Friday, January 14, 2011

The Future of the Social Media Strategist

Earlier this week, Erica Swallow posed a question on Twitter about Jeremiah Owyang's post and slideshow on the future of social media.

Through the way of Twitter, Liz Philips cc'ed me to answer as well. Today, Erica posted her story on Mashable.

While I'm quoted, (italicized below), through Erica's response to my email and other people's encouragement, I figured my "brutal honesty" should be sent out through the post. So with little fanfare, the full response below:

Let's be honest - it's a job that only very large corporations need, and that is being used by marketing and public relations people that washed out at marketing 1.0 or PR 1.0 (hence, the old whispered joke that PR 2.0 needed to come about because those people couldn't do PR 1.0).

The issue is that social media strategists tend not to be strategic or tactical; the large corporations will continue to bring in those higher level strategists as they know that there is a need for that type of skill set (and the people with it are more limited than you would think). The good social media strategist is someone that understands and knows public relations and marketing and can work with marketing and public relations teams, as well as customer service, advertising and, at some levels, business development and align all to one group mind think. A group mind think that has a business value and proposition that extends beyond "hey, he's a nice person" but understands that social media campaigns need to translate to real business value.

The perfect social media is a quarterback, driving a strategy that leads to REAL business value, not popularity chasing with limited to no value. That position - the internal strategist that aligns various business units - will continue to be around, but only necessary at big corporations. The small companies and start-ups have no need for those people now, and will begin to see that there's no need for them in the future.

The social media specialist job, though, is a short-term job. Or, well, it should be (outside large corporations) as these are skills that any public relations or marketing person of any experience should have. Social media is just another term for community outreach, online communities, online engagement and those are skills that have just been repackaged and made sexy by people to get a jump on the competition. It's not that the large corporations don't have people with those skills, but there is a need for the alignment across business segments, having a single voice (or at least thought process).

So my thought is that many of these social media jobs will disappear within the next few years, if not faster. The job details will be spread around various people at companies - PR, marketing, customer service, community managers - and be managed by a person in the marketing or advertising departments at the company. The same would eventually happen at large corporations, albeit a bit slower as the larger the organization, the slower the process.

And while many of these internal people are talented, and will transition back into PR or marketing, a good number of them never had the basic skills and remade themselves into whatever was hot. What happened to all the SEO gurus and shops back in the day? Looks like a lot of them remade themselves into social media gurus and strategy shops. Expect to see those that had no real skills in the beginning to see the writing on the wall and begin remaking themselves for the new thing.

A coda to the post, and some clarification: I think there will always be a need for community managers, as those are important jobs that have been around for quite a while. They have changed over the years with technology, but they are a mainstay with many of the large corporations.

But another kick in the face of the death of social media strategists? Too many of them come from nothing that is even closely related to social media, but have just named themselves that and fooled enough people into supporting them.

Great, come from a retail job at a mall and then remake yourself into a social media marketing specialist. Great, come from nothing at all but remake yourself into a leading social media marketer. The social media world easily follows whatever is said by a few people and anoints these new people as leaders.

Well, it tends not to be true and THAT is what will kill the social media strategist - when companies ask for results and reasoning and "nice" doesn't cut it for senior management. Social media is a part of a business unit, and at the end of the day a business unit needs to deliver tangible results.
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