The debate over whether it is wise for a company to hand over the maintenance of their social media profiles and online communities to an external vendor/third party, has reached a critical mass.

The two schools of thought are firmly entrenched in their beliefs and often believe the people who have the opposing view have lost it.

There’s no love lost, mostly because each side is fighting for its own existence.

Image via flickr: Pablo Casuriaga

The Pro-Outsourcing Argument

On the pro-outsourcing side there are PR, marketing and niche social media agencies who believe that a company cannot manage their own social media effectively. It takes a room of “experts” to craft the message and execute delivery.

By having companies take it inside, it cuts agencies off from income.

Their reasoning behind why they feel outsourcing is necessary varies depending on who you’re talking to. Late last year, I got into a somewhat heated conversation on Twitter with an agency who took an extreme stance on it.

“#SMM is fundamentally different than traditional brand marketing. Internal teams can only go so far … Companies need near 24/7 devotion to their networks, and internalteams are incapable of providing that.

Other agencies believe that because of their wide-range of experience in developing communities, this gives them a natural leg up:

 “Social media agencies have experience managing multiple communities, across a variety of industries. This gives us an edge when it comes to predicting user behavior on any number of platforms.”

What the author is suggesting is that their wide-range of expertise gives them insight into how your specific business operates. I have to disagree. Knowing how a bunch of other companies and their customers react, doesn’t give anyone a leg-up in knowing how a specific business’ customers will react or behave.

What If It Was Your Business?

Image via flickr: comedy_nose

Imagine for a moment that you’re the owner of a local bakery. You built the business from the ground up. You’ve done the leg work to attract a good sized customer-base and your business is continuing to grow.

As the business has grown, it’s become more difficult for you to be able to manage both the production and distribution of the pies and cakes that you bake. Both require a lot of concentration and you can’t be in two places at once.

Finally you decide that you’ve had enough. You need to hire someone else to help you distribute the cakes and the pies. Your time is limited and you need to fill the position quickly.

After a brief search, you hire someone who, as far as you know, has never stepped foot in your bakery and may not have any real experience in a smaller, more local bakery setting.

Despite that fact, this person tells you that not having the intimate knowledge of how the bakery works is actually a benefit. They tell you that they bring “fresh eyes” to the situation.

After a few days, you notice that the production process is going smoothly. Almost too smooth, to the point where it feels like you’re making fewer pies. You have a look at the sales over the past few days and notice that there’s a steady decline. Each day you sell fewer and fewer.

You ask the new hire why this might be, and what his process is for distributing the pies and cakes. What he says is shocking. The way he is going about it is vastly different to how you managed it in the past, and what customers had come to expect.

The person who was hired to distribute the pies and cakes had no knowledge of the intricacies of the business.

The little things that made the bakery what it was, was lost because the person who knew all of that was back in the kitchen. The customers were interfacing with a stranger.

The Anti-Outsourcing Argument

Image via flickr: Qfamily

This is the point that others in the community management profession make. Richard Millington, founder of FeverBee, an online community consultancy, echoed my sentiment:

“Agencies lack your expertise. No-one knows as much about your products and services as you do. Agencies won’t be able to speak as confidently about your products/services as your own staff. Or, worse, agencies will have to keep checking with you and wait hours before responding to simple questions.”

Increasingly a company or brand’s social media profile is becoming the first point of contact for customers. If they have a problem, or need a question answered, brands and companies are seeing more of those comments appearing on their Facebook or Twitter pages.

The question becomes, is it appropriate then for a third-party to be handling the communications for a channel that is becoming increasingly important for communications with customers?

Companies Are Hiring Their Own Experts

It appears that, increasingly, brands and large companies are finding that they’re more comfortable having an individual or a team as employees, helping to guide the company’s social media strategy.

To illustrate my point, here are some large companies and big brands that were hiring for social media-related jobs at the end of last year and beginning of this year:

The Hybrid Model

Image via flickr: Aidan Jones

By hiring these people internally, a third option emerges. One where the brand now has an advocate on its side, who can deal directly with agencies and “speak their language”. In a thread on Quora, David Armano, EVP of Edelman Digital, wrote:

“I’ve found though that a hybrid model can be effective for companies who need partners in activities such as community management. Having a social media manager or director of community management who can oversee activities from both internal and external resources for example… And also, consider that some community management activities could be handled “in-house” (like direct engagement with the community) while other activities such as content management can be executed with partners.”

I believe that the hybrid model is the best way to go, if you are going to partner with an agency for any part of the development and implementation of a community management strategy.

Have the agency be a strategic partner, fulfilling a specific function. But leave the customer-facing actions to the people who work for the company and are able to speak on its behalf.

Sound Off: Pro or Against?

What’s your stance on outsourcing community management? Let us know in the comments!

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