It's 2011. Social media is no longer a coming trend. It is here, now. And, it is critical to your success. Unless you core audience happens to 50 years old or above, the digital media channels are your new primary platforms.
We are past the hurdle of trying to convince companies about the value of digital media, they already know. Ahead are the challenges of using digital channels on a daily basis. A lot of social media hacks will tell you that it takes no time at all. They say you can just publish on one channel and have that automatically cross-posted to all your other channels.
But in the real world, as in the one you and I live in, that is far from the case. Social media takes a lot of time, requires dedicated resources, and costs a lot of money - and most of it is spent idling.
What you also find is that digital media requires a multichannel strategy. You have to be where you customers are. And despite the overwhelming size of Facebook, you have to embrace several channels all at once.
Finally, companies have also learned that digital media is very hard to plan. You can plan when you are going to post new things, but you cannot plan when people need you. Social media is like being a shop owner in a retail store. At any moment, a customer might walk in, and if you are not ready to respond you don't get a sale.
Digital media is not like a traditional broadcast media. It requires a mix of skills across marketing, sales, customer support and your overall company identity. And you have to be ON all the time.
This is a huge change compared to how most companies operated in the past. It is not really that big of a problem for large companies. They can simply appoint a social media team, who will then monitor, post, respond etc. as a full-time job.
If you are a huge company, you can even go overboard and create a dedicated social media command center. Here is a picture from Gatorade's "Mission Control."
The problem is when you are not a big company. If you have less than 30-50,000 fans, your social activity is not big enough to justify a full-time position. While you still need to post something every day, the number of questions and responses you get is not likely to take up 8 hours of your time.
Assigning a person to work part-time is also a problem. People still expect that person to be there. Your employee will have to be constantly interrupted by your social monitoring tools, and she can never go on business trips or attend full-day meetings.
The question is, could you solve this dilemma by outsourcing social media? The short answer is yes... and no. You can't outsource the culture of being social, nor can you outsource the very reason people follow you. You can, however, outsource the actual work, the daily monitoring, and the time it takes to use each channel efficiently.
Let me explain:
The main difference between traditional media and social media is that you have to give people a reason to follow you. Advertising might get their attention, but it is not going to turn them into followers. You need to provide long-term value.
The only real way to do that is to have a very clear idea of your brand's purpose. Why do you exists? Why should people care? What's in it for them?
None of this can be outsourced. Knowing who you are is a core element of your business. It is the guiding principle that drives all other decisions.
You can, however, get help with turning your brand's purpose into an action. You can hire consultants who can help you optimize and refocus your business. You can hire strategists who can help you define what you need to do. And, you can hire planners to help you define the path ahead.
But, your company is the only one who can actually do it.
Just as you cannot outsource your purpose, nor can you outsource the connection to your customers. Your company exists to make a product for your customers. The connection between you is a core element to every business.
Many companies are now talking about the need to get a "social culture," but that is nothing new. A social culture has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter. It is a state of mind, in which you believe that your customers are your greatest friends. And sharing is what friends do.
Companies who tries to outsource the social connection makes a catastrophic mistake. And, there are countless examples of failed businesses because of it. Feeling connected to your customers is vital to your success.
What you can outsource is most of the work involved in connecting with your customers.
An analogy would be to say that you cannot outsource going on vacation. You are the one who needs to go, and outsourcing your vacation doesn't solve anything. But, you do outsource the flight to an airliner, and your outsource your stay to a hotel.
It is the same with social media.
A simple example: If you see something interesting, in relation to one of your products, you would immediately snap of picture and share it. This is what socially focused companies do. Taking the picture is quick and easy, the actual sharing part is not.
First you have to log-in to Facebook, go into fan page, click the camera button, upload the picture, write a message, somehow figure out how to add a call-to-action, and post it. Then what that is done, you have to repeat the steps for Twitter, then for Tumblr, your company blog, Flickr etc.
The simple act of instantaneous sharing has turned into 5 minutes of work. For most people this is a show-stopper, because you can't stop whatever you were doing.
This is where outsourcing comes in. Good outsourcing companies will help you share and connect with your audience, by taking care of all the work. All you need to do is to take a picture, and email it to them. They will then post it on all channel optimized for maximum effect (call to action, right format, good description etc).
It is the same with other use cases. If you take 20 pictures the worst you can do is to post them all at once on Facebook. You need to post them over a period of several days, and each channel has different strengths and weaknesses that have an impact on how something is presented.
An outsourcing company can take care of that for you, in both providing the planning, expertise, and the work involved - leaving you free to focus on the act of sharing.
Read also: How To Create a Social Release Plan.
It is very inefficient for a company to have an employee monitor their social channels every day. It is far more cost-efficient to outsource this to companies who can leverage their time across multiple clients. The outsourcing company would monitor the conversation across all channels (including 3rd party channels - like external blogs), and answer the most common questions.
They will only contact you when you actually need to see something, and provide the rest as a weekly summary. This also allows you to plan your own time more efficiently, and not be limited by the "always on" nature of social channels.
About 95% of all questions asked on social channels can be easily answered by an outsourcing company. Questions like, "where can I buy this?", "does it comes in red?", "can I use it Europe?", "when will product X be released", etc.
The outsourcing company will then forward the remaining 5% to you, which you need to answer personally.
Every company needs to adopt a social culture if they want be successful in the digital era. You cannot outsource the connection, your purpose, or the need to communicate.
That said, it doesn't mean that you have to do all the work. The bad outsourcing companies will try to give you a reason not to get involved. The good companies will make it easy for to reach your customers, by reducing the cost, resources and time needed.
Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé