How do Social Media consultants get paid?

Social Media Basics

We’ve got great questions flying at us, and while this next question comes from a colleague, it has implications for clients as well.

Do you think it’s best to charge hourly, bi-weekly, per project, etc?

Such a great question.

And such a lousy answer: It depends.

But it’s true.

There is no right way to answer that question.

It depends on the consultant. It depends on the client. It depends on the type of work that will be done. It depends on the amount of work that will be done.

Let’s go over each of these, and then we’ll give you our personal preferences.

New consultants may have a tough time billing hourly. Most clients will want to know what you will be “doing” during these hours.

Often, that time is spent researching and planning with no tangible result of work.

Clients, especially in this environment, don’t like to take chances with their money, so if they’re going to be giving it out, they want hard deliverables.

This is especially true early in the relationship before trust has been established.

Generally, clients will want to bill per project. For example, they’ll want to pay you for a competitive analysis or a white paper from your market research.

This can be frustrating for new consultants because there is no firm end point.

The client will obviously have questions after you hand in your deliverable, and what then? Do you get paid for your time to answer those questions? What if you have to go do more research to get the answer? Do you do it for free or do you start a whole new project contract with the client?

It gets to be a tedious back and forth as you have to write up a new project contract for every little thing, and consultants can’t afford to do free work forever.

Then there is the issue of how much the consultant gets paid up front vs at the completion of the project.

So that usually leads to consultants pushing for an hourly MSA or Master Service Agreement.

And MSA basically says “I have the right to bill you for any services I do for you.”

As a consultant, it feels really good to have an MSA signed. And it is beneficial for a client, too.

The consultant has a direct line between his or her time and money.

At the same time, hourly billing means consultants record everything they do, so the client can directly see the effort being put in.

Generally, the consultant will invoice the client at the end of every month with a list of hours accompanied by where those hour went. The consultant should give the client at least 30 days to pay the invoice.

After a while, the trust grows and the novelty of tracking every single hour wears on the consultant.

At this point, it’s time to consider a retainer.

A retainer usually can only be established after a relationship has been established and there is a great amount of trust.

Trust from the client that the consultant actually does produce results.

And trust from the consultant that the client won’t take advantage of his or her time.

You’ll have formed a relationship with expectations, and you’ll both know about how much time and effort goes into the relationship.

We generally sign contracts for three or six month retainers and invoice the client at the end of each month of the relationship.

The amount depends on the type of work we are under contract to do and other expectations (on-site vs off-site, maximum number of hours, etc).

Notice, we said “maximum” number of hours. The client is under the “use-it-or-lose-it system,” so it’s important for the client to be organized and have questions and tasks for the consultant to complete.

Going back to the type of work. Most of the time, consulting is just that: giving advice, conducting research, interviewing employees, asking questions, making recommendations, etc, but with social media, the consultant is often expected to do some of those recommendations.

For example, the consultant may say “You should be Tweeting 10 times a day.”

And the client may reply, “Great. Do it.”

We generally prefer to separate the “doing” and management from the consulting and put it under a separate agreement.

For ongoing tasks, such as tweeting 10 times a day, we’d bill hourly until the client wanted to take over the responsibilities.

For one-time tasks like that such as “Setup my Facebook page,” we’d probably do it under a project contract.

This is really a tough area to write about, and we apologize for being vague.

Please, if you’re a social media consultant, and have more questions, leave them in the comments below and we’ll get more specific.

Same with clients. If you’re wondering the best way to structure a deal with a consultant, let us know what industry you’re in and what expectations you have, and we’ll answer you back with specifics.

About Cody Swann

Cody Swann is an entrepreneur, developer, strategist, banged up ex-football walk-on, retired body builder and former journalist born and raised in South Florida. He currently splits his time between his hometown of Stuart, FL and Los Angeles, CA. Cody founded Gunner Technology, a highly sought after digital agency, specializing in helping companies maximize profits through custom web development, technology efficiencies, social media strategy and search engine marketing. As a manager and developer at ESPN for nearly six years, Cody led development and vision for two of ESPN’s most popular online features: Sports Scoreboards and GameCasts. Additionally Cody oversaw all aspects of MyESPN and ESPN’s social network, ESPN Fan Profiles. Cody worked with Technology, Editorial, Sales, Marketing and relevant business stakeholders to mold ESPN’s social media strategy, develop custom applications for it and execute it. Under his direction, ESPN successfully ported large portions of its core product from a proprietary Java stack to an open source Ruby on Rails stack, capable of standing up and performing under the tremendous load world's most popular sports site delivers. Cody began forging his technological knowledge more than 10 years ago, developing and designing websites in college. His development work has included web development, web design, content writing, digital photography and digital video production for award-winning sites like, and He has helped set digital strategy and direction for companies in the New York Times Regional Newspaper group, ESPN, ABC and Disney. He is a recognized expert in web development, social media strategy, search engine optimization, conversion optimization, analytics tracking and business planning. He has worked with large interactive media companies to small and medium sized businesses. Cody motivates and inspires creative teams to deliver superb, polished work under tight deadlines.

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