Social Media Gurus – That Old Chestnut

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Who should own Social Media?

It’s starting to feel like we’re constantly trotting out the same old dead horse to beat (it’s a nasty saying, but it’s true). Countless Blog posts (here. there and everywhere) have spent years detailing, dissecting and debating that one question: who should own Social Media? In fact, that old chestnut came back one more time last week in an AdWeek article titled, The New Social Gurus. It is the broken record that never stops being broken.

"Powered joins a new crop of social-media-focused firms that hope to outmaneuver established digital agencies by focusing on new opportunities like Facebook and Twitter rather than the typical Web shop offerings that also include banners and microsites."

What does this mean and who are they talking about?

The idea of "Social Media" in and of itself is intrinsically linked with Digital Marketing. All effective digital media online is now social media (or has components of it), and any shops playing in this field should have skills that can equally strategize a microsite as it can a Twitter opportunity (if they don’t, your brand needs to find a Digital Marketing agency that does). Or, are we now saying that Social Media is some kind of niche within Digital Marketing like affiliate marketing or Search Engine Optimization? Whatever the case may be, it’s starting to feel like some Digital Marketing shops are simply calling themselves a Social Media Agency because they see this as some kind of quick run at the money. Going back to that quirky quote from AdWeek, it’s like saying, "we can help you build a Facebook fan page or a Twitter profile, but if you need a microsite or some banners to promote it, you’re best off calling a Digital Marketing agency."

Newsflash: Social Media is Digital Marketing.

Sorry to break this news to the Social Media Gurus and Social Media agencies of the world. You can dance around this statement all you want. You can flex the PR muscles or call in your, "Social Media affects customer service too, it’s not just the Web" chips too, but let’s face it: all Social Media strategy and first-contact happens in the online channels. The results of that strategy and activity may filter through how an organization communicates, markets, handles after-care or customer service, but Social Media starts and lives in the Digital Marketing channel. If it doesn’t, than these Social Media shops should also be handling all inbound physical mail to the company as well as the call center and warranty programs. And, if it does live in the Digital Channel, but as a Social Media Agency you can’t help your client also build both the platforms and presence online, what does that say about your skill level?

Let’s not make it bigger than it is.

Like a strong direct marketing strategy, advertising campaign or affiliate program, Social Media is one spoke in the marketing wheel (it just looks more shiny than the other spokes because platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are new and exciting). In fact, Social Media is much more like a spoke in the Digital Marketing wheel. This doesn’t mean it should be diminished, but to think that a strong Digital Marketing shop doesn’t have the abilities or capabilities to lead Social Media is downright silly and unfounded. A great Digital Marketing agency that truly meets the clients’ needs is one that can develop the digital strategy and then execute on it (the design, content, technology, marketing and communications).

It’s going to be interesting to see what unique offerings these Social Media agencies bring to the brand table that the Digital Marketing agencies were missing.


  1. Companies don’t dictate their brand – the customers do – we all know that. In the same fashion, the end users own social media, not ANY company, agency or firm. I think it honestly depends on what you want to do in SoMe that determines who “owns” it. Different strategies rely on different types of tactics. Trying to say social media belongs in one camp (over all others) is self-centered. Digital thinks it belongs to them because it consists of zeros & ones. PR naturally think they own it because they are used to the conversation. Agencies think it belongs to them because in the past it ALL belonged to them. Truth is, some have latched on to SoMe as a means to survive and swim with the tide, although they haven’t exactly proven they are adaptable. The unprecedented change in consumer habits over the past 2-3 years hasn’t settled down yet, so it’s too early in the swell to see where it settles.

