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Guest Article: Social media & brand-agency relationship

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Guest Article:  Social media & brand-agency relationship

According to an October 2011 study by Burson-Marsteller, the number of brands across the Asia-Pacific having a presence in social media has mushroomed to a staggering figure. While brands are comfortable betting on proven ways of reaching out to their audiences on these networks, agencies, on the other hand, are continually re-inventing themselves to offer a diversified and adaptive portfolio of services to accommodate fast-emerging needs.

However, there are intricate operational challenges involved that often go completely unaddressed, which are undeniably leading to tight bottlenecks in a brand-agency relationship. There is a growing need for senior marketers at large organisations, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, to identify and address these business-critical issues considering their counterparts in developed markets like the US and UK have adopted creative and strategic solutions, streamlining their efforts and investment in social media.

With that, let us take a look at these challenges, spanning from ‘conception’ to ‘commerce’:

1. Conception & Strategy: This is the most significant aspect in a relationship, and one that is also the most challenging to handle. A noticeable faux pas in the market today is the importance given to blitzkrieg campaigns as opposed to becoming a social-media juggernaut. Which is to say that long-term programs deeply focused at understanding, attaining and retaining customers, while growing the brand’s social media technology and talent infrastructure, must be a significant part of the engagement plan. Another challenge is with brands that have multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts. Marketers have some tough questions to answer: Will those accounts be aligned by product, region, or brand? Who secures or changes all the passwords every time a brand manager departs the organisation? And what unique experiences can agencies bring to brands, beyond the simple status update or static landing tab? Smart strategies demand extensive brainstorming and mind-mapping between the brand and agency on differentiated ideas and actionable outcomes.

2. Content Creation: Consistently creating great-quality and share-worthy content for social media is an emerging challenge. Top on the list for agencies as well as brands should be hiring a great Community Manager, who can serve as an honest representative of their organisation, can multi-task under mounting pressure, can clear the air by taking big risks, and finally, can convince and convert – essential to creating content that is assertive on participation and sharing. The most obvious hiccup is adopting a genuine “brand voice”, where responses to customers across social media networks are involved. In the short-term, it is safe for agencies to only talk ‘about’ the brand, and not ‘like’ the brand. However, nothing a brand presents to consumers should go out without first being touched by their representative. Another challenge is to create meaningful content that can attract paying customers, corporate partners, and non-profits to “owned media” channels. A step towards achieving this is to map the brand’s interests and campaign goals against a set of calibrated sources, and allow only the most relevant content from these sources to filter through. The most important thing to remember is that content favoured by evangelists and advocates does not come through ‘hit & trial’ techniques, but through communicating (privately and publicly) with fans/ followers, monitoring competitor updates, harvesting content from well-curated resources, and styling content with the brand’s personality. Once created, the significance of broadcasting this content to the right audience (by interest, region or language preferences), at the right time, should not be under-estimated.

3. Time-To-Market: A key factor leading to successful brand-agency relationships is managing dynamic programmes efficiently, and under tight deadlines. Brands require agencies to launch, edit, and update web applications/ games across their social portfolio quickly and effortlessly. To keep overall outreach activities fresh and interesting, an array of consumer promotion and engagement apps (for example, photo/ video contests, sweepstakes, interactive quizzes/ polls, and so forth) need to be deployed continually across social media and other media properties including the corporate website, campaign microsites, and smartphones/ tablets. Agencies and brands should, therefore, consider weighing in on cost-effective and time-conscious alternatives (thst is, plug-&-play) instead of developing applications from scratch, unless absolutely essential. In the social media business, two major impediments to launching within set deadlines are inexperienced digital teams who simply lack the required capabilities in-house, and slow decision-making that could stem from being averse to making bets in this space.

4. Mainline Communication: With larger audiences, come larger responsibilities. And communication is poised at the heart of it. To stay on top of things, innovate-at-scale, and iterate rapidly, it is essential for agencies and brands to have a non-deterring, two-way channel open for dialogue. Essentially during an ongoing engagement, it becomes imperative for teams on either side to understand why certain campaigns need to be executed under tight deadlines, why certain programmes are canned even after months of planning, or why budgets are slashed to a fraction sometimes without prior notice. It is not uncommon to see agencies slack out on ‘client leadership’ because of these reasons, as much as it is to see brands leave agencies because of lethargic conduct, below-par performance, or even improper attitude – all rooted around the lack (broken, complete absence or misinterpretation) of communication. To lead communication, a regimental task-management routine needs to be laid down and teams on both sides need to be provided with ‘near real-time’ feedback on performance – where brands provide inputs to agencies benchmarked on flawless execution, and agencies to brands on swift assistance.

5. Engagement & Interaction: Popular brands are exposed to a lot of conversation around them on the social web. The trick is to keep the conversation going in their favour. In many cases, the brand’s interaction with consumers is a one-way highway with updates of all kinds passing through and no clear direction or purpose. High-caliber agencies and brands ensure that interaction with consumers serve a definitive purpose. How can it help to improve a product/ service? What insights can be gathered before entering a new market? How to reach the best talent pool? Also, certain processes need to be put in place to take action every time there is a user-generated comment so they can be addressed quickly, efficiently, and transparently. The thing to remember here is that managing an active community is a full-time job, and pro-activeness is of the essence to scale towards larger social business programs and in fact prevent it from turning into a “help desk” station or worse, a reactive community.

