What does the future hold for the social media specialist?

Now that every kid on the block has digital skills, the job descriptions of all those ‘gurus’ and ‘mavens’ are evolving.

In the days of yore, when alchemists transformed lead into gold and “digital ninjas” practiced their magic among us, social media strategists could dazzle lesser mortals with their skills on Twitter and Facebook.

Today, every communicator is well versed in social platforms, kids with digital fluency are crowding the workforce, and even busy CEOs have figured out how to engage in a bracing Twitter feud.

So is there a future for all these social media strategists, these mavens and gurus and Sherpas and samurai? Or will they be cursed to wander the wastelands as digital ronin?

We rounded up opinions on the evolution of their roles through a HARO request and from some of the participants in an upcoming SXSW panel titled, “Your Social Media Job is Dead. Now What?”

The conclusion of many: The job may not be dead, but you’d better broaden your portfolio of skills.

Evolving beyond mere tweets

Reached by phone, panelist Daniel Honigman, co-founder of what he slyly describes as a stealth startup, says the job is becoming a more integral part of the brands they serve.

“As a professional, you need to evolve past being someone who knows how to tweet,” Honigman says, “and actually learn the business.”

This could mean knowing how to manage an account within an agency, or talking to customers in a fashion that “actively helps the way you do business and ultimately affect the bottom line,” he says.

Focusing on digital media as a specialization is a bit passé, says panelist Ana Andjelic, a digital strategist at Droga5. Nowadays there is little distinction between digital and nondigital.

“Promoting yourself as just a digital strategist is a little bit less of an advantage, not to mention social media strategist,” she said in an interview. “You don’t want to be pigeonholed in this area, especially because you don’t want to come in on the executional phase. You want to be part of the planning and strategy phase.”

Social media use can’t just focus on growth but needs to take a holistic approach to drawing engaged and educated consumers of content, writes Brian Walton, editor-in-chief of GeekChicDaily.

“Social media is shifting from a tool in an arsenal for your brand, to what has to be a primary component,” he says. “The job of social media specialists is now closer to community management than ever before.”

Andy Vitale, co-founder and creative director of The Pancake Movement, scoffs at “those people who were passing themselves off as social media experts, who would just charge companies a monthly fee to tweet and put out a few Facebook posts on their behalf.”

Rather, he states, social media should be part of a complete marketing campaign made up of online as well as offline content.

Understand the business

The job description of a social media strategist has evolved from managing a brand’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to thoroughly understanding the business, says Sonny Gill, DeVry University’s social media manager and also a panelist.

“A lot of these folks on the campus level, they truly understand what students need,” Gill said by phone. “For us to understand them, we have to step out of our bubble and talk to people way outside of our realm.”

The influx of younger people who know social media inside and out shouldn’t worry the experts, states Chris Corbett, interactive director of Davis Advertising.

“The strategist has a lot more to do with the strategy, and a lot less to do with the use of technical tools, so the more people that can roll up their sleeves and help out, the better,” Corbett says.

Many see a future for the experts in other forms. Over time, social media has become more focused on one’s business brand and how that is talked about online, writes Mike Essex, online marketing manager at Koozai.

“The job has evolved and is about monitoring your brand to engage with customers, as well as protecting the brand to stop ‘brand terrorists’ destroying your reputation,” he says.

Dan O’Keeffe, president of O’Keeffe PR, compares the evolution of social media to the status of the Internet at the turn of the last decade, when he was marketing director for a Web design firm.

Back then he often heard objections: “Why do I need a website? We build and sell forklifts.”

His point: “They approached the Web cautiously, which actually allowed them to identify and adapt their business models and strategies to the new technology. … Social media is no different. We are still in our infancy.”

Integrating social media skills

Desiree Baughman—a freelance writer, editor, and consultant—believes that the job market is going to dive for social media professionals, even as colleges are “pushing it and making a buck off it.”

“I believe it’s unfortunate for younger generations who are being sucked into trying to go down the social media career path purely because they feel it’s comparable to something like nanotechnology or because they simply enjoy it and grew up with it,” she says.

Consider the young poor social media whizzes who think that all the time they spent on Facebook and Twitter in an internship set them up for a future in marketing, suggests B.J. Cook, CEO and co-founder of Digital Operative, a digital marketing agency. Those who are successful in social media now are often those with past experience in SEO, PR, design or customer experience.

“Folks who want to specialize in social media need to get real and think about additional areas of marketing as well,” Cook states. “Understand how social media integrates and plays with everything else.”

By contrast, check out the capable youngsters like Constance Aguilar, who isn’t content to cruise along on social media expertise alone. A 22-year-old social media specialist and account manager at Abbi Public Relations, she says she has added a number of skills that keep her an essential part of her company.

These include design, drafting social media plans and writing expert columns, because “every company wants to be branded as experts.”

“The whole ‘social media maven’ thing” has always bugged Ana Yoerg, director of communications at Wikia, a pop culture network started by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

If people want to specialize, she recommends, they shouldn’t just focus on what she calls a “minor channel” (that is, social media). Instead, own a demographic, and know every way to reach it.

“Can you think analytically and examine the big picture?” she states. “Develop communication strategies that incorporate various channels. Are you a great writer? Specialize in messaging.

“What about multitasking and project management? Own one of the emerging channels, and run campaigns from start to finish.”

Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com, where this story first appeared.

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