For more than a decade, interactive agencies — including search agencies — represented the next generation of advertising. Bolstered by the widespread adoption of digital media, interactive marketers became the established advertising professionals. But as technology continues to evolve at lightning speed, interactive marketers are once again the new kids at the forefront of a new generation of media.
Commerce has evolved from innovative periods of manufacturing, distribution and information to the current Age of the Customer. The web has created many opportunities for companies to expand their operations as well as for consumers to expand their purchasing prowess. At the same time, social media and mobile applications have disrupted the purchasing decision cycle, which in turn has disrupted even the most innovative marketing strategies.
The challenge for agencies is to quickly adapt to what has become a moving target. Marketers not only need to learn new advertising and content distribution systems but also the new mindset and behavior of the empowered consumer. Digital marketers will need to acquire advanced skills in order to stay competitive in a progressive industry.
This article explores the impact of social media on agencies, including key challenges and how agencies can capitalize on the resulting opportunities for growth and stronger client relationships.
The Social Media Challenge
Power of the Brand Diminishing as Social Media Grows
The rapid growth and acceptance of social media over the past couple of years has been staggering. One of the most important results of this market dynamic is a dramatic shift in power from the brand to the consumer. Traditionally, the power of brand loyalty, reaching even into brain chemistry, has proven surprisingly strong. While consumers have historically sought opinions from their social and familial circles, the Internet provides the opportunity to do so with a larger network and at an accelerated rate. Using the wisdom of crowds, consumers can communicate and aggregate information about products, prices, and deals.
There is an increasing array of digital tools to help consumers share and collaborate, as well. Browser bookmarklets, widgets, wish lists, profiles, buzz measuring features, and other applications help users interface with one another. A personalized account of an experience with a business or product helps online shoppers make their own decisions, as opposed to being relegated to algorithmic search results.
While consumers are looking online for deals, discounts, and incentives, they are also searching for human connection and will trust others’ opinions, even if they are strangers. Customers are learning to trust businesses that have a consistent and engaging presence on social media networks.
The most effective social media brand presence doesn’t pitch a product or service, but rather develops strategies to influence a positive connection between the target audience and the client’s product or service. Increasingly, the phrase “customer experience” has become the rallying cry of CMOs in all industries. Customer experience is the new marketing.
Marketers Limited by Lack of Resources
As social media has proliferated, most companies are using a “distributed chaos” approach with individual departments launching ad hoc efforts or campaigns. More marketers, however, are recognizing the need to carefully coordinate their social media programs to create scale and answer the question, “What do Facebook and Twitter mean to my marketing?” The challenge that most marketers are facing is inadequate staffing. According to Forrester Research, 50% of marketers surveyed say their biggest concern for their company’s use of external social media tools is their lack of human resources.
“The challenge that most marketers are facing is inadequate staffing. According to Forrester Research, 50% of marketers surveyed say their biggest concern for their company’s use of external social media tools is their lack of human resources.”
The Opportunity for Agencies
Six Pillars of Outsourced Social Services
These challenges have created enormous opportunities for agencies in the areas of strategic services, content and technology. More specifically, the types of social media services that marketers are looking to outsource can be broken into the following six pillars:
- Strategy: vision, roadmap, organization and governance;
- Intelligence: Listening, social analytics, integrated analytics and market research;
- Interaction: Community management, moderation, customer service and PR/Crisis;
- Design & Development: UX, content, creative concepts, and content curation and crowd sourcing;
- Platform Management: Build, integration and technical maintenance; and
- Optimization: Paid media, WOM (energizing), owned media integration, promotion and process.
While strategic services have become table stakes in many digital channels such as web development and search, content will be one of the most important social media battlegrounds for agencies.
Overall, there are seven types of social media content: education, product, promotion, engagement, user generated, news and crisis, and subject specific. On Facebook alone, brands must get into the top of consumer news feeds because that’s where the most customer interaction occurs.
Social technologies demand high quality content that is engaging and widely shared. Social networks, blogs and mobile applications revolve around the marketing website to expand the distribution and engagement of brand content. This emphasis on content has turned brands into publishers.
Technology is the New Creative
In this marketing world where the media channels continue to multiply and serve more specific niches and audience fragments, the products and services being offered are increasingly customized, specialized and tailored to fit. The technology has become iterative in order to scale the many messages being delivered to targeted audiences.
Just as the ad agencies of the 1960’s ushered in a new era of marketing with brand positioning and unique selling propositions, today’s technology and bandwidth revolution has enabled a real-time, interactive marketing approach that arms consumers with tools to make shopping and product comparisons fast and efficient. Practitioners can no longer separate the technology from the marketing.
Iterative creative also means moving away from bottom-of-funnel pull marketing to top-of-funnel push marketing. Experiences online are continuous. They may start with a meme in social media, be reinforced with display advertising, connect with specific intent in a search ad, carry through to a landing page, be nurtured with follow-up, and ultimately be fulfilled by the product or service.
