The Big "O" -- Offshoring

The "O" means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it's a veiled double entendre that is the basis of the Overstock.com commercials. To others, it's more straightforward. In the agency world it's...wait for it...offshoring.

It's a simple word, but one that in this nobody-will-call-it-a-recession recession elicits strong responses. Clients, agency partners, and colleagues all have something to say on the subject.

In a down economy, the case for offshoring is simple. You cut rates on tasks by sending that work overseas. A semi-well kept secret, it's been done by many companies for years. Companies may not be comfortable talking about it, but they certainly don't mind using it when appropriate.

As more people look for ways to save, the conversation has come out of the darkness. I once posted on LinkedIn that I was looking for a senior search manager and received many responses from offshore partners and even recruiters for offshore companies. Suddenly, overseas is a little closer to home.

Buy American

My brother-in-law is an electrician who proudly serves in the IBEW Local 3, the largest electricians' union in the U.S. He's always driven some American car and was bothered that I drove a Honda (except when my ride was in the shop far less frequently than his). At his core, he believes in the responsibility to buy American. When he goes on his month-long furlough, he views it as a result of jobs going overseas.

The debate is no different in search. Companies looking for ways to cut costs find the idea of basing a search manager in another company more enticing than ever.

Just as many businesses, however, find it fundamentally wrong. Sure, the labor is cheap and can help keep a company profitable, but it takes a job away from someone here. That just doesn't sit right. And cultural differences make this conversation even harder.

Tasks vs. Clients

Offshoring large groups (e.g., call centers) can save money, but your consumers may feel as though the support isn't there. My father was born in Cuba. He learned English, but still had a thick accent that made it difficult for him to communicate with people. Until the day he passed away, he could never pronounce my daughter's name, Zoe. It always came out as "Solley."

While my dad was a business owner, he had problems due to his accent. This is something that comes up when trying to determine if you should offshore tasks or clients.

If you go down the task route, the cultural question comes up more and more. Many consider keyword list building, copy development, and campaign organization process-driven tasks that take a significant amount of time. Adhering to the old "time is money" cliché, overseas time is much cheaper.

Make sure that the tasks you select are ones for which cultural issues won't be apparent. Using standard tools will help with this, but there is still a level of intervention on your part needed to make sure the end product is up to standard. Technical recommendations and reporting are tasks that can be easier than most to handle offshore as they leave less room for cultural challenges.

Clients, on the other hand, are more difficult to offshore. There are too many moving parts and changes, and there is too much handholding needed to have all the work done offshore while a U.S. account manager just minds the shop.

Some clients have expressed interest in this as a way to reduce fees for a short time. We're interested in looking at this option, but we still have to require a decent amount of U.S. involvement.

Creating Bandwidth

The best approach to offshoring is likely task-based with a team overseeing the operation. There is still U.S. involvement, but if you can shave account management hours from 100 to 40, you provide savings to clients while giving your team more bandwidth.

Another benefit to offshoring is being able to refocus your team's efforts. These days, the common client complaint is that agencies aren't being strategic enough. "You're focusing on tasks, but what's the strategy?"

The strategy is there, but at times we delve so deeply into execution that it's hard to find time to identify and plan for upcoming trends. This isn't to say that your team isn't being successful; there are just so many hours in the day in which to strategize against the next big search engine feature.

Even with the help of technology, some tasks just take a certain amount of time. Imagine how strategic your team could be if someone else was doing 10,000 Vlookups in Excel.

How to Choose

Here are a few things to consider when looking for a partner:

  • Experience in search: Ask to see work they've done. Is it just best practices?
  • White-label services: I've met companies that are in direct contact with clients. If a company has the ability to offer client interaction, then you know that they can certainly work with your team. Don't let them interact directly, but it speaks to their abilities to overcome cultural issues.
  • Choosing tasks: It's easier to find an offshore partner for reporting versus copy optimization. If you're in the "Buy American" crowd, reporting may be something you can give to a bunch of college students. You won't save as much money, but you may feel better about that decision.

As the world continues to flatten, offshoring is something to consider. In addition to helping with cost relief, it also allows you to refocus your staff around strategy and results.

If you choose to offshore, do so wisely. Consider the cost not only to your business and clients, but also the talent people at home. There are some tasks you can offshore, but you can't offshore morale or vision.

About the author

Joshua Palau is the vice president of Search for Razorfish. In this role he is responsible for the global strategy, product development and operations of their paid, organic, and feeds offerings.

He helps clients to understand how search fits into the overall marketing plan and constantly researches the rapidly changing industry to help clients anticipate, and respond to, changes in the landscape.

Joshua is an active writer who has authored several Razorfish POVs on topics such as managing paid and organic search, reputation management, and social search optimization. In addition to writing his SEW column, he serves as the editor of Razorfish's weekly newsletter, Search Marketing Trends.

Joshua began his digital career in 1996 and has a diverse background working on the publisher, client, and agency side. Prior to joining Razorfish, he has worked for Hearst Magazines, About.com, and Johnson & Johnson.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.