Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Response to: Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25

Over on NextGen Journal, a young woman named Cathryn Sloane has kicked up a lot of dialog with a blog post entitled, "Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25." In it, she complains about companies that post social media job openings "looking for five to ten years of direct experience" and asserts that "the candidates who are in fact best suited for the position actually aren’t old enough to have that much experience."

I was going to respond to Ms. Sloane but then I realized I already had. Three years ago. When she was a sophomore in college.

In July 2009, I wrote a blog post about a social media blunder caused by an intern, and I urged companies to consider the importance of social media and the need for mature, experienced leadership. I was going to edit my old blog post to update it just a bit, and then I realized I didn't need to do so. While the social media world has matured in the intervening years, the need for true leadership and not just social media familiarity (which Ms. Sloane fails to recognize are not mutually exclusive) has not changed. In fact, it has increased.

So here is my response to Ms. Sloane, written three years before she wrote her her own blog post:

Caveat Emptor: Do You Know Enough to Buy or Hire Social Media Expertise?

Caveat Emptor is Latin for "Let the buyer beware." It is a call for purchasers to become informed and use due diligence before completing a transaction. If you're a marketer, this is a call you should take very seriously before contracting with a Social Media agency or hiring a Social Media specialist. Care is required if you don't want your brand to end up in the headlines for the wrong reason, as has European furniture maker Habitat.

We've been through this before. A decade ago, with the power of search engines surging, the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) became evident to marketers everywhere--and they had no idea what to do about it. The Internet was still new and some were yet debating its importance, so the ways of managing a brand's searchability and findability were unfamiliar and strange to marketers accustomed to print ads and FSIs. They, of course, turned to "experts" (either external agencies or new hires), but many had no basis upon which to evaluate that expertise. Disasters ensued.

This brings me to one of my favorite stories of my Internet career. Many years ago, a client asked my agency for an SEO proposal. Their goals were lofty--they wanted the top spot for several very common search terms. We responded with an appropriate proposal based on the best practices of the day; it was not inexpensive, nor did we promise the top spot on Google.

We lost the contract to an "SEO agency" we'd never heard of that was cheaper and made promises to match the aggressive (and unrealistic) goals set by the client. You can probably guess the rest of the story--within months, the black hat tactics used by the other firm (such as hidden text and link farms) resulted in our client's site disappearing from top search engine databases.

This story returned to mind as I read about the trouble in which Habitat has found itself with Social Media spamming. As described on Mashable, the furniture maker was caught seeding Twitter's top trending terms as hashtags into tweets promoting a sweepstakes for those who would join Habitat's email list. If you are reading this post and didn't understand that last sentence, then this should be a very clear warning sign to proceed with caution when contracting for Social Media services or hiring a social media expert, because this action proved to be a PR disaster for Habitat.

With dozens of blogs with tens of thousands of readers complaining about Habitat's spamming of Twitter, Habitat was forced to apologize. The company's note to bloggers said, in part:

The top ten trending topics were pasted into hashtags without checking with us and apparently without verifying what all of the tags referred to. This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat. We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that was caused. This is totally against our communications strategy. We never sought to abuse Twitter, have removed the content and will ensure this does not happen again.

In this case, the error in judgment was not made by a johnny-come-lately fly-by-night Social Media agency (although it could've been) but by an intern.

One of my biggest gripes nowadays is the mistaken belief that I have heard repeated time and again in a form similar to this: "Young adults are so clued into Social Media, so we're going to hire an intern to handle Social Media for our brand." Again, if you are reading this blog and have found yourself thinking an intern is the solution to close the Social Media gap in your organization, this is another warning sign to proceed with caution and seek expertise where you need expertise. Social Media is the most important change in human and marketing communications in a decade, and trusting your brand's presence and reputation to the maturity, expertise, knowledge, and judgment of a 22 year old is as dangerous as it sounds.

Habitat found this out the hard way. Not only did they leave an important marketing channel to an intern, they also completely failed to monitor this channel or their employee. It is evident no one was subscribed to and keeping tabs on the company's own Twitter feed, or if they were, they lacked the Social Media wisdom to recognize a truly horrible and painfully apparent Social Media mistake.

Habitat's reputation has been stung. There have been thousands of tweets and blog posts accusing them of being spammers and exploiting some of the most sensitive and timely situations in the world--including the Iranian elections--for their own gain. Tweets in just the last five minutes as I type this include, "We've seen your apology, but telling us who didn't post them doesn't tell us who did post them. Why did Habitat let this happen?" and "Are u kidding me? @HabitatUK gets an intern to work on the Twitter acc. with no clue and then get rid of him?"

