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How to Get More from Your Social Media Partner – Harvard Business Review

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Executive Summary

Researchers are observing a number of meaningful trends in marketing these days: Social media spending has been steadily rising for years (and has spiked during the pandemic); more and more, companies are outsourcing their social media activities to third-party agencies and cutting their in-house social media staff; social media having a more positive impact than ever on companies’ overall performance.

Despite these trends, however, marketers remain largely dissatisfied with their ability to manage their social media agency partnerships. This article offers concrete steps to marketers for improving their relationship with social media partners — and getting a better return on their investment.

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GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

During the first two months of the Covid-19 pandemic, enterprise spending on social media increased 74%, from 13% of marketing budgets in February 2020 to 23% in May 2020. This spike, reported in a special Covid-19 edition of The CMO Survey, represents a historic high for social media spending since 2009, and marketers expect it to stay at this level for the next year.

Social media spending seems to be paying dividends right now. Companies reported a lift in social media’s contributions to company performance (rising from 3.4 to 4.2 on a 7-point scale, where 1 = Not at All and 7 = Very Highly). While this may seem small by some standards, it’s actually quite a big deal; it’s the first time we have seen an increase in social media’s contributions since we first asked the question in 2016. But during the pandemic social media has proven to be a powerful tool for marketers who have needed to quickly adapt and reach their quarantined customers.

So how can companies seize this moment to optimize their social media strategies and see a positive return on their investment?

One answer to this question focuses on how companies organize and manage their partnerships with social media agencies. More and more, companies are outsourcing their social media activities (since 2014 the percentage of social media activities performed by external agencies has climbed from 17% to 24% in 2020) and cutting in-house social media costs (since 2014, the number of social media staffers per company has dropped from 4.1 to 3.1 people). But despite this rise in outsourcing, marketers don’t give themselves high marks for managing these partnerships (they rate their own ability to “manage external digital marketing partners and agencies” just a 3.8 on a 7-point scale, where 1 = Poor and 7 = Excellent).

To optimize these partnerships, companies should take the following steps:

1. Put a premium on trust. 30 years of research tells us that trust is a critical quality of successful agency partnerships. Trust paves the way for effective decisions, calculated risks, and creative work. But building trust takes intention. Research confirms that characteristics such as integrity and confidentiality are as important as expertise. So companies should look for indicators of these characteristics in their partners — and social media agencies should think about how to signal these intangible qualities along with their technical competencies.

Trust is a two-way street. Agency partners that sense they are trusted bond more deeply with their clients, which creates improved communication, motivation, and collaboration, and a virtuous cycle that produces better marketing. As Aaron Lavin, Senior Manager at Deloitte Digital noted, “One true measure of having a trusted agency-client relationship is the level of strategic connection between the teams. When this is working, it’s like multiplying creative thinking on your most strategic marketing challenges. What client doesn’t want that?”

2. Establish clear and ongoing communication channels — and do it early. Without regular communication, trust can deteriorate rapidly. So decide what channels work best for your partnership (Slack, email, Zoom meetings, or conference calls, for example) and align how frequently you’ll be in contact. Setting these boundaries early will help ensure that you and your partner sustain a timely and consistent workflow. And don’t forget to create a process for extraordinary communications: How will you fast-track strategy modification, content development, and approvals to address an ever-changing market?

Good communication starts with good onboarding. So in addition to building a curriculum that educates your partner on your customers, brand, voice, offerings, and business model, use the onboarding process as an opportunity to establish the culture of your partnership. Strong partnerships are good social fits. Is your culture hierarchical or flat? Formal or informal? Being aligned on culture is key to maintaining a healthy line of communication through the life of your partnership.

3. Meld internal and external perspectives. You know the business; the agency knows its craft. Agencies also have a depth of experience across industries that can help you identify novel opportunities. The trick is to weave these internal and external perspectives. To that end, invite your agency account manager to sit in on relevant meetings where your company’s overall marketing and brand strategy is discussed.

