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.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is principal at Altimeter Group, a research firm focused on disruptive technology. A digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist, Solis has studied and influenced the effects of emerging technology on business, marketing, and culture. Solis is also globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders and published authors in new media. His new book, What's the Future of Business (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold and flourish 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. Prior to End of Business, 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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