Answer: As I began the research, I quickly realized there were 3 categories of social media consulting organizations, each of which called themselves by the same name but offered different services. (There was also a fourth which was outside of traditional communication industry models.) What the firms in these 3 business categories tended to do was retain their primary identity e.g. Public Relations and then add additional problem-solving capabilities which created confusion for the hiring process.
The first business model was a social media boutique that offered an expertise in executing social media campaigns. These were generally young organizations. In this case, the founders most likely had gained prior experience in a leading communications consulting firm heading up their SM groups. They decided to branch out on their own. Or they had been early adopters and developed an expertise with recognized credentials that established them as leaders in the SM field.
In the second category are the major PR firms that decided to build a sophisticated practice group that became part of the integrated solutions the firm offered to its PR clients. Firms like Edelman, Weber, Finn Partners have invested heavily to build an expertise which has led to reshaping the mix of services available through their organizations. Their repositioning efforts to be top notch in the PR world and not dated or limited by their history has led, in my opinion, to confusion and muddy positioning.
The third category is in the Advertising/Marketing world. This is where social media is valuable for research and analysis using sophisticated tools to assist in understanding how best to shape advertising and direct marketing campaigns, and to analyze customer/consumer preferences. Statistics indicate how billions of dollars are invested in Advertising and Branding campaigns using social media tools to provide effective analysis of buying preferences and brand loyalty. Armed with that information, the agencies craft messages and determine how to invest clients’ advertising/communications budgets.
Beyond the Marketing/Communications consulting firms are the 4th category, the global consulting organizations such as Accenture and Deloitte. These companies have organized Digital practices where they define enterprise-wide challenges to tackle and include Marketing and Communications in that mix. In their world Digital Media is a global term and social media is a sub-category where their Digital expertise is available to solve specific issues.
One of the results of having this SM capability is rebranding organizations to indicate the enhanced communications scope of the firm. In this case, the focus of work has led, in my opinion, to a lack of clarity about the nature of the services offered and the overlap between categories. What differentiates a PR firm from a marketing communications firm/advertising agency and from a full-service integrated consulting company with a SM practice?
What these firms tend to do is retain their primary identity e.g. Public Relations and then add additional services. If the goal is to focus on solutions the firm offers, then the word strategic becomes popular. I think the struggle is to define the firm by the tools and practices it offers versus the problems solving capability they have evolved to. What we have now is confusion.
While there has been fierce competition among Marketing and PR agencies for corporate contracts, global consulting groups have an inherent advantage since they win enterprise-wide contracts at the CEO and leadership level. When communications (Advertising, PR, etc.) contracts are to be awarded, the relationship is at the CMO level (reporting to the CEO). By that time, the contract may already be awarded as part of a comprehensive agreement at the CEO level. The challenge of competing for lucrative contracts can lead to serious competition or realignments and partnerships.