Recent research indicates that outsourcing community management may be on the increase. But is it the right move?
In a recent feature on MyCustomer.com, we debated the tasks, qualities and structure required to make the role of community manager a success.
But one of the ongoing debates surrounding community managers, is whether it is a resource that is more effective in-house or outsourced.
The issue came to the fore once more recently when influential social media expert Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter noted that research indicated a trend toward community management staff increasingly becoming on demand from agency and third parties.
Furthermore, Owyang predicted that in light of the weak financial markets and the inability for most to measure social business, resources will continue to be scrutinised, ultimately meaning that brands will continue to outsource some community manager activities.
However, outsourcing such duties remains a contentious issue. And while it is forecast to be on the rise, Owyang predicts that there will be a backlash, as in-house community managers voice their protest against outsourcing such a key relationship between brand and customer.
So what is right and what is wrong? Is it even that clear cut?
Simon Quance of Equi=Media, believes that the pros of outsourcing community management are a little different to those of outsourcing other emerging business activity to a third party. “Harnessing the broad ranging experience and expertise gained from working with a range of clients from other industries and their differing social environments is a big positive,” he explains. “Specialist channel knowledge and management skills are more prevalent in the agency world, as is flexibility of service offering, which can benefit brands in the early days of establishing your social media strategy.
“Different skill sets are needed during the set-up of a social media strategy from those needed during the delivery of a community management plan. An agency can be invaluable as a guide for the brand or business in how to get started in Social and establish good working practices and effective techniques.”
He adds: “Outsourcing for more sophisticated engagement strategies, where social communication channels already exist, can help with campaign creativity and optimisation. With the right management structures and incentives for an agency in place, a strong test and learn culture can thrive, ensuring a focus is kept on whatever ROI measures have been agreed.”
Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration, agrees that a chief benefit of outsourcing community management is that it provides affordable expertise. “Not all businesses can afford the time it takes or cost of hiring a whole social media team of moderators, analysts, outreach bloggers and community managers to work for them on a permanent basis,” she says. “It makes sense for these businesses to hire in these skills from an external agency, enabling them to constantly adjust service levels to demand.”
Littleton suggests that agencies can provide access to other services including consultancy, multiple languages, monitoring and moderation, while they can also be used in the short-term to help a company understand what's needed before committing to FTEs in house.
“An agency can provide the round-the-clock coverage needed when managing a community, and can often provide services in multiple-languages from around the world,” she continues. “It can provide localised cultural knowledge in markets where there may be no client social media team.”
And Littleton also believes that outsourcing can also mean that the project gets underway sooner that would otherwise be possible. “Creating processes, documentation, guidelines, escalations and all other documents that need to be formulated around your community takes time,” she says. “An agency has the benefit of having access to both best practice examples and the experience of creating these documents for their clients. Time to launch can be drastically reduced through a community manager not having to research and compile all this data themselves without any assistance.”
Elsewhere, Niklas de Besche, executive director of Meltwater Buzz, can envisage other benefits. “Giving this responsibility to a team of individuals by outsourcing it means that the pressure is not on one person within an organisation,” he suggests, adding: “Another benefit of this approach is gaining an outsiders perspective, helping to create a more rounded social media strategy based on experiences with similar businesses or brands.”
That makes for quite a collection of positives on one side of the scale. But regardless of that, there are many that still remain critical of the very idea that community management should be outsourced.
“I believe that the role of a community manager should be kept in-house. You should do everything you can to avoid outsourcing the face and personality of your brand or business,” says Maria Wasing, VP of marketing at EPiServer Europe. “In my opinion the cons of outsourcing well outweigh the pros. Outsourcing adds another layer of communication and complexity and means that people are speaking on behalf of your brand instead of you speaking for it.”
de Besche agrees that there are risks. “A major con of outsourcing community management is the risk that the individual or team taking on the responsibility does not fully understand your brand or might not be experts in your industry. When outsourcing community management, you run the risk of taking away the personality of a brand, as well as the in-depth knowledge and insight that an internal manager could offer. Being able to quickly react to a customer’s problem, or to offer support at short notice is key, and an external employee may not have the knowledge or the ability to get the correct answers from the right people in a short period of time. It is essential that internal teams work closely with outsourced community managers to maintain a consistent message and service level.”
Littleton concedes that for outsourcing to be successful, the agency must go the extra mile, but insists it is not impossible with the right partner. “Any outsourced community manager needs to immerse themselves in the brand and the target audience, working closely with the brand’s marketing /social media team. There is a fear that an outsourced community manager won’t be able to represent the brand properly – but in our view, that’s just a question of selecting the right supplier.”
Quance adds that ensuring agencies have planning example scenarios and responses, and clear escalation processes in place, is crucial, to mitigate some concerns. But even then, he suggests that it is possible that an agency will not intuitively understand the business and brand like the right employee will, which could slow down response times.
“I believe that for highly active and engaged ‘social’ brands, in-house talent development is essential for managing critical customer feedback. Whilst that doesn’t discount the use of external resource, there must be a manager in-house who has a clear understanding of all the channels and be constantly aware of the more significant issues, via a clear escalation path from the agency,” he explains.
“Businesses could potentially lose some of the key insights from community management, but again, excellent communication strategies between client and agency can go a long way to mitigate this risk. Choosing the right agency partner is - as with most media -crucial to success.”
Dividing up community management
While the debate will continue to rage, one intriguing possibility is emerging that will play to the strengths of both the in-house and outsourced model. Owyang has observed that community management could be fragmenting into separate tasks, some that will be kept in-house, and others that are more appropriate for agencies. In his blog post he outlined the four levels of community management services, and whether they are more or less likely to be outsourced.
So perhaps this is the solution to the problem? Certainly Littleton believes that this is a distinct possibility for the future.
“Jeremiah Owyang is reporting a growth in outsourcing community management, especially moderation, curation and analytics, as these have ‘less impact on customer relationships’,” she concludes.
“I wouldn’t advocate delegating the entirety of your social media strategy to an outside team - the strategy must come from within the organisation and the people who possess a complete understanding of the business objectives. I think it's about recognising which roles CAN be outsourced, and where the benefits are. It's about working closely with a trusted partner, and recognising where the limits should be drawn.”
What is certain, however, is that no matter what side of the fence you sit, businesses must give the matter due consideration – because community management gone wrong can be costly.
“A community manager is an interesting role within an enterprise, and one that I believe can deliver significant value when done well,” concludes Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete. “They are a sort of conductor of an enterprise orchestra, and when done well, can genuinely deliver great value. Done badly, however, they just create discord.”