Much like brands stung by improper SEO tactics in years past, the use and abuse of Social Media can result in the kind of disasters that cost money and harm brands. How can a marketing organization with little or no Social Media expertise prevent this from happening? The solution is actually very simple; it's just not necessarily cheap:

  • Get smart now: Social Media isn't hype and it's not going away. Social Media isn't just important to your business, it is your business. Just like today, when every employee and leader is expected to be conversant in the Internet, it will soon become required that every employee understand the best (and worst) practices of Social Media. The quicker you and your organization can get there, the better. This will require both a personal and professional commitment to learn for many marketing professionals.
  • Recognize what you do not know: Knowing what you and your organization do not know is the first, important step in determining how to address Social Media challenges and opportunities. Many organizations have embraced Social Media and are prepared to do it themselves or to apply their knowledge and experience to buy or hire the skills they need, but other organizations are still in the shallow end of the Social Media pool. If you find yourself thinking that the biggest need your organization has is to launch and participate in Twitter and Facebook, then you should take a step back and take time (or find assistance) to define your organization's need before jumping to vendor or candidate evaluation.
  • Recognize the importance of Social Media: A company that recognizes how important Social Media is today and will be in the future does not leave it to an intern or an agency that was founded six months ago and consists of three people. The significance of Social Media to your brand's future and the caliber of the strategy and support needed by your enterprise may become evident when the organization's leaders understand Social Media's growth and future potential.
  • Finally, hire what you really need: I mean no disrespect to the many young people who are active in Social Media both personally and professionally, but most brands wouldn't hire a young adult fresh out of school to manage their media strategy, their brand strategy, or digital strategy. The same should be no less true of Social Media strategy. Mistakes can be costly, and the way to avoid mistakes is to find professionals who not only understand Social Media but also have the appropriate seasoning to know the marketing, legal, PR, brand, internal, and competitive implications of their decisions and actions.

Mistakes are costly and unnecessary, so it is vital that marketers make smart decisions. Finding someone with the ability to tweet is easy; finding the right agency or employee to furnish insight, judgment, and experience in Social Media is not. Securing the maturity and experience your enterprise needs might be the difference between a Social Media presence that builds your brand's influence or destroys it.


Rich Meyer said...

I could not agree more with you. The idea that someone should be under 25 is both assadine and just plain stupid

Augie Ray said...

Thanks for sharing the link, Rich.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Augie. I remember this post very clearly and still have it in my bookmarks. Reading it again made me pause to comment on the article.

What I wrote: "I think we should focus more on why social media managers and social strategists should be hired because of their business acumen, social media skills, strategic and creative thinking, overall experience, and potential to shine -- not their age, be it under or over 25.

Equally important to emphasise is that companies should stop searching for social media UNICORNS: someone who has 10 years of experience in social media campaigns, strategy, marketing, content strategy, community-building, oh, and throw in social analytics as well. They don't want one individual, they want a whole department. This kind of thinking is detrimental to any social media professional, under 25 or over.

In my opinion, social media familiarity is the least important qualification. Knowledge and familiarity of the tech and tools should not be mutually exclusive to strategic thinking. I think the more important qualifications to consider when hiring a social media professional might not even have anything to do with technology. Listening skills, research and analysis, experience in UX or design thinking, editorial skills, concept development, involvement in participatory and transformational projects or change management, open leadership -- these are areas that deserve our our attention when hiring social media professionals."

Augie Ray said...

Great comments, socialbiz! Thanks for joining the conversation.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realise I didn't sign my name - not very social of me ;-).

Thanks, Augie!

-Timi Stoop-Alcala

Kevin Murphy said...

Social media is just a medium. Often the mid-twenties hire understandts the medium and the tactical aspects of it. But it's the rare 20-something that has the organizational experience, communications expertise or leaderhip to create a social business strategy.

You need youth, creative ideas and cultural relevance, but you also need someone who can engage with leadership and provide guidance. The field is big enough for both.


Augie Ray said...

Thanks Timi. And thank you, Kevin, for adding to the dialog. I, of course, agree!

Nickeyh said...

I absolutely could not agree with you more! I cringe every time I hear someone say they're going to let their intern, teenage employee, niece/nephew manage their social medias because "they're on FB all the time"!

And then they inevitably call me for damage control or to tell me that social media doesn't work ...

Good comments about this, and I like Kevin's suggestion of youth along with experience.

Thanks for the post,

Nickeyh said...

I absolutely could not agree with you more! I cringe every time I hear someone say they're going to let their intern, teenage employee, niece/nephew manage their social medias because "they're on FB all the time"!

And then they inevitably call me for damage control or to tell me that social media doesn't work ...

Good comments about this, and I like Kevin's suggestion of youth along with experience.

Thanks for the post,

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the comment. "Damage control," as in closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped, right? :)

Gina Rau said...

A few years ago I heard local Portland agency leaders talk about the need to hire fresh college grads who had grown up in the social media age and would be able to simply step right into these roles. While urging them to consider the value in experience, I feared the lessons learned would be painful. And as brand after brand demonstrates those learnings in the public eye I wonder if the hiring strategies have changed.

Shame on managers for bringing on interns or young college grads and not providing mentors, training and guidance to do their jobs and then trusting all is well with no check-ins. Unless you want to set someone up for failure, you never walk away from that responsibility.

Unknown said...

I don’t want to extol immaturity. Maturity is an important characteristic. Moreover, no important job function should be performed without adequate supervision. Both the results and methods for key functions need to be monitored. Delegating them without follow-up is abdication of responsibility.