How will you know when melding has worked? One indicator is the level of integration achieved between your marketing strategy and your social media activities. The August 2019 CMO Survey asked respondents to rate how effectively social media supported their firms’ overall marketing strategies. Marketing leaders reported an average score of 4.2 (on a 1-7 scale where 1 = Not At All Integrated and 7 = Very Integrated) — far too low to render an adequate return on their social media investment. We recommend evaluating this level of integration as a process metric for evaluating agencies.

Another metric is to ensure that customers cannot tell if you or your agency created the content; if your consumers judge and react to your brand differently depending on who developed the social media content, you probably have a problem.

4. Establish clear objectives and align on metrics. Many companies do not have clear objectives for their social media activities. This can make it difficult to judge the value of agency inputs. The most effective social media activities have clear objectives and measurable performance. Decide on these metrics with your agency partner before embarking on a social media initiative.

During the pandemic, for example, companies’ most common objectives have been “brand awareness and brand building” (84.2%), “retaining current customers” (54.3%), and “acquiring new customers” (51.1%). Each of these objectives requires distinctive, getable target metrics so that both parties know what a good performance looks like. It’s also important to periodically revisit progress on goals and decide on appropriate adjustments, so build this kind of evaluation into your communication strategy.

5. Keep one hand on the steering wheel. By handing over full responsibility for filtering feedback to the agency, many companies miss relevant customer input. Instead, establish a regular cadence to access customer sentiment and important summary information from the agency. Doing both is especially important in this period of unprecedented market disruption.

This also means that companies should not “set it and forget it” — that is, design and schedule social media posts, but fail to monitor them for relevance. The Covid-19 pandemic — and the events 2020 at large — have demanded fast action from marketers and their partners. Be engaged with current affairs and prepared to adapt to them. Partnerships that are willing to re-evaluate their social media strategy in light of the rapidly changing landscape will not only minimize risk but also maximize their opportunity to connect with consumers. (To that end, a recent Journal of Marketing article highlights how real-time shifts in social media activities generate more virality online.)

6. Seek partners that adapt in times of uncertainty. Social media management is constantly being challenged by digital disruption. The pandemic has made this need even clearer as marketers report they improvised quite a bit during these past few months (5.6 on a 7-point scale, where 7 = A Great Deal). Companies need nimble partners that can quickly shift their resources and strategy as needed. In fact, when asked to rate the most important skills they would look for in hiring future marketers, the “ability to pivot as new priorities emerge” topped the list. This outlook is likely to apply to agencies as well; digital marketplaces are fraught with ambiguity that needs to be navigated. The ideal agency partner will have both the wisdom to navigate change and the courage to take calculated risks with your brand’s messaging (not to mention your company’s budget).

7. Stay attuned to social and political issues through your agency partner. Social media agencies are likely to be more deeply attuned to the political and cultural discourse than you are — that’s their business, after all. Listen and learn from them. What is the right way for your company to express its support for racial justice in the U.S.? What type of political voice is possible for your company in an election season? How should you weigh the risks associated with speaking up about social or political issues?

For marketing leaders, seeking this kind of input from agency partners is likely to be a little uncomfortable; marketing leaders generally don’t support getting involved in politically-charged issues (4 to 1 oppose). But it’s important that you trust your agency partner to guide you on when and how to effectively express your company’s voice.

8. Help the rest of your business learn from your social media agency partnership. Social media partnerships are just one of several collaborations your company will rely on. So as you work with your social media partner, think about what you are learning about managing a healthy partnership in general. What processes and structures work well? What doesn’t work well? Once you develop an analysis of your successful partnership, codify and share it within your company to accelerate the performance of other partnerships across the business.

Many enterprise leaders are flying blind in the current market environment. Social media agencies can offer substantial value in understanding the voice of the customer and communicating the company’s message to create value; don’t let that value go to waste.

