Close-Up: Is social media best done in-house?

Should agencies or clients create and control a brand's social media output, Sara Kimberley asks.

Making £5.5 million in sales as a direct result of links via its global Twitter feed might be a drop in the ocean to the multibillion-dollar PC giant Dell, but having a fan base roughly the population size of Chicago is impressive by anyone's standards.

Dell's efforts to handle its own social media communications didn't get off to the best of starts, when too many customer complaints went unanswered. But since then, the company has become a blueprint for how brands can manage their own social media in-house, creating meaningful content for customers. Dell's home-grown efforts have meant it now reaches a community of more than 3.5 million consumers worldwide.

It goes to show that social media is not just about producing campaigns but creating a trusted dialogue between brands and consumers. No wonder that many clients are becoming increasingly reluctant to hand over the control of this "intimate dialogue" to external agencies.

"Social media is about culture and conversations and not just about a channel. It should grow and develop in-house. The more hands-on you are as a brand in participating in these cultures, the more authentic it is for your brand," Dr Asi Sharabi, who last week was brought in by Beattie McGuinness Bungay to launch its new social media division, BMB Social, says.

His role will not be to just churn out social media campaigns for brands, but to educate the agency's clients on how they can then take control themselves of the valuable conversations with consumers.

BMB argues that most agencies' recent investment in social media only offers "hollow and expensive formulae" that simply serves to "patronise and confuse" clients. Instead, the agency believes brands should be taught how to deal with social media, rather than having to "subcontract their voice".

This debate over control was thrown into the spotlight by the recent incident with Dr Pepper, which saw the brand get into hot water with consumers after its agency, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, used an inappropriate reference in an online campaign.

But Michael Edge, the head of digital at VCCP, the agency behind the successful social media campaign, doesn't believe that bringing social media in-house is a move that will be right for everyone.

"Some brands don't want to get involved with social media as they will never have the relevant experience," Edge says. "For, we have writers writing a script for Aleksandr Orlov - that's not something the brand would be doing itself. It needs expert writers who know what the customers want and have the necessary skills to be able to communicate with them."

Another big difficulty for brands is still the level of uncertainty surrounding where social media fits within a business. A recent Internet Advertising Bureau survey showed 73 per cent of clients believed social media fitted within the marketing department; 33 per cent said PR; 16 per cent said it belonged to customer services; 12 per cent said research, and 7 per cent said it was an IT issue (respondents could tick more than one box).

And any client should also consider that when it comes to developing a social media campaign, there remains a requirement for a creative idea. As Sharabi says: "For campaigns, there still could be a role for an agency; it's the community management which should be done in-house."

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CREATIVE - Dave Bedwood, creative partner, Lean Mean Fighting Machine

"Every client is interested in social media and they look to agencies to give them an idea or conversation to kick-start.

"We don't expect the client to come up with thought-provoking ideas; it's our job to find something interesting and funny about the brand that will also spark conversations. We try to get things going but it's not something you can totally control.

"Agencies are putting it in the hands of the consumers and letting them decide. The role for agencies is not to manage what is happening but make things happen. There's a risk involved, but also a reward."

DIGITAL SPECIALIST - Michael Edge, head of digital, VCCP

"It's still the agencies that generate ideas for social media campaigns. They add value for clients with advice on producing online content, and can also offer production services, which a lot of brands can't do in-house.

"Content-driven ideas will always stay with the agency as they are still the experts on the successful elements that go into a strong social media campaign.

"The brand has to be likeable; if it's not, then the agency has to make it likeable, by producing strong creative executions. It's then up to the brand to be generous with giving away that content."

CLIENT - Ted Hunt, digital and emerging media manager, Innocent

"We have always done social media in-house but it's not a black-and-white argument. The thing with social media is that it's an 'always on' media and hard to turn off. Agencies still tend to work on a campaign format that comes to an end.

"Social media also builds up a community of real worth to the client and if an agency doesn't know your tone, then that can be disastrous.

"Another good reason for doing it in-house is because it's about trial and error and any problems or questions that arise need to be answered in real-time, something clients are better positioned to do."

CLIENT - Stuart Jackson, brand communications director, Orange

"Agencies add value through monitoring, developing strategy and supporting creative campaigns that use online channels. However, social media requires an ongoing dialogue with consumers and that drive should come from an in-house team.

"This type of engagement requires directness, openness, credibility and continuous dialogue that must be driven from the heart of the business.

"In-house, we have the knowledge, breadth and authority to speak online about all aspects of the business and understand the reputation and political ramifications that can grow so quickly in a 24-hour live digital environment."