By Jonathan Crossfield published October 8, 2014

Are Social Media Content Agencies and Experts Taking You for a Ride?


There are many agencies, consultants, and “experts” living off the perception that social media marketing is a complex science, beyond the ken of mere mortals. Their social media content strategies are driven by as many graphs, metrics, and loosely defined abstract concepts as the client is willing to pay for.

It’s a sleight of hand that creates a lack of genuine accountability. Many clients outsource because they’re convinced they lack the knowledge to manage, let alone measure, their social media content efforts. This leaves the agency to not only drive the strategy, but also to advise on what success or failure looks like. Some even control the tools that measure their own self-serving KPIs, plugging easily achieved numbers into agency-devised equations to calculate (cough) “goals” such as “return on experience” or “brand engagement.”

How about describing the tangible results for the client? You know, numbers contributing to that pesky bottom line the CFO cares so much about.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are many agency professionals I trust with this stuff far more than myself. And some internal marketing departments can be just as prone to bamboozling their bosses with complexity and gobbledygook.

I’m singling out agencies for this particular rant because they’re supposed to be the trusted niche experts we turn to. So, when some of them take advantage of the hype by overthinking, overcomplicating, and overcharging for comparatively mediocre or ineffective tactics, the whole industry suffers the credibility fallout.

Effort justification and authority bias

I once had a boss who never trusted a recommendation unless it came with a 60-page report full of pie charts, Venn diagrams, and lengthy tables. Not that he would read the document: He would also insist on a one-page executive summary.

Inevitably, this led to “analysis paralysis” and flawed decision-making. After crunching every bit of data into smaller and smaller bits to draw increasingly spurious insights, by the 10th meeting no one would be able to assess the information objectively. Yet, once a decision was made, it would be championed long past the point when anyone else would have dropped the idea as an embarrassing failure.

This is a common cognitive error known as effort justification. In his book, The Art of Thinking Clearly (it’s wonderful — go buy it!), Rolf Dobelli defines effort justification as, “When you put a lot of energy into a task, you tend to overvalue the result.”

It’s no different when we outsource a task. The more complex the process, the more seemingly arcane the knowledge and greater the effort on display, the more likely we are to believe it is worth the premium price tag. “I could never have done that. I barely understood how they explained it! Thank goodness we called in the experts.”

If the job is made to look too easy, we’re likely to think it isn’t worth outsourcing at all. “Gee, I could have done that.” Unfortunately, there are many scenarios where a task may only look effortless because of the exceptional skill of the person behind it.

Just to confuse us further, there’s authority bias — the tendency to trust even bad advice if the person giving it wears a literal or metaphorical white coat, as psychologist Stanley Milgram famously proved in 1961. His experiment showed that test subjects were willing to administer electric shocks to a person in another room because the person advising them to do so wore a white coat.

Agencies may not wear white coats, but their specialized nature gives them a similar aura of authority that some clients may find hard to question. And the results may turn out to be just as shocking.

Maybe effort justification and authority bias are to blame for why some agencies and consultants can make this whole social media marketing lark look a lot harder than it really should be.

A whole lotta nothing

Some of you may remember a Business Insider article in May 2014 that attempted to reveal the internal workings of a digital agency’s social media team. It was widely shared and derided by many marketers for its description of the planning process behind a single campaign tweet.

It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy tweet, offering a basic tip about Camembert as part of a wider Art of Cheese campaign. It included a graphic, but no link to any other content. And the results quoted weren’t going to light up anyone’s monthly report — zero re-tweets and two favorites. Hardly surprising when the client only had 100 Twitter followers at the time.

Yet, according to the article, this cheesy tweet came out of an agency process that took 45 days, numerous meetings, a community manager, project manager, agency strategist, copywriter, and graphic designer. And that’s before the approval process with the senior creatives.

That must be quite a bill for producing social media content you and I would probably knock together in a half hour with an Instagram filter and a slug of caffeine.

Of course, as the tweet was part of a wider campaign, the process most likely describes the production of an entire month’s worth of content across a number of channels. At least I hope so.

I’m all for editorial calendars to plan themes, synchronize the various content channels, and decide when certain updates should happen. That’s one meeting I would always defend. But if it takes a committee of highly paid professionals over a month to produce a handful of social media content updates (even when batched with other campaign assets), you’re definitely overthinking your approach to social media.

Gone in 60 seconds

Never forget that your tweet will only appear in timelines for the most fleeting of moments, before it is pushed down into obscurity by the flood of blog links, sunset photos and trending hashtag banter.

No one’s going to pay a moment’s extra attention to your tweet just because it took 45 days and a cast of thousands to produce.

Facebook updates may have more time to be noticed, but only if the algorithm (and your Facebook fans) deems it worthy. And judging by some agency-run pages, “worthy” isn’t always a word I’d use. “Calculated to justify a worthless KPI” would be more appropriate.

Regardless of what some wizard behind a curtain says, we shouldn’t obsess about social media perfection. It’s fast, it’s rough and it’s human. If a typo goes out, the world doesn’t end (unless it’s inadvertently rude, in which case you’ll have record re-tweets to report).