  2. Mitch: thank you for saying this, because it needs to be repeated… over and over again. I do agree that social media is essentially the same as digital marketing, although I think it is actually much bigger than that, and involves, as you allude to, a highly evolved, multi-disciplinary approach. We might consider this as the ‘socialization of media’ (based on the premise that all media are inherently social).
    Regardless, social marketing is not just another vertical offering in the handbasket of tactics and/or channels most marketers lean on (often unsuccessfully). It goes beyond the technologies and platforms themselves — it is the creation and enablement of culture. I would also go a step further by saying that social methodologies must permeate all forms of internal and external communication.
    Bottom line: social communication is now a part of the mainstream — it’s neither niche nor nebulous, it just is. And if you can’t think of it within a holistic context as it applies to a brand (and its respective values to be formalized within community environments), then that train will quickly pass you by.
    Personally, I don’t think a lot of these ‘social media agencies’ stand a chance, especially as brands wise up to the reality that they can build vibrant social ecosystems of their own.
    P.S. — I look forward to meeting you at Gulltaggen (I’ll be speaking there on the subject of transmedia).
    Gunther Sonnenfeld

  3. Reminds me of when the Web was shiny. Clueless traditional agencies said “Yeah WE do that, too” and climbed all over it like chimps driving a bus…with the same results. Many of these same agencies have now branded themselves as social media experts, and they STILL don’t get Web. Deja Vu all over again.

  4. Great post, Mitch – I couldn’t agree more. There’s a lot of semantic games being played right now and I think it’s hurting all parties involved.
    It’s tough enough for many brands to wrap their heads around social media and digital marketing without the “experts” making it even more convoluted.

  5. I agree with Lynette.
    Social Media started with blogging. The whole concept is that anyone can do it. Traditional. Digital. Tradigital. Digitional.
    Lynette, I’m with you.

  6. I agree with Lynette’s comments, “Different strategies rely on different types of tactics. Trying to say social media belongs in one camp (over all others) is self-centered.”
    She has summed up nicely what so many of us feel. We are tired of the labels and camps and ownership and this belongs here and that belongs there discussions. As someone who has hired numerous agencies I can tell you that we hire based on many factors, and whatever you label yourself is not among them. Talent, word of mouth referral, and a connection to those we may choose to work with are chief among the considerations.
    Less dividing the sandbox and more playing nicely would be a refreshing change.

  7. Mitch – love the post and agree with you 100%. The web is inherently ‘social’ – as digital marketing matures that will only become clearer. To try and say that social media is a different discipline or a subset of digital marketing is narrow and short sighted view. If you need proof of why dedicated social media agencies will struggle, look no further than the closure (?) of The Population in Australia.

  8. Steve, even if someone banned websites, what makes a social media ‘guru’ think they are in anyway better placed to build fan pages and profiles – years of specialist experience in this area!?
    As the way users interact with content online develops, the best agencies, regardless of their current specialisms, will develop accordingly.

  9. The reason agencies have so many issues with the social segment (whether it deserves an independent life or not) is that agencies use processes to achieve their ends. It’s no just people creating great ideas. It’s account handling, trafficing and managing briefs and requests. When you work in social, every client is different. They might have a product that’s discussed in forums or groups where membership is important. Or, they could have a group of customers that like particular blogs. Social starts with listening and from there conversations and content can be generated. So every strategy is different – and each client group uses and values content differently. How do you create a process when there isn’t one that works? Or, what if a conversation starts in a forum your client isn’t paying you to work in? Do you ignore it?
    Social is fluid and complex – making it profitable and measuing it is a huge challenge.
    And, for what it’s worth, the lateral thinkers are in the Creative Group – not solely in the Marketing Department. And, it’s people who can think through links and associations rather than through processes and lines of reporting that can help social media work.

  10. It will be interesting to see how this flushes out in the coming years and no doubt will come down to how successful agencies are for their clients. I agree that social media has become an extension of marketing and a very exciting one at that. I also think that digital marketing speaks to a certain demographic and unless these agencies know who these people are there chances of survival will be slim. Lynette says it perfectly!

  11. I was gonna write a massive comment but found myself simply echoing everything you’ve already said.
    I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to explain to people that there’s nothing under the sun such as a Social Media guru. It’s just one more arrow in the marketing quiver. You don’t need a social media marketer; you need a damn good marketing professional who understands the symbiosis of marketing’s different systems.
    Well-written, thought-provoking post, Mitch.
    Blue skies…

  12. We’ve been having similar conversations along this line at work. Some folks are of the opinion that we need social media specialists. I contend that everyone should learn how to do it because it’s a baseline skill within the marketing sphere. Slowly but surely.
    Also, I’m a bit over halfway through Six Pixels of Separation. Great book so far! I’m a big fan of Media Hacks as well. Keep it up!

