It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your reputation is?Know the people doing your social media marketing - and their methods and ethics

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Cartoon: Can I deceive people passionately, transparently and openly?

It can happen so quickly: a few misplaced tweets, an ill-considered blog post, and suddenly an organization is at the center of an online firestorm. They're called spammers and liars, and tagged with the Hashtag o' Doom, #FAIL. And the worst thing of all is they had no idea what was happening.

Where, oh where, did it all go so wrong?

Probably somewhere around the moment they decided to outsource their social media marketing.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with outsourcing per se. Organizations often have limited time and staff resources, and don't yet know the online terrain; recognizing that you aren't going to be able to keep up with conversations, and taking measures to increase your capacity, is actually a positive step.

But you need to do a lot more than just hand over the keys (and usernames, and passwords) to an agency, and let them run wild. You need to know they won't trash damage your good name by doing things like spamming Twitter conversations about the Iranian elections.

How do you know if you're dealing with a responsible firm that will respect the communities you're engaging with - and protect your reputation?

  • Know who you're dealing with, and who will be managing your social media presence. Do an online search - both a traditional web search, and a social media search using tools like Technorati. What's the reputation of the company and the individuals involved?
  • Check for the level of personal experience the people have who will staff your presence. Do they participate actively in social media, with a blog, Flickr account or YouTube channel? Are they currently engaged in the communities you want reach? How do they act online personally as well as professionally?
  • Talk with them: in person if possible, by video (or audio, if you're visually impaired) otherwise. Get a sense of their personalities, and your own sense of their trustworthiness.
  • Ask them about their track record and the tools and approaches they use. Ask for references from past engagements, and follow up with those clients. Find out whether the company stuck to the straight and narrow, or took some ethical shortcuts.
  • Ask them what they plan to do, and how. What you're looking for here isn't a strait-jacket - you don't need to know exactly how many times they'll post to Twitter and the exact minute they'll do it - but the ethical compass guiding their approach.

Here are the red flags:

  • They take a cavalier attitude toward disclosure, offering to pretend to be staff members or even specific people within your organization.
  • They plan to pay people to "seed content", link to you or blog about you.
  • They're vague or evasive about their tactics. (They may tell you that it's proprietary information; remind them that it's your reputation on the line when their "secret sauce" turns into egg on your face.)
  • They brush off ethical questions, telling you that less-than-honest tactics are the way the game is played.
  • They have no real social media presence of their own - which is a sign they lack both accountability and direct knowledge of the field.
  • They want to operate completely on their own, without regular contact or reporting to you.

And if you do decide to outsource, here's one more thing to look for: a commitment to building your own capacity for social media engagement. The greatest value you may get from your outsourcing contract may well be your organization's growing understanding of social media... and ability to engage on its own with your audience.


Raul says

August 27, 2009 - 1:31am

You hit the nail in the head, Rob. I had been mulling over these questions for a while now. I've been paying particular attention to disclosure, transparency and accountability in social media. Sadly, this is not a conversation that is being had in our sphere recently.

Bill says

August 27, 2009 - 7:11am

I agree with all of this. I hope businesses and other organizations read it. I would add that they need to interact, at least to some degree, with the people they've outsourced to - not just to keep tabs on what they are doing but also to provide something, anything, for those people to work with. I do some the social media aspects for a few companies, quite small ones, and my biggest difficulty is creating content with nothing to go on. The problem is not researching information, it is avoiding saying something that misrepresents them. I often get vague answers to questions like, "How do you feel about this?"

I've also found they do not keep me up to date on changes they make, new initiatives and other things that they should be talking about online. It is a two-way street: I've a responsibility to create content that is current and representative, as well as keeping them up to date on what I've been doing for them. At the same time, they have a responsibity to keep me up to date.

In a sense, this isn't really a social media issue but one of common sense. You can't have others speaking for you and not keep an eye on what they are doing in your name, even if they are the most responsible people possible.

Rob Cottingham says

August 27, 2009 - 9:36am

Terrific points, Bill. There's only so much you can ask an outside agency to do, and the more you're able to convey who you are and what you want to them - and watch what they're doing, so you can offer course corrections when they get a little off-track - the better a job they'll do.

Know the people doing your social media marketing - and thei says

August 27, 2009 - 3:14pm

[...] See the original post: Know the people doing your social media marketing - and their … [...]

David Wanika says

August 27, 2009 - 7:51pm


What a thoughtful post both to our consumers and to those of us who are doing the work professionally and ethically.  Thank you for the efforts, I look forward to following you and your success!

David Wanika


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Scott Herbert says

September 2, 2009 - 5:24am

"They take a cavalier attitude toward disclosure, offering to pretend to be staff members or even specific people within your organization. "

To me thats a double red flag, not only is it a bad tactic, it's says (at least to me) that they don't want to be any credit for the work they do.

Social media is all about reputation (good or bad), why would someone NOT want the credit for helping you?

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