Social Media Outsourcing, an Interview with Rob Lawson from iQuantum
Interviewer: Tim Martin, March 2014. Episode #10 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Hello and welcome. With me today I have Rob Lawson, who is the CEO and Chief Digital Strategist at iQuantum Digital. Hello, Rob.
ROB: Tim, how are you going?
TIM: Good, thanks for joining me today. Now, you’ve got a business that does social media client work in terms of outsourcing and helping them through their process, and also you yourself, your own business, have your own social media footprint. An aspect of that is outsourced, I guess. That’s something I really would like to talk to you today about. So can you explain that to us?
ROB: Sure. I guess the journey started a while ago. We’ve been in business over 10 years now, and initially digital strategy was the stuff that we got into. Eventually we took on some capabilities in terms of software engineering, so we do complicated backend stuff, website development, some apps, and a few other bits and pieces.
It was interesting to see the evolution of social media and the trepidation with which myself and my conservative clients looked at social media when it first started, and how that’s evolved in the last – what would you say, 4 or 5 years? I saw a rash of people offering to do stuff for customers who didn’t have an idea around social media.
My initial thoughts were ones of horror in actually letting someone else talk on your behalf as a business. My initial take was that you needed to be in control of your message, especially because there was a lot of early stuff around reputation management, a lot of fear.
I think the sales pitch from people was that “how are you managing your reputation?” and all that sort of stuff, in case there was some negative stuff out there around brands, and particularly the big brands. They didn’t know how to respond to that well. But that sort of morphed, as social media matured, into other ways in which you could share your message and engage with people.
Having looked at this, and talking to a lot of our clients, they were like “Can’t you help us do this stuff? Can’t we just have someone else do it? I don’t have time for it, I don’t understand it.” These are people who are probably a little bit older, and they’re still using social media, but they’re not comfortable in how to use it for their business.
We went on a bit of a search. We employed a couple of people that didn’t work out, younger people. Not saying that they can’t be good, but my experience was that they were using social media the way they would use it for their own personal use, and they weren’t experienced. They didn’t have a good strategy around what the overall – and I think that’s the key, is what’s the overall goal of what we’re trying to do here? Rather than everyone saying “I don’t believe in Twitter because I’m not hearing about what someone’s had for lunch or where someone’s traveling to” or a lot of those mindless updates that can get into some people’s Twitter feeds.
ROB: From there, I discovered someone out of the States who now works with us full-time. Initially we took her on as a contractor to help ourselves with our own social media, because I believe we need to be proficient. To talk from a position of strength, you’ve got to have tested and measured your own experience, I believe, rather than just go out and start doing it for our clients. And she’s been absolutely terrific.
So now we have a couple of research staff support her and help her with gathering stuff that we share with our clients in terms of research about what’s going on in their market, what their competitors are saying, and what sort of things are going on in particular groups, especially on LinkedIn and getting their feedback on how we should comment.
So we’ve come up with a pretty good formula in terms of understanding what our clients should be doing and then helping them to bridge that gap between what content is created within their organizations, what content they could create if they’re not doing it sufficiently or they’re not doing it well enough, or in some cases we’ll just get the heads up from them on what content we should create on their behalf, and then we share it.
So it’s not as if we just go off there and talk blindly and saying everything on their behalf. If there’s ever a question that’s a direction question or something like that that we find in the social media sphere, then we go back to them and get them to comment on that. It’s a bit of a hybrid model.
TIM: There’s a couple of things that strike me. First up, the idea of creating content on behalf of somebody else, especially within specialist domains, and also engagement. Start with content; how do you go about creating content with a degree of credibility around an industry sector that you yourself are not a part of?
ROB: We really have to rely on the customer. If they’re in a really technical field, for them to be any good or to be in business at all, they need to have access to good technical information around that. They must have that. So it’s just a case of uncovering it, whether they have it within their organization, whether they’re involved with some sort of research-based institute, whether it’s a university. We have one client, a medical company, and they employ a part-time Ph.D. student, and she provides really good information and content.
