Startups: No, You Don’t Need To Hire A Social Media Expert

My eye was caught this weekend by a post from Francis Tan, asking whether startups need to hire social media experts. His key points:

  1. First things first: Agreeing with Peter Shankman that startups should focus on generating revenue
  2. Customer satisfaction: Startups need to ensure customer satisfaction when people interact with your company, whether through social media or other means
  3. Align around goals: If you do outsource your social media, make sure they are aligned with your goals
  4. Trade-offs: Ask yourself: do you have time to establish relationships with customers online? On the flip side, are you willing to entrust that task to a third party?
  5. People, not robots: If you do engage online, ensure that you have real people out there rather than automating everything
  6. His conclusion: While it’s not entirely a bad idea to outsource social media, companies might be better off focusing on their product first.

As for what I think, my take is that it’s a little easier than Tan makes it seem although I agree with his conclusion.

Let’s face it – the startup stage isn’t the time in a company lifecycle when resources are flush. You’re not likely to be walking around with a large marketing team; you don’t have big operating budget.

In that context, each dollar needs to deliver maximum return. Why hire someone at a premium when you can bring someone in-house with multiple skill sets – who can drive customer support and handle online support too? Who can handle your PR or marketing and integrate that strategy with your online activities? Hell, you might not even be at the point of investing in outside marketing help yet – why would you consider an even narrower function?

Ok, let’s cut to it. Here’s my take:

  1. Focus on your product/service: Get your product and experience right, first and foremost. If you invest in marketing before your offering is nailed, you’ll just accelerate your failure as more people find out that you suck.
  2. Democratize your social media: My colleague Steve Rubel says social media shouldn’t be 100% of one person’s job; it should be 1% of 100 peoples’ jobs. Democratize the responsibility throughout your team.
  3. Hire broad: If you do decide that the time is right to bring in a social media skill set into the team, make it part of a broader role – communications, marketing, support or similar. Specialization comes with scale — don’t pigeon-hole people into one narrow role when you need everyone to lend a hand broadly.
  4. The exception: online startups? Companies based online (or in social media), by their nature, on aggregate are going to focus more on online interactions than other companies. Still, I suspect that they will still get more mileage from investing in in-house experience, at least at a startup stage.
  5. Don’t fall for snake oil: For the love of all things holy, if you do decide to outsource your efforts then pay attention to who you work with. This is where I agree with Shankman – hire communicators or marketers who understand how social media fits into a broader approach. Don’t hire people who tell you Twitter will solve all your problems. They’re wrong, and whether it’s a deliberate lie or a lack of knowledge really doesn’t matter.
  6. Know agencies’ strengths: Agencies bring numerous several key strengths — a broad array of skills, ideas and experience; an ability to scale up and down  rapidly; existing relationships in the industry;(potentially, depending on the agency) geographic reach and so on. Play to those strengths and use them when you need them, but not before. Need a little bit of time, but not a full-time role? Need something executed in the short-term? That’s your time for outside help; not the start-up day-to-day.

There you have it. From my perspective, while you may want to engage online, I think hiring or outsourcing a “social media expert” in a startup is the wrong way to go — you’re better off focusing on your product/service, democratizing your digital efforts and hiring broad communications skills when the time is right.

I’m not a startup guy though, so my take is just an (un?)informed guess. If you come from the startup side, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

(Image: Flickr, via Peter Shankman)

  • Some startups in the social world need SM but I think those running it should act as their own “Experts.” Great read.

    • Thanks Michael. I wouldn’t disagree there.

      • I also foresee irony in the future as most SM experts are just users of SM like you and me. The real experts are strategists who understand more than ‘likes” and more user behaviour.

  • “NEVER, EVER, hire a ‘Social Media Expert’….Now, as far as hiring a communications firm (oops, did I forget to mention I work for a communications firm?!) that may be heavy into social media.”…Hhhmm.

    Dave, I think that we can all agree that concentrating on a producing a great product or service should always be a start-up’s first priority — and it should remain every company’s continuing priority, along with providing great customer service.

    And the advice, “Don’t fall for snake oil”, is equally sound advice — though I might add that whether the snake oil is being offered by a single snake oil salesperson or large firm, should be of no consequence.  The question should really be, shouldn’t it, whether any a vendor has demonstrated, through a track record of results, an ability to add value to a venture?

    Now, I too must confess that I do not consider myself a “start-up” guy or even a “social media expert,” though I am working on both!  (And, yes, I really do work with couple marketing firms, in addition to freelancing.  Surprise, surprise.)
     

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  • I’m 100% for hiring a social media expert in a startup… at the right time. Dave, I agree with all of your key points regarding the product and how to choose the right agency. At the end of the day, we tend to live most of our lives online, so having a guardian for a company’s ‘existence’ in an online world probably helps. 

    Social media is a promotional tool. If you have nothing to promote and sell, why would you hire a social media expert first? You’re probably better off investing a little bit of money in e-commerce software and a simple but good marketing strategy vs. hiring someone at a salary with different skills, or even on a commission. If your product sells, then you NEED a team of experts to handle multiple communication channels for you. 

    My concluding point: if you hire a team of experts to handle your online presence before your product is selling, it’s like hiring a bunch of monkeys to answer the phones, but the phones aren’t ringing.

  • John Lofranco

    Hey Dave: more uniformed guessing from my end. I’m helping my girlfriend with her company. It’s an online company (www.mirhandbags.com check it out, more for the ladies, but anyway–full site is launching soon!) and while there is much I don’t know, it seems that my instincts so far have been in line with whatever help/advice I’ve been able to get from so-called social-media professionals. I say so-called not in a derogatory way, but really just because it’s not so different from anything else: be nice, be honest, be clear. And like you say, if the product is good, the message will be heard.

  • Great post! It’s important to realize that you cannot simply add on social media to things you’re already doing if you’re already pressed for hours in the day. While this may seem like common sense, I know so many people who have added social media to their company’s already full plate. Make sure you take that into consideration when deciding whether to try to do social media in-house, or hire externally.

  • Yes, yes, yes! Especially to your number 5. I feel like a broken record, but I’m going to keep saying it: social media is just another tactic or channel to share information in marketing campaign or customer care model. Hire someone who gets that.

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  • Another point is that as a small business, the “voice” of the owner is tightly tied to the brand image. If they’re going to do social media first of all it better be a proven messaging channel for their industry but given that…the business owner or key employees will be crucial to delivering not only the correct message but with the personality of the brand. Which is, at that point, closely aligned to the personality of owner and staff in most cases.

  • Hello,
    I strongly believe in managing my social media pages for The Burger Dive myself. Our customers look forward to our daily updates and posts of daily specials. Often times, I can recognize someone I’ve never met by their picture from when they’ve posted on our Facebook page, and suprise them when I recognize them. It gives the interaction a more personal feel to know that the owner of the business is taking time to not only read, but personally respond to customer feedback in social media
    ………..
    Johnmiller

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