Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have rapidly integrated themselves into our everyday lives, triggering an enormous shift in how all we share information, both personally and professionally.
These channels, uniquely, have empowered brands and customers alike, and, perhaps for the first time in our history, everybody has a voice.
But, much like many other times in our collective past, it isn’t always one that is equal.
I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between social media and web development and design, particularly on the agency/client side. Web work came first, of course, historically, and continues to lead, inasmuch as where it is in the timeline of its life cycle – that being, clients increasingly want to pay less and less for the same, and often a higher standard of work, than they’ve received in the past.
I’d guesstimate that how agencies and their clients feel about the value of social media marketing agencies today – in the “we’re prepared to pay this for what you do” sense – lags the web design business by about five years. Which means that by 2017, we could all be fighting over nickels and dimes.
This isn’t anything new. It’s an inevitability of the business relationship. As competitors enter the market, prices are driven down because everyone needs a foothold, and the easiest way to secure that is to undercut everybody else – even if it means you don’t make much or even any money yourself. Budgets impact decisions. Suddenly, to win back old business, you need to undercut. The scope of work doesn’t really change – you just have to do more for your buck. Sometimes, a lot more.
If you’re in the business of social media (or web design), this article might ring some uncomfortable home truths. And if you ever started to feel that this industry might be reaching saturation point, this could be an early warning sign.
Consider this. It wasn’t too long ago when building websites was out of reach for all but a few privileged “webmasters” – a term which still amuses me greatly – simply because it was so new and complex, and only a minority had mustered the necessary skills to do the work. Heck, I remember when even registering your own domain required level 5 NSA clearance, arcane runes and the positioning of the moon to be just right.
Then, at a frightening speed, web hosting became cheaper, ISP control panels became friendlier, and software such as Dreamweaver allowed everybody to “have a go”. Cue wave after wave of sites that made us all long for the glorious days of Geocities, but for webmasters, the writing was increasingly on the wall. They had competition. It may not have been justifiable, certainly in a like-for-like sense, but that didn’t make it any less of a reality.
The same was true for the design elements of websites. In days of yore (i.e., 1990), manipulating images with a computer was a painstakingly difficult process. When Photoshop was released that too was a nightmare at first, but it quickly became easier and (vitally) cheaper. And then, just like that, everybody knew somebody who was a “Photoshop master”. Almost every business now employed their own designer, and even that didn’t matter, as every client had a nephew who was both an “expert” and would “do it for free”. Or near enough.
It was rubbish, of course, but the client believed it. It’s amazing how many decision makers are still, to this day, frighteningly naive when it comes to technology, particularly in the ramifications of low-balling their business. But cheap is cheap. So, the client dumped the agency, hired the nephew, and went ahead and got their website. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred that website stank to high heaven, and the client saw no traffic, let alone new business.
So, they did the smart thing, fired the nephew, and went cap-in-hand back professional designer? Right?
Wrong. They blamed the internet. They blamed e-commerce (“It’s all hype!”). And they blamed the agency, for planting the seed in the first place.
And now we’re seeing the exact same thing with social media.
As always, it begins with whispers. Brands and businesses start hearing all this amazing stuff about Twitter and Facebook, and they want in. Maybe their current marketing agency offers this service. Maybe they don’t. So they look around and ask you to pitch. You come up with a killer concept. They love it. The deal is as good as done, but they want a little time to talk it over.
Then the email arrives. Or a phone call. “Hey,” they say, “We really appreciate the work that you’ve done. We loved your pitch. We definitely want to do something here. Unfortunately, your quote is a little outside of our budget. In fact, we’ve found somebody else who can do everything that you’ve promised at a quarter of the price.”
You brace yourself. You know what’s coming.
“Even better, he’s family. Thanks again for your help.”
It isn’t always a nephew. Sometimes, it’s a cousin. Or a friend of a friend. Or “this guy”. Or, unfathomably, their previous agency, who they fired for incompetence, but are now re-hiring to save a few bucks because they’ve pitched for the business at a level that is so low they have to be taking a loss.
It doesn’t matter. The end result is always the same. In this business, if you pay peanuts, you get social media monkeys.
The problem with the pro side of social media is that with 900+ million active users on Facebook and 140+ million active users on Twitter, everybody knows somebody who uses one or both of these channels all the time. And, for someone who isn’t as up to speed on these platforms as they perhaps should be, that other person, relatively at least, knows an awful lot. By comparison, they’re a frickin’ genius.
And they’re cheap!
But while they may give the appearance of expertise, it’s an illusion. I don’t care if you’reusing Facebook for 16 hours a day – there’s a world of difference between casual familiarity with the front end of the system, and professional experience with the backend, particularly when it comes to advertising, community engagement and promotions.
Here’s the thing: nobody is a social media expert. Not really. It’s just too new and evolving a business for anyone to realistically claim that title. I’d be suspicious of anyone who brands that moniker around with anything resembling gusto. But, again like in web development and design, there are definite shades of expertise. There are the people who do this for a living, and are paid accordingly because they’re really, really good at what they do. And then there are family members, the new office temp and “that guy” you know. They get paid less because they are, in almost all cases, worth less. Not worthless – everyone needs to start somewhere, and some of these folks will go on to stellar careers – but they are, in the vast majority of cases, and both financially and creatively, of measurably less value.
So, by proactively choosing the super cheap, fast turnaround, we can trust this person because he’s my sister’s kid option, you, the boss, are making a very important decision about the future of your company, certainly when it comes to how it is positioned in the social space.
And you know what? It’s a really, really lousy one. Unforgivably poor. Really, you should hang your head in shame. You’ve let everybody down.
Yep: there are shades of expertise amongst the pros, too. All agencies are not created equally. So go ahead and haggle over proposals. Question your designer’s preferred creative. And don’t let yourself be bullied too far from your brief. It’s your business, after all. You must call the shots.
Which is why, in all cases, this means absolutely, positively choosing the best people for the job. Any job. And, you know what, and suffice to say, they’re very, very rarely the cheapest.