Should companies outsource social media?

Posted on April 23, 2011
Outsourcing social media


Ed. Note: This article originally appeared in my Postmedia News social media column.

Lately I’ve been running into a lot of companies that have been approached by agencies looking to “do their social media for them.” Inevitably, the conversation turns to the question of whether this is even a good idea.

My answer is maybe, but I used to think differently.

If you had asked me a year ago, I probably would have said something like outsourcing social media is a bit like outsourcing friendship. “Hey, Doug, wanna come to a BBQ?” “Dunno,” tweets Sanjeev “let me check with Doug’s wife.” Weird.

Ultimately, I still feel only insiders in a company truly know the company’s voice and can reflect it well, but, as it turns out, it’s more nuanced than that. In the same way lots of people can contribute to a newspaper (staff writers, editors, columnists, freelancers, letters to the editor writers and advertisers to name the main participants), lots of people can play a role in a social media program when properly orchestrated.

Altimeter Hub and Spoke

Credit: Jeremiah Owyang, The Altimeter Group

Creating the right organizational environment is key to making social media work, in-house, outsourced or blended. Last November, the Altimeter Group, a research-based advisory firm that specializes in “disruptive technologies,” released survey results indicating most organizations surveyed, 41 per cent, deployed social media using a “hub and spoke” organizational model. In other words, a central person or group helps business units or other departments use social media, akin to a traffic cop keeping things moving. Second-most popular at almost 29 per cent was a centralized (top-down) model, followed by multiple hub and spoke, decentralized and holistic.

Whatever the structure, it’s clear social media takes human resources and co-ordination.

As Chris Garrett wrote way back in 2009 on “One of the big concerns about using social media for business and marketing is time. Social media activities do pose a risk of drawing you in and taking up a huge amount of your day just interacting with people.”

Garrett goes on to warn “There is a danger though in that many companies are not just looking for help, but offloading all their activity onto an outside agency who is not integrated into the company, but still representing them in social media.”

Which is where reputation and brand can be at risk.

So there’s the conundrum — you don’t have the time or resources, yet there may be danger in outsourcing. What should you outsource, if anything?

According to Susan Baroncini-Moe ( “The short answer to this question is: You should outsource anything technical that doesn’t require your personality or involvement.”

Baroncini-Moe goes on to list things such as profile setup, design work, directory listings, blog syndication and scheduled tweets. Be careful not to overdo that last one, as you can appear spammy without intending to.

All this stuff can be done by an assistant, or at least can be co-ordinated by an assistant. I myself use a virtual assistant from for these tasks (Hi Mary!).

But what about those agencies I mentioned at the outset? Where do they fit in? Should you use them at all?

If you do your due diligence and carefully evaluate an agency, it can work to have them be a part of your voice on social media. Trouble is, there’s a lot of snake oil being sold out there. Here are a few key attributes you should look for before allowing any agency to represent your brand:

  • Satisfied clients — it seems obvious, but you don’t want an agency learning their social media chops on your dime. A good agency has a track record and is happy to share it;
  • A holistic view of your organization — if an agency focuses only on social media marketing and the upside of social media, beware! A competent agency will work hard to mitigate risk and protect your flank, not to mention accommodate public relations, community relations, human resources and other communicators within your organization;
  • Accountability — they should promise precise deliverables and success metrics (hint: “Engage the community” doesn’t really cut it);
  • Availability — social media is real time, you can’t wait four hours for your outsourced community manager to come on-shift;
  • Media awareness — social and mainstream media are increasingly symbiotic, if your prospective agency poo poos or ignores newspapers and TV, they should be shunned;
  • ROI — what’s the return on investment of outsourcing this activity? Compare against bringing it in-house and make the business case you’re prepared to be accountable for a year from now.

There’s a long tradition of bringing in outside talent as the need arises. Heck, I make a living at it (though I teach my clients to fish, I don’t fish for them). Assembling the right resources in a strategic manner is key to successful social media implementation.

Just don’t outsource your friends.

Doug Lacombe is president of Calgary social media agency communicatto. He uses his own voice at

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  • Tracey Etwell

    Good post Doug. I agree that anything technical can be outsourced. I have created a list of 13 things a social media manager like myself can do for a company’s social media campaigns. Can make life a little easier..

    • Doug Lacombe

      Good list Tracey! All very helpful services to let a business focus on, well, business.

  • Jay Palter

    Doug, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post.

    Teaching clients to fish when it comes to social media is exactly right. What they don’t need to do is: attach the bait the hooks, determine where to fish, clean their catch. (You probably get the point.)

    What they do need to do themselves is: sit and listen, feel the rod jump in their hands and know how to reel them in when they’re hooked.

  • Stuart Crawford

    Doug, great post and I agree somewhat. If you need to outsource your social media then outsource to someone who works in the industry. For example, Ulistic only works with managed IT service firms. We know this industry and know it well. We have the press contacts, know the industry influencers and attend the industry events. We are off to Miami for Autotask Community Live as I write this. There are way too many so called experts or even content fillers. We have a huge problem in the IT industry right now about content fillers. It is a huge issue.

    For us, understanding MSP Marketing is essential and how social media can aid in the overall marketing strategy is the key to success.

    Do yourself a favour and listen to what Doug says.


    Stuart Crawford
    ULISTIC Inc.

    • Doug Lacombe

      Great point Stuart! If an “agency” specializes in one sector and can dive deep on relevant topics, then it certainly could play a more active social role for a company in that sector. It’s really a case of finding balance.

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