Social Media and The Tale of Two Career Paths

Over the years I’ve written about the maturation of social media within business and how we were, and still very much are, starting to realize its potential and its impact. And the truth is, we’re just getting started. What’s upon us now is nothing short of the beginning of the end of business as usual.Where we are today and where we’ll stand a year from now and the year thereafter are worlds apart. The socialization of business requires new doorways between the walls that currently divide us.

From the onset of social media, many were skeptical, others were baffled or indifferent, and the passionate few were inspired. To have the opportunity to help businesses embrace powerful engagement and community services such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs was a windfall. But as many of us learned, the blessing would soon evolve into encumbrance. Introducing profiles on popular social networks, listening and responding to conversations, syndicating content from one network to another was at first blush, easy and fun.

But then…

We faced tough questions where answers fell outside of our realm of responsibility.

We witnessed anger and negative sentiment.

We were sucked into political conversations within the organization where management questioned our authority and intentions.

Questions from all over the organization inundated us because we had the knowledge they needed to jump into the world of social.

We wrestled with other divisions to win the right to “own” social media within the organization.

We were asked to measure the effects of something we weren’t quite sure we even had tangible answers to why we were there in the first place.

We were tasked with monitoring conversations without having the ability to steer experiences and perception.

We hit a ceiling where our efforts didn’t matter to decision makers in the bigger picture, but we still held on to its importance.

And, this is where the story really begins. The evolution of social media in business and our role in how it unfolds and where it’s headed is unwritten.

Read the Signs, Is This a Dead End?

Years ago, while on stage in New York, I was asked a question that still echoes today, “What do I do when my management won’t see the value in any of this and is standing in my way of progress?”

My answer was short and perhaps a bit shocking at the time, “Maybe it’s time to leave and join a company that so desperately needs your vision and tenacity.”

I wasn’t kidding.

Recently my colleague, peer, and good friend Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group published a notable report that documents the true state of social media roles and the paths one must take to excel. In his report,”Career Path of the Corporate Social Media Strategist,” Jeremiah surfaces the bitter truth that we, the champions of social media, have two roles to serve within business today, leader or helper.

As Owyang explains, the emerging role of the corporate social media strategist must either get ahead of business demands or get relegated to what he calls a “social media help desk.” And, he’s not talking about customer service either. This help desk that he refers to is very real and not at all glamorous. Champions become internal community managers, demoted to helping co-workers socialize their programs, with all of the vision and glory delegated to everyone but you.

In actuality, businesses need open leaders and social strategists – whether they realize it or not. Altimeter’s research validates this notion. While today, according to Altimeter’s research, 41% of social strategists reside in marketing, the promise of social media requires a neutral, centralized hub to socialize the entire business. And as many have explored, organizations could also benefit from the introduction of either a Chief Social Officer role or a Social Media task force to direct, advise, and teach.

Here’s your opportunity.

Altimeter’s research found, “…most Social Strategists and their programs lack maturity. Only 23% of Social Strategists had a formalized program with long-term direction. This market, and role is nascent.”

And as the report captures, despite the enthusiasm propelling this new role, the social strategist is faced with six challenges per Altimeter:

1) Resistance from internal culture

2) Measuring ROI

3) Lack of resources

4) An ever-changing technology space

5) Resentment and envy of the role

6) A looming increase in business demands.

Altimeter conducted 50 interviews with Corporate Social Strategists and those who work with them. In doing so, a trend surfaced in the collective responses, “Many who ascend to the role see an opportunity, take risks and forge a new program.”

Altimeter breaks this out into a role that blossoms into a pivotal inflection point…

The Awakening. As customers rapidly adopt these tools, this internal champion rises to answer the call of duty, and adopts these tools on behalf of the corporation – while meeting tremendous internal resistance.

Ascension of the Corporate Social Strategist. After mustering the courage to challenge the status quo, the evangelist launches pilot programs to connect with customers using social tools. The Social Strategist is successful in gathering initial resources and corralling some internal stakeholders. A program manager is anointed.

Storm of Cultural Conflict. Having successful piloted programs, the Social Strategist seeks to expand the program, yet loses altitude from internal resistance to corporate transparency, turf battles, legal and security issues, and challenges on calculating return on investment.

Career Decision Point. Gaining speed, the Social Strategist overcomes most major cultural challenges and expands the program. Shifting from evangelism to program management, they find the excess of customer voices unmanageable, as well as the increase in program requests from internal stakeholders.

