traditional industry mostly committed to push marketing. It's been fascinating to observe the process of evolution from traditional to social, and what it takes to get immersed in the social aspect.

What this tells me is that the more transparent and authentic the effort, the more credible it is. Better not to delegate all responsibility for your social efforts to 3rd parties who - for the most part - really can't speak competently to your customers. Get guidance, include them, but own it. I love the approach that DC Goodwill has taken to make the transition in DC Fashionistas and establish connection/continuity for its audience.

About developing enough content. Companies develop content ALL the time [or they should be!]. With social media, they have the opportunity to multi-purpose their original content work and distribute it in a variety of forms. It takes some effort at first to proactively think in those terms, but it's effective. When I did that in pre-digital days, I referred to it as 'merchandising my marketing.'

Thanks again for this marvelous discussion.


Posted by: C.B. Whittemore on Jan 15, 2010 10:26:30 AM

Very interesting and controversial topic you have brought up!

I own an ad agency and have seen many of our competitors embrace social media and quickly jump up on a pedestal touting themselves as experts so that they can "help" their clients enter the social media-sphere and take the reins as an opportunity to rack up additional hourly billing each month.

So MANY are doing this. But does it go against the grain of everything that social media stands for?

Good question.

My gut reaction is yes, social media is meant to be nothing but authentic. Relationship development, at it's best, and an opportunity to have more insight into a brand and the people behind the brand.

But I do have to admit that we, as marketers, do try our best to become TRUE partners with our clients. Having them see us as an honest extention of their staff. Their advertising/marketing department extended, just beyond the boundaries of their building. And with a more subjective viewpoint.

So that does mean that, in theory, an agency who is very tapped in to their client, their products and services, understands who that client is, their brand, personality, how they live, eat, breathe, could potentially act as a vehicle for helping that client connect with their market and prospects via social media and actually provide a fairly authentic experience. I do think it is possible. Is it truly REAL, though? Probably not.

That said, our agency is taking another route, and helping our clients put together strategic plans for how to leverage social media, then training them and giving them the tools they need so that THEY can implement it themselves. We've seen great success. And clients who swore they just "don't have the time to blog" are now putting it at the top of their daily priority list because they've seen the light and tremendous results.

So I do think that that is the ideal way to go. Real. Authentic. Personal. If you want repeat traffic and to develop a great following, I think being real and having the client do the work and the agency the guide is the best route.

Posted by: Tracy Marlowe on Jan 15, 2010 12:49:47 PM

Tracy, I like your approach: the best of all worlds! CB

Posted by: C.B. Whittemore on Jan 15, 2010 1:07:10 PM

A really thought provoking post. I just don't see how you can farm out your social media work to an agency. It lacks personality and authenticity. That being said i do believe that agencies can help a great deal. Small business owners are really strapped for time and a good agency that can show their clients where to spend their time to get the best bang are really going to be invaluable.

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