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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.