9 Critical Questions to Ask When Hiring a Social Media Agency

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A few months back, New York Times Bestseller, Gary Vaynerchuk said that 95% of Social Media consultants were “bozos”.  Although Gary apologized for his hyperbole, on some level we agree that businesses would be better off if they asked their agencies better questions up-front.

Since social media has taken a front-seat role in many communications plans it pays to dig deep and really understand what your social media agency has “under the hood.”    This isn’t new, the web is filled with helpful agency hiring checklists, but most of them ask the wrong questions.

Although it’s helpful to know about experience, case studies, and services that isn’t the most important criteria to check.  Instead, you should evaluate how the agency will use social media to meet your business objectives.

Here are 9 questions that will get you the answers you need:

  1. Describe our business model?
    Your agency should have an intuitive feel for how your business creates products and makes a profit.  Social media is a communication tool for connecting your business with its customers.  An agency can’t do this unless it understands your business.

    Danger Sign: The agency spends more time talking about their services than your objectives.

  2. Why do you think that Social Media is important to this organization?
    Don’t settle for cookie-cutter social media programs.  Social conversations are unique and are impacted by the organization’s position in the marketplace.  Your agency must be willing to craft a program that accentuates your strengths and boldly addresses your weaknesses.

    Danger Sign: “To a hammer – everything looks like a nail”  Make sure that the agency can provide clear reasons why social is the right tool for the problem.

  3. Describe a communications problem you solved with social media?
    In business, every communication should drive the organization closer to its business goals.  You want an agency that shares this outlook.  Examining how your agency uses social to solve problems is the best way to predict their performance as a partner.

    Danger Sign:  Be on the lookout for agencies who point to vanity metric performance (# of Facebook fans) rather than systematic processes for identifying, diagnosing, and solving core problems.

  4. Explain your process for building relationships with influencers?
    New social media programs need help from influencers to gain traction.  Influencers can lend credibility and jumpstart audience growth.  For this reason, spend time evaluating how your agency finds, nurtures, and activates influencers.

    Danger Sign:  Influencer-Lite approaches that emphasize watching Twitter or heaven-forbid carpet-bombing bloggers with template emails asking for mentions.

  5. Can you walk us through the steps for creating our social media strategy and tactics?
    Unfortunately, it’s very easy to play the role of “social media expert”.    Put your agency team in a room, give them a problem, and ask them to walk through the steps for solving the challenge.  You’ll learn if they have the proven processes needed to arrive at great solutions.

    Danger Sign: A telltale sign of an actor is their focus on tools (“We think Twitter is tailor-made for you!”) rather than using a strategy to emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

  6. How will you track our program’s performance?
    There isn’t a right answer for this question.   You are looking for a focus on accountability and progress.  While it’s difficult to pin social media to quantitative metrics, your agency should be to offer a practical measure for the program’s success.

    Danger Sign: Too much faith in a particular reporting tool.  There are some great tools out there but much of the real insights will come from smart people who know how to ask great questions.

  7. How will you handle content creation?
    Successful social media programs are built on excellent content.  Your agency should be prepared to create content for each platform.  Agencies that shy away from creating content may not understand the critical role unique content plays.

    Danger Sign:  A top-heavy agency that’s long on PowerPoint artists  and short on insightful and creative content producers.

  8. How will you manage legal risks?
    Like every communication, social media updates require a systematic review process.  It’s always a good sign when your agency proactively seeks to understand your communication approval process and legal protocols.  A little diligence up-front can save you expensive headaches down the road.

    Danger Sign: Blank stares.  Seriously…I’ve seen them.

  9.  How will you coordinate social media with our other communication functions?
    Social media shouldn’t be operated in a silo.  Your agency should take the lead in sourcing content from other departments and seek to integrate content across disciplines.

    Danger Sign: Budget Sniping.  Walk away if your agency guns for other budgets before they’ve proved their  performance.  Hire them and you’ll end up spending your time refereeing agency power grabs and feuding.

Do you have a #10?

Do you have some agency questions that really scratch beneath the surface?  Let us know in the comments below.


photo credit: blank array via photo pin cc

About Stan

Stan Smith is the Managing Director of Pushing Social a content marketing consultancy for aggressive, results-focused organizations.

