Figuring Out Who Should Own Social Media

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Who should own Social Media? Yes, I’m re-opening this can of worms. But, it’s not my fault. I was listening to the New Communications Conversations Podcast: Joseph Jaffe, Jim Nail And Jen McClure Discuss Conversational Marketing Study today and there was a very lively discussion on the topic. Jim Nail of Cymfony was opposed to it being the Public Relations firms because he felt that their jobs mainly revolve around controlling the message, while Joseph Jaffe toyed with the idea that it should be a hybrid of the Advertising and PR agencies in a more integrated fashion.

I think it’s Digital Marketing agencies who need to step up and own the Social Media marketing landscape. Agencies who are primed in the interactive marketing space start off with a core understanding of how people connect online, and how different users interact within online communities. Traditional advertising firms constantly struggle with how to add interactive into the mix. The fact that this still happens in the Marketing world makes me squirm. Interactive is still an after-thought to many agencies. Public Relations firms have the communications and conversations component down, but (usually) lack in the Web development department in terms of producing and marketing the initiative.

While listening to the New Communications Conversations Podcast it came to me. It’s us… the Digital Marketing Agencies… the Interactive Marketers that should lead the charge. How can we win this piece of the strategy? Work closely with both the traditional agency to understand the brand (and its values) and work equally with the public relations firm to understand the message and communications platforms.

Clearly, Social Media – as it stands today – should be owned by the Digital Marketing Agency.


  1. Here’s where I get to be my argumentative self, Mitch. The whole question of ownership misses the point. Social media is a tool, not an end in itself. There is a place for social media in various departments, entities, consultants, etc. Advertising on blogs should be part of the advertising component. Pitching to bloggers should be part of PR. Creating original social media content should be part of MarComm. Asking who owns social media is like asking who owns the fax machine or copier or Internet. They are simply tools to get the job done and everyone should use them.

  2. Why does it have to be owned by a company? Isn’t Social Media merely a way to communicate? Sure they can be marketing platforms as well. The value of Social Media is owned by the participants.
    Sure Facebook owns Facebook, but it is nothing without the content of activities of the users.

  3. Chip – I don’t disagree with you, but somewhere there needs to be a group that owns this, and is accountable. If the finance department feels that the best way to get their brand and communications “out there” is a group Blog, I think they need to work with the Digital Marketing Agency. They need to understand the flow of the strategy, design, content, technology and marketing of it. If I look at competencies, I think both PR and Advertising will add tremendous value (as I stated above), but the Digital Marketing Agency should lead.
    Jeremy – I think Social Media is a way to communicate, but don’t you think that there does need to be some kind of unified front for a company? Some kind of structure around how it is going to flow? A Blog policy?
    When I teach my full-day seminar on Social Media Marketing, I always talk about the three things companies can do in Social Media Marketing:
    1. advertise within the channels.
    2. create content that adds value to the community (like a Facebook Group).
    3. create your own voice (a Blog or Podcast).
    I do think that all three areas of practice require some level of experience and expertise. A strong Digital Marketing Agency is best primed to handle the 360 degrees required to make it successful.
    Strong input from every department is required for success.

  4. Sorry, I wasn’t clear about what I meant. I agree finance shouldn’t go creating a blog without working with another department. But I don’t think it is one department who owns the medium. Rather, I think that — like other communications — it is who you are communicating with that dictates who should “control” it. Whoever handles advertising should be able to do it on blogs without clearance if they can already do it in magazines without clearance. If HR has an intranet, they should be able to create a blog on it without approval from the Digital Marketing Agency.
    Think of it this way. If IR wants to write a letter to investors, they can. If PR wants to write a letter to reporters, they can. If HR wants to write a letter to employees, they can. If marketing wants to write a letter to prospects, they can. However, if IR wants to send a letter to employees, they need to work with HR.
    Social media should be just like those letters. Departments “own” audiences, not the medium for the message.

  5. Chip – if IR wants to Blog… what’s the strategy? who develops the platform (hosted or server-side)? where is it hosted? How will it be promoted? Who will be responsible for the Blog policy? Who decides what type of content will engage and grow the Blog? Do the IR people really understand how Blogs and Search Engines work?
    I agree that the Blog postings are a message (like a letter), and does not need to be “owned” – but the whole strategy, design, content structure and marketing of it should be left up to the IR department?
    This is a new channel and there are many “unknowns”. We’re learning as we grow. I think if Digital Marketers take the lead, we can improve the success rate of these initiatives.

