Friday, September 30, 2011

Four Ways Corporate Social Media Professionals Undermine Their Authority

The Los Angeles Times today published an article, "Employers are Liking -- and Hiring -- Social Media Workers," that included a couple of comments from me. The gist of the article is that the demand for social media professionals is growing (shocking!), and along with it so are the demands of those jobs.

As I speak with peers online and at conferences, there can be a sense that our profession isn't taken seriously at every organization. For every Dell, IBM, PepsiCo, Best Buy and (my employer) USAA where social media is recognized as a compelling strategic advantage, there are a lot of companies where social media is treated as, well, fluffy.

It's easy to blame the lack of stature that social media has within some organizations on conservative (and typically older) senior leaders who may have little to no personal experience with social media, but is it too easy to lay the blame there? Might social media pros themselves be part of the problem? That question stuck in my head as I read this statement from the LA Times article, furnished by a person with the title executive director of search engine optimization and social media programming: "I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I tell people what I do for a living."

It is appalling to me that someone employed in the most significant evolution in business and communications since the advent of the web would utter those words. If he is embarrassed to tell his friends about his job, how must he fare promoting his ideas to the decision makers at his firm?

Social media is becoming too vital for companies to take lightly. If social media professionals contribute to this underestimation by subverting their own authority, they do harm not just to their careers but also to their employers' competitiveness, brand awareness, reputation and profitability.

Do you have any bad habits? Here are four ways corporate social media pros may damage their opportunities and influence:
  1. You have a cutesy job title: It seems gurus, wizards and ninjas are thankfully on the wane, but if you're still clinging to a job title more appropriate for a Dungeons and Dragons board than a boardroom, it's time to get new business cards--your job title isn't earning you respect among your serious peers. Unless the CFO in your firm is called the "Money Wizard" and the CIO is "the Ninja of Electronic Wonders," talk to your boss and claim a proper title that includes words such as "specialist," "manager," "director" or "vice president."
  2. You hype rather than educate: Are you guilty of eagerly regaling peers with how Dell Outlet earned $6.5 million selling products via its Twitter account? That old and tired case study is great if the company you work at sells refurbished consumer electronics, but it means absolutely nothing if you're in the travel, pharmaceutical, auto or financial service industry. Too many social media pros are quick to promote the latest social media case study without considering whether the industry or the strategy is pertinent to their firms. Your peers are likely hungry for news about what your competitors are doing in social media, but every irrelevant example shared becomes more noise and feeds a suspicion harbored by some of your associates that social isn't as pertinent in your industry as in others.
  3. You measure success by fans, friends and tweets: While metrics such as your Facebook fan count and number of retweets are useful for tracking your tactics, they are meaningless to most of your peers. The fact you have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook means little when the number of interactions on your posts (likes, comments and shares) number in the mere hundreds. Most organizations get tremendously more emails and phone calls than they do tweets and posts, which can reinforce the sense some have that social media hasn't yet scaled sufficiently to be vital. That perception is incorrect, of course, because it ignores the multiplier effect of public social communications and consumers' social graphs. Social media professionals must not rely only on measures of engagement but look for ways of tracking leads, inbound clicks, conversions, awareness, and other measures that communicate business results to decision makers.
  4. You focus only on the positive: It's easy to get excited about the opportunities in social media, but smart professionals also define risks, divulge them widely, and work to mitigate the potential costs. I've met social media workers who are hesitant to talk about the risks, afraid their bosses will find it easier to pull the plug rather than maintain a Facebook fan page where activists and detractors might shame the organization. Avoiding or minimizing the compliance, legal and reputation risks is precisely the wrong approach. Your peers may not know the specific risks in social media, but they know the risks are there; you earn trust by preparing and protecting your employer rather than dismissing those risks.

The LA Times article was difficult for me to read. I know too many bright and serious professionals in this space to read about people who "stumbled into" their social media careers and landed a job "because I'm young, and people assume you know what you're doing."

Social media is called Web 2.0, but I think it's time for Social media 2.0. Social media 1.0 was about marketing, promoting, tweeting, and posting; social media 2.0 is about driving business results and adapting to new social business models. It can be enough of an uphill battle getting traditionalists in your organization to understand the importance of social media--be cautious not to make that climb steeper with bad habits that undermine your own experience, authority and abilities.

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