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you. YES, it’s all marketing. I reached my saturation point on “social media” hype much more quickly than I expected.
    I liked your “spoke” remark. That’s a good way of putting it and helps put it in context of a broader marketing plan.

  14. Marketing is best when it’s greater than the sum of its individual parts. The more we fragment marketing strategy & execution with multiple granular/specialized “lead agencies”, something inevitably gets lost. That’s not to say there isn’t a need for specialists but the onus is on agencies to ensure they’re constantly growing and fostering their marketing capabilities (internally and through partnerships) so that clients are best served in an integrated, manageable (and efficient) way.

  15. Social media (e.g., Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc) is new and like all things new we get excited over them. People got excited over the combustion engine when it first came out and it was definitely transformative to our world. But if I tried to get you excited over the combustion engine now, you’d look at me weird and say, “yeah, but it’s just a motor.”
    The social media hype will fade and it will go back to simply being a marketing function, whether handled personally, through an agency, or through some consultant who calls themself a specialist.
    The moments when things are new are the most exciting though. I want to enjoy this moment. I want to enjoy social media as something new and exciting. It might be a while before I get excited about a topic again, so let’s all just enjoy the moment.

  16. I can’t agree more. From my client-side perspective, ensuring marketing integration in a multi-agency environment is challenging enough. Adding yet another specialized agency to compete with existing digital partners for resources and attention is insane. Digital tactics are just one element of a multi-pronged marketing strategy, and social media participation/experimentation is just one part of the digital strategy. They aren’t separate tracks and treating it that way just guarantees that the progress we’ve made in the CMO’s office with respect to digital will go back a step. If you aren’t confident your digital agency can’t play in the social media space, find another agency.

  17. Great article, Mitch, but I do have to challenge your statement that “The idea of ‘Social Media’ in and of itself is intrinsically linked with Digital Marketing.”
    Social media encompasses much more than marketing.
    CBC, for instance (I know, shameless plug) has been using what I would argue is social media on their Spark show in many ways, including crowdsourcing their content. My former “” show which aired on CBC Radio One 10 years ago was even doing it back then, having people in chat rooms and via IM shaping the show’s content as it aired (much more than “And now, an email we received.”)
    NowPublic has nothing to do with marketing per se, but it’s a pretty clear example of social media.
    Great to see you again at CAPS, friend. Talk to you soon!
    Tod Maffin

  18. Mitch,
    That’s more dogmatic- and absolutist- than I am used to hearing from you. Coming from the PR side (but currently weighing options that are not necessarily “pure play” PR), I must say:
    – I agree with Lynette that “it depends” on what you mean by social and what you are doing with it. You may need existing channels for your existing channels- I guess it’s a build (digital) vs buy (branded communities) vs coopt (Twitter, Facebook, etc) question.
    * By the way, I would lump Powered in more with the “buy” category rather than the “coopt” you have them in, though they have obviously just expanded their palette big-time (disclosure- I have worked with Powered in the past and consider many of the old & new Powered folks to be friends).
    – Second, I do agree with your point in that if digital is an option, than an agency must have the chops- or access to them. “Digital” agencies have that covered, but do they have communications strategy covered or do they need to partner with a strategic PR agency? PR agencies, on the other hand, that do not have access to “build” will suffer traumatically the deeper they get into social media (and social in PR is only just really beginning). Many larger PR shops have digital “houses.” That’s one way to do it, certainly.
    This brings us back to your dead horse, which surely stinks and is covered with flies somehow. I think we will be beating it more- or learn to share, discovering that “social” means more than what digital/marketing/PR/Ad thinks of it.