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Seychelles media guide

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Locals shopping at the farmers' market in Victoria
Locals shopping at the farmers’ market in Victoria

Media pluralism, diversity of opinion and the capacity to tackle major issues have been developing in Seychelles media over the past decade or so.

Since the introduction of the multiparty politics, the practice of self-censorship has slowly dissipated. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that state-owned media outlets no longer shy away from criticising the government or from reporting on corruption.

In October 2021, the national assembly decriminalized defamation.

BBC World Service (106.2 MHz) and Radio France Internationale are available on FM.

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There were 71,000 internet users by December 2021, comprising 72% of the population (Worldinternetstats.com).

  • SBC TV – state-run, operated by Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation (SBC)
  • TéléSesel – launched in 2017, is the country’s sole private network

 

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Hong Kong journalists regroup abroad

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When Hong Kong’s pro-democracy news outlets Apple Daily and Stand News were forced to close by authorities in 2021 under a sweeping Beijing-led crackdown on dissent, Jane Poon made herself a promise.

Poon, a Hong Konger who worked in the city’s media for nearly three decades before moving to Australia in 2017, promised to do whatever she could to keep the spirit of the defunct outlets alive.

After more than a year of planning, Poon’s vision became a reality in mid-January with the launch of The Points, a new online media outlet dedicated to covering news about Hong Kong and its growing diaspora.

Based entirely overseas, The Points, which publishes in Chinese, hopes to fill the gap left by the demise of most independent media in Hong Kong, where journalists now face the risk of arrest and imprisonment for coverage considered critical of Beijing.

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The Points’s staff is made up of former employees of Hong Kong media, including Apply Daily and Stand News, who moved overseas amid the city’s crackdown on press freedom and other civil liberties.

With staff in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, the outlet hopes to be the first 24-hour news operation for Hong Kong that is based outside the city.

The Points’s recent coverage includes the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s unannounced decision to redact the names of legislators in transcripts of official proceedings, and a recent meeting between Hong Kong activists and Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny Wong.

“As some Hong Kong journalists disperse to other places, I think that although the Hong Kong media is in a difficult situation, it might also be a chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity,” Poon, who worked for Apple Daily’s parent company as the head of digital news for Next Magazine, told Al Jazeera.

“We could set up a media platform for the journalists in various places who may work together to cover stories across countries for the Hong Kong diaspora, and also cover stories which are not allowed to be published in Hong Kong anymore.”

Media hobbled

Hong Kong, a British colony for more than 150 years before its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, was long regarded as one of Asia’s most vibrant and freewheeling media scenes until the imposition of a Beijing-drafted national security law in 2020.

Since then, most of the city’s pro-democracy media have been forced to shut down or decided to close out of fear of being targeted by authorities.

Jimmy Lai, the garment-factory owner turned media tycoon who founded Apple Daily, is facing up to life in prison in a sedition and foreign collusion trial scheduled to begin in September following repeated delays.

In November, six of Lai’s former employees, including Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief, pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces by advocating for sanctions against the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments.

Two former editors of Stand News, which closed in December 2021 after its offices were raided by national security police, are currently on trial for sedition.

Last year, Hong Kong’s global press freedom ranking plunged nearly 70 places to 148, according to Reporters Without Borders. The territory, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties that do not exist in mainland China for at least 50 years after the handover, ranked 18th in 2002.

A woman hands out final editions of the Apple Daily as people queue to buy it.
People queued to buy the final edition of the Apple Daily, which was forced to close in 2021 [File: Vincent Yu/AP Photo]

More than 1,500 journalists in Hong Kong have been put out of work in the crackdown, according to an analysis carried out by Bloomberg News last year, with many former media workers moving into other industries or migrating overseas.

At the same time, the growing Hong Kong diaspora — about 150,000 Hong Kongers have moved to the UK alone since the passage of the National Security Law – has created opportunities for new ways to report on Hong Kong.

The Points follows the launch of a number of other Hong Kong-focused outlets located abroad, including Flow HK, which is based in Taiwan, and Commons Hong Kong, which is based in the UK and Taiwan.

