A Social Media Specialist Is Just a Specialist

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The Altimeter Group released a report defining the characteristics of a “Corporate Social Strategist” last week. Aside from the job title, it was a refreshing report as it added contextual research to what many voices have been claiming for some time: To be successful as an online communicator, one needs to have the fundamental underpinnings of communications or marketing experience and education.

There are those who have architected personal brands to achieve such jobs, but they may have over-extended beyond their capabilities. In reality, as the Altimeter Group report shows, the ability to engage in social media was only the fifth most important skill set in the recipe for success. Comprehension of other communications disciplines and leadership capabilities mattered more.

A couple of points here. To lead corporate or most nonprofits’ online engagement, one must understand marketing. Further, it is critical to understand the role of communications in supporting sales, donations, brand development, and public perception on issues. It’s at the heart of delivering real measurable value as opposed to “influence” metrics like follower counts and retweet rates. When a social media expert says that they don’t need to justify the importance of widespread Facebook conversations, they betray their lack of fundamentals.

Another critical aspect of this is the use of the words strategy and strategist. To understand business or cause strategy, one needs to understand more than communications and marketing. They have to understand the entire organization, not just its outreach efforts. There are so many critical aspects to running an organization that communicators never touch.

One of the surest signs of the social media bubble are the incredulous statements from experts that feel like they can run an organization better than a CEO or an executive director. One is left wondering why? It’s not impossible. Yet one has to ask questions about the social media expert’s experience and understanding of business functions like talent management, sales, customer service, operations, IT, finances and legal.

Since strategy is often associated with military actions, an allegory seems apropos. It takes a hell of a lot more than helicopters to win a war. And if big media hits are airplanes, than social media impressions should be viewed as choppers. Heck, it takes more than air cover to win; it takes artillery, ships, guns, people with naval and ground expertise, equipment, supplies, transport, medical, communications, IT, etc., etc.

Point being, a specialist is just a specialist. While someone may know how to engage in social media, that doesn’t make them anything more than a role player in the larger context of marketing, much less an entire organization.

There’s an old expression, you can’t rob time of time. While certainly someone can excel and become a leader, it takes a great understanding of the larger fundamentals. That requires knowledge of theory AND experience. The faster one focuses on gaining both of those, the more likely they are to excel.