Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Yelp, YouTube: Nowadays, just about everyone seems to use at least one of these social media Web sites. That's because social media is unbeatable for catching up with old friends, meeting new ones and getting the latest intelligence on everything from service providers to hot movies to popular restaurants.
Now businesses large and small are getting into the act too. They're hiring social media experts to get their messages out and develop relationships with their customers in exciting new ways.
Understand that "new" is the operative word here. The field is so cutting-edge that formal educational options are limited (see sidebar) and social media jobs don't yet have standardized titles, responsibilities or salaries. Also, these jobs can be located in a variety of departments within an organization-including marketing, communications, external relations, public relations, publications or strategic planning-which makes them difficult to target during a job hunt.
But the opportunities are out there, with more companies jumping onto the social media bandwagon every day. To better understand this career and how to prepare, we spoke with Carolyn Clark, executive vice president at Minding Your Business, a Chicago meeting and event agency; Chris Martin, owner of Chris Martin Public Relations; Jeremy Manier, news director of the University of Chicago; and Rob Mitchum, senior science and research reporter, new media, University of Chicago Hospitals.
What does a social media expert do?
Basically, workers in this role promote their organization's products or objectives using social media tools. Social media is all about relationships, so manufacturers, retailers and service providers have been quick to seize on its customer-service potential.
Martin points to the example of how closely Comcast monitors their social media: "I would say their Twitter customer service is now probably better than their phone customer service," he says. "If you send them a tweet [Twitter message] with a problem, they will get back to you right away because they're constantly monitoring Twitter."
But monitoring is only a piece of the puzzle. Social media experts also use various analytical tools to measure the success of their efforts. "They must constantly look at their metrics to see what's working and tweak their messages and offers if the results aren't what they want," Clark says. "They need to be tuned in to what's happening within their organization every single day to constantly synthesize that information into relevant posts to 'push' out to their channels."
What is a typical day like?
Any social media job is going to involve lots of time monitoring the company's online presence on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other platforms or online communities are important to its success.
"I keep Facebook and Twitter open literally my entire workday. I'm constantly toggling between them, my blog, my clients' blogs and my clients' Web sites," says Martin, who specializes in health care. "I'm looking to build relationships with people who will help out my clients - that might be reporters, producers, new people in their industry or profession."
But monitoring only goes so far-you have to start joining in the conversations and, ideally, sending out offers or information as a direct result of what you read. And that's where strategy comes in. "Too many people today start without a strategy, so they open a Facebook account and a Twitter account, link them together and start sending out a bunch of 'push' announcements, the old one-directional way of communicating with the public," says Clark. "The key to social media is to develop a 'pull' strategy that provides relevant material while getting a conversation going. That's how people want to be communicated with now."
A social media employee may also spend time blogging, writing more in-depth material than the 140 characters allowed on Twitter. Mitchum, a Ph.D. in neurobiology who writes the ScienceLife blog for the University of Chicago Hospitals, estimates that it takes up about 75 percent of his time. He notes, however, that much of what he creates for the blog is used in other applications like the hospital's YouTube channel.
As Mitchum has learned, most social media employees currently also have other types of work duties. He also writes traditional press releases, for example.
Many household name corporations like Sears and Cargill are hiring employees, often with a title like "social engagement manager," who devote 100 percent of their time to social media. This trend will likely accelerate as the social media industry matures.
What does a social media expert earn?
Once again, social media's newness makes it difficult to be specific. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, for instance, groups social media into the category of public relations specialists. This overall category is projected to grow much faster than average, with 2018 employment levels projected to be 24 percent higher than 2008 levels. It's impossible to know how much of that overall job growth will occur in the social media arena, but more than likely it's a hefty portion.
According to Martin, a social media expert's job is comparable to that of a communications manager and might bring in $35,000-$80,000, plus benefits.
Clark puts the top salary range a bit higher: "A strategist can earn low six figures if they have a multiple client base and a manager for a singular organization is looking at a salary of about $60,000."
Why is social media a booming opportunity right now?
According to Clark, every organization is being told they have to be in social media. "Yet, while everyone says that, there is no how-to manual for social media success. Those folks who develop the books for "Dummies" don't have the answers because social media isn't a linear process," she says. "You constantly have to think on your feet and modify your strategies based on your success metrics. People who have the analytical and communication skills to do that are in high demand."
What are the most satisfying aspects of a career in social media?
Mitchum loves the way social media increase his communication options. "Social media is just a new set of tools that provide new ways of connecting with people we might not have reached otherwise," he says.
His favorite example? Last year's University of Chicago conference that celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin. "I wrote long, in-depth blog entries about the conference, then wrote a tweet for each entry to sum it up and build readership. Plus sometimes there were interesting points made at the conference that I just tweeted without a link," he says. "So many things came together for us and helped us provide both in-depth and nimble coverage in a whole new way to the people for whom it really mattered." ¿