How small businesses can find their tweethearts

Social media can be a stumbling block for small businesses growing into mid-sized businesses. Customer connection on Twitter and Facebook can increase foot traffic for retailers and spread the word about products and services, but it takes time, effort and an on-brand attitude. There are many agencies that offer social media services, but they often […]

Social media can be a stumbling block for small businesses growing into mid-sized businesses. Customer connection on Twitter and Facebook can increase foot traffic for retailers and spread the word about products and services, but it takes time, effort and an on-brand attitude. There are many agencies that offer social media services, but they often work at a scale best adopted by larger clients. This article from Profit explores how SMEs can find social media partners that won’t break the bank, but will deliver results.

Jack Shapiro was floored. He had called a big marketing agency to help his Richmond Hill, Ont. company, Speech Therapy Centres of Canada, revamp its website and launch a social-media presence. He didn’t expect it to be cheap, but he sure didn’t anticipate a quote for a two-year contract to come in at $1 million – a quarter of his company’s revenue over that period.

He was equally surprised – and much more pleasantly so – when he found (and hired) an independent consultant who charged $2,000 per month to maintain Speech Therapy’s activity on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Shapiro is happy with the service he has enlisted, but the vast disparity in the fees taught him a valuable lesson: “There are a lot of people in this field trying to make a lot of money.”

He’s not alone in his experience. As Facebook, Twitter and other social media evolve into critical marketing channels, entrepreneurs – many of whom lack the expertise or time to develop their own online presence – find themselves seeking help. According to the Social Media Examiner, a trade magazine for marketers, 30% of businesses outsourced some portion of their social-media marketing last year.

Not coincidentally, a flood of consultancies stocked with self-professed social-media experts have entered the market in the past few years. They come in every shape, size and skill level. Some are true experts who will help you convert customers into fans, followers and friends. But others are no more than amateurs trying to cash in on hype and the desperation of bewildered business owners. So, how do you tell them apart? The following questions will help you separate the wannabes from the winners with the expertise you need.

What type of help do you need?

There actually is a good reason so many businesses are looking to social-media experts. Even though the barriers to entry are low, this is a tough game that’s changing blindingly fast. Mastering the various media requires some tech savvy, as well as a deep understanding of how each fits into a broader marketing strategy. Most business owners simply don’t have these resources.

So, where to start? Mark Evans, a principal at marketing consultancy ME Consulting in Toronto, says that business owners are often so anxious to launch their social-media campaigns that they fail to consider what their true objectives are. “Is it better customer service? Is it brand awareness? Is it sales? Is it simply building stronger relationships?” In other words, is there a strong business imperative behind your campaign, or are you just doing it because everyone else seems to be?

There are social-media strategists who can train you and provide a high-level road map, and then there are tacticians who will do the grunt work of keeping various profiles and sites active. There are consultants who specialize in a particular sector, such as real estate or health care. And there are even optimization experts who will audit your social-media strategy.

If you know which media to pursue and the frequency with which you want to do so, a tactician will suffice. If you’re unclear, strategic help is more appropriate.

Evans does suggest that you (or your employees) post your own content or, at least, vet it to make sure it accurately reflects the nuances of your business: “External agencies aren’t living and breathing the brand. They’re hired guns.”

Should I hire an agency or a lone wolf?

There are three categories of social-media consultancies: the big agencies, the smaller firms and the solo practitioners. Realistically, a top digital marketing agency such as Edelman Digital or Radian6 will be too expensive for the average SME.

But even smaller agencies, which generally are cheaper, may not have the cred to back up their claims, says Tim Kimber, owner of Ottawa-based toymaker PlaSmart. His experience in hiring social-media help has taught him to look for an expert with marketing skills, not vice versa. “You don’t want to hire a marketing or video-production firm that treats social media as an afterthought,” he says.

Kimber believes that solo practitioners are more likely to have a “pure” social-media specialty – and they also happen to be the most affordable option.

What credentials should I look for?

There aren’t yet any widely respected degrees in the field. Avi Goldfarb, a digital-marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, says that while universities and colleges now teach social media in business programs, the area is just too new to assign value to credentials.

That means the due diligence is on you. “Ask what campaigns [the consultant] has worked on,” Goldfarb advises. From there, check out the social-media presence of the consultant’s clients to make sure the look and feel is consistent across platforms, and that the style and frequency of posts is in line with your goals.

Maureen McCabe, owner of McCabe Marketing in Toronto, recommends you also review the consultant’s own socialmedia presence. “You want to Google them,” she says. “Look at the social-media platforms they’re on. How often are they posting?” Bottom line: if they can’t manage their own social-media realm professionally and proficiently, they aren’t likely to do a very good job managing yours.

What red flags warrant concern?

Don’t assume a consultant is competent just because she’s young. While some CEOs, including Kimber, hire only Gen Y help (“Social media is a young person’s game,” he says), age is no guarantee that you’ll get the insight needed to add value.

McCabe advises staying away from consultants who try to push long-term contracts; a three- to six-month probationary period should suffice. She also suggests that you ask for recent analytics reports on consultants’ client campaigns. If it isn’t immediately clear what they achieved – that is, if the report is shallow or incomprehensible – it’s a sign you’re dealing with snake oil salesmen.

This story originally appeared in Profit.

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