“There’s always a need for a vibrant, independent press. It’s hopeful to see resilient journalists inside and outside Hong Kong continue their excellent journalism,” Iris Hsu, China representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Al Jazeera.

“If the overseas media outlets provide a safer platform for Hong Kong’s critical journalism that has been under attack for years, it would help preserve Hong Kong’s press freedom and slow the government’s deliberate erosion of checks and balances of power.”

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly insisted that the city’s press freedom remains intact. Hong Kong’s leader John Lee last year said there was no need to talk about defending press freedom because it “exists and we attach great importance to press freedom”.

Reaching across the divides

For now, The Points has a modest size and reach.

The outlet relies on six full-time journalists and freelancers, according to Poon, who said the website attracts about 3,000-4000 readers each day, although that number is growing fast.

Finn Lau, The Points’s executive director, said the outlet relies on a small pool of reader donations to pay its staff and is exploring other sources of revenue, which could include government grants or wealthy donors.

“Financial sustainability is one of the key issues, that’s why it took us around 15 months to prepare our media before launch,” Lau told Al Jazeera. “For the upcoming two years, our top priority must be to get the media [outlet] to be financially sustainable.”

Despite its links to Apple Daily, The Points is also keen to reach Hong Kong people from across the political spectrum and to avoid charges of political bias and sensationalism that critics levelled at the defunct tabloid, said Lau, a Hong Kong activist known for his opposition to Beijing.

“We don’t want to overly politicise our media outlet,” said Lau, who popularised a protest strategy of escalating violence known as “Lam Chau” during anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020.

“On the other hand, we don’t want to self-censor. So we are trying to find a dedicated balance between being a tabloid or being a so-called … intellectual newspaper.”

Journalist Bao Choy speaking to the media outside court. She is wearing a black face mask. People behind her are holding up signs reading 'Fearless'.
Journalists have come under increasing pressure since the national security law was passed. Bao Choy Yuk-Ling was convicted of accessing public data for a documentary on a mob attack during the 2019 protests [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Apart from financial challenges, The Points has had trouble getting the word out on social media.

Soon after its launch, the outlet’s Twitter account was suspended without warning or explanation, Lau said.

Lau said the account had not violated Twitter’s terms of service, but it may have been targeted with vexatious complaints by pro-Beijing figures or fallen victim to the shortage of staff at the platform following Elon Musk’s takeover. The account has yet to be reinstated.

“We are very frustrated with Twitter and we are still considering what we should do with this platform,” he said.

Still, Lau has big ambitions for the media outlet.

“I am rather optimistic about the visibility of this project. Actually I am a pragmatic dreamer,” he said. “That’s why I believe it might take one or two years to stabilise.”

For Poon, the launch of The Points is about more than upholding press freedom. She hopes the outlet can help preserve Hong Kong’s distinct culture and values.

“We have our next generation. We have to look after our children,” she said.

“That’s why it’s important to have our own media, to tell our own stories. Then our history and everything can be given down to our next generation.”

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‘More uncertainty’: Sask. journalists weigh in on changing print media landscape

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As large corporations make headlines showcasing an apparent decline in Canada’s newspaper industry, Kevin Weedmark and the Moosomin World-Spectator continue to thrive.

Weedmark purchased the southeast Saskatchewan weekly paper in 2002, with a circulation of 1,700. Today, that number sits around 5,000, bringing overall circulation to 43,000 when the publisher’s two additional regional papers are included.

“When I bought this newspaper, I didn’t think of it as a business-first. I thought of it as a community service-first,” Weedmark said Monday.

“There’s nothing magical about Moosomin, or what we’ve done here, that you couldn’t do anywhere. I mean, a proper newspaper that’s there to serve its community first is going to be successful.”

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It’s a stark contract to the reality playing out for some major papers owned by Postmedia Network Corp.

The company announced last week it is laying off 11 per cent of its editorial staff, among other changes to printing presses, office spaces and publishing schedules.

