Does Social Media Belong With Agencies -- Or In-House?

Nike is moving its social media operations in-house, away from several blue-chip digital and branding agencies. According to Marketing Week, Nike aims to “gain a deeper understanding” of how its consumers interact with the brand on its owned social networks and third-party platforms like Facebook.. The move follows a review by Nike’s new social marketing lead, Musa Tariq, who pushed for full control of its social media offering.

Predictably, social-media pundits have surfaced to proclaim this development as a natural evolution of social marketing. Danny Whatmough, director of digital strategies at PR agency EML Wildfire, posted on the Econsultancy blog: “[T]he best place for social media activity to be managed is in-house. Why would you outsource engagement with your customers and prospects to an agency?”

There may be some truth to that in some situations, but certainly not in others. Therefore, the question of whether brands should manage social media in-house or externally may be the wrong question.

The core question is: How should marketing leaders harness social media as it becomes more strategic and connected to business performance?

As was always the case, it is the utmost responsibility of the marketer -- not the agency -- to lead marketing strategy, operations and accountability. Think of the CMO or brand marketer as a conductor, who must capitalize and coordinate on all available capabilities to maximize efficiencies and effectiveness to achieve business goals. Agencies or in-house capabilities may contribute at various points, but, ultimately, it is the conductor’s leadership and performance that will determine overall business success or failure.  

What does that have to do with social media? Brand marketing has always been about understanding audiences and their responses to content, experiences and propositions. Social has become a significant, always-on marketing channel, where you can listen, engage with stakeholders, publish content and amplify messaging to hyper-targeted audiences. This is all relatively tactical, but the scale of social has become significant. And great scale brings consequential outcomes, and that demands serious oversight -- by the marketer.

While the tactical importance of social at scale is “interesting,” the explosion of consumer data presents a seismic shift in marketers’ ability to understand audiences, identify nuances and market better, more often. Social data segmentation has the potential to become the central nervous system of always-on, sense-and-respond marketing. This means social data becomes a critical enabler of better, measurable outcomes, across marketers’ entire marketing mix -- not just social. This introduces breakthroughs in things like:

  • Real-time microtargeting
  • Deeper insights when profiles are fused with third-party and internal data
  • Greater control over the levers of brand health and consideration
  • Greater ability to connect social and marketing investments to brand return



The data explosion from social media is the primary reason why this channel is becoming strategic, and why it must take a prominent, front-row seat in the marketing orchestra, directly in front of the conductor.

As for Nike, I have no intimate knowledge of the company’s social media operations, including the activities that were once outsourced. Regardless, I suppose the growing strategic nature of social is demanding a higher consciousness and connection to brand performance.

Yet despite reports of “in-sourcing” and a prioritization of social, I’ll bet that Nike’s global scale still will require it to work with a variety of new and innovative partners to develop the social data infrastructure and methodologies needed to achieve the greatest breakthroughs mentioned above.

Social is strategic, and it demands a marketer’s full attention, coordination and control, with the best resources available to make the enterprise successful.

3 comments about "Does Social Media Belong With Agencies -- Or In-House?".
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  1. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, January 8, 2013 at 2:13 p.m.

    I like the the comparison of a CMO's job description to that of a conductor -- and yes, the buck stops with a company's marketing department.

    Ultimately, I am convinced that the decision to outsource Social Media (or not) should be evaluated along the same lines as any other outsourcing decision (case in point: ad agencies). Social Media has become an important and everchanging playing field, with somtimes huge payoffs -- but with the potential for big blunders. So whichever way you go, you need to make sure that the people you trust with your brand are experts, true experts in their field.
    And yes, I realize this sounds like Marketing 101, but with so many 'experts' and 'gurus' with '10 years experience in Social Media' traipsing the planet these days ... mind your step.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 8, 2013 at 2:37 p.m.

    It depends. Been on both sides and it depends. In house does not mean it is not full time. Out sourced does not mean it is full time on one account. Company culture, structure and business design are a few of the considerations of the final decision. It may be right for Nike and wrong for Adidas. It depends and unless we are that up close and personal, we don't know the whole story.

  3. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, January 8, 2013 at 5:39 p.m.

    I think a lot of the agency-vs.-in-house question goes away if you recognize that the actual engagement piece cannot be done by proxy. It has to be genuine, and the brand side needs to involve people, not just the brand. "Social" requires people on both sides. The same thing applies to brands that have gone sour on in-house blogs; they were using socially anonymous blogs coming from the brand in general, and not from an individual, and thus were ineffective. Bottom line is, customers don't care who came up with the idea for a social media campaign, as long as the engagement is real.

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