This post is bound to create some controversy. I hope it does. The moral of this story is “Anyone can say they can do anything.” Focus on their core competencies and how it aligns to the various elements of creating a social influencer strategy and decide who fits in where. There may be a role at the table for multiple parties that will inevitably think they can do what the other partner can, but defining parameters and clear delineation will make everyone’s life easier. In addition, agencies will continue to reinvent themselves and every area of the advertising/marketing/pr categories are no exception. I think the services and core competencies of agencies will look very different in the next 5-years.
For some time, traditional PR agencies and digital marketing agencies have been on a collision course trying to win the hearts and social media budgets of our clients. Lately, the question has been asked of me in various high-profile brand pitches/meetings. “How do you guys distinguish where you play vs. our PR agency?” Now, in full disclosure I work for a digital marketing agency that works with global brands – where we sit on the spectrum of agencies certainly differs from traditional advertising agencies and digital agencies that rely on ‘traditional digital’ marketing including the purchase of media. I have many friends that run and/or own very successful PR-firms and perceived a first-hand perspective on how they are positioning themselves, which by the way is changing as fast as I’ve ever seen.
This post is written with the caveat that any agency can instantly change its complexion with a smart acquisition one way or another. A PR agency could become a powerful digital and technical player with one stroke of the pen or vice versa. I think we’ll see more deals in this area over the next 24-months.
I’d like to start with a few key words that are talked about consistently with regard to social media – Authenticity, transparency and conversation. How does traditional advertising stack up with those three words? Not well. Broad-based, manufactured brand marketing has always been accused of being one-way marketing, not authentic and certainly not transparent. And, from where I sit the traditional core competency of PR firms have been to create news based on a brand’s positioning or efforts and then rely on the firm’s connections to garner coverage for the brand or said another way – earn media rather than pay for it. Okay, so is creating a spin for a brand’s initiatives and then ‘pitching’ the media (whether traditional media or online) considered authentic and transparent? And in addition, most of the social media efforts for brands take place in the online world. A world that has endless possibilities with regard to technical creativity. In fact, many have said that the new creativity in social media is the planning of how applications, technologies and platforms are brought together to create a unique experience. No different than the words in the dictionary, the fonts in a catalog or the colors on a wheel are brought together to create an award-winning creative campaign – we all have the tools at our disposal, it is all in how they are brought together to solve a brand problem creatively. Are PR agencies positioned to create truly online contextual experiences where people come together and talk about a brand or company experience? Certainly, they can outsource the technical implementations and even the creative design elements but is that really what a world-class brand would want? I do think that PR agencies are well-suited in the content creation part of creating powerful experiences, whether brand-generated or developing relationships to syndicate. Also, the outreach initiatives that have moved online like blogger outreach could certainly be a core competency of PR.
I propose that an agency (digital or otherwise) with truly integrated strategic, creative and technical capabilities are the front-runners for the social integration partnerships. Here is my rationale:
- Connecting brands with influential customers rather than connecting brands with influential editors is where digital marketing agencies have always played. If a campaign or initiative is picked up by the media, then cool. I think that PR agencies have had to change their focus of whom they are ‘pitching.’ The more strategic digital agencies have the capabilities of developing deep segmentation and UX studies of the target customers and learning how technology integrates into their lives. Certainly, PR agencies have many smart people that understand segmentation and could play in the area of customer understanding and building relevant social programs.
- The creation of rich, interactive contextual experiences that are based on well-informed user-experience analysis and built on powerful technical platforms are a critical component of properly situated social media programs for brands. A credible digital agency will go deep in this area and can be flexible in creating custom communities or platforms and/or customizing third-party platforms like Ning. In fact, the third party platforms are becoming more and more complex with customization capabilities.
- Custom Application development – As the social media world moves into a social business design realm with consultancies like The Dachis Group espousing the next step of integrating listening and learning into core business functions, partners with technical chops to move away from a marketing core function of social media to integrating with other systems in the organization whether ERP, CRM or other systems will be critical.
- Integrated Business Analytics: Any digital agency worth its salt has an integrated digital analytics team that includes data, web and social media analytics along with powerful listening and monitoring posts for brands. Analytics is not as simple as subscribing to Radian6 and then telling your clients that you play here as well. Analytics is a complex competency that requires a seat at the table from day one of an engagement. Certainly, PR agencies have always monitored the environments in which they’ve pitched their wares through clipping services and now have shifted to the social monitoring tools. Social monitoring is definitely an overlap.
- Multi-media content creation is also an overlap area between PR and marketing. That’s what PR agencies do, they create content. I think that is why they are better situated to organize blogging initiatives and outreach to the new media editors. But content goes beyond writing into areas of video, applications, real-time content and more. This is an area that could certainly go into either camp. Of course, the creation of content is almost always linked to the improvement of an SEO strategy. Many PR agencies are starting to talk about how they are experts in SEO. I liken this to digital agencies saying “Of course we could write a press release and pitch it to the media.”
- If a social media strategy is implemented properly it should create long-term value for a brand. Creating intellectual property and assets for the brand is the focus. At the end of the day, moving more product and/or services is what really matters for our clients. The brands that are doing it right are integrating CRM programs into their social efforts. The area of CRM is a competency in and of itself. Developing 1:1 relationships with customers and providing the right message at the right time based on an understanding of that customer is most definitely a core competency of many digital agencies. I think a PR agency would be hard pressed to develop the mechanics of a CRM program and then integrate into social efforts.
Now, it is probable that I’ve generalized the capabilities of both PR and marketing agencies for the purposes of making a point. However, like any marketing agency category, some agencies will be further down the path of evolving than others. Many PR agencies have taken important steps in becoming more relevant in social media while others are still dialing for dollars. Some digital marketing agencies are still building websites while others are integrating technical applications and developing experiences that congregate a brand’s most influential customers that creates value for the brand.
I’ve certainly presented some controversial points in this post and will let you decide who is better situated. Please add your $.02 on anything I may have missed one way or another. Please add some fuel to the fire.