So we would never try and pass off that we are experts in a particular subject matter, but what we can do is we can find a whole bunch of research and present that to a client that we found out there in social media or other places, and they will give us a bit of a guide on how to create content. Then we might employ a contracted copywriter who’s got – in this case, with the medical field, we found a contractor who does write for a lot of medical journals and that sort of stuff, so she will take the information from the customer and then create blog posts and whitepapers and that sort of stuff.
It’s just a case of finding the right people with the expertise – and they are around – and then having a process in place to get that stuff done. Because again, you’ve got the customer, the customer is saying, “I’m too busy. I don’t want to deal with it,” yada yada.
But they need to get involved, and they need to be thought leaders if they’re going to be – because my feeling is that eventually, social media is going to be so strong compared to search that if you’re not seen to be current and relevant in those conversations, then you’re just going to miss out.
TIM: Yeah, I agree. I know how long it takes to create quality content. I’m a one-man operation, and I create all of my own content, so I understand that a blog post can appear, but I know what went into that. Is a client prepared to pay the money to get a quality output, or do they just say “Look, it’s a blog post. How long can it take?”
ROB: Some aren’t. Some don’t get what sort of effort needs to go into it. You’ve really got to be dealing with people who have got their head around that there needs to be a marketing budget, and then they have money that they’ve either been spending somewhere else, or they’re going to move and change that budget so they’ve got some available for social media.
You and I were talking the other day; there’s some stats coming out of the States where companies over there are spending 16% to 18% of their marketing budget on social media.
So we have those discussions and we look at what they’re spending in other areas, and there might be some stuff they’re doing in all the traditional media that they need to sacrifice in terms to start having a presence in social media.
TIM: It’d be interesting to break that 16% to 18% spend down into what proportion is content production and messaging and what is actually resources to publish and engage the community. Is there a point that if this works so well, that the client might decide to insource this, to bring those skills in-house and not outsource to an agency such as yourself?
ROB: Yeah, I think that’s eventually going to be where it – the percentage will change. I don’t think they’re comfortable enough to leave it completely up to internal resources, because the nature of companies and the transition of staff from companies to companies, they need to have some sort of consistently around what the strategy is. And we do a lot of stuff in terms of reporting on what the targets are and what have you.
So sure, there might be a time when there’s more done, especially in the content creation and perhaps some of the sharing, but honestly, the way things are set up, I think they do like to have that independent oversight. Because they don’t know enough about the space, and sometimes they don’t trust their internal resources to be as – that those people are as experienced as they need to be.
ROB: But there certainly is – one client, I ran into him yesterday on the train in to work, and we had a chat about how they’re going. He was quite enthusiastic. It was a different experience to what they thought was going to happen, because no one knows; it’s a big unknown.
But the advantage he’d found is it had put a bit of a Bunsen burner under the backsides of most of his staff to actually get more involved and get more understanding of social media, because they were being shown up by these people from outside.
TIM: Is that a cultural issue or an upper management issue as opposed to a people on the ground issue? I mean, if there is a culture of embracing social and committing the time and the resources to create good content and to build up a community and engage, then all the goodwill of the people on the front line isn’t going to matter a jot.
ROB: Yeah, perhaps. But also, they need that bit of leadership from the top. And this was the M.D. who had been encouraging his staff – because he’s not really into it and doesn’t really understand how to engage himself, he’s encouraging his staff to do it. But they were just spinning their wheels.
There’s just that knowledge gap, I think, Tim. We’re just providing a bridge. Once they can see the way that you’ve done it, then they’ll hop onboard. Sure, eventually they might decide that they want to take it all internally, but my feeling is there’s going to be so much – the pace of everything is moving so quickly. Look at the changes that have happened recently with Facebook. They need some insight, they need some guidance on how to deal with that.
And because we’re dealing with it across a whole bunch of customers and a whole bunch of industries, we’re probably more equipped to help them than them trying to do it all on their own.
