Should you outsource your social listening?

9th Jul 2015

While most companies still undertake social media monitoring in-house, experts appear to have mixed opinions as to how extensive the market for outsourced services is likely to become.

According to Peter Ryan, principal analyst at market researcher Ovum’s outsourcing services team, the prospect of flat or shrinking CRM budgets over the next few years combined with growing numbers of outsourcing providers could start to shake things up a bit.

At a global and regional level, all of the major contact centre service suppliers have now jumped into the game, offering services ranging from monitoring and collecting customer input, complaints and queries to feeding such information back to their client and responding to comments on their behalf.

Depending on what else has also been outsourced to them, vendors can even include individual remarks in broader customer profiles nowadays in order to provide people with a more personalised experience.

But there are also lots of digital marketing and PR agencies providing similar services at a more local level – plus a variety of Cloud-based social listening tools such as’s Radian6, Brandwatch and SentiMetrix that organisations can use in-house.

A key consideration for many businesses into the future though, says Ryan, will simply be a lack of specialist resources.

“We know from research that the level of flexibility in-house contact centre managers have is limited,” he says. “About 45% said their budgets would be flat or shrinking over the next few years so if they need to invest in technology and people, it’ll be very difficult. That’s why so many are now starting to look towards the outsourcing community.”

One of the challenges that they face is simply the cost and limited availability of people with social media expertise across multiple channels, many of whom are being hoovered up by the big service providers.

“You don’t need to hire a lot of people like you do if they’re answering the phone or email. But the price point tends to be higher and it’s more difficult to retain them as their skills are in high demand and so you pay more for them,” Ryan explains.

Outsourcing challenges

Nonetheless, there are definite challenges in outsourcing to third parties, which are unlikely to know your business quite as well as you do. As Chris Smith, chief technology officer for digital at KPMG, points out: “Where social listening is used in call centre type customer interactions many of the same risks around people not understanding your brand exist. If they respond in a canned way that’s not authentic or don’t use language in the right way, it’s a huge risk.”

Moreover, this risk will only become more prevalent as organisations become increasingly sophisticated in the way they employ social media. `’Social media is moving from a transactional to an experience-based economy, which is about having conversations with the customer,” Smith explains.

As a result, going in for a direct hard sell is simply not acceptable in this brave, new world. “Instead you sell an experience, which is more about the overall brand than any single product. Its about creating brand awareness, which while difficult to put numbers against, is a vital activity,” Smith says.

But the upshot is that, while some smaller companies do undoubtedly outsource all of their social media activity from end-to-end, few of his large corporate customers would consider doing so – and that includes their social media monitoring activity.

“Everyone has pretty much said that they want their own in-house team and to recruit their own people to do social listening. There’s a level of fear and one that’s pretty well justified in my opinion. It’s a fear that other people won’t understand their brand as well as them and that things can escalate across all channels very quickly if things go wrong,” Smith explains.

This scenario is particularly true of organisations in highly regulated industries such as financial services, utilities, government and healthcare, whose general reputation inevitably feeds into their broader compliance requirements.

Gareth Thompson, a consultant and senior lecturer at the University of the Arts’ School of Media, agrees. But he also points out that social listening comprises a number of different activities, each of which has varying degrees of likelihood of being outsourced.

The first level, which is the most liable to be put out to a third party supplier, comprises simply monitoring in a mechanical way what people are saying about the brand. Service providers in this instance provide regular bulletins at agreed intervals or enable customers to log onto a portal to view what is happening.

True partnership

The second stage involves evaluating and deciding on how to respond to feedback, particularly if it is negative or something goes wrong and a social media crisis policy needs to be invoked to deal with legal, brand or reputational issues.

“So if, for example, a former disgruntled employee posts something negative about the company, what do you do? It’s an executive decision and isn’t for the service provider to decide so it’s not an easily outsourced set of activities,” Thompson says.

The third phase revolves round communication. Continuing with the example of the disgruntled former staff member, Thompson remarks: “So do you say ‘thank you for your post, we’ll investigate’, or ‘we’ll injunct’, or go on the attack and say they were fired for bad behaviour. There are lots of options, but any agency that’s not deeply embedded will struggle to help.”

As a result, he believes, on the one hand, that designing effective escalation processes is key, whether social media monitoring is outsourced or not. On the other, if the decision is taken to move such activity to a third party, it is imperative that it can truly act as a trusted partner.

“If you’re doing a lot of outbound activity, you’d typically have your social media team in-house as you want to be on top of what’s posted - or have a very trusted partner that’s very nearly insourced,” Thompson says. “You wouldn’t want an outsourcer to post on your behalf unless you had a very deep relationship with them and they understood the principles of your business profoundly.”

In fact, according to Ovum’s Ryan, all of the old rules around outsourcing apply no less to social listening than they do to any other sector. Therefore, when choosing a partner, it is imperative that they can prove a deep understanding of your business, customer base and the vertical market in which you operate. This contextual knowledge will enable them to analyse your inbound data in a meaningful way and offer strategic recommendations based upon it.

But constant proactive monitoring of the ongoing relationship from your side is also vital to ensure it remains functional and that you are deriving value from it. In fact, the ideal would be that your partner was involved from the outset in helping design your customer experience strategy so that they can really grasp your aims and goals.

“If it’s a tactical relationship where you catch up every three to four months and there’s no skin in the game, that’s where I see the challenges arising. So the secret is finding a provider that’s not just a vendor, but a true partner,” Ryan concludes.

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