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)

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.