Do you know of any companies that can blog for small businesses? —T.B.B., Houston
Outsourcing all kinds of social media marketing—from writing a company blog to updating Twitter or Facebook—is becoming a viable option for small business owners who simply don't have the time or inclination to take on the job themselves. Even some entrepreneurs who prefer to handle their own social media may designate a surrogate—in-house or outside—for when they are on vacation, in case they fall ill, or during busy season.
"There is an incredible need for [small and midsize businesses] to get up to speed on social media and social media best practices," says Jo Lilore, who consults on social media marketing and search engine optimization at WebBizStrategy.com in Pasadena, Calif. "Commerce and the Web in general have gone social, and there's no turning back. If you're not up to speed and in the game, you are not only losing potential leads and customers, you are also missing opportunities."
Jon Gelberg, chief content officer at Blue Fountain Media, a New York Web design and online marketing company, agrees. "Businesses are learning how valuable a well-written blog can be as a tool for branding a company, personalizing a company, and establishing the company or individual executive as an expert in their field," he says. But "a poorly written blog, on the other hand, can have a negative impact."
Authenticity and Continuity
The keys to outsourcing blogging, or designating an employee to blog for you, are maintaining authenticity and continuity, experts say. Because social media is interactive, part of a conversation between your company and your customers, you must ensure that anyone who stands in for you properly projects your company's "personality," says Caroline Melberg, a social media strategist who works with small businesses at Small Business Mavericks in Minneapolis.
"To maintain an authentic voice, you'll want to select an individual within your organization, or a firm specializing in social media, who can create interesting, engaging content on a frequent basis and who understands your brand and your key messaging. Every post, tweet, and comment should be strategically in alignment with your objectives as an organization," she says.
You must also be consistent in your social media efforts, says Wendy Brandes, who started a blog for her New York business, Wendy Brandes Jewelry, in 2007. She has made social media a cornerstone of her marketing and sales efforts, she says, and credits it with keeping her company afloat during the recent recession.
However, she cautions that entrepreneurs must be fully committed in order to be successful, whether they do their own blogging, assign the job to an employee, or outsource. "It can be something you farm out, but you can't start, gain an audience, and then stop due to limited resources," she says. "It's very negative to get people engaged in your blog and then drop it after they've invested time, money, and emotion in you."
New Skill Set
Because the social media sector is so new, it has attracted a "bevy of opportunists who pronounce themselves experts and proceed to fleece clients of their budgets, and sometimes their reputations," says Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based branding expert and author of The Revenge of Brand X. "Both social media and blogging services are like playing with fire: Used properly they can move mountains; used improperly they can blow your legs off."
Existing professionals, such as advertising copywriters or editorial writers, may want to take on the job, but they don't necessarily have the skills, Frankel says. "Becoming a blogger or social media manager isn't as simple as just proclaiming expertise based on some past ad campaign or articles written for a journal. A whole new skill set has to be shown that proves the ability to engage people while building trust for the brand," he says.
In the absence of established certifications or track records, what should you look for when you outsource? Here is Frankel's list:
Accountability. Ask outsourcers to provide case studies that show the results of their work.
Writing ability. Look for compelling and concise copy, whether posting to social networks or writing a blog.
Sensitivity. Can the outsourcer balance the social nature of the copy with the business's entrepreneurial interest and still maintain credibility and build trust with readers?
If you hire an outsider, look for a company that can work with you to create a social media marketing plan and advise you how to optimize your social channels, Lilore says. Make sure the company is as integrated with your business goals and brand as possible. "They should write the posts in advance and a staff member should vet them. Also, some documentation should be in place in terms of voice and tone, so the [outside] agency staff can stay on brand and on message when communicating through social channels," he says.