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Selling Social Media Isn't Hard; Implementing It Is

You Can't Understand It Without Experiencing It Firsthand

By Published on . 47

Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
The biggest news for agencies about social media is that clients are starting to buy. If you thought selling social media was hard, wait until you start to deliver it. In the past three months, we've seen a handful of clients commit hard dollars, and after a couple of years of talking theoretically, we're discovering that implementation has its own challenges. I've been reminded several times in my career that a passion for craftsmanship makes great agencies. Social media requires no less craft than creating an effective print piece or website. Something as simple as creating a corporate Facebook page comes with its own set of complexities and requires an understanding of the platform and its capabilities. Who in your agency has those skills?

I bet that our social-media trajectory is not that different from those of a lot of agencies with roots in traditional and interactive advertising. We're likely to have a very different perspective than a pure social-media play like The Advance Guard. Most of us have invested in production systems and processes to produce digital advertising, websites, print and video. Don't expect social media to plug and play neatly into those models. On the other hand, don't dismiss the ability of smart agencies to implement social-media strategies.

This has been a watershed year when it comes to corporate enthusiasm for social media. Two years ago, we first started making presentations to our clients. There was polite interest and a lot of resistance for reasons of privacy and control. A lot of people just didn't believe it was relevant to their customers, or they couldn't see a clear link to their existing sales process.

That changed big time six months ago. With major brands increasing their presence, and with the surge of interest in Twitter, more clients began to call and ask us to come in and talk to them about specific social-media initiatives. From my own experience, I became convinced that, unlike every other form of marketing, it was impossible to understand social media if you didn't experience it firsthand. You need a guide who has explored the territory. You don't want one who has just read the travel book or seen the slide show.

I decided that the best way to engage our clients was to make our own agency a proof of concept. While a bunch of us were enthusiasts who dabbled with various technologies, we got serious and developed a companywide strategy that now includes four different blogs, a commitment to Twitter, a company Facebook page, the development of agency channels on YouTube and Flickr, and a PJA LinkedIn group. A small team led this effort, including our VP of business development, a digital art director, our digital director and myself. This approach helped us to distribute knowledge throughout the agency and forced us to understand the challenges of implementation. To give one example, we discovered it was hard to create consistent usernames and URLs across all of these channels. That taught us about some of the small branding issues our clients would face.

We're hardly trailblazers. There are some fantastic and innovative case studies in the market, but now we're in a position to give clients a real-time social-media experience in a context that they can relate to. A lot of people still look to newspapers and magazines to learn about social media, when everything they need to know can be experienced firsthand on Twitter, the social-media gateway drug. When we sit down with people now, we spend less time presenting and more time exploring how they can make their brand interesting by searching for relevant conversation threads on Twitter. Often, the first time they see people talking about their company in 140 characters or less, the light comes on.

The biggest challenge that I see is getting people who have practiced traditional marketing for their entire careers to adopt a new set of values. The first instinct is to treat any form of social media as a channel that you use to drive a corporate message. It's relatively easy to grasp the tools but more challenging to understand how new technologies have changed communication behaviors and patterns. You're essentially asking people to stop pushing a highly packaged image of their brand and begin to talk with people in communities and social networks. It's the difference between buying your way into a new culture as a tourist and earning your way in as a participating citizen. Like traveling in a foreign country, you get high marks for trying to speak the language, no matter how badly.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson.

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