Commentary

Blogger's Block -- And Other Ways Agencies Aren't Walking The Walk Of Social Media

  • by March 5, 2008
I'm writing this column from the office of a Facebook Friend, ironically enough, as there was a building collapse in Harlem this afternoon that has canceled all train service out of Grand Central for the foreseeable future. Who knows when I might see the home office again? (In truth, I knew this Facebook Friend before there was a Facebook, but it makes for a good lead for a social media column, doncha think?)

The real topic of this column is to delve a little more deeply into a headline you may have seen last week: that agencies "don't get it" when it comes to social media, per a study from Cymfony, the TNS Media Intelligence unit dedicated to monitoring and studying the social media scene. There's nothing particularly shocking about that headline, but since it appears days after the Online Publishers Association added Community to its Internet Activity Index, it's obvious this is yet another hot topic that agency people have to get a handle on. The OPA's index says that consumers are currently spending 7.5% of their online time at community sites; they spend 5% of their time on search sites, and you know how quickly most of the agency world embraced search. Not!

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The "news" that agencies of all stripes don't really understand social media wasn't exactly a shock to Cymfony Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer Jim Nail, either. "They can talk a good game [about social media], but they don't walk the walk," he said. The study, which is the result of 71 phone interviews with marketing people in the U.S., Canada, France and the U.K., found that agencies are still mostly concerned with using social media as a viral blast technique, when, to some extent, the real action is in conversations, good or bad, about a company's products and services.

I particularly liked this quote in the report from Eric Kintz, a Hewlett-Packard marketing exec and blogger: "I think they [agencies] are somewhat helping. But they need to show how social media has helped them further their own agenda. So if an ad agency comes to me, I'd ask if they have their own page on a social network site? Are they posting videos on YouTube? Do they have their own blog? And how has it helped them in their own business?"

The truth is, if you wanted to while away a few hours looking to see if agency senior executives have Facebook pages (besides the digital shops, that is), or MySpace pages, you'd be pretty frustrated. You'd do much better, of course, if you start searching for actual ad agencies. Though Facebook groups devoted to individual agencies are often alumni hangouts - or, for instance, created by a small-unit-within-the-agency, like the staff of Young & Rubicam Cairo -- official agency profile pages do exist. It's just unclear why these pages are there, other than to put a stake in the ground. In fact, I'd love to hear from those agencies with official profiles on social networks their reasons for being there, what metrics they use to measure how their profile is impacting their business, and so forth.

As for blogs, the number of agencies that have them is growing, but overall they're still pretty spotty in terms of technical chops and raison d'etre, and there's at times an embarrassing level of "Gee whiz! We're blogging!" to some posts. Haven't you people learned the art of pretending that you know what you're doing? Interpublic Group's Hill, Holliday, which made quite a few headlines a while back when it turned its Web site into a blog, isn't exactly transforming the medium as we know it with its posting prolific-ness. Since October, the agency has posted a dozen times.

In other writing venues, I've also hammered on Omnicom Group's DDB about a similar case of poster's block -- but, relatively speaking, the agency is picking up the pace. Its three bloggers, who include Chairman/Chief Creative Officer Bob Scarpelli, have posted about 30 times since September.

That site's problem is that it doesn't have any permalinks other than "ddb.com." A big deal? It's not going to put the agency under, no. But as a blogger, let me tell you what a disincentive it is to link to a post when you can't take your readers directly to what they should be looking at. Such glitches betray a certain lack of understanding about the easy networking that is supposed to make social media so wonderful in the first place. Even Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, whose blog has the great tagline: "Think Global. Act Stupid" and owns the URL, waxes and wanes when it comes to the blogosphere. I've found some great content there in the past, and it really displays an agency personality, but its last post was Nov. 14. For shame!

You may ask yourself -- to paraphrase David Byrne -- don't people in agencies have better things to do than write blog posts and update their status on Facebook? In the little picture of daily demands, maybe, but in the bigger picture of using these tools to truly understand an emerging medium, and be able to relay those insights to clients, they don't. You can go to conferences and training sessions about social media all day long, but the only way to truly learn it is to do it, and learn with everyone else who is still trying to figure it out, a group that includes Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and MySpace's Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe.

Where the study's respondents are really unfair to agencies is in clients' expectations that they should have developed all the metrics necessary to lead them down the path to social media. "That's unrealistic at this stage of development," said Nail. To that I could add, "Hey clients, pay your agencies more so that they have the money to develop these tools."

P.S. Here's my Facebook Friend update. I'm now up to 129 so-called friends, up from 54 before my first column two weeks ago. Sorry I haven't gotten to my 28 pending friend requests.

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