19 thoughts on “9 Critical Questions to Ask When Hiring a Social Media Agency

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  5. Emily

    This is a really great article with excellent points for companies to consider before hiring external social media. So many people still don’t really understand the impact of social media and its use and so can be blinded by jargon and confidence. This should be recommended reading!

    I’ve posted a blog with my take on four of the points I consider to be most important here http://goo.gl/8Ly9r

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  8. Stanford Post author

    That’s a good one.

    The other day I talked to someone who implied that content creation is a commodity. That good content could be sourced for $10 an article. This horrified me. It meant that there’s a thought that you can go overseas for low-cost filler. I think this thinking comes from a social tool fetish that emphasizes how content is distributed rather than “why” and “how” it’s created.

  9. Stanford Post author

    Love your comment.
    Look, content is important. The problem is that content is useless without a great strategy, a level-headed assessment of audience needs, and a proven plan for promoting it. Otherwise, brilliant work, like yours :) , will go unnoticed.
    I agree that businesses should invest heavily in their own content creation capability. However the reality is that for the time-being businesses will need to lean on agencies to augment their resources.

  10. Charlotte Keenan

    My #10 would be to ask them who would be doing the work and there communication style? Are they 17 year old out of college; how do they deal with conflict; what’s their English ability? In essence can I interview the person who would do the work?

    Danger: sign – sorry they are based overseas!

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  12. Lindsey Sanford

    Hey there,

    Love this article. I think there are some incredibly important concepts for companies to research prior to entering into a relationship with an agency.

    I do work for an agency – and I love what I do. I think that hiring an agency is the best way to get hands on support while building out your social strategy and community. That being said, if anyone told you they were a social media “expert” that would certainly be my first red flag. With how fast the industry moves, how quickly things change, and how many difficult models of accepted use there are out there for social media specifically, it’s hard to claim expertise and ” all-knowingness”.

    There’s one point here that I disagree with. Number 7. Content creation is a passion of mine. It’s where I think the future is, and it’s where every brand needs to be headed. In fact, I’m surprised content creation was listed as number seven, as it should really be at the top of everyone’s mind. I do not think, however, that an agency should create content FOR you. Teach you? Strategize with you? Engage with you? Encourage and Edit/Revise with you? ABSOLUTELY. Write content FOR you? Absolutely not.

    Social media is the great equalizer. It gives brands a face, let’s small businesses compete on an even playing field, and builds a trusting relationship with consumers. If agencies are creating the content on behalf of clients, where is the authenticity? Do agencies really know the culture of that brand? No. They probably have some background information, but they don’t work there.

    Keep content creation in house – but get help from an agency to understanding the strategy behind content creation.

  13. Dave Linabury

    It’s a great point, Jenn and I was merely giving an example. I hear far too many social agencies try to sidestep the ROI issue or force ROI to be fan counts or likes which are not business metrics.

  14. Jenn Whinnem

    Hi Stanford,

    I work in philanthropy, which is not a synonym for “non-profit” – something many in business do not understand. What I like about your list here is that it is applicable whether you are trying to make a profit or not. I’d say Dave’s proposed #10 makes more sense for businesses, or perhaps that’s just my knee-jerk reaction to seeing the word “sales.” Not all of us are in businesses that are in the business of sales! I’ve had to move away from reading some of my favorite bloggers because they’re no longer “speaking my music” as someone I used to know once said. And, they’re just doing what they do, which is fine. No one said they had to cater to me.

    At any rate, Stan, #1 really speaks to me. At my org, we need consultants/agencies who understand the independent, systems-change-focused philanthropy. You can imagine that narrows the field considerably. I’m pleased to be working with a consultant who understands our work deeply – that’s real expertise.


  15. Stanford Post author

    I agree with your #10. So many try to shift the conversation from the client’s analytics to obscure the fact that they can’t deliver results.

    (BTW: Glad to hear from you. It’s been a while. We used to work together at CE on the Alltel account)

  16. Dave Linabury

    My #10: (Full disclosure, I am the social media director for an Campbell Ewald)
    Will you measure ROI the way we already are internally (i.e., tied to sales)?
    Too many social media companies claim that ROI is any success metric, It’s not. It’s return on investment and your client already knows how they measure it internally. If your social agency won’t follow your ROI model because “Social is about relationships, not money”, don’t hire them.

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