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Social Media and Digital Expertise: A Recommended Hiring Hierarchy

Although social media can no longer be considered a novelty, many organizations (especially small- and mid-sized groups) are still trying to figure out whether and how to leverage it as part of their marketing, branding, public relations, customer service, and revenue-generating efforts. In conjunction with those determinations, they must also figure out the best approaches to acquiring and using social media experts and related digital expertise.

The rise of newer platforms and apps (e.g., Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat), the maturation and continual “refinement” of more established platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and the decline or significant change in focus of languishing platforms and tools (e.g., FourSquare, Google+, Klout), means the social media landscape is in a constant state of flux, and makes the process of managing social media engagement even more complex. When we add dynamic website content (e.g., blogging), search engine optimization and social and digital advertising to the mix, the need for digital expertise becomes even more pronounced.

In spite of the complexity, many organizations continue to underestimate both the importance of and challenges inherent in developing and implementing a sound approach to incorporating social and digital technologies into their external communication efforts. I’ve written before about how leaders in particular fail to take digital seriously, the fallacy behind “digital DIY”, and the importance of social media experts. I’ve also offered guidance on what to look for when hiring social media expertise.

In this piece I offer additional guidance, this time in terms of a recommended hiring hierarchy. As I have discussed previously, there’s a tendency in many organizations to start with tactics first, and to look for an internal person – someone who’s often a junior staffer – to execute those tactics (more often than not on a part-time basis). The idea to outsource social media management to an individual or firm, not to mention the notion of looking to someone to develop a social media strategy, is often not considered until later.

That’s perfectly backwards, for two main reasons:

  1. Most junior staffers and other employees lack the expertise to develop the most efficient and effective approach to leveraging social media and digital technology, and they probably don’t have enough time (given their other job duties) to make a significant effort at digital engagement. This leads to suboptimal results, which can cause leaders to erroneously conclude that the ROI (return on investment) isn’t sufficient to justify increasing their commitment. Ironically, however, the fact that the investment wasn’t big enough in the first place is what led to the less-than-desirable return.
  2. The inadequate initial investment also leads to lost time and opportunities. If an organization makes a half-hearted attempt to establish a digital presence and engage with key stakeholders, they decrease their chances of gaining a strong following and generating the traffic and potential business an active digital network can create. One of the cold, hard truths of social media is the longer an organization waits to establish a strong digital presence, the harder it is.

So, what’s a better approach?

Start with an Expert

A more rational approach to digital engagement is to start with an expert who can offer his/her expertise and provide big-picture, holistic guidance to help develop a strategy that makes the most sense given an organization’s strategic goals, industry, key stakeholders, operating characteristics and a host of other factors. Benefits of starting with a true consultant include

  • Access to in-depth knowledge of and expertise in of social media and other digital technologies
  • Information about general and industry-specific best practices
  • Guidance that’s not influenced by a personal vested interest or anchoring on traditional or current practices
  • A perspective that focuses on long-term goals and a crawl-walk-run approach

This expert should be someone who focuses not just on social media, but on digital engagement. One of the first things I tell people from organizations that want to “do more with social media” is that they need to think more broadly, approaching social media in the context of a larger digital engagement strategy and related initiatives. With the increasing recognition of the importance of “owned” content and a renewed focus on “owned” digital properties like websites as the foundation of an organization’s digital brand, outreach, and stakeholder communication efforts, social media can’t be viewed in isolation, as a set of stand-alone channels.

Regardless of whether the organization is just getting started, wants to ramp up its commitment, or strives to optimize, enhance and expand established initiatives, there are three key initiatives with which an outside digital engagement expert can help:

  • Conducting a digital engagement audit (and possible related benchmarking analyses)
  • Creating a digital engagement strategy
  • Developing a digital engagement plan of action

This expert should not just be a hired gun, someone to whom the task of creating a strategy or plan is outsourced. Rather, they should serve as a partner and guide, working collaboratively with organizational leaders and key team members to create a vision and develop a roadmap for moving forward.

Then Outsource Engagement

There are two main reasons that the next most logical thing to do is outsource digital engagement activities to a firm or individual that specializes in that sort of thing.

  1. As noted previously, it’s unlikely that current staff have the capacity – not to mention the required knowledge, skills, abilities – to be successful in implementing the digital engagement plan, no matter how well defined it is. And adding more staff at this juncture is likely to be premature.
  2. Even with a well-defined strategy and plan, digital engagement initiatives involve a lot of experimentation and learning, as well as some risk of failure. It’s impossible to know at the outset whether the optimal approach will be to add new people to the staff, and/or to redesign current jobs to incorporate these activities. Plus, workforce-related changes have a sense of permanence that can make it hard to change directions after experience indicates a better way to proceed.

Outsourcing digital engagement initiatives may seem more costly in the short run, but doing so is likely to save money over the longer term by enabling organizations to determine the right mix of people, time, and expertise they need to manage their digital engagement efforts most effectively. With contracted services, organizations don’t have to worry about full-time utilization, and they can roll out work in small experimental bits rather than all at once. They can experience the benefit of having help that does this kind of work on a full-time basis without having to pay for full-time help. And of course, there is likely to be greater accountability, which increases the likelihood of positive outcomes and minimizes associated risks.

The outsourced services may be provided by the same group that helped create the digital engagement strategy and plan, but they don’t have to be. In fact, it may sometimes be better to use different service providers, so that the digital engagement expert can continue to provide independent advice and counsel to choose the highest quality, most cost-effective provider(s).

An outsourcing commitment of six to eighteen months should be sufficient to make proper investments and gather enough data to determine an optimal approach to ongoing digital engagement.

Then Bring It in House

Taken together, the work with the digital engagement expert and the digital engagement outsourcing experience will enable organizational leaders to determine what their ongoing commitment could and should be based on both the investment made and the return produced. They will have a greater sense of the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed, how experienced the person managing the activity should be, whether and how digital engagement should be combined with other responsibilities, the necessary time commitment, and other factors. Based on this information, organizational leaders can then decide whether it makes more sense to bring the work in house and staff it with an existing employee or new hire, or if they should continue to rely on outside experts and service providers.

hiring hierarchy / shutterstock

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