As a result, Altimeter cites two possible career paths, one that fuses marketing, internal and external service, and potentially that of activist for the inclined..,

1) Becoming reactive through the inundation of requests from vocal customers and internal business units, or

2) Developing a strategic program and necessary securing buy-in that circumvents business and market demands.

Introducing the Social Media Champion

We are not alone. Whether we are the social champion today or the leader of the business looking to socialize our organization, it helps to get a better understanding of this unique and important workforce. It hopefully opens our ideas as well as our options for moving forward.

Altimeter examined 50 job descriptions (JDs) as well as 50 LinkedIn profiles of current Social Strategists. Experience per posted job descriptions show 3-6 years ranging from social media to digital marketing.

Of the 50 LinkedIn profiles the group examined, almost 40% already reside in the management layer of the organization. Combining Director and Manager titles, almost 70% are social champions, ready to help lead the organization into the future of a more meaningful era of collaborative business. Part of the problem as I see it, is that many individuals understand the potential of social, but lack the ability to lobby its importance as defined by the 5W’s of Social Media (who, what, when, where, why + how + to what extent) across the organization. Most are also missing map of how to get from here to there.

Social Media Strategists and Champions are an educated class with many possessing Bachelor’s degrees (over 60%) and 20% earning their Master’s degree.

Altimeter also looked at the gender and overall Twitter presence of the social media champion/strategist. While women dominate the social Web, men appear to account for a greater percentage of corporate social media strategists (at least in the 140 companies Altimeter researched.)

Social Strategists are multi-dimensional and risk takers…they have to be. None of this is templated, no matter how many case studies you read, innovation, creativity, empathy, and passion count for everything. But the future of all of this lies in the ability to rally stakeholders and lead efforts across departments.

As Altimeter rightfully predicts, the role of the Social Strategist as we know it today, will become obsolete. Those who aspire to transcend business units and socialize the business, department by department, will persevere. The more astute will assist in the shift from an outside-in, bottom-up groundswell to a top-down, inside-out pivot. As such, they will find themselves nestled in an important role that outlasts the social phenomenon and escalates their prominence to upper management.

We are the Champions, We are the Leaders

The truth is that I still hear the question of what to do when leaders don’t recognize this emerging opportunity or your personal value. Truth is, that I still don’t have a different answer. However, I have spent the subsequent years working against management infrastructure, processes, systems, and culture to introduce empathy and adaptation into the operation…to do nothing less than add a human touch.

This just takes time…

The prospect of social media lies not in the settlements of today, but in the uncharted territories we have yet to discover. Every new expedition needs a pioneer and that trailblazer is you. There’s tremendous value in recognizing meaningful odysseys and charting expeditions to a rewarding journey’s end. As we’re learning in the evolution of any new media, it’s less about the destination and more about the important stops we make along the way. The conveyance and the passengers will change along the way, and the importance of this essay, is to help you see that you will and must change as well.

Champions are just champions without the ability to influence leadership. And, leaders are only leaders as long as they continue to compete for the future. As such, whomever leads today may not possess the wherewithal to lead tomorrow. It’s not an ominous prediction, it’s simply the materialization of an opportunity. We are at a monumental inflection point in business and you must decide the path for your passion, vision, and the greater role for the brand “you.” For executives at the helm of their organization, this is a test of vision, character and modesty. Take the wheel and turn it…

Only you can effectively lobby the importance of your vision to those who can influence change within the business culture as it exists today.  Champions who can package the value of change into tangible action items as well as unite management around a common vision will join the ranks of leadership.

This is your time to make a difference.

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Facebook

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  • http://frankjkenny.com Frank J. Kenny

    Holy cow Brian. Impressive. I am fired up because I see the world changing fast through social media. But there is no road map. We have to choose to lead. We have no choice but to face our fears and uncertainty and carry this change forward. Slings, arrows, and all.

    Great post. Thank you for sharing your vision into the future.

    Frank

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Hello Frank! Get fired up…stay fired up. The future of social as well as your role in it is truly up to you!

  • http://zaneology.com zaneology

    Is it appropriate to just say, “Gosh Brian, you are so good at relaying what is NOW. I know people are paying attention to you…I hope they are also listening AND HEARING you because all we need now is for them to understand so we can all get to work and do this right.”

    PLAY BALL!

    Great Post.
    @zaneology

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Blushing Zane…thank you. That means a lot. Let’s play ball!