  19. If your comment thread were a chorus, you’d all be singing in perfect harmony. So let me be the one to disagree with you, my friend, in the spirit of interruption.
    I think we need to debate this face-to-face. Your podcast or mine? 🙂
    btw, fwiw and imo, there’s no question that social lives on a digital platform, but it’s just that…one of several pieces of the puzzle. For example, P.R. (blogger relations) or customer service (voice of the customer) – neither of which are or need to be inherently digital in order to deliver against social, do they?
    I guess it comes down to definitions. For example: does digital marketing = anything technology related? For example, mobile? Do most digital agencies understand mobile? Or put differently, is the need for a mobile boutique or specialist any different to social?
    Don’t get me wrong….there are absolutely *are* digital agencies out there that can very deftly and strategically deliver against social, but I think they’re the exception and not the norm.
    In my opinion, this isn’t about tactics or platforms….it’s about a mindset shift. Commitments versus campaigns. Retention versus Acquisition. Conversation versus Communication. And in the former cases, we’re dealing with decidedly post-marketing platforms that are – for the most part – decidedly brand unfriendly.
    At the end of the day, I think the distinction is whether or not we’re rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic versus building a ship that doesn’t sink. I know that at Powered we’re looking at the latter. Unfortunately, too many digital agencies are in the former camp.
    (present company excluded of course)

  20. Right on Mitch. I also do think Social Media is a part of Digital/Online Marketing as much as SEO is. I see all of this Social Media experts poping everywhere more as a trend like we saw in 2008-2009 for SEO but now with a much lower barrier skills set to enter.
    @Joseph will agree with you on the mindset shift, Online being as social as the real life is, for me this is what I have dream of the real Internet more than 10yrs ago…
    great post, cheers

  21. let me be a bit provocative here – described the way Mitch does social media is a marketing tool. OK great. I see it as something greater than a marketing tool that impacts parts of our culture, and that that greater quality will impact marketing, companies and governments.
    But let’s just take it as a marketing tool. In that narrow light I think Mitch fails to acknowledge the impact that dialogue will have on marketing. I also think that if social media is viewed through a digital marketing lens only, customers become to puppets of marketers, marketers become less valuable to companies, and the temptation of manipulation becomes intense.

  22. It looks like the debate is on;) social media specialist still sounds very exciting however I also believe that at the end of the day it all remains Digital/Online Marketing. Today the challenge is to incorporate social media in your overall marketing strategy and to allocate the necessary resources. I think that everyone from the marketing/communications department should contribute.

  23. Mitch – quite the thought provoking post. A topic that will likely be discussed and debated heatedly over the next year or two…
    As the CMO of Powered (thank you for the mention btw), I wanted to weigh in and let you know that I actually agree with a lot of your points above. Namely, the fact that digital and social are inextricably intertwined — in many cases making it difficult to know where one starts and the other stops.
    The one area where I will swing around and agree with Mr. Jaffe (and no, I’m not doing that just because he’s one of my colleagues now) is that social is bigger than just a tool like e-mail marketing, SEO/SEM or affiliate marketing. Unfortunately, most companies (along with many agencies) haven’t treated it that way — instead looking at social outposts like Twitter and Facebook as new places to interrupt their prospects rather than building meaningful relationships with them and engaging in real dialogue.
    In my mind, what’s different about social is that it’s transformational from a cultural standpoint, much in the way that digital was in allowing businesses big and small to transcend borders and time to reach new audiences back in the Web 1.0 days. For that reason, it is bigger than digital because it impacts more than just marketing and PR and spills into other areas like product development, customer service, recruiting, internal information sharing and expert identification. As a result, the people or companies that help a business understand and engage in the world of social must fundamentally understand these same principles themselves.
    To that end, I had the unique experience of working with my CEO to identify the companies that Powered (formerly a community services and platform provider) sought to bring together for what we are now calling a “full service social media agency with scale.” What I can tell you is that we only wanted partners that not only understood social from a strategic perspective but that also had strong track records of helping big brands create successful social marketing programs. We are confident that we got just that in crayon, Drillteam and Stepchange — companies that now give the new entity strong capabilities in areas such as: strategy, mobile, earned media, and a meaningful way for marketers to engage in Facebook (including a delivery/measurement platform). These new skills being accretive to our existing online community and content capabilities.
    Having said all of that, I now realize that my comment is much longer than I originally anticipated, but as you can tell, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. For that reason, I look forward to more great discussion like this!

  24. Do we really believe that when people engage with a brand via social media that they want to talk with agency people ? If you’re just using social media to post specials about discounts and promotions than an agency can do that but if you really want to get your customers to carry on the conversation and become brand advocates they need to talk to the brand and this does not mean agency people.

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