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:
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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.
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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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19 comments

  1. I've always seen it as the norm that for smaller operations either the internal marketing team or the hired PR firm takes over the social media.

    Between this post and http://missdestructo.com/2011/01/the-social-media-lounge-singer/ I'm getting nervous about people pegging me as "good at social media" my skill set is broader than this.

    BTW had no idea you had a kick ass blog :D

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  2. @Rich

    The smaller operations should spread it out to a bunch of different people. It's funny because my last gig is now being done by three different people ... and not well.

    But yah, that's why I call myself a PR person. I don't do SM exclusively, but can consult in it because I understand how it works across the board. But, it's okay, I had someone recently call me a blogger because I challenged him on something he's doing - I guess those SM people don't like to be challenged.

    Amber has a good singing voice. That's all I'm gonna say on that one.

    And I don't think of you as an SM type - I think of you as the integrated designer that understands and sees how the pieces go together. Plus a pretty damned good photog.

    And last point - one of the first 15 PR bloggers, been doing this longer than a lot of these kids that don't get it.

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  3. I've maintained all along with my current organization that "Social Media _______" is only a temporary project. Just like how in the early days, you had someone in the office who knew the fax machine inside and out, and could help other units implement it as needed.

    Eventually, the need for the Fax Machine Ninja faded away.

    I would say that every company of size needs someone who is looking at how to integrate new techs and techniques -- but these tend to be the Strategists that you (correctly) identify as rare.

    I am currently a Social Media Strategist in an enterprise. But that is not the source of my value at all, and I have a body of work and skillsets I bring outside of that small toolkit. (As should everyone.)

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  4. @Ike

    You hit the nail on the head that it's just a small toolkit. I don't get why people haven't fully groked that, beyond it's not in their best interest.

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  5. Promotions and advertising go hand in hand by having the ammunition to be put inside a gun and fired, pointed at the right target.

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  6. Totally agree with you. Ironically posted a similar topic on my own blog today. Weird!

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  7. The thing that has always gotten my goat about "social media gurus" is the fact that they claim to have expertise ONLY in social media. I totally agree with you when you say that you have to have some understanding of how marketing, PR, business development, customer service, and other related groups work. At the very least, a successful SM strategist must be able to ask the right questions of people that do understand the inner workings in order to make sure that the strategies and tactics they're planning and executing support the goals in a way that will actually help the business.

    I really think that this year is going to be a turning point for the whole love fest of social media. Businesses have now patiently waited for the results to start showing and for companies that aren't seeing any... I think they'll start making some decisions about where to re-allocate their time and funds.

    Bravo on the stellar post!

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  8. In the future, a social media strategist will have to know how to make media social while communicating brand value. Same as they do today.

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  9. I hope you are right. But the number of companies I see these days asking for a "social media agency" instead of a PR or IMC agency is an interesting aspect to this. Some of those social media specialists are actually being rewarded for doing things backward.

    Big corporations absolutely need that project manager or steering committee leader role. And it doesn't have to be a social media strategist. Just needs to be someone who gets social media, along with PR, marketing, etc. and can help eliminate the turf war mentality so those folks can start working together.

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  10. Nicely done, Jeremy. Dig this post. As someone whose title at the moment is in social strategy, I can only hope that eventually I can work myself out of a job. Or rather, that I can advocate that titles like mine return to more central business functions (like communication) and less on a specialty that essentially centers around the method rather than the objective.

    It's the difference between having social media as a job, and having social media as a skill. I think we'll get there as the culture shift continues and as we bridge the divide between the adopters and the skeptics, but eventually, I think you're right. And while we'll always have people that are more heavily invested in social as a method, what social *enables* will be a more integrated part of everyone's work.

    Thanks for expanding on this topic.

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  11. "The issue is that social media strategists tend not to be strategic or tactical..." is exactly right. Social media needs to be a part of your strategy that is not determined by social media but by the goals of your company. If they don't mesh, they don't matter and can do more harm than good.

    Great post. Thanks!

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  12. Oh! And one other thing: Shannon Paul has really smartly asserted before - and I agree wholeheartedly - that a strategists job (in social media or otherwise) is organizational alignment. The best work we can do right now is to connect dots within our own organizations to build repeatable systems and frameworks that enable this stuff.

    That means I have have deep knowledge in some areas, but enough functional knowledge in others that I can bridge gaps. We don't talk about that enough, but it's critical. And you touched on it.

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  13. When the telephone was first introduced in large companies, the only one that had a phone on their desk was the Telephone Operator. Interestingly, Zuckerberg purportedly said that he wanted Facebook to become the "telephone" of the new century.
    Eventually, all employees of a company will be using Social Media, or whatever it will be called in the future, to seamlessly communicate directly with customers, prospects, suppliers, and other employees. To have it happen sooner than later will require company-wide strategies and policies passed down from the top.

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  14. I've often said that "social" is a characteristic of - not a *kind* of - today's media and communications. I agree that these skills are incumbent for success in many capacities in business today, and should not be relegated to a single role or person no matter how large or lazy the organization might be.

    I look forward to the time when former realtors nee baristas return to doing what they do best.

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  15. Katie U.10:50 PM

    I'm a student, currently studying Public Relations and I definitely agree with your stance on social media jobs. We are being taught these skills along with so many others, so why hire someone that has skills in only one area? And with the growing rate that media outlets have, this job seems that it could only be temporary. Moving the social media back in the PR or marketing part of the company, could be more beneficial. Probably less money being sent, and these people will have different outlets, perspectives, and ideas.

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  16. There would be new strategies used on Social Media marketing, but they would probably just gonna be some stuffs that are recycled from the old, proven ones.
    -Angela Giles
    Social Media and Publicity DIVA


    ***Yes, I'm giving away the 3rd edition of my Twitter Blueprint for FREE! No strings attached. http://ow.ly/3EwwG

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  17. Marcy Massura2:45 PM

    I too was quoted in that article. And guess what? We pretty much agree. What are the odds?

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  18. I too was quoted in that article. And we pretty much agree. What are the odds? :)

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  19. In the job market today, it is important to not only have one skill, but a multitude. I am currently a PR student and I actually just had a job interview for a company needing someone to help with their communication between departments. I'm not sure if this is a short-term job, but I agree that once someone comes in and helps show the company a great way to communicate between departments, then they are basically no longer needed.

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