  6. clearly, mitch has *some* conflict of interest…seeing as he’s president of a very good digital marketing agency.
    coming from an “internet communications” consultancy, my take is going to be slightly different and more in line with chip’s comments.
    social media is *just* a subset of an organization’s online communications strategy which, itself, needs to be integrated into the holistic communications strategy/approach.
    so the question shouldn’t be “who owns social media” (with regards to a particular discipline – advertising, PR, digital or even direct marketing etc) but who has the best capability to cohesively integrate social media into the communications strategy.
    now, that could be mitch’s Digital Marketing company, twist image, or my employer, the Internet Communications Consultancy, iStudio.
    the important thing is that smart people do the right thing for their clients, for their organizations and, in social media’s case, for the community at large.
    interesting times.

  7. Ed – when you put it in that perspective, I agree.
    I was reacting to the “is it the PR or Advertising agency” question.
    Obviously, I’m a little (ahem) jaded 😉 But when the question was posed, it made me realize that a strong Digital Shop would have the best in-roads to make it successful.

  8. Can of worms indeed!
    You know where I stand on this… 😉
    but, and I can’t stress this enough, the consumer ‘owns’ the conversation, not marketing or pr.

  9. I totally agree with you Tamera.
    The consumer owns the conversation, but there is no conversation unless someone creates the platform to have one.
    This would be companies (in some for or another). I think they have the capacity and appetite to make it exciting.

  10. @tamera kremer – does the consumer really *own* the conversation? if that’s the case it would seem to be a little…one way; almost like the consumer lecturing the brand.
    which is just the reverse of the situation we’re coming out of.
    surely, for there to be a genuine conversation, there has to be two sides – the consumer(s) and the organization.
    otherwise, we’re back where we started.

  11. Having waded into this shitstorm already, here’s what I have come to believe. It’s the “digital communications strategist” who is the key to making social media come to life for clients.
    Who is that person and where do they work? Quite possibly at an ad agency (Collin Douma, Doug Walker), or a PR firm (Rubel, O’Connor Clarke, Jeremy Pepper,Brendan Hodgson), or an interactive firm (Mitch Joel, Ed Lee, Tamera Kremer), or maybe there’s a social media boutique out there who could help (Maggie Fox)?
    I”m of a mind that we can all own the strategy piece equally if we’re up to the challenge, know the opportunities, risks, tools, etc. And we may all own different elements of the execution depending on our particular core skills. One thing is for sure, there have been tremendous successes and huge failures in social media to date by ad agencies, PR firms and interactive agencies, so why not continue what we do offline at geek dinners and the like and co-habit the space and learn from each other?

  12. @Ed – consumers have always owned it and will continue to do so. We own it with our wallets and our recommendations. Social media enables companies to ‘get in on it’, but by no means can they dictate the terms or try and force it.
    Sure, we can hope that it is two way and that people will want to listen to what a brand says, but it is ultimately up to them. By no means do I think that puts brands at odds with consumers, but it is not a level playing field, nor do I necessarily think it needs to be. Social media tools actually shift the power remarkably to the consumer, who, before the Internet, had to jump through hoops to get their message to the decision makers.
    @mitch – absolutely agree.

  13. I too have been following this can of worms since it was opened and I think it comes down to the pure and simple understanding of the space.
    @Ed. The consumer owns the conversation – they have to, or there wouldn’t be a reason for brands to try and engage them in one.
    Social Media is and will always continue to be “managed” by the individuals who spend time learning the space and helping foster its growth. Wherever they work or whomever they work for.
    Personally if we have to keep fighting about who owns it – we’re not going to get anywhere.
    At the end of the day – it comes down to the word I have a love/hate relationship with. Integration. Which really just means working together and playing nice.
    However – if no one steps up to the plate to “manage” social media, and/or no one accepts which group will lead the charge, it will be difficult to actually move it forward.
    You’ll just end up with too many cooks in the kitchen and that won’t help the clients or the customers one bit.

