I called Chris Brogan a dirty word a while back.
Yup–Mr. Helpful Nice Guy himself, who along with Jason, is probably one of the most universally well-liked people in social media. Â And Â I was genuinely, really mad.
So what provoked my unladylike display of Brogan-aimed profanity? Â While it was a good indicator that my vacation last week was way overdue, mostly it was a sign that he hit a nerve. Â I had posted A Day in the Life of a Social Media Manager,Â a humorous rundown of my routine that included a lot of the actual tasks that make up my workday as an agency social media specialist. Later that day, Chris wrote a post that included the following:
“What are people doing taking titles like “Social Media Manager?” To me, this is a scary thing. Why? Because it’s like being the fax manager or the email manager. You’re naming yourself after a tool.”
It also didn’t help much that some of the tasks I’d listed were mentioned in Chris’ post in a way that seemed to imply they were fairly meaningless and lacking in business value. I didn’t take it well. On the positive side, Jason thought my emailed vent was hilarious. So hilarious that he forwarded it to Chris.
Which is the short way of explaining how it all worked out. Chris hadn’t seen my post, the topical overlap was coincidental, and on a second reading I realized that I actually agreed with a lot of what he’d written.
There’s a reason I’m bringing up the whole kerfuffle almost two months later (besides the intrinsic entertainment value of you folks picturing me cursing Brogan like a preschooler with Tourettes).
The two posts present a real, relevant issue for those who work (or want to work) in social media. On one side, you’ve got a vision of social media as a way of making business communication more human and more effective, while making the bottom-line results more measurable. In that vision, social media is integrated fully into existing business disciplines. It’s obsolete as a specialization in itself.
On the other side, you’ve got the day-to-day life of someone paid to help clients use social media tools to their advantageâ€”within their comfort zone, within their restrictions, and within their existing business paradigms.
The distance between the two, on some days, seems like an enormous gaping canyon.
My anger at Chris was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that it reminded me painfully of the wall that I beat my head against daily. I want to do high-value work for my clients. I’d love to be able to tie my work more directly to their overall profitability. Much of the time, reality fails to live up to that ideal.
I can’t often do all the things I’d like to do for my clients. They’re just not there yet. They trust that the advertising agency I work for understands their marketing and business goals. They trust that I understand social media. They don’t yet trust the value of social media. (And for the record, this is still largely true of search engine marketing as well.)Â We work in a very idealistic, futurist focus area (social media), in an industry (marketing and advertising) that is often jaded, cynical and married to past processes and conventions.
Skepticism (often born of failed efforts), risk-aversion, legal restrictions for their industry, corporate culture issues, and the sometimes complicated morass of different interested parties get in the way of being able to push the needles that would prove that value.
I provide the value I can, with all the honesty and integrity that I can. I make sure that the low-hanging fruit is harvested. When a client gets excited about a shiny new social media toy, I investigate the potential value and try not to quash their budding enthusiasm. I measure whatever I can, hoping that it will demonstrate enough value to get clients to a comfort level that will let them take the next step. I come up with strategic recommendations, editorial calendars, and content ideas, and hope that they decide to move forward with them. I prod and poke and cluck as much as I can to move them forward. It’s not ideal, and for an idealist like me, that can be hard.
There are still many clients for whom having a Facebook page where â€“Oh, my Godâ€”the public can post what they think, is a huge leap of faith. And I can’t say I much appreciate gurus and innovators who continually devalue the fact that I’ve actually gotten the client over their fear enough to publish the damn thing and see what happens. When a client musters the boldness to interact, I applaud their authentic first efforts (even if those efforts are authentically awkward). I give guidance and advice but I try to restrain myself from polishing or reworking things too much, in the same way a parent has to restrain herself from just tying her kid’s shoes for them because it’ll be faster and easier. That’s how they learn.
Can I enjoy that little victory a bit? Without getting slapped in the face and told I’ve accomplished nothing of value there? It’s a step, for heaven’s sake. It’s often the first tiny crack in a corporate wall that has separated “us” (the company) from “them” (those lousy customers) for decades. Can I not celebrate my crack a little?
[Waiting patiently while the Beavises and Buttheads in the audience get over their giggle fit at that last sentence. Okay, moving on.]
Most companies are at least starting to see the potential. They understand word of mouth, and they understand that this is word of mouth in 2009. They’ve still got a lot of ground to cover between a willingness to experiment and a willingness to embrace social media. That’s my role most of the time: finding the path of least resistance between my clients’ willingness to explore social media and the results that will hopefully move them towards embracing it in a way that can transform their business. This is the present, for me.
That said, I live with the understanding that this isn’t a business relationship that can continue indefinitely. For some, social media will end up being something they tried once. For others, they’ll eventually embrace it, own it, and integrate it into those existing disciplines, as Chris’ post described. Both scenarios leave me with no real role left to play.
Which makes me wonder where I’m headed next. That isn’t to say that I’m going to leave social media. Or that I’m convinced that a traditional advertising agency, with mostly traditional clients, has no room for social media related services.
But things are going to have to change at some point.
Maybe the change needs to be in how we refer to the services we provide. Advertising, web marketing and PR professionals have slapped the “social media” label on so many diverse strategic and executional disciplines and services, I’m not sure we even know what it means anymore. We did it for the same reason people were slapping “widgets” or “viral” or “web 2.0″ on everything for a while: because that’s what clients are asking from us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of having to prove the value of “social media” when for so much of the actual work I perform that falls under that giant umbrella, the value is head-slappingly obvious. Maybe it would be better to just talk about all that obviously valuable stuff instead.
Content strategy, online public relations, brand enthusiast cultivation, and blogger outreach are terms that are meaningful, and whose business value is pretty self-evident. Creating specialized online tools to connect interest groups is a clear service set description with an implied business value.
This is where I think the future lies for today’s social media managers/strategists/specialistsâ€”in developing new roles based on clear service sets whose value is self-evident and which are grounded in our core vocational competencies, our social media fluency, and any other handy skills we’re picking up.
Most social media people I know are consummate jacks-of-all-trades. Being a jack-of-all-trades is a horrible specialty, but it does provide you with a lot of options to develop into a real specialty.
In our case, it may be a specialty that doesn’t yet exist, or exists now in a nascent form. Because when social media fluency is integrated with traditional business disciplines and other skills, you often actually get something entirely new. Sort of like cross-breeds are a whole new species.
I believe what I’m doing now has value, in the present. I also recognize that I need to start weaving my parachute now for the day when clients aren’t knocking down the doors of agencies demanding “social media.”
Are you weaving yours?