When Nathan Wright started his social media consulting business, Lava Row Inc., in 2007, “there were still a lot of people who thought that this was all hype,” he said. 

“There was nothing else like it, at least not in the market, and not in most of the Midwest,” Wright recalls of starting Lava Row, which he shuttered in the fall to take a digital marketing job at Hy-Vee Inc.

Since then the social media business has evolved rapidly. In the early days, companies like Lava Row understood social media and its uses in business and marketing in ways that most companies didn’t. Other companies hired them to teach them social media and sometimes to actually handle their social media. 

Today, it’s no longer just the “experts” who know how to use sites such as Facebook and Twitter for business purposes. Consequently social media consulting and marketing firms have had to evolve and add more services to stay competitive.

“I think it’s about staying one step ahead,” said Raylee Melton, owner of Moth Media LLC, which specializes in social media marketing, among other things. “I think with social media marketers or anybody in the industry, the key is stay on top of it and be ready to shift and change with it.”

Perhaps the biggest change so far is that as companies have embraced social media, they’ve  figured out that it needs to be part of their overall marketing strategy, not a separate entity. As a result, social media consulting and marketing firms have had to offer more services. 

“The focus has become online marketing instead of just social media,” Melton said. “It’s really about helping (businesses) connect with their ideal client.”

Melton, who started Moth Media in 2012, said she initially thought of her company’s work as being “all about Facebook posts.” But as time went on, she realized that many companies, especially small enterprises, needed more help. If they didn’t have a logo, they needed one. Same with a company website. Her company’s bread and butter is social media, but it had to offer more.

“Now I’ve decided that any given Facebook post doesn’t really matter,” Melton said. “It’s all about the overall online presence, how easy it is for a current customer or a prospective customer to find them online.” 

Happy Medium LLC takes a similar approach, said Linley Bruess, interactive team leader with the advertising agency. Although Happy Medium has been able to position itself as a thought leader on social media in the community, the company offers other services to businesses, including website development, search engine optimization and media planning and buying. 

A key to serving clients well, Bruess said, is to keep the mindset of constant evolution.

“I think that’s just the nature of the game when it comes to digital (marketing),” she said. “Traditional media has evolved over the years, but it’s at a slower pace than digital media has. I think if companies are looking to play that game or trying to find a way to enter the digital space, they just have to be prepared to constantly evolve.” 

Part of that constant evolution is keeping ahead on the trends, Melton said. For her, that includes studying the subject on her own, keeping up with the latest training programs, and helping clients listen to what customers want. It’s also about knowing who your market is. Larger companies, Wright said, generally have figured out how to use social media internally and understand its importance. Both Moth Media and Happy Medium, though, specialize in helping small and midsized businesses strategize and carry out their social media plan.
Catchfire Media LLC, though, does help some larger clients, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Travelzoo Inc. and Dice.com, but does it more as a consultant, working with companies for three, six or 12 months before handing off social media efforts to someone within the business. 

Some companies, such as Lava Row, will decide to shut down. Wright said that Lava Row was still a successful company, but its success had “plateaued.” 

Others will consolidate, as Gabe Glynn’s company, Adstringo LLC, did. Glynn started Adstringo in 2009 as a social media marketing company, at a time when “traditional agencies were still trying to play catch-up.” After merging with Slash/Web Studios LLC in 2011, Glynn and his business partners decided that they couldn’t be all things to all people in the digital marketing space, and gave up their social media services to focus on Web and mobile development.

Despite deciding to shut down his company, Wright thinks there’s still a market for small social media firms. 

“They will become digital holistic firms and be able to do a lot of things – SEO, social, mobile, etc.,” he said. “That’s how that landscape changed pretty quickly. A lot of companies, whether they are large or small, still can’t do everything internally, so they are going to need outside support.”

How five social media companies have evolved:

Lava Row Inc. 
Year founded: 2007
Number of clients: About 7 steady clients when it started to wind down

When Nathan Wright started Lava Row, it was really the first social media consulting company in the area, he says. But within a few years, many similar companies popped up. Lava Row’s role changed from simply showing companies that social media was useful to actually working with them to come up with the most effective strategies. As his clients started to hire their own staff to manage their social media activities, Lava Row had to find ways to help a company’s internal staff, not replace it. Wright decided to close down the business earlier this year to take a job in digital marketing at Hy-Vee Inc.

Moth Media LLC
Year founded: 2012
Number of clients: About 20 at a given time

Raylee Melton converted Moth Media into a full-time business after spending a couple of years building the enterprise while working at another job. Melton switched the company’s focus to digital marketing instead of just social media when she realized that in most cases, businesses are missing an opportunity if their whole online strategy revolves around social media. Melton said she didn’t figure that providing the service of posting on a company’s Facebook page would ever lead Moth Media to design company logos, but it did.

Happy Medium LLC
Year founded: 2011
Number of clients: About 15 on social media

Happy Medium got into the social media phase a little later in the evolution, but the biggest change in the company’s strategy has been in how it implements social media strategies for businesses. At first, it was more of a matter of being “community managers” to publish content that the clients provided. “Then we quickly saw that it wasn’t useful to solely rely on clients to provide the content, because the whole reason we were there in the first place is they were short on time,” said Linley Bruess, interactive team leader. That includes attending events for some clients, or taking pictures of food specials for restaurant clients.

Adstringo LLC
Year founded: 2009
Number of clients: Before it merged with Slash/Web Studios, it was serving 8-10 clients at a time

Adstringo combined efforts with Slash/Web Studios in 2011 when the two businesses realized that many clients needed both Web development services and digital marketing help. About six months after merging, Slash/Web decided to drop its digital marketing services to focus solely on mobile and Web development and design. Now, the company often works with traditional advertising and marketing agencies to help them with the Web development side of marketing strategies.

Catchfire Media LLC
Year founded: 2009
Number of clients: About 50 at a given time

For Catchfire, there was less of an evolution, said Lawrence Cunningham, director of business development for the company. Catchfire took the strategy from the get-go that social media was a “tool in the toolbox” for companies. Catchfire also asserts that a company can run its social media efforts internally better than an external company could, because people within the company are subject matter experts. So Catchfire takes on more of a consulting role, in addition to its other roles of providing mobile and Web services for clients.