  14. I think integration is a great idea and concept, I have not seen it work (in action) at the Marketing and Communications level. When someone in the organization wants to use twitter, they need to know where to go. They need to have a clear explanation by someone who understands the channel, what works in it, and how to maintain the communication so it’s not just a flash in the pan.
    David is spot on – that conversation can happen at the advertising, public relations or digital marketing department = as long as the people leading the charge understand the space.
    By generalizing – and that was the spirit of this post – it seems like Digital Marketing agencies/department are best primed for this. If you run some averages, my guess would be that people like David Jones, Ed Lee, Collin Douma, Doug Walker and Steve Rubel are in the minority of people in general agencies who have such vast experience and understanding.

  15. @mitch. I disagree with the generalization. It’s a matter of your worldview. I personally know more people in the PR space involved with social media than I do people in Digital Marketing Agencies. I’ve also dealt with Digital Marketing Agency people at numerous firms who are as tactical as any PR or ad guys. For every press release pitched, or 30 second spot recommended, there is a Interactive guy pitching an e-mail campaign or Flash-based website.
    That doesn’t make it THE reality. It’s just my reality. I’m smart enough to know that this can’t possibly be THE WAY IT IS.
    There will be leaders in every discipline who see their work as “communications” and not rolling out the tactics they love or know the best.
    Current business models often create problems with integration and that’s too bad for clients. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to partner with you, Tamera or other Digital Marketing agencies if that’s how I could get the job done.

  16. @Mitch – Completely agree – I don’t think many folks understand the true meaning of the word integration and how it should work (but that’s a whole other can of worms).
    My point was more along the lines that we should be spending more of our energy figuring how to work together and play off each other’s strengths as experts/specialists in our respective fields in order to move the space forward.

  17. Who should own social media?

    Mitch Joel's item on "ownership" of social media has generated some interesting comments. Joel, of "Six Pixels of Separation" fame, suggests digital marketing agencies should "own" organizations' social media …

  18. I think all points are valid. However, I would stray away from claiming any one area takes “ownership” and opt for a model of leadership instead. Semantics perhaps, but a little less provocative and silo-driven in it’s tone and manner.
    Leadership allows for collaboration and seems more inclusive than an ownership model.
    Same debate can be raised around who wons Search, or Online Advertising? Is it general/mass advertising, direct marketing, digital marketing?
    @ Rebecca and David – you are bang on with your points about playing off strengths. There is no silver bullet here. The best we can do is bring a diverse range of people and disciplines around the table to deliver something worthwhile. If digital or PR or Mass (heaven forbid!) is smart enough to take the lead and approach it that way, power to ’em.

  19. Great discussion here, folks. At the recent WOMMA Summit, ( — this is a plug for W
    OMMA since I am on the Board!), there was a session on this topic led by Rick Murray. It became clear to me there are two models. One: create a new department. These tools require different skills and mindset, so it needs tto be separate. In this case, digital marketing is probably the best place to pull staff from. But it seems to me that this is limiting. At least in this conversation, people who spoke about this model thought in terms of who should execute word of mouth marketing campaigns, and it seemed much less about conversation.
    Or a second model is to embed it across the organization, since it does (or ideally should) impact areas from customer service, to product development, to communications. God forbid we create a “Chief Conversation Officer”, but this type of model needs a senior exec to make it work. I’ve always thought the CMO should represent the voice of the customer to the company and not just the voice of the company. Maybe this will make it happen.

  20. There is confusion because the idea of engaging with the market is too broad to encompass a single approach. But here is a suggestion for parsing the variety of issues raised by a true commitment to join the conversation already happening in the marketplace:
    Some places where a company joins the conversation are “reactive” — that is, the conversation is already going on, and it is essential to have someone from the company participate. This kind of interaction should always be driven by the business unit — because the person engaging should be authentic — accountable, accessible, and with the authority needed to get something done.
    “Proactive” engagement on the other hand can be supported by an agency and by a marketing department — but the right kind of agency (and marketing department) hardly exists yet — one that combines the disciplines of communications (PR) and those of a digital agency — also with a heavy dose of software development that too often doesn’t exist in digital agencies.
    Companies need this additional specialized expertise to help them think through the issues related to engagement, staff appropriately for the task at hand, have the tools for measurement and metrics, and the variety of insights and experiences that can create compelling new customer experiences…
    On the other hand, I am biased – since I come from just that sort of agency…

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