Boutique social media firms carve a market niche


1111_BoutiqueSocialMedia_01The wall-sized whiteboard inside Portland’s DoJo Agency is dotted with what have become the most important words in Portland’s ever-dynamic media ecosystem: Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

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By Ron Knox

 

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Rachel and Jeff Selin, co-owners of DoJo Agency in Portland. They incorporate social media into every aspect of their client services. 
//Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina

The wall-sized whiteboard inside Portland’s DoJo Agency is dotted with what have become the most important words in Portland’s ever-dynamic media ecosystem: Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Rachel Selin, co-owner of the agency, sits on the arm of a couch and tries to explain how the agency got here. From the time she and her husband, Jeff, launched the boutique advertising agency in 2009, she says the agency has understood that weaving social media into everything its 20-or-so clients do is not only helpful, but at this point, necessary. “You can’t do the job well without incorporating the social media aspect,” she says.

She’s far from alone. Over the past few years, the exponential growth of Twitter and Facebook has given rise to scores of boutique agencies acting as de facto voice coaches for clients navigating the often-choppy waters of the social web. Although the market has yet to be studied closely, Jamie Sexton, who heads the Portland Advertising Federation, says that over the past few years, she’s seen “wonderful growth” in the number of boutiques and individuals focusing on social media. And she expects that growth to continue.

Now, Portland’s new crop of marketing firms are all working to carve out a niche for themselves, attempting to zero in on clients from among the state’s more than 300,000 small businesses, many of whom can’t afford the services of the city’s bevy of big, talented but typically expensive advertising shops.

The need is certainly there, Sexton says. For businesses large and small, Twitter and Facebook have become home for everyone’s customers, not just a segment of the population or a niche market. Sexton and others say that to promote and, at times, defend their brands, they have to be there, engaging in the social web’s perpetual conversation.

But knowing exactly how to do that can be a confusing proposition. The social media ecosystem is a lava lamp of constantly shifting and changing platforms, all with their own specific — or, in some cases, amorphous — uses. And wading into social media raises a slew of questions.  What are best practices? What are the ethics? Trouble is, very few know what the right questions are, but everyone says they have the answer.

 


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Jeff Selin of DoJo Agency uses a wall-sized whiteboard to brainstorm his company’s social media strategies.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina

“It’s still very wild, wild West,” says Todd Pitt, owner of Zero Strategist, a digital marketing firm that helps small businesses establish or refine their online identity. The uncertainty makes for a volatile market. Not only is the technology evolving rapidly, but the boutiques trying to harness and package it to clients come from a buffet of different backgrounds, from advertising and marketing, to public relations, search engine optimization and so on. Their approaches to social engagement and campaigns can differ significantly. Choose the wrong path and business suffers.

In addition, Portland itself makes the market more complicated, observers in the industry say. With an educated workforce and struggling economy, the market is saturated with tech-savvy folks jumping into social media marketing, regardless of whether they have the ability to synthesize what a business wants and needs or deliver a product that will help them manage their brand amid swirling online conversations and a shifting landscape. What you end up with, Pitt says, are “social media snake oil salesmen,” unprepared to juggle the many needs of small businesses.

Ryan Lewis, president of Bonfire Social Media, takes a glass-half-full view of the sometimes drastic differences in the approaches of the city’s digital marketing firms. “There’s no one way to do social media,” Lewis says, “just wrong applications for different strategies.”

Some companies can post Facebook updates all day without rankling fans. But with other companies, any more than two updates a day begins to feel like spam.

The shifting landscape of the social media world isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Portland’s specialty boutiques. Smaller firms believe they are more nimble and better able to keep up with changes than larger agencies that might have a long-standing predilection toward old-school techniques.

Alisa Zwanger, head of marketing strategy for Mambo Media boutique, says that while the region’s bigger advertising houses can do amazing social media work for their clients, it’s the smaller, specialized boutiques that can understand and adapt to changes as they happen. “I think the bigger your ship, the much harder it is to steer,” Zwanger says.

That dexterity, coupled with a real depth of experience, has already started to separate the gurus from the greenhorns among the city’s social media boutiques. As the market matures and client loyalty builds, that experience and ability will be how the West was won.




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