A colleague, Jeremy Bronson, posed an excellent question on a forum for social media professionals looking for insight to share with recent graduates interested in social media jobs. For what it’s worth, here are my suggestions…
Go Beyond the Classroom
Unfortunately higher education often does not keep pace with the world around it; nowhere is that more evident than the digital world. With the possible exception of a handful of programs around the country (like the stellar program at Syracuse being run by Dr. Bill Ward), it’s likely that most students in the Communications field have very little exposure in the classroom to the tools they will use every single day on the job.
- The Downside: That means it’s up to students to build the skills they need on their own.
- The Upside: Those tools are readily available, free, and tutorials are available everywhere on the web to learn them.
This past semester I taught a class (Technology in Advertising & Public Relations) and it gave me a little window of insight into the lack of social media acumen that most students build in school.
The class usually focuses on teaching students the Adobe suite of products (Photoshop, Illustrator, Pagemaker and Dreamweaver), and some basic video editing skills. Those are all valuable things, but they leave a whole lot out and don’t really address the current state of technology which has moved to “Software As Service.” Should someone interested in social media really learn Dreamweaver when the vast majority of the web development they do will likely be in a content management system (CMS)? – Probably not, unless they want to be a web developer – and that’s probably a different path than working in social media.
Some of the platforms social media pros need to know likely include the following:
- CMSs like WordPress
- Social Media Platforms (esp. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, Pinterest, Google+)
- Photo Editing
- Video Editing
- Slideware (esp. PowerPoint, Prezi, etc.)
- Collaboration / Workflow Platforms (like Basecamp and Podio)
- Customer Relationship Management (like Salesforce)
- Email Marketing Tools (like VerticalResponse, MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc.)
- Google Adwords
- Facebook Ads / Linkedin Ads
- Monitoring Tools (like Google Alerts, Cision, Radian6, SocialRadar, Vocus, etc.)
- Social Media Management Tools (like Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Sproutsocial, Radian6, Seesmic, etc.)
Learn How to Learn
What should you learn? That changes regularly becuase the web changes regularly. The most important skill a social media pro needs to have is the ability to learn quickly and efficiently because change is the only constant. For example, here is a list of social media platforms that didn’t exist when the current crop of graduates entered college:
Fortunately there is a basic, over-arching similarity to every platform and tool that means even if a specific one becomes outdated – there is valuable insight that will carry over to others.
It is possible to learn how to learn efficiently. For the digital world, it’s rare to find textbooks – but there are vibrant communities (Facebook and Linkedin groups or Tweetchats) to connect to and ask questions of, as well as informative blogs that are only an RSS feed away. Plugging in to these two resources is how I keep up on everything (along with listening to various podcasts in the TWIT family). What I’ve found in nearly two decades of digital life is that people LEAP to help others who are earnestly seeking information.
When you do ask for help, though, make sure it’s only AFTER you’ve already tried googling your question first.
Build Your Skillset
Knowing how to write in HTML5 or edit with Avid isn’t a necessity, but it will definitely help your chances of getting a job in social media. Every digital skill you can add to your reportoire is a potential advantage over another applicant for the job you want. The same goes for experience with digital platforms. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but provides some examples of the sorts of things you’ll want to consider spending your time on:
- Are you Google Adwords Certified? You could be – and that would look good on a resume.
- Have you ever used a third-party tool to add content to a Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest presence? – Try some out: Woobox, Offerpop, Votigo, Wildfire, Shortstack, etc.
- Can you do graphic design using programs like Photoshop or Illustrator? – You should be able to, as you’ll likely be doing some every day. If you don’t have the money to shell out for Adobe products, you can learn on GIMP (a freeware graphics program).
- Are you a decent photographer/videographer? – This skill comes in handy very frequently for creating engaging content.
- Do you understand Search Engine Optimization? – You should.
- Have you ever placed ads on Facebook or Linkedin? – You can try experimenting with promoting yourself to prospective employers to learn how to do the same.
- Do you know how to do research quickly to become a micro-expert on a topic? – This is really valuable, particularly in an agency context.
- Do you understand digital analytics and what metrics are most valuable (and how to explain them to non-tech people)?
Learn the Law
An understanding of communications and intellectual property law comes in handy weekly if not daily. Content creation involves navigating a variety of legal frameworks. For starters, copyright. The unauthorized use of a copyrighted image, text, or video can (at the very least) cause your content to be pulled from the web or (at the worst) get your organization slapped with a lawsuit.
Then there are the rights of the people contained in any content you’re creating. Understanding what you can say with an image of someone is important. If you work with organizations in the healthcare world, the people you seek to depict may be covered under HIPAA – meaning you need their expressed authorization just to imply they are a client of a healthcare provider.
Even activities on the back-end interactions carry legal implications; newspapers have begun suing the providers of services that generate reports of media mentions for customers (for unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted work).
Beyond the legal system getting involved in your activities, you can run afoul of the policies of social networking platforms very easily. Facebook, for example, doesn’t permit anything resembling a contest being hosted natively on a Facebook page. If you’re asking people to “like” a post for a chance to win a prize – you could have that Facebook fan page disabled.
Learning the law is also important because you need to be able to advocate for what you’re doing and justify it to the higher-ups in your organization. The legal departments of virtually every company and organization don’t know SQUAT about legal precedent in the digital world and they will (with good intentions) sometimes shut down your efforts because they don’t understand them.
[Sidebar: Here’s a good test to see if your legal department knows anything about digital law – if they have advised your organization to attach a legal disclaimer to company email signatures, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Those things carry zero legal weight and are completely unenforceable. That’s the sort of advice they’re dispensing to the C-suite, and that sort of bad advice can shut down a potentially-great social marketing campaign in the name of protecting the company.]
Understand Internet Culture
One of the most important abilities a social media pro needs to have is a deep and abiding understanding of how the Internet works. There are unwritten rules everywhere – and knowing those rules cold is one of the main reasons why someone is paying you to handle their social media for them. You are their digital sherpa.
This knowledge, unfortunately, is not easily gained through reading – but really requires experiencing or observing the web at work to best absorb.
Just like going on vacation in a foriegn country, the further away from the mainstream/touristy areas puts you at greater risk of violating the unpublished mores of the web – and amplifies the consequences. Reddit is a great microcosm of the web (and, in fact, it has originated many of the paradigms for how people interact online). The academic term for the tribes that coalesce online is “Discourse Communities.” They have their own codes, icons, and language – and communication is how they maintain their membership. There are discourse communities for EVERYTHING online, from programming languages (Flash vs. HTML5) to social news tools (like Reddit vs. The Chive).
For example, do you…
…understand the importance of attributing/crediting people online?
…know how to properly use tech terms in context? (and cringe whenever someone says “facebooked” or “twittered”)
…know how to deal with trolls?
…know how to identify influencers?
…understand why the web abhors censorship (and why it’s a doomed strategy to pursue)?
…why you shouldn’t ever ask a question that you can google the answer for?
It’s one thing to be able to engage online as yourself. It’s entirely another to engage on behalf of an organization. This is what separates social media users from experts. Unfortunately, most young people aren’t experts despite the conventional wisdom. They grew up using technology every day and have never lived without ubiquitous Internet connectivity, but their expertise is very narrow and focused only on communicating on behalf of themselves for their own purposes. If you’re entering the working world and want to be a communicator for others – the skills and spheres above are critical to rounding out your knowledge base.
Hope this helps; know that you can always count me as a colleague. If you have questions, ask. A lot of other social media peeps and I will very likely be able to answer them within a few hours.