Community Management Smackdown: To Outsource or Not to Outsource?

According to Jeremiah Owyang, there’s an increasing trend towards outsourcing community management. He cites an increase in offerings of community management services from “emerging” markets in the face of weak financial markets as among one of several factors influencing this trend.

Interestingly, just a few days ago I read this article that included a quote that suggests just the opposite of such a trend: “Run your brand’s community management in-house and hire someone to do it right. Outsourcing your brand “voice” is not a viable long-term option. Stop pretending you don’t have the budget for headcount — you likely spend millions on media. You can spare some to maintain relationships with your best and most influential customers.” (Emphasis mine, btw.)

Which do you agree with–the trend towards outsourcing or the necessity for community management to remain an in-house task? And do you agree that outsourcing your brand “voice” is not a viable long-term option, or is that BS as far as you’re concerned? Also, is community management really something you can effectively outsource to an emerging market?


Kari Rippetoe August 30, 2011 at 9:43 am

I think there are associations out there that don’t know where to begin with community building and management and need additional arms and legs to help them ramp up. Coming from the agency-side, we have both consulted with association clients who want to manage the process internally, and managed the entire process for other clients (from strategy to content, as Jeremiah outlined). Regarding the latter, we work closely with clients and establish clear processes to ensure no snafus happen and we represent them in a way that’s true to their brand.

If an association for whatever reason decides to outsource community management, then they still need to be prepared to manage the high-level strategy and the agency that implements it. Just because you’re outsourcing doesn’t mean you don’t have to deal with it anymore. This is the only way to ensure the success of the agency’s efforts (and your own success).

Jamie Notter August 31, 2011 at 9:22 am

I’m not really in the trenches, so I can’t speak from that side of it, but I will say that my hunch is that you can’t outsource this. In Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, he talks about the end of the information age and how companies that focused on left-brained stuff only are doomed because left-brain stuff can be (a) outsourced cheaper to developing nations, or (b) automated by machines. But I think community management is dripping with right brain qualities. It provides meaning, it’s a part of people’s sense of belonging…it just doesn’t feel like something you can outsource or write a script for. But am I over-romanticizing it?

Maggie McGary August 31, 2011 at 9:42 am

Jamie–I’m kind of a romantic about it too :) But I agree, especially in the context of associations. Maybe for a big brand outsourcing isn’t as big of a deal–although I contend that community management is or at least should be entrenched with so many things that by outsourcing you don’t address the internal/cultural issues inherent in any kind of social media success. If you want to outsource something that involves important nuance, inspires cross-silo coordination among staff, and ultimately is an integral part of many different departments just to save a few bucks, fine, but you’ll a) end up paying plenty for quality anyway and b) most likely be in the mindset that your customers/members aren’t actually worth listening to, which defeats the purpose of the whole thing. But for an association it doesn’t make sense to outsource. First of all, it costs a lot–when I’ve done stints as a freelance community manager for brands I made WAY more than I make in my day job. Granted, I’m not an emerging market, but honestly, I don’t see that as a feasible strategy, especially if you’re talking about communicating clearly in writing. Writing is a skill that is super important to community management, and I’m highly skeptical about the ability of someone for whom English is not their first language to communicate clearly, with nuance, often in 140 characters, in English.

But at any rate, take ASAE as an example. My relationship with ASAE has a lot to do with the staff I know personally there and interact with either online or in person. What if ASAE were to outsource community management? I would feel like they didn’t value what members were saying, or forging staff-to-member relationships, and definitely think less of them as an organization. Remember the stink about how they outsourced The Power of A campaign? And that was a campaign, not something involving individual members’ communications with the association.

I’ll digress, but I’ll just say that while some functions of community management may be ok outsourcing, overall I don’t think it’s a good idea and defeats the whole purpose of authenticity, open leadership and internal cultural change.

Nathaniel Perez August 31, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I responded to this very same post in a FastCompany article. I think there are compelling reasons to outsource, if you can find them in an agency. Read the FC post:

Kate, Rose McGrory Social Media September 1, 2011 at 8:38 am

Interesting question, and one we’re discussing more and more with businesses.

I have to declare an interest as outsourced management is one of the services we provide, but my personal view is that from a pragmatic point of view, outsourcing in the early days can make a lot of sense. The commitment is lower than taking on an employee if it doesn’t work out for your particular organisation, and you get a higher skill level than you’d likely be comfortable to afford (or possibly, be able to find in certain parts of the world).

Authenticity is certainly an issue, but as soon as an organisation is more than a micro business, who’s to say which employee is the “true” voice anyway? And if there’s a team of people involved in managing a community, or it’s handed to an intern or equivalent, this is even more true – i’ve been in situations where a direct relationship with the business owner meant that I was far closer to the business than many employees.
In the longer term, I think most organisations will want to bring community management in house – once they’re convinced of the value. In the short term I think outsourcing has its place, provided there is a close enough relationship between the client business and the community manager.

I think there’s also some conflation of “outsourcing” and “cheap” in the discussion above – actually as you say, outsourcing may well cost more if you’re outsourcing to a skilled provider. Doing social media on the cheap, whether outsourced or bouncing it down to the intern in house – now that’s a REALLY bad idea.

Dave Lutz September 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

Maggie, I’m not an expert in community management but my sense is that you can outsource the administration, training and possibly the on-boarding of new community participants. I’m with you 1000% though that you cannot outsource your voice. An association needs real people leading and participating in the conversation that are knowledgeable and passionate.

One wild card idea – The only way outsourcing might work is by subcontracting out to a former staff person or member.

@robertmbarnes September 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm

So much of what makes community management successful is based on trust, integrity and authenticity. I agree with Maggie, my relationship to organisations I am associated with is almost entirely a result of the personal relationship with an individual.

The point where your relationship with stakeholders in the industry your Association serves can not be outsourced however the training, the on-line platform & and promotions about the organisation’s commitment to community could be?

Where the rubber meets the road, a member or potential member linking in to your Association on-line is the point where the customer walks in the front door and the first person they connect with has to be someone that is motivated, competent and culturally aligned to the Associations brand, values and objectives. Rarely will you find that in someone contracted unless as Dave says it is a former employee whom you trust with your organisation’s member/customer/stakeholder-facing megaphone.

Las Vegas Property Manager September 6, 2011 at 4:35 am

I think there’s also some conflation of “outsourcing” and “cheap” in the discussion above – actually as you say, outsourcing may well cost more if you’re outsourcing to a skilled provider. Doing social media on the cheap, whether outsourced or bouncing it down to the intern in house – now that’s a REALLY bad idea.

Alison September 6, 2011 at 8:58 pm

^ Agree with the above comment. Outsourcing can be more expensive if you opting to pay for expertise, and out-of-hours services.

I think one thing that a lot of people are overlooking in this debate is the massive skills shortage in finding experienced Community Managers (especially in Australia where the industry’s quite small). So it’s not always as simple as in or out.

I also declare my interest as we operate in this field. I often get asked how we can manage voice/tone and also product knowledge – but even if you’re a in-house CM you will *always* have others (usually customers) that know more about the product and facilitating peer-to-peer dialogue is the essence of community building. It’s not your job to know the most, it’s your job to facilitate a productive communities, and these skills are transferable.

All that said Maggie makes some great points. It’s vital that you’re embedded enough to pass on feedback, advice, suggestions etc. Eventually all companies will need an internal resource (or team), until then, getting taught best practice and having your hand held, can be wise. Of course even 1 internal resource only covers 40/168hrs per week…

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