TIM: Sure. In terms of creating content and getting it out online or posting through social, is that more sitting in the broadcasting bucket as opposed to the engagement bucket? Are we just taking content and blasting it out to a wide as possible audience?
ROB: I think there’s got to be a balance between creating that really big piece of content and then having other little snippets of what’s going on and what’s trending. So we do pick up on things that are happening within that particular sector or that customer’s industry or their niche, and we will ask them for their take on it.
Because the way I look at it and the way I operate is I have a number of thought leaders that I follow, and I use them as my filter. I’ll only read the stuff that when they’ve said “If you’ve got this problem going on, then this content’s for you,” if they do that for me, then that saves me trying to weed out, amongst all the thousands of posts and articles and news bites that are out there, the important things that I should be reading. Because you’ve only got so much time.
So if they can become those filters for their customers and their prospects, then they’re doing their job, I believe.
TIM: But that’s still along the lines of traditional broadcasting or 20th century media, where you’re pushing a message out – albeit today, we’ve got certain filters in place, as you’ve talked about. But it’s not actually a discussion or a dialogue; it’s more a monologue, isn’t it?
ROB: It is, it is. I think that’s where most things start until you build up a community. And also, I could share a couple of interesting slides with you about the journey that we look at someone or a business can take. What stage can they hope to get to? It depends on whether they’re business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and whether it’s a product or a brand that someone will actually want to be part of a community of.
I think that’s something you’ve got to work out in the strategy from the get-go. If that is the case, then there’s a lot of things that come into play about building more of a forum-based environment where people can be sharing ideas and doing other things. That really depends on the size of the community, and then you can plan how that’s going to play out.
TIM: I see community as a word that’s bandied about, and I see some industry sectors or individual organizations saying “Look, we sell car tires, so we’re going to get a really robust car tire community up on Facebook,” and I’m thinking, “Gee, I just can’t imagine myself being a part of a car tire community.”
ROB: One of our customers is a big reseller of tires. You and I, are we going to be a fan of someone who’s sold us something we buy every 4 years and it’s a grudge purchase? There might be people out there who are really big fans of Pirelli, so they might want to be a fan of Pirelli, but not the bloke who sold it to them.
So yeah, certainly in the case of that particular tire company, we have modest expectations for social media. But there are some segments that we’ve been able to carve out, like people who are 4-wheel drive enthusiasts, people who are into rally driving and are into drag racing and motor sports.
Those subsections, you can have a community that is interested in what you have to say because they’re consuming your products in a different way to you and I, who just see it as “Oh jeez, another four tires for the family car, which is something I don’t need.”
TIM: That makes sense. I also see companies, traditionally in the B-to-B sector, that dismiss the idea of community because they’re dealing with really technical stuff. But I’m thinking that’s a huge opportunity for community.
ROB: You’re right. It’s an even bigger reason to get involved, because there’s probably a shortage of knowledge and dialogue that’s going on around the problems or the technical aspects of that.
TIM: Yeah, absolutely. This outsourcing social media – I understand that we could to some extent outsource content production, that we could get somebody to publish or post that on our behalf. You talked before about not answering a direct question, but when the community starts to form and there’s a high degree of engagement, how does a third party manage that on behalf of a client?
ROB: You’re only able to do that once you’ve got a deep knowledge of the client and the subject matter. Otherwise, the client’s got to do it themselves. You can do parts of it. If you want to have real-time and a timely response to those sorts of environments, you have to have someone who’s identified as the moderator. They’ve got to have that knowledge. I just don’t see any other way.
TIM: No, I don’t know. If we go back to that example of the B-to-B, the engineering company out in the ’burbs, an operating officer has a very technical question, and only somebody on the other side with that deep level of knowledge would be able to answer it, right?