That said, using an arbitrary number of years of experience as a proxy for maturity is not a solution. This is particularly true in new and dynamically changing fields. All too often, I see job listings that expect a number of years of experience in a field or with a technology when that field or technology simply didn’t exist that long ago. If you read carefully the original argument, that was her point--many people who understand the "social" aspect of social media haven't had the chance to develop many years of experience, saying that only people under 25 fit that mold was simply hyperbole to make a provocative headline. Clearly, many have fallen for the bait.

I have seen two causes for requests of exaggerated years of experience. Occasionally, the request is done to make a candidate impossible to find, so that the hiring manager can pick or promote a specific person for the job. Write a job offer that no one can fill; then one can simply pick one’s own choice as the best qualified surrogate.

Less intentional, but more problematic is the hiring based upon arbitrary qualifications. Simply list a lot of skills that might be used in the job and require significant experience as an attempt to get well-qualified candidates. People who have lots of experience on paper don’t necessarily have actual useful skills in the area. Laundry lists and arbitrary cut-offs are no substitute for judgment.

I would like to offer one anecdote to illustrate my point. Although I am a specialist with many years of experience in a technical field which gives me not only depth but breadth, a couple years back I worked with an intern who not only kept up with me as we worked through the project, but added insights that I would have missed. Later she was replaced by not one but two people with more experience. While those two were both competent and added much to the project, they weren’t able to be as incisive or decisive. As a result, parts of the project became bloated. I am convinced that a better product would have been produced had we been able to retain her. The combination of fresh viewpoint and experienced perspective is difficult to match.

Therein lies the correct balance: wisdom and maturity from experienced mentors who are still flexible enough to accept innovations enhanced by newer members who are steeped in the current issues and not encumbered by the way things have always been done. As someone else wrote, what you want to hire is not a person but a department.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks for joining the conversation, Christopher. I've been waiting for you! :)

You make good points, but in some respects I think you miss the point. This isn't about if young people can be smart or capable--they clearly can. (If you were to check with the younger peers I've had, you'd find that I put a lot of stock in their ideas and experiences.) The issue here is about *leadership.*

The blogger on NextGen didn't say those under 25 were smart and should be part of social media teams. She specifically said young people should be social media managers. In fact, she said EVERY social media manager should be under 25.

Managing social media takes more than just knowing how to tweet and post. As noted in my blog post and the comments, it takes time to understand how to lead, earn trust, manage budgets and influence change in corporate settings. When sitting across the boardroom table from a bunch of 60 year olds trying to gain approval for a budget increase of millions of dollars, the simple fact of the matter is that years of experience and gray hair matters.

Let me ask you this: As a young person coming in from college and hoping to manage your career within an organization, do you want the 20-something as mentor or someone who's been there/done that and succeeded for decades? I know you're answer, and that's why maturity and experience matters.

BY the way, if you gain more experience in Human Resources, you'll find that the number of years in job postings aren't there for political reasons and aren't arbitrary. (I'm guessing from your comment that you haven't done any hiring yet.) The reason job postings ask for a number of years of experience is to filter candidates in an objective way that protects the company from legal accusations of discrimination. Don't get me wrong, I often find those minimum requirements frustrating as well, but they exist for a reason.

I appreciate the dialog!

Unknown said...

Perhaps, I missed (or dismissed) the point. In particular, I took the “all” statement in the original headline as absurd exaggeration of the form typically used to inspire controversy. All and never are only useful in fictions like mathematics and rarely hold true in “real life”. There are always the exceptions that prove the rule.

More importantly, there is true value to young and dynamic leadership and also the contributions of wise older mentors. However, one shouldn't expect leaders or mentors to be of a specific age. Both the young and the old can exhibit the requisite characteristics to be either a leader or a mentor. In particular, some people are just inherently wise “beyond their years” which shows that it can be gained without experience. Similarly, there are others who are still vibrant and dynamic despite have lived a long life. Of course, in contrast, there are also those who are foolish despite having made many mistakes that they should have learned from and also those set in their stagnant ways despite having little reason to become so ossified.

More bothersome is the cronyism displayed by those boards filled with 60 year olds who assume that the senior person is wise and the junior person aggressive. Agreed that it is a fact that they do this, but should they. Although experience definitely informs knowledge, I find myself only moderately wiser although far more experienced than I was at 18 and my level of ambition has not changed. Most importantly, the intent was to rail against those who apply those standards arbitrarily without any discernment. Blind prejudice and stereotyping rarely yield the best results.

As to hiring, I have done enough, both as a member of a corporation, and as an entrepreneur. That even includes writing those “unfillable” job requirements to be posted to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement, to have a way of screening out undesirable candidates. Still, finding the best person for the job requires diligence and often depends upon finding a candidate that has the right raw material that can be grown to fill the role. No simple metric can capture that.

This is not to diminish your points about maturity and experience. However, it is to caution those who wish to over-simplify the debate down to years of experience or to age. A single number like that does not convey enough information to make an informed choice.

Thank you for the dialog. Discussions like this not only help us to understand each other, but also to clarify our own positions. Hopefully, this has been neither too argumentative nor off-topic.

Unknown said...

Good arguments and facts been brought out in the article... enjoyed reading it and to some extent i agree with it