  • http://twitter.com/LeBumdotNet LeBum LLC

    I appreciate what you’re trying to say here, and I recognize that you are better able to say it than almost anyone else. BUT… I’m not sure the future you see in this article is the one we’re going to get. Here’s why:

    (1) Like you say, it takes time to develop a social media sense in a large organization. And during that time, suppose you get new management. “An emperor came who knew not Joseph.” Then you have to start over. And…
    (2) In the meantime, not only is technology changing, the changes are doing little in themselves to reveal their value. (I can cite Foursquare as an example of this. To me, Foursquare offers no value at all.) That means they will often be a distraction, one we can’t afford to invest the time in, not even to develop yet another profile. And…
    (3) Sometimes, when we begin to develop strategies that work for us, the social media platforms themselves fight against us. (I can cite the new Twitter’s all but wiping out our backgrounds, and Facebook only allowing landing tabs for landing if you have 10000 Likes already, as examples of this.) Who’s that guy who pushes the boulder uphill and watches it roll back? Heck, sometimes I feel lucky if the boulder doesn’t just roll right on over my *ss. And finally…
    (4) Nobody, but NOBODY, wants to pay for us to work our way through all this philosophy on the way to a solution. Which is why (I think) nearly anyone who can post a tweet can latch on as someone’s “social media guru,” at least for a little while, if they’re willing to do it for the right price and not argue that “it takes time.”

    The bottom line: not only does it take time, but in most cases it will also fail anyway. This is the price we will pay for being human and working with other humans. Not only that, but the day will come when those of us who respect each other’s skills will be forced to go toe-to-toe for the very few opportunities to work with the enlightened. You’ll be one of the ones coming out on top. What happens to the rest of us? “Help desk,” and glad of it, most like.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      What an absolutely thoughtful reply. I will tell you a little something about me that I don’t think I’ve shared in blog form…I work with executives and middle management to prove value, even when the systems, people, services, and processes work against me…and I do so on my own time. To expect to be paid to do this, well, it’s too early. And, I’m not alone. The points you bring up are more than valid and that’s why “experts” truly are few and far between.

  • http://twitter.com/LeBumdotNet LeBum LLC

    I appreciate what you’re trying to say here, and I recognize that you are better able to say it than almost anyone else. BUT… I’m not sure the future you see in this article is the one we’re going to get. Here’s why:

    (1) Like you say, it takes time to develop a social media sense in a large organization. And during that time, suppose you get new management. “An emperor came who knew not Joseph.” Then you have to start over. And…
    (2) In the meantime, not only is technology changing, the changes are doing little in themselves to reveal their value. (I can cite Foursquare as an example of this. To me, Foursquare offers no value at all.) That means they will often be a distraction, one we can’t afford to invest the time in, not even to develop yet another profile. And…
    (3) Sometimes, when we begin to develop strategies that work for us, the social media platforms themselves fight against us. (I can cite the new Twitter’s all but wiping out our backgrounds, and Facebook only allowing landing tabs for landing if you have 10000 Likes already, as examples of this.) Who’s that guy who pushes the boulder uphill and watches it roll back? Heck, sometimes I feel lucky if the boulder doesn’t just roll right on over my *ss. And finally…
    (4) Nobody, but NOBODY, wants to pay for us to work our way through all this philosophy on the way to a solution. Which is why (I think) nearly anyone who can post a tweet can latch on as someone’s “social media guru,” at least for a little while, if they’re willing to do it for the right price and not argue that “it takes time.”

    The bottom line: not only does it take time, but in most cases it will also fail anyway. This is the price we will pay for being human and working with other humans. Not only that, but the day will come when those of us who respect each other’s skills will be forced to go toe-to-toe for the very few opportunities to work with the enlightened. You’ll be one of the ones coming out on top. What happens to the rest of us? “Help desk,” and glad of it, most like.

  • http://www.prscoup.com Gabe Chesman

    Brian, that was a great article. I like how you gave a past, present, and future view on social media. There are still those questions we can’t answer yet. However, if the past year taught us anything, there will always be questions and skeptics.

  • http://twitter.com/thenorar Nora Robertson

    I’m passionate about social media and am currently in the process of driving my career in social media from helper to leader. Your post provided both a great analysis of how things stand now, but also inspired me for how I might change to move where I want to be.

    Thank you!

  • http://www.deswalsh.com Des Walsh

    Thanks for another great post, Brian. I’m seeing already how I can help some clients meet their particular challenges more effectively.

    In terms of addressing the need for (often radical) cultural change, along the lines of Charlene Li’s Open Leadership story, I am currently proposing to even quite small businesses that they need a team of at least the CEO or other C-person and an in-house champion who will also be the social media strategist.

    But I’ve been thinking of the champion/strategist in the sense of the one on an upper trajectory to (a higher level of) management.