6. Moderation & Workflow: Firstly, any conversation around a brand – good or bad, is great! With the exception of ‘trolling’, it shows that people are interested in the brand and looking to engage with a fellow human at the other end, one way or the other. Because they are public, social media channels demand greater levels of customer service and faster response times. Brands and agencies need to put robust moderation processes in place that can swiftly track negative sentiments around the brand, eliminate any inappropriate/ profane language that fans may use, identify competitor mentions, and flag questions that need to be addressed urgently. As social media programs scale, more internal departments will need to be involved in responding to escalated concerns. A collaborative workflow makes it easy to direct specific communication to the right member within the right department, ensuring that fans receive an internally-vetted, correctly formatted and comprehensive answer in a few hours, if not minutes. An added benefit to having a good workflow system within the organisation is that many more managers get to see the results of the brand’s social media marketing efforts, overcoming any cultural resistance/ skepticism and defensiveness in investing more resources into social media.

7. Centralised Control & Localisation: As mentioned earlier, not only is involving multiple teams in the conversation a good idea, but providing them with direct outreach roles and privileges is an absolute game-changer in productivity and efficiency within the organisation and across their agency partners. Keeping centralised control over organising and managing people, processes and activity across brands, campaigns, accounts and teams also prevents the brand’s “owned media” properties from being misused by disgruntled employees or falling prey to rogue messages (that is, factually incorrect information that could hurt the brand). The value add that brands get by defining permissions on an individual level, creating permission groups to give multiple individuals administrative access, and regulating exactly what each individual can and cannot do when managing conversations representing the brand on these owned media channels, is conclusively unparalleled. While brands and agencies are trying to woo consumers with national and global campaigns, targeting local markets add authenticity and transparency to these initiatives. Furthermore, allowing local agents, representatives, or store employees the authority to grow revenue and cement direct relationships through social media is a big leap towards becoming a “Social Enterprise”. Instead of each local store having a social presence of their own, brand managers and franchisors should be able to manage the outreach of hundreds of locations, drill down to any level of their hierarchy and post to clusters of stores, making regional promotions/events seamless and cohesive.

8. Regulations & Compliances: The first step is to create a comprehensive although upbeat social media policy for employees to follow, which serves as the first (and the most basic) line of protection against breach of industry compliance. Large brands, especially in the aviation, energy, finance, auto, and healthcare sectors have a myriad of regulations that they need to adhere to. As a result, managing the brand’s data and compliance requirements with secure archiving and warehousing procedures becomes mandatory. Many agencies fail to advise or provide any cover fearing a more sanitised corporate approach to conversations, or because they simply lack the know-how. However, providing such a safeguard system with full accountability measures and audit trails can greatly reduce chances of severe misuse of corporate social media accounts, and open highly-regulated brands to explore social media more comfortably.

9. Return-on-Investment & Social Footprint: It is perfectly fair for brands to expect quantifiable results having invested quality time and resources into social media. Metrics like deployment time, response time, advocacy (that is, share of voice), conversion rate, depth of engagement, revenue per share, visitors per share, and so forth offer tangible insights for brands to build their social footprint. It is not as critical to know how a brand got to a million fans, as it is to know what the brand can get their fans to do, or better still, what they do for the brand by themselves. Bottom line – agencies and brands need to stop building on intangible assets. Which is to say that though intangible assets (for example, number of Facebook fans) are important, they in isolation do not warrant investment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which tangible assets do. In contrast, a tangible asset could be knowing if a fan’s comment on the brand’s status update has encouraged his/her friends to participate as well (if yes, then how many?), or whether it has led a fan to request for more information, consequently making an attributed purchase over it. Building a multi-channel social footprint is invaluable for the brand in the long run. Instead, what is happening is that brands and agencies fail to make use of any/all the support and feedback their previous campaigns would have gathered offline and across traditional & new media. To be able to make a lasting impact on consumers, “connecting the dots” is very important and is an exhaustive exercise in data tracking and reporting.

10. Differentiation & Longevity: Some agencies are really good at developing rock-solid applications meant for waterfall engagement, while others are experts in executing large-scale social media campaigns. There are very few agencies who offer a potent mix of capabilities, and the market begs more consolidation for that reason. As a result, brands are left to manage multiple agencies in the roster and the implications that come along. A major implication is the disjointed messaging in cross-channel campaigns, which fails at providing a cohesive experience to consumers. There is also the million-dollar question around fees. Some high-end agencies have a well-structured fee regime and enforce world-class technologies led by top-notch talent, while there are other more run-of-the-mill shops offering services for mere thousands. Brands need to firmly understand the purpose behind hiring a social media agency and the scope of responsibilities to be shared with them alongside other digital agencies in their roster, which can be vast and tend to get stretched during execution. The third challenge has to do with longevity (aka “sticky-ness”). With most deal terms in India ranging between three and six months for standard social media engagements, the brand’s social media infrastructure is diluted every time the reigns are passed on from agency to agency. The solution, as derived from a March 2010 report by Forrester Research is to hire a competent agency that cannot just evolve with the changing needs of the brand, but continually execute as an agile artist.

With that, I have tried to cover some of the emerging challenges between brands and agencies in social media. Towards mid-2012, we could see some brands that have shown signs of formulating in social media, to take the first few steps in addressing these challenges more aggressively along with their agencies.

(Rohan Chandrashekhar is CEO of BuzzValve, a specialist social media agency with presence in Bangalore and Palo Alto, serving several Fortune 500 brands and top-tier advertising agencies across 10+ countries. He writes about differentiated ideas in Enterprise Social Media, SaaS Technologies, and New-Age Entrepreneurship for The Wall Street Journal.)

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