If you’ve ever interacted with a community manager online, there’s a chance that person isn’t the type of community manager you would expect. Although most people assume they are talking to an in-house community manager, more companies are able to outsource community management to agencies.
I had the chance to talk with Rob Engelsman, an agency-based community manager. Formerly a content specialist at his alma mater Ithaca College, Engelsman made the jump from in-house to agency earlier this year. He currently works as a community manager at Huge, a full-service international digital agency based on Brooklyn, NY.
How do you become a community manager for a company you don’t know? The answer is tons of research, both inside and outside company.
“We start to see early on where there are faults in the system internally: where there are faults in what they think they are, and what other people outside think they are,” said Engelsman.
Those faults are the driving force for agencies, as they represent opportunities that Huge’s teams can fix. Analytics and data are the drivers of not just Huge’s strategy, but they are crucial to how the community managers approach and understand their communities from an outside perspective.
Engelsman believes that most companies are unsure of how to start an online community, most notably in hiring employees and understanding how to leverage social media in their communities. That is why they turn to agencies to fill that role.
“They assume ‘the young kid knows social’ … A lot of companies will hire kids straight out of college and – I’m not bashing that, my school hired me straight out of college so it’s not that bad – but there are certain aspects of that, coming from a strategy perspective, are more nuanced,” said Engelsman.
Where Engelsman focuses his time is the maintaining the voice of the client, quality of the content, and it’s relevancy to the audience. “At the end of the day, the goal is to add value … whether that’s a video clip about the stock market or someone is laughing because of what Cap’n Crunch said, you’re creating an environment that people want to be a part of,” said Engelsman.
As social media moves to monetize, however, quality content can only get you so far. “Facebook continues to change its algorithm to continue to entourage you to spend more money to make sure people see your posts,” said Engelsman. “We’ve got these big budgets now and we need to spend them … It all comes back to that question of whether you’re adding value or not.” Engelsman points to the recent spike in real-time marketing, where brands take advantage of a trending topic to promote their product, as one example of companies that are putting the numbers ahead of relevancy and quality.
For agency community managers, their time is divided between many clients. “We’re talking minutes of difference,” say Engelsman, referring to how quickly it’s necessary to shift between voices and tones. It’s important to have the chameleon-like quality to quickly adapt in different surroundings in an agency setting. This unique aspect of an agency community manager isn’t often needed in an in-house community manager.
Although being highly adaptable is impressive, it demonstrates how an agency community manager can’t be committed to a brand 24/7. Even so, most in-house community managers can’t listen all day, every day, either; they must run analytics, develop content, and attend meetings. At an agency, specialists take over each of those individual tasks. The real question is whether a community manager like Engelsman and his entire support system at Huge is less, more, or equally productive than an in-house community manager, and whether the money spent on that system results in a true living, breathing, self-sustaining online community.
What about what Olivier Blanchard from Social Media ROI has to say about outsourced social community managers:
“How do you build relationships through a proxy agent? Can you? Should you? … Whether you are conscious of it or not, the message you send to your customers whenever you outsource a relationship-based social media function like customer service or community management is this: We need someone to do this because someone has to, but we don’t care enough to do it ourselves. How much trust, affection, and loyalty will this kind of attitude generate?”
Is this true? According to Engelsman, in-house social teams are the people that hire agency strategy teams, including community managers. Why are those with the ability to build a community management team opting out of doing it themselves and turning to agencies? If we remember from The State of Community Management, community managers are highly experienced individuals, but despite a high level of expertise and commitment, they are stretched thin. Are the too-high expectations of in-house community management driving the demand for agency-based experts?
As some food for thought, remember Justin Isaf’s definition of a “win” for a community manager:
“[Community managers] ‘win’ if they put themselves out of a job because their users are talking to each other, evangelizing the brand and defending itself to the point that the Community Manager is no longer needed.”
Are agency community managers the future of community management? How might this sort of structure affect practices like relationship building and longevity in communities? In what scenarios could an agency community manager be a good or bad idea?