We also shouldn’t obsess over the planning, production, technology, and process more than the creativity and simplicity that marks many of the best brand uses of social. It doesn’t need the same production value as your print and billboard advertising. You shouldn’t pay TV commercial rates for a simple YouTube video.

The awesome marketing strategist Jay Baer once wrote:

“People who make things more complex than they are either know less than they think, or are trying to sell you something.”

Maybe these consultants are simply responding to the expectations of their major clients. Or maybe hourly rates aren’t always the best way to guarantee a fast and efficient result.

Or, as Dobelli reminds us in his book (you really should get it, you know), “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

  • Jason Keller

    I know you say “Don’t misunderstand me. There are many agency professionals I trust with this stuff far more than myself” but I don’t think you’re presenting an informed opposition to your argument about social media.

    There are different levels of complexity to social media use associated with different sized organizations. You are absolutely right in that it should be simple, and that a single tweet should not be over-invested in, but you didn’t really touch on the other things a (competent) agency brings to the table.

    Many companies (large and small) utilize social not only for marketing and campaign purposes, but also to manage a community of fans, offer support to customers in need, enter into difficult conversations, and simply facilitate conversation. This is where it can indeed get more complex (not to mention social for highly regulated industries).

    As such, there are indeed times where it is appropriate to bring in an agency to help consult on how to use social, how to measure it, and yes, how to understand what business success looks like.

    I’m not saying ANY agency… because I agree there are some who try to fake it till they make it, but that shouldn’t undermine the professionals out there with years of experience who have helped companies implement social in a way that has improved the bottom line.

    • Kimota

      I’m definitely not advocating everyone go it alone and never use an agency, because there will always be scenarios where outside help is needed. I thought that was clear. It’s just that there is a lot of snake-oil out there and it is definitely a case of ‘buyer beware’.

      I made my “don’t misunderstand me” point to pretty much say exactly what you did in your last paragraph. The point is to not be dazzled by authority and assume complexity equals quality. Marketers need to be willing to question their approach. Is ‘Return on Experience” really the best metric to choose here? Or should we look for an agency that ties everything to the bottom line (as you also suggest)?

  • Brian Gomski

    I agree that many agencies use charts and meaningless data that no one understands to be perceived as industry experts. As CMI always says, you have to look at how the agency uses social media for themselves. This is the true mark of knowledge.

  • Joshua Foote

    We had an experience like this recently with a firm that was handling social media for a specific campaign they were managing. They repackaged content we had already created resulting in little or no engagement. Their posts underperformed almost everything we did internally in the same time period.

    The only way I’ll trust our social media stream to an outside agency is if I see them put time and humility into learning our heart and voice. No true social media expert is ready to talk before they’re willing to listen.

    • Kimota

      Abso-blooming-lutely. But that also cuts both ways. I’ve encountered many clients who want to skip the discovery and research phases because they want a strategy right now. And so they get an off-the-peg strategy and process without any tailoring to suit their heart and voice, as you say.

      Clients also need to budget the resources and delay expectations to give consultants/agencies the time necessary to embed properly into the brand.

  • Job is A 4

    social media is guff and doesn’t work. in fact advertising doesn’t work, it’s just so bald stocky men in denim, glasses and in their mid thirties can justify their jobs. remember that strangers kissing thing that turned out to be an ad for a clothing company? anyone remember the company? or bought jeans for that matter? didn’t think so…

  • Fjeldi

    Great stuff, but can’t stop wondering if the same arguments could be made about over-selling content marketing “experts”. To me it seems that a lot of agencies and professionals are turning to CM as some kind of wonder drug that not only solves any companys problems (done right) but also reinvigorate their own flacid skill in a new marketing era. I’m not saying that CM is crap, my point is, that it seem like gathering 10 expert writers to make an awsome CM blog about CM and then telling the readers that following these experts adwise can teach them to do just as awsome CM is overselling. If social media experts are prone to overcomplicate things, CM expert, in their eager to help, might be prone to undercomplicate.

  • GreyGosling

    I think the reason so many ‘campaigns’ don’t live up to expectations is because they fall foul of the “so what?” factor. You can write or tweet in any voice or using any tone but if you are not producing something of interest to the reader (or, dare I say it, a customer) what is the point? Content needs to engage them, to show and not tell. Readers don’t care if you have a brand-spanking new service/product. They care about their own lives. If you tell them how their lives might be easier, then they might be tempted to read on. They might even get to the end if every second word is not promotional. Sharing your expertise, for free, is a daring way to get noticed. Yes, the odd one might try to go solo but what if they feel more comfortable because they understand what they get when working with you? While I agree with Jonathan that too much fear is attached to something that is so fleeting, it still needs to be written for the reader.

  • More Tom

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  • ashish

    Every single SME, Large scale company and startups in online space are relying on their Online campaigns to attract customers so competition is fierce and most of the companies hire inexperienced marketing professionals having Digital Marketing experience and expect them to create wonderful campaigns which requires deep thinking creation of a error free targeted brief and message for target audience.

    Campaigns on Social Media have to catch attention and it is not just about viral design and graphics but clear planning and strategy. The best way to capture qualified audience is clear cut content strategy, awesome info graphics and campaign creation with a clear marketing brief as i have understood while working with clients as a Pay per Click and Marketing Expert.