The best results will come from producing many different experiences, each crafted for a distinct idea and audience segment. The new creative is about the aggregation of many individual, targeted experiences. These “micro-experiences” each targets an audience segment in a particular context, authentically engaging with prospects “in their moment.” Rapid experimentation and testing continually discover new connecting moments and refine their effectiveness. Integrating technology into the creative process is the most efficient way for agencies to achieve this going forward.
For example, QR codes are being distributed on print materials to drive customers to visit company websites for special offers. Agencies may also experiment with RFID tags and augmented reality as ways of reaching various demographics within a target audience with optimized messaging.
Search Skills Translate Well to Social Media
A new breed of marketing and technology professionals known as marketing technologists is emerging to apply technical and engineering talents natively in marketing departments and agencies. It’s a pragmatic intersection of creative vision and technical implementation. Marketers who have had measurable success working within this ecosystem will experience greater leadership in the evolving marketing organization.
For search marketers, this is manifestly true in their day-to-day work. Strategies such as A/B and multivariate testing, re-marketing and behavioral targeting all employ technology as a key component of the creative process. These techniques also acknowledge the range of the marketing funnel and how crucial it is to reach audiences at every touch point.
Still, the roles of analysts and search marketers have changed. Both have become more important and mainstream within many organizations and the skills needed are becoming more complex. Most jobs in the industry are about making decisions of some sort and good web analytics determines whether those decisions ultimately add to the bottom line.
Paid search management has also evolved as search managers and optimizers are increasingly drowning in data. Originally, paid search management was about building good creative and managing a campaign’s ability to bring people to the website without spending too much of the total marketing budget.
However, as paid search becomes a significant part of marketing budgets, advertisers can’t rely solely on online conversion data. They need to optimize performance according to actual sales or client lifetime value metrics that typically appear in a separate, isolated database within a CRM system, for example.
Web analysts and search marketers increasingly need a business intelligence mindset. As strategies evolve into website personalization, multichannel campaign management, database integration’s data mining and predictive analytics, marketers’ minds need to switch to a highly analytical mode.
Tailor-made tools that can solve the data spreadsheet nightmare are emerging. More advanced advertisers that are tapping into business intelligence solutions are finding that the tools are superior in comparison to various mechanisms that require SQL queries or communicating with the “IT guy.” The results are increased campaign ROI and improved work efficiency.
Agencies Adapt to Multichannel Marketplace
Competition is fierce in the agency marketplace. Over the past decade, many agencies became part of large holding companies while other agencies became unbundled, resulting in the propagation of single-service firms. The question most boutique agencies are facing right now is whether or not to continue specializing in a single service or to grow organically or through acquisition.
Small agencies can focus on a single aspect of mobile, social media or search, and develop expertise in that area more deeply than departments within large agencies. Why? Primarily because large agencies seek to be a single stop for their clients by offering services across multiple categories rather than focusing deeply in a few select areas. They think horizontally not vertically.
The decision between vertical and horizontal expertise is made even harder by the increase in mobile marketing in response to the smart phone and tablet revolution. All of the challenges and opportunities created by social media, creative technology and data are being exponentially multiplied with the fast paced consumer adoption of mobile devices. Good mobile experiences are becoming an expectation, not just a nice-to-have.
Brands have more choices than ever about where to allocate their marketing resources and work with agencies.
The competition for business resulting from the onslaught of social media marketing is intensifying among agencies with the onset of social and mobile marketing.
Creating Value for Brands
The most valuable agency partners will do more than optimize a landing page or run a good A/B test. They will help brands absorb conversion optimization into their culture and operational rhythm. Agencies built on search marketing skills are well positioned to provide this value. From a broad sense, search marketing touches more areas of the enterprise than any other channel. Marketing, development, user experience, taxonomy, public relations, social media, branding, and even legal are all directly involved or indirectly influenced by search marketing tactics and strategies.
Despite the blitz of social media and mobile applications, search remains the biggest arsenal for interactive marketers. This is because search marketers have tremendous insight into where needs are and aren’t being met.
Search agencies have a great opportunity to infuse their own business with a multichannel mindset that encourages purposeful growth and adapts well to emerging channels. For example, display advertising and social media marketing are much more organic expansion options for an agency than diving into the deep end of vanguard marketing strategies such as RFID tags and augmented reality applications.
Just as search marketing did a few short years ago, social media is dramatically changing the marketing landscape and the relationships between brands and their customers. Technology increasingly has become an intricate part of the creative process as power has shifted into the hands of consumers. Brands and agencies that recognize this marketing reality will be the most successful going forward.
Agencies have numerous opportunities to create social media value with the efficient and strategic development of intelligence, content optimization and technology services. In particular, agencies built on strong paid search skills are well positioned to succeed. Search professionals are experts at navigating technical tempests in their multi-faceted roles as engineer, creative whiz and strategist all bundled together as a front-line change agent. Their many skills put them at the forefront of the industry, something both agencies and brand marketers should remember.
Ultimately, long-term engagements are about great relationships. For agencies, that means great customer service and listening and adapting to changing client needs.
The leading performance media platform for agencies, Social Media Marketing Services helps agency marketers buy, track, manage, optimize, retarget, and report on media across all channels—including search, display, and social media.
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