ROB: Yeah. But if it’s a really complicated question, they’re going to be quite okay if the moderator said, “Look, that’s a bit out of my league, but I’ll be in touch with Tim Martin, Ph.D., who has a deep understanding. But that might take me a few hours to get that for you.” I’m sure they’re going to be comfortable with that.
TIM: Yeah, I guess that’s…
ROB: So you don’t expect to have Professor Julius Sumner Miller sitting there on the edge of the keyboard, ready to answer your questions.
TIM: Yeah, okay. So I guess you need to be transparent, who’s answering the questions. If it is a third party, then that needs to be upfront and stated, right?
ROB: I think so. Yeah, absolutely. If you’ve got someone who’s a moderator and they’re using their name, no one needs to know that that’s a contractor. All they need to know is that it’s that person, and they’ll be judged by the quality of their engagement with that person.
TIM: What about the aspect of creating – I keep using the word “community,” but a sense of fun or camaraderie that is beyond the subject matter itself. It’s just the personality of the individual or the company expressing itself and presenting that human face. Do you miss out on that if you outsource?
ROB: You can do. But again, it comes back to the content creation piece. Like we’re really big on video, so we encourage people to create their own videos. Even if we get a professional voiceover done for that video, if they’re creating content and it’s got people from in the organization, whether its photographs or, as I said, video – these GoPros, we’ve got a few clients who are using those to show their products in a different way and what have you. They just are recording without voice. You can add a voiceover later. They can do that, we can edit it. We’ve got full-time staff to do that, so we’ll edit it and put it together, and then we can publish that.
So I don’t think you lose it. It’s just got to be a collaborative approach. If it was completely outsourced – and we do have someone who’s in that engineering type field who we do that for, but we’ve managed to get a really good following for them. We just have a chat every week or so on Skype with the owner and get a sense for what’s new and interesting and coming up in his field, and we share that content.
It can be done. Can be done. But the more involved the client and the more content they can provide, then the better it’s going to be.
TIM: Let’s get back to this whole objectives and measurable outcomes. How do you manage the expectations of a client? I mean, they’re going to invest time and probably more so money into a process; what’s their expectation in terms of a return?
ROB: Well, we’ll normally have worked that out from the get-go. The name iQuantum came from – when I first started, I read this book What Would Google Do?, and we’ve based everything from that day on data.
So if we want to measure where a current client is, whether their website, where it’s ranking, where they’re doing in social media, we look at the information around the data that they have and their competitors. We look at where they’re at and we look at what’s a realistic expectation for the spend that they’re going to put into this.
And we don’t separate SEO and social; we do it together. We’ll be trying to create links that are genuine, that are optimized for keywords and all that’s sort of stuff, as well as doing the social media stuff. We try and do it all in one thing.
We’re measuring each month how they’re going with the keywords that they want to rank for and how we’re going in terms of improving that position. We’re looking at the Google Analytics to see what’s happening on their site, what’s happening in terms of social media. We have a couple of other tools we use, like Sprout Social and Hootsuite, and there’s one other one that Jackie uses, to give us a sense of what the reach is.
In terms of social media, if it’s B-to-B, it’s a little bit more difficult to ascertain the amount of success in terms of social media compared to B-to-C, where it’s a little bit more direct. And the changes in Facebook are certainly going to flush a lot of that sort of stuff out. But we do set objectives in terms of what we want to have, where we want to be in 6 months’ time, what sort of return on that investment we’re going to get, what numbers of leads, if it comes down to sales, what sort of sales we expect.
Then we’ve got to look at how we can measure that. Sometimes it’s a little bit difficult, because bigger organizations have got leads coming in left, right, and center, and the salespeople don’t care about the marketing people. They’re just off there trying to make the sale, and they’re not necessarily letting people know where stuff came from.
So we try and do as much of it on the analytics side, so that we can clearly say “Yeah, hey, those 15 leads came from Facebook.” And you can determine that.
