Social Media Degrees: The New Fool’s Gold for Companies and Nonprofits

twitter degree

In my line of work, I frequently get asked to review job descriptions for social media-related positions. At the onset of the search process, my feedback is very straightforward and my recommended “edits” to the job descriptions are invariably very similar: “Take off ‘5-7 years professional writing experience.’ There is no faster way to kill brand transparency than to hire a stilted, ‘professional’ writer. It’s harder to ‘un-teach’ experts in one-way communications than it is to teach a PR pro from scratch how to approach social media.”

But when candidates start responding to these job descriptions, things become more difficult for the organization. In a world in which seemingly everyone with a Facebook profile calls himself or herself a social media guru, it can be hard to identify the folks with the foresight and talent to transcend simply utilizing social media tools to strategically leveraging social media to ensure the sustainable relevance and solvency of an organization.

In the not-too-distant past, I’ve struggled with trying to explain the deep-rooted difficulties of weeding out those who just want to find something “hot” in which to be an “expert,” and candidates who may genuinely prove valuable in moving organizations (and the sector) forward.  This difference was very hard for me to explain…until I saw the recent buzz about universities offering graduate degrees in social media.  Suddenly, separating the qualified wheat from the wannabe chaff became a whole lot easier:

The kind of person who gets a graduate degree in social media marketing is exactly the type of person that your organization should not hire to guide your use of digital platforms and content marketing. Though it is unclear how popular this kind of degree (or even related certification programs) may currently be, my aim is to provide a framework to identify the attributes and skills that suggest a truly qualified candidate to help maximize your organization’s social media opportunities.

Beware the social media community manager whose primary credential was earned in an ivory tower – these people are dangerous to your brand. Here are the five attributes that organizations should try to avoid like the plague and that, quite remarkably, seem inherent to the type of person who may choose to pursue a degree or “certificate” in social media:

 

1. Beware of social media managers who underestimate how quickly social media tools and market trends change. (They will tether your organization to the past.)

Facebook is notorious for frequently changing its status-delivering algorithm and just about anything else every few months. And that’s just within one platform.  Usership statistics and demographics for various digital platforms – and even (especially) market expectations of brands are constantly evolving as new platforms and trends in media alter the digital marketing landscape. Vine was a big deal …until Instagram rolled out video and Vine’s links began to tank on Twitter in just one week.

vine tanks in one week

Things move fast in this here li’l social media joint. An organization’s ability to succeed in this space often depends on its agility, willingness to evolve, ability to utilize new tools, and a market-centric priority mindful of audience expectations.

Getting a degree in social media is incongruent with the revolutionary pace of change in the industry. Imagine how out-of-touch your skillset would be if you graduated today from even an expedited graduate program that you walked into 18 months ago: You’d have missed Vine and the rise of Snapchat. You’d have had no-longer-relevant Facebook 101 classes without hashtags and an understanding of evolving algorithms. You’d be without acknowledgement of the move to a more visual web, and be desperately playing catch-up on the critical rise of social CRM (“social care”). It’s a little bit like getting a graduate degree in “the state of the world in January 2012.” Unfortunately, you would commence into irrelevance and obsolescence – all of your efforts studying a then-today would only make you expert in yesterday.  And social media doesn’t evidence much need for a rearview mirror.

Smart social media managers understand that the digital landscape changes and what makes these real-time, two-way platforms so powerful is their ability to connect with an evolving right now.

 

2. Beware of social media managers who emphasize their ability to use specific tools. (Their value to your organization has an expiration date.)

As a friendly reminder: We live in a world where people can print edible hamburgers. People can print hamburgers from a printer and then eat them! This may be particularly impressive to those interested in the physical evolution of the sharing of information, but the inevitable march of technological progress looks a lot like death for someone who majored in, say, ink.  There is a world of difference between someone who understands the theory and application of evolving ideas, and a person who sole mastery is of a tool.

Social media helps your organization achieve a greater goal like visitation or donor support…and the best tool for the job often changes. If you’re trying to build a cabinet, hire the best builder/designer – not the person who has majored in turning a screwdriver.  To be clear, the builder needs to know how to use a screwdriver, but they need to do so in a broader, holistic context that contributes to the overall goal.  Successful social media efforts have infinitely more to do with strategy and integration than the practice of any specific “tips and tricks” (AKA “the tools of the trade”).  And, just to completely beat my bad metaphorical references to death, we live in a world wherein screwdrivers are being replaced by power tools on most every job site.

Smart social media folks are eager to learn how to use new tools…but they are wise not to invest more time learning techniques than the length of time that those tools may be relevant.

 

3. Beware of social media managers who undervalue strategy and public relations/communications skills. (They directly misunderstand how social media advances organizational goals.)

A person who chooses to obtain a master’s degree in social media (specialized, single-purpose) has actively decided not to pursue a master’s degree in communications, management, or even the humanities (degrees that generally focus on how to think). And the reason may be indicative of a quick-fix, instant-expert mentality. (“I see this opportunity and it’s good for me right now” instead of “I’d like to develop my strategic capabilities in order to meaningfully contribute in the long-term.”)