Postmedia employs about 650 journalists across Canada, and also owns Saskatchewan’s two major urban daily newspapers: the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post.

It’s selling the historic StarPhoenix building and all remaining journalists will work from home. The papers’ printing press will also be moved from Saskatoon to Estevan, Sask., located around 200 kilometres southeast of Regina.

Blue Sky50:02What does the future of newspapers in Saskatchewan look like?

It’s a time of great change for Saskatchewan’s two biggest daily papers and those changes are very alarming for the people who work at those papers and those who depend on them for local news. Today on the show we take a look at what is to blame for the latest Postmedia problems and we talk to weekly newspaper editors across this province who say the future is hyper-local. We heard from Journalism professor Patricia Elliott, Moosomin world spectator Editor Kevin Weedmark, Prince Albert Daily Herald Editor Jason Kerr, and Steve Nixon Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association.

Austin Davis, a journalist with the Regina Leader-Post since 2014, tweeted about the changes on Jan. 25.

“It’s more uncertainty for beleaguered, resilient newsrooms and hardworking reporters,” Davis wrote.

“I can’t and won’t defend these decisions. In nine years, I’ve seen dozens of colleagues take buyouts or leave due to burnout, stress and low pay. The survivors are expected to continue publishing the same standard of product. It is impossible.”

‘Maddening and frustrating’

Trish Elliott, a distinguished professor of investigative and community journalism at First Nations University of Canada and an executive member of J-Schools Canada, wrote an opinion editorial for CBC Saskatchewan published Monday and joined Blue Sky later that day to share her thoughts.

“It’s just madding and frustrating. The state of media concentration in Canada has been this like growing train wreck,” Elliott told CBC’s Heather Morrison.

“It seems like every 10 years we have a commission saying that the way media is owned here needs to be better regulated. But nothing ever happens.”

Trish Elliott, shown in a photo from 2015, believes Canadian newspapers are being plundered by monopoly capitalism. (Jordan Bell/CBC)

Elliott pointed to the fact her local newspaper in Saskatchewan is currently owned by a hedge fund in the U.S.

“We’re not being protected from foreign ownership, obviously, as the majority shareholders are in the U.S. for Postmedia. And again that is a regulatory failure,” she said.

Steve Nixon, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Newspapers Association, also pointed out the impact large corporations are having on the overall state of print media.

“Good journalism costs money,” Nixon said.

“The money that’s being used to pay journalists is being sucked out, mainly, by two major companies, neither of which are owned by a Canadian entity.”

Independent daily seeing success

Jason Kerr is the editor of the employee-owned and operated Prince Albert Daily Herald, one of Canada’s few independent daily newspapers.

In 2017, a group of employees reached a tentative deal to buy the paper from Star News Publishing Inc., preventing the paper from folding. The deal was completed on May 1, 2018, with the Prince Albert Herald beginning operation under FolioJumpline Publishing Inc.

“It’s definitely been a lot of work, but it’s been very rewarding and the community has responded by backing us,” Kerr said.

Kerr, who has worked at the paper since 2015, said being employee-owned and operated has allowed the paper to focus in on local stories and support community events.

Still, he noted the number of newspapers in northern Saskatchewan has been on a slow decline. He pointed to the end of the La Ronge Northerner, a weekly paper that closed after 41 years in 2015.

“It just left a huge gap, so there’s not a lot if you want to get your news from a print newspaper,” Kerr said, adding the north is often referred to as a “media desert.”

“A place where there’s just a ton of stuff happening, a ton of news, both good and bad, that’s going unreported because there aren’t enough reporters up there.”

The independent publishing company behind the Herald has looked to fill that void. It prints a monthly stand-alone newspaper called The Northern Advocate, which is distributed across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Kerr said the other great thing about being an independent entity is having the choice to reinvest in the community and support local events.

“There’s really no discussion,” he said. “We just look at and go, ‘Yeah, this is something we want to support and we support it.'”

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