TIM: Yeah. And as you say, you can’t determine all of it. This is the attribution problem. Do you have to educate clients and say, “Look, this isn’t an exact science. We believe it’s the right thing to do. We’ll measure what we can measure, we’ll provide some reporting around what we’re doing, but you have to take it on good faith that this is the right thing to do”?
ROB: There’s a bit of that. Certainly I think social media falls into the bucket of where TV used to be. Because a lot of TV, especially ad agencies, they will say it’s all about brand equity and brand value and building the brand, your branding type commercials.
And then you’ll have the other type – especially if you look at it over the summer, you have all these people who don’t normally appear on TV because it’s cheaper. They’re just doing sales. It’s all discount sales, price points and all that sort of stuff. That’s more direct response, because they’ve just got a special on there, and they want to see how many people they can get through the door.
I think you’ve got to have a balance between the two. When you look at the definition of content marketing, it’s the art of selling without selling. People these days don’t respond as well to direct sales-y approaches. They’ve got the information, they can look around and they’ll educate themselves, and they’ll know what they should be spending for a particular product or service. If you’re seen to be a thought leader, then hopefully you’re lucky enough to be in the mix to be considered.
TIM: My experience with content marketing is that it’s a slow burn initiative that, unlike a traditional advertising campaign, it doesn’t spike up and down around cycles. It’s sort of a longer term strategy, and it could in some instances take many months, if not years, to really pay it back. Does a client have enough patience to go the distance?
ROB: Some do, some don’t. That’s a real different one. We have some who expect a return instantly, and I just say to them “Then you’d better not start.” Because if it’s doing Google Adwords, sure, you can turn it on and turn it off, but if it’s social media, it might take you a little while to build that credibility.
It’s a very crowded place, and you’ve got to find your voice. And it might take some time to do that as well, to work out – certainly when we do some things around promoted posts and what have you, it takes a little while to work out what headlines, what keywords, and certainly what imagery is going to work best. So we have to do a bit of testing and measuring to see which of those resonates with the audience. Because often when you think you know, you don’t until you see the results.
TIM: Do you guide your clients through which particular platforms are most suited for them, or do they tell you what they want to run with?
ROB: We normally do the research first and have a good look at their sector, and we’ll advise them which ones we think are the way to go. We normally do that with them. In some cases, there’ll be a bit of resistance.
We had one recently where one of our clients, we’re doing a lot of stuff for them in LinkedIn, and one of their internal staff was concerned that we were trying to get into all these other groups that weren’t relevant. But the groups that the client was in was where their peers were, not where their potential customers would be.
So it depends on the way they’re looking at things sometimes.
TIM: Because it’s tempting to say “Look, let’s have Facebook and let’s have Google+ and LinkedIn and Pinterest and let’s get on Instagram, have a bit of fun over there.” I mean, how many platforms, really, can a small to medium enterprise manage?
ROB: That’s why we tend to do it for them. But I’m of the belief you need to be in six to ten. That’s probably too many for a lot of people to get their head around.
TIM: You’ve told me that before, and I almost fall off my seat every time I hear it. Six to ten? I can barely manage three. But anyway.
ROB: Yeah, but you’re a one person business. That’s a microbusiness. There’s a difference between a microbusiness and a small business. The definition of a small business – or an SME, small to medium enterprise – in Australia is different to what it would be in the U.S., for example.
So yeah, if you’re a one person band and you want to do it all yourself, you’re going to have restraints. If we’re helping that one person operator, we might manage six for them. Because we’re just getting the content and we’re doing the sharing for them, and they’re just worried about creating the content and reviewing what we’re up to.
Yeah, it’s all time and money. That’s what it basically comes down to. But yeah, we certainly try and get a spread into as many as we can because you just don’t – you certainly want the content to appear where your customers are comfortable hanging out. Some like different platforms to what you and I do.
TIM: In terms of yourself, Rob, I know that you’ve got a fairly active publishing schedule through your personal LinkedIn profile. Now, I know that that is outsourced, internally outsourced, so to speak. Does that work for you?