If one thing is for certain about social media, it’s this: Tips and tricks for specific platforms or even entire systems aren’t long-term. The need to clearly communicate with stakeholders with transparency and respect? That’s likely to stick around.

 

4. Beware of social media managers who are not capable of thinking critically about how to apply societal developments to strategic decisions. (They have a blind spot to greater, market contexts.)

I understand that many of you reading this work in universities and formal learning environments – but for those of you who may appreciate the reminder: universities, like other organizations, need to make ends-meet, too. Here are two things that are rather prevalent in the news: 1) universities currently have strained budgets, and 2) there are a whole bunch of people looking for a shortcut to a job. Potential solution? A degree in social media in a hopeful attempt to offer a program to boost university revenue. (Hey, universities need the money and people “need” the shortcut.)

At best, your organization probably doesn’t want a person who capitalizes on self-oriented shortcuts running your most public form of public relations. At worst, your organization probably doesn’t want a person incapable of identifying current happenings in the news and putting them together running platforms that center on one’s ability to assess news and think critically about how they apply to that person’s job. 

 

5. Beware of social media managers who are willing to make shortsighted investments of time and money. (These are especially valuable resources in the nonprofit world.)

This may sound sassier than I intend it to sound, but here goes nothing:

We nonprofit folks (myself included) – and especially museum folks – tend to love higher education. And, if there’s one thing we’re arguably pretty good at it’s hiring substantive experts instead of social entrepreneurs to run our organizations. But as audiences become more sector agnostic, there may be an increased need for business (or nonprofit!) savvy in addition to academic pedigree.  As mentioned above, some university programs exist solely as revenue centers for the school…a degree in social media might be one of them. Getting a “degree in social media” may, in some way, seem to speak to us academic-loving folks in our language. And it just might be a ploy.

For the reasons listed above, investing in getting a degree in social media may be a questionable investment of time and money. Your organization probably wants someone who makes thoughtful, considered investments for good reasons…

Here’s an idea for your good thinking and hopeful discussion: Excluding short-term seminars, conferences and defined, discrete courses to help keep abreast of evolving social media strategy and market trends, what value do you think obtaining a graduate degree in social media would afford someone looking to ultimately rise to a leadership position or elevate the sector in the long-term?

 

Photo credit goes to iJobs.

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Posted on by colleendilen in Education, Generation Y, Graduate school, Jobs, Leadership, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Social Media, Technology, Words of Wisdom 4 Comments

About the author

colleendilen

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

4 Responses to Social Media Degrees: The New Fool’s Gold for Companies and Nonprofits

  1. Don Duggan-Haas

    This resonates really well with the way I think about our educator professional development. We do engage teachers in using certain tools, but I’m hopeful that they get much more out of our programming than just how to plug and chug into certain software programs and rather think about engaging the learners they work with in the creation of media that teaches others while also deepening their own understandings.

     
  2. Jasper Visser

    Great and very useful post Colleen, thanks!

    When I’m in the position I have to advice about hiring a social media professional, I usually tell the client not to worry too much about technical skills but hire someone you can comfortably send to a conference where s/he knows nobody and at the end of the day will stand in a large group, having made friends and discussed many different topics.

    Social media needs generally amiable and intelligent people, not Facebook/Twitter/Vine pundits. But that’s the point of your post, so no need to repeat it;-)

     
  3. Todd O'Neill

    Colleen
    Thanks for this piece. It provides a great roadmap for how not to do a college program in “social media”. That’s interesting to me in that I am the Director of the New Media program in Electronic Media Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.
    We are developing a program that combines critical thinking with generalist skills in new media. For us that means focusing on strategy, communication, audience research, user experience, content strategy, writing, etc. with applied skills in different types of new media; websites, social networks, microblogging, media communities, integrating channels, online video, mobile, and applications.
    I’ve been a practitioner for let’s say a long time and I have found that “specialists” are clueless about how they fit in the big picture of our new communication landscape. I “think” I have a pretty good idea, based on my experience, of what is needed to make our undergraduates good hires.
    Oh, and I urge all our students to start “doing” social media for clubs, local non-profits or small businesses now and not just “consuming” multimedia. I’ve advised our students that most employers or clients assume that they “know” social media because of their age. That is a problem for those employers or clients. And it becomes an opportunity for our students since they will KNOW how to work in current and future communication environments.
    I sound like I’m bragging but I don’t see many schools taking this approach. And a graduate degree in social media? Are you kidding? Why would someone accumulate student debt for that?
    Cheers!
    Todd

     
    • Omar Quimbaya

      I had to agree with my former co-Apple-worker, Todd. A master degree in social media would not be a viable option for students in this day and age where student loan debt is kept around for longer than most people keep their marriages. However, as a self-starter, I offered my social media services to the Asian community in my hometown, and I worked for free for a startup for four months doing their social media, writing, networking, and lead generation. An issue I have noticed is that a lot of people think that social media is not yet a useful tool, but this is slowly changing.

      Great article! Thank you for sharing it.

       

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