    Now I’m wondering where the help desk role fits in that. Because my experience of organisations tells me that once a person accepts the support role they are usually going to have a serious challenge in ever breaking out of that role into a more strategic, “social business” leader role. Maybe needs an extra member of the team who likes being responsible for order, systems and processes more than seeking glory? :)

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Des, absolutely. Someone who accepts the role of help desk will find themselves locked into a position without the ability to build, as Altimeter calls it, escape velocity.

    • http://ariwriter.com Ari Herzog

      Although… the help desk person could lead and later escape, as Frank Eliason proved with Comcast.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Escape Velocity vs. Escape Pod…

  • http://twitter.com/deandeguara Dean Deguara

    I started following today, read two articles…very good!

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Thanks Dean!

  • http://twitter.com/paulwallbank Paul Wallbank

    Actually Brian you’re describing the process of introducing of any new technology into an industry.

    Twenty years ago, it was the personal computer champion who advocated and hassled for desktop computers running (gasp, horror) spreadsheets and wordprocessors. Eventually they had to decide if they’d become the IT manager or return to being the office accountant who knew how the spell check worked in WordPerfect.

    I’m sure similar processes happened with the telephone, internal combustion engine, electricity and the steam engine.

    Absolutely valid point though and an excellent article.

  • http://flavors.me/40deuce 40deuce

    This is a great and inspiring piece, Brian.
    As one of that 20% that went on to get a Masters, I like to think of myself as a trailblazer in some respects (although I may be the only one).
    I got very lucky that soon out of school I was able to get a job at a company that fully understands the need to be social and the need to be trailblazers. I started the role at this company and get to help shape where it will go. I love that. The best part is that I get to learn about new things everyday and that will constantly change how my role progresses.
    I know I may not work at my current job forever, but it’s giving me the ideas and the strength to know that I’ll continue on this path for years and years to come.

    Something about this post has kind of left me feeling empowered. Thank you.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  • Liz

    Amazing research went into this post. We are on the vanguard of breaking down walls and opening doors to do business. What a refreshing change this will be. And, we (marketers) are the pioneers. Cool!

  • http://twitter.com/CJRoberts_DMM CJ Roberts

    Thank you Brian. You are an inspiration to me. I find myself as both helper and leader because sadly helper, despite its iniquities and regrets, pays the bills, while the leader role is a case by case basis, riding the waves and accepting the wipe outs. I feel myself stumbling through these roles in a kind of tension and hoping that on the other side I will have created a new archetype for myself that embodies the core benefits of both. When we name something, label it, own it, we become it and I would like to measure myself by what I have accomplished not by what I call myself.

  • http://twitter.com/calebsimpson CalebSimpson

    Social Media is going to be key in helping me launch my new business. It’s not going to succeed without it.

  • Elektrohed81

    Thanks for this Brian,

    Since writing my dissertation on social media/marketing I have been trying to edge my way in to this area.

    I have now secured a position with an independent and innovative digital agency who are not afraid to take risks and really want to develop social.

    Watch this space.

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  • http://twitter.com/Debra_Feldman Debra Feldman

    It would interesting to look at the social media strategists and see how many and how each individual is managing their own online persona/career. While they may be a designated social media voice, have they embraced social media to promote themselves as experts in the field or do they merely post, upload and share as a day job? Some have taken this too far creating a name for themselves that stands out more than the company they were supposed to promote. That is not the idea either. I’m referring to whether they apply the same principals to promote themselves as experts as they use to promote their employer/client? Today, the job they have may be gone tomorrow so they would be clever to establish themselves in the industry beyond establishing their employer as the best. This means separating themselves from the work their employer pays them to do and showing their social media talents through their own personal accounts. Does anyone else realize the importance of enhancing and then documenting this as an online, streaming resume regularly to show potential value and attract attention from future employers? You may not be employed or serve the same clients forever, therefore, secure your future by continually recording your achievements and telling how you accomplished results, Don’t wait until you need a new job to update your resume; keep an ongoing journal online in social media showing your thoughts, ideas, wins, results, etc.

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  • http://twitter.com/ecodad craig flax

    Brian, I love this!
    It resonates with me because in every instance throughout the article, you can replace ‘Social Media’ with ‘Sustainability’ almost verbatim. Very interesting parallels.
    Thanks for your insight.

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  • Anonymous

    Some smart stuff here and one that serves to motivate me as I like knowing we’re in charge of our own careers. The big change that Social Media allows us to have is that we are no longer corporate/employee drones and instead are able to express our mulit-dimensional thinking and innovative – what others may deem risk taking – thinking.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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