ROB: Yeah, it does. It does. I’ll have a chat to Jackie probably, in terms of my own stuff, about once a week. Just do a review, what’s being posted and what sort of things we might want to incorporate coming up. But I’ll look at LinkedIn a few times a day and I’ll see maybe not massive amounts, but generally every day, there’ll be one or two likes coming back saying “liked your post,” and maybe some comments on it and what have you.
TIM: Do you respond to those comments, Rob?
ROB: (laughs) I do sometimes, but not all the time. Yeah, 10% to 15% of the time. Most of the time, I go in and read the article, because I might not have read it.
TIM: To find out what you said. (laughs)
ROB: What I said, exactly. I see the headlines go out, but I don’t get in and read the body. Again, it comes back to time.
We were talking about stats yesterday. I’ve got 1,202 connections on LinkedIn, so not a massive number, but I go for quality over quantity – and here’s my last few posts. There’s one here which was a day ago, “If You’re Constantly Rushing out the Door.” It’s a bit about time management.
TIM: There’s a bit of irony for you, Rob.
ROB: Isn’t it?
TIM: You’ve outsourced an article about time management.
ROB: Exactly; 343 views, 2 likes.
TIM: As a percentage, that’s not bad.
ROB: Yeah. “4 Big Misconceptions about Content Marketing,” 6 days ago, 288 views, 1 like. Here’s one that wasn’t so good, “Can You Catch a Mood from Spending Time…” I’m not sure what else it says – 116.
TIM: I know that’s putting your face or profile in front of people, pretty much on a daily basis, because you are publishing daily. But I guess the question for me would be how does that translate? What does that look like on the other side in terms of a return on some sort of upside for you?
ROB: It’s certainly increased the number of invites I’ve had for speaking engagements.
TIM: Okay, that’s good.
ROB: I tend to find that when I meet with someone, they have heard of me and of iQuantum. Especially if it’s a networking event or whatever. And I do get direct requests about – certainly on the social media side. People are intrigued as to “I’m not sure how we’re going to handle this social media. I’m a bit unsure whether I can do it all myself. Is there any other solution?” I get a lot of those.
TIM: Yeah, sure.
ROB: And we have got a solution now that we have been running for a good 18 months, 2 years, which is going well. So we’re pretty confident about what we can deliver and the price point. I saw the other day some pricing from Yellow Pages, and they charge about $1,000 a month just to manage one social media platform for a small business. That’s ridiculous.
TIM: It is.
ROB: We’ll do the whole bunch of them for somewhere between $600 and $1,200 a month. It depends on the size of the business and how often we get involved with the posting and the replying and what have you. But yeah, you’ve just got to find a happy medium between somewhere where it’s affordable for your customer, and also you can make some money. Because there’s no point for any of us to go and do stuff for free.
TIM: Yeah, for sure. I guess you’re walking your talk, because if you’re advocating that outsourcing social media can work, then you’re doing it yourself, so there you go.
ROB: That’s right. That’s how it first started, and now we’ve got – the person that we started with is now full-time, and we’ve got a couple of other assistants for her to do the grunt work in terms of researching and reporting and what have you, so she can spend her time on the higher value stuff.
TIM: Excellent. I’m glad you didn’t outsource this podcast interview to Jackie, because –
ROB: She would’ve done a better job.
TIM: Oh, do you think so? (laughs) Always like talking to you, Rob. You know that. Okay, look, we’re going to wind it up. Let people know where they can find you.
ROB: Easiest place is probably the web, iquantum.com.au. You can follow us @iquantumdigital on Twitter. Or the other thing is just drop me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to have a chat, have a coffee, see what we can do. If we can’t, we’ll certainly point you in the direction of someone who can.
It’s something everyone needs to get their head around. They should get involved and test it out and see where it can take them, because if you don’t, I think you might miss out on being relevant come a year or two from now.
TIM: Excellent. Rob, thank you so much, and we’ll talk to you soon.
ROB: All right, mate.