As fascination with social media has grown, a debate has erupted over whether organizations should hire social media specialists. The naysayers are an interesting mix of evangelists and skeptics. The enthusiasts maintain that social tools should be so intrinsic to the way a company communicates that centralizing expertise limits its potential. Their strange bedfellows are traditionalists who believe the whole social media phenomenon is a flash in the pan.
My position is an emphatic yes, but with one caveat: You should hire talent for the right reason.
When social media initiatives fail, it's usually for one of two root causes. One is apathy. A company sets up a Facebook page and a Twitter account; declares it is “doing social media”; and then walks away. Having a presence is no longer enough to distinguish your company. If you don't invest in valuable content, no one will notice you.
Failure can also happen for the opposite reason: Organizations invest lavishly in social marketing, but have no strategy. They choose the wrong platforms or create content their customers and prospects don't need. This is an easier problem to fix but also a more expensive one.
Social media specialists can address both issues. They're good at unlocking value in content that often already exists in the organization, and that avoids the cost of reinventing the wheel. They also know what not to do. This saves time and money over the trial-and-error approach that too many organizations have taken.
Companies that do social media well tend to have the same basic organizational structure: They have a person, or small group of specialists, who serves as a resource to others. People who want to use social channels in any capacity can tap them for tools and advice. This hub-and-spoke model is intended to educate the entire organization over time. Done right, the social media-specialist role shouldn't even be needed three to five years from now.
Can you outsource this function? In many respects you can. Agencies are good at setting strategy, choosing platforms, crafting policies and educating employees. What they can't do is speak for the company. No contractor can bring the passion and knowledge to customer conversations that your own people can. The social media specialist is as much internal evangelist as external communicator.
Which brings me to my one caveat: Don't hire a social media specialist in an attempt to compartmentalize the role. The true leverage of social media is in creating a tapestry of conversations between your people and the entire market. If you dump the whole task on one person, you lose 99% of the opportunity to create an engaged company. You'll also probably lose that person pretty quickly.