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Why Social Media Is The Most Misunderstood Job

Why Social Media Is The Most Misunderstood Job

The fact that U.S. politicians can simultaneously believe that TikTok is both a threat to national security, and also a core channel for reaching a key voter demographic, perfectly illustrates the tension at the heart of social media. Senators want to engage with TikTok, but on their terms—which is exactly the conundrum facing marketing teams and brands, but expanded to geopolitical scale.

Eight of the 10 most valuable companies in the world derive revenue from the attention economy, but social media as a professional discipline has only really existed for the past decade. During that time there’s been a wholesale shift from text-based platforms like Facebook and Twitter being the dominant forces to image-based platforms like Instagram and TikTok becoming the primary channels for users and advertisers alike.

I spoke to four social media executives to get their perspective on how the landscape, and the job itself, has changed dramatically over the past 10 years.

The Evolution Of Social Media And The Rise Of TikTok

Kate Winick made the transition from a traditional editorial background into social media more than a decade ago, joining Elle magazine as their Social Media Manager in 2013. At the time, Kate saw this as an opportunity to incorporate data into legacy media in a way that was entirely new.

“Instead of just putting an article out there and maybe your mom reads it, and somebody tells you they thought you did a good job, all of a sudden there’s live traffic monitoring and you can see whether or not the story is resonating with people,” she said.

For Winick, who in her most recent role led social media at Peloton, the biggest shift has been from the emphasis on copy to the focus on imagery and video.

“I joke that if I had a dollar for every time we’d pivoted to video over the last 13 years, I would have retired by now,” she said. She notes that, for the platforms, video has long been the goal because “video is really sticky, people spend a lot of time watching it” but conversely, it’s very expensive to produce, which perhaps explains why the medium took some time to gain traction. TikTok solved that by making the user the creator, unlocking explosive growth to 1.5 billion users, making it the fourth largest platform in the world (behind Facebook, YouTube and Instagram).

Bari Tippett has spent her whole career in social media and is quick to emphasize how much the role has changed in the past decade. From managing all social channels for multiple brands agency-side, to the growth of dedicated in-house teams, to the emergence of video. “I had to really figure out how to make short-form video on my iPhone,” Tippett said. “I remember the first TikTok I ever made took me an hour, now I can make TikToks in my sleep.”

Winick goes on to point out that while the trope of “the intern running social media” was never an accurate portrayal of what was happening inside marketing teams, in the early years of social media it was “a very challenging, under-appreciated individual contributor kind of role.”

That has shifted, and social is now seen as a powerful channel, with a much higher degree of visibility for the professionals charged with managing a brands’ social presence.

The Changing Role Of Social Media Executives
Another tension at the heart of social media centers on the demographics of some of the largest consumers of the medium, according to Winick: “I don’t want to make this about age, I’m over this being about age. But there is a certain amount of social that really, really, runs on pop culture, and you become less relevant as pop culture is no longer made for you” there is therefore “a perception and a concern from leadership that if you’re not a kid anymore, do you understand really, what kids are talking about?”

Bari has a similar perspective: “now I say I’m like an actress – I come to work and I am acting as SweetgreenSweetgreen 0.0%. That is me from 9 to 5 and I think that’s what’s really fun about social” but goes on to say that the shifting expectations of both brands and consumers puts a lot more pressure on social media teams. Customers want to feel that they’re part of the conversation and expect faster and faster responses: “It’s not just posting, it’s really creating relationships with people online all day every day. Social never sleeps.”

Nathan Poekert believes that “the social media role is always going to be misunderstood because the role of social media is different for every single brand” largely because brands “define social media at different stages of the marketing funnel.” He goes on to explain that there can also be a certain amount of perception dissonance for social media professionals: a CMO might be happy to share a viral video that garnered 10m views in a board meeting, while still viewing the teams that created it as fundamentally unserious “oh you’re the TikTok person.”

Social Transitions From A Retention Play To A Growth Channel
From her early days in editorial (encouraging users to consume more content) to her recent five-year stint at Peloton, Kate has seen first-hand the evolution of social as a retention tool, to a growth and acquisition channel: “we don’t necessarily know what somebody’s first touch point is anymore. Do we know if they’ve seen a bike in their friends’ home? Or have they seen one of our TV commercials, or did they get a piece of our collateral mailed to them? Did they find us on social first, or did they see an instructor make an appearance on Good Morning America?” In this context, social should be treated like any other brand touchpoint, because “social is the brand, and the brand is social.”

Nathan argues that “80% of social channels are top-of-funnel focused, and because there is very weak attribution right now, you’re not able to measure social media as having direct impact on the funnel.” Kate goes on to say however that “It was very, very clear that this is something that could unlock major hockey-stick growth for brands and news outlets that figured out how to use it effectively, and how to use it to get their content in front of other people”

How To Build A Career In Social Media
Zaria Parvez (recognized by this publication as “one of the most influential voices in corporate social media”) acknowledges that the first year of her career “was just figuring out what it means to work in social media,” though that didn’t stop Zaria from recognizing the enormous potential of TikTok:

“TikTok announced they had one billion monthly active users, and there was no one at the time that I thought that was owning TikTok the way that Wendy’s owns Twitter, for example. And it felt like a cool challenge to do in my little corner in Pittsburgh.”

At the same time Zaria recognized that it would be important to have some clear metrics noting “a viral video might have hit 10 million views, but then the question often is, so what?” One of the ways DuolingoDuolingo 0.0% has achieved this is through their onboarding survey, which helps to provide attribution for new users in a way that isn’t typically possible from social channels. Doing so helps “show our impact, which helps get more buy-in for more risky ideas, and more budget.”

See Also

In Zaria’s view, success in social requires a “very strong like test-and-learn mentality, and something I always say that you can plan mentality where you can’t plan virality… I don’t have a go-viral button, but there’s certain things that we can do to create an environment that will create virality that will ultimately lead to new users.” Kate adds that there is an also an element of judgement at play “do you, as a senior leader, have the instincts developed to notice when something is happening, and to make a judgment call about whether this is something for your brand or not?”

For Zaria, the tension at the heart of social media is clear “you can’t sell, you have to entertain, but I don’t think all brands have fully incorporated that mindset. It’s still something we’re all rubbing up against, and the brands that are able to do this, I think, have found success.” Ultimately, Zaria believes that “you have to be willing to take risks, and to push things forward, and ask for forgiveness instead of permission.”




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