The bigger picture extends beyond the screen

I always appreciate getting updates from Mervyn Dinnen’s blog, not least as the most recent – In Praise of Experience During a Time of Social Media Crisis – pointed me at a fascinating brouhaha I’d not previously been aware of: the case of Cathryn Sloane and a Nextgen Journal article – Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25 – that inflamed rather a lot of passions.

We’ll note the title of the original Journal before we move on, as it illustrates a larger point: the web is an open medium – while we can use titles and names and brands to position ourselves as appealing to particular demographics, the rest of the world is only a click away from stumbling on us. The article title was, of course, the real ‘flamebait’ here, although the article’s tone didn’t help the writer’s case for anyone outside the magical demographic that she sought to ordain and claim. If you must diss everyone over 25, at least do it somewhere where they won’t find it: just realise that the social media you are trumpeting make that harder than ever to achieve.

The poor writer has been duly roasted on every channel available (posting links would feel almost like cruelty), not least for tarring swathes of the population with one or other brush. Buried in the comments and responses it attracted, however, were some good points that we might pause to reflect on:

  • Although its brand positioning may possibly emphasise youth, the average US Facebook user in 2012 was 41 years old: anyone can use and most of us do. (The figure for Twitter was 37, by the way.) One of the first rules of writing is to know your audience as far as possible: if you can’t ‘close’ the audience group to those you’re particularly seeking, at least find as much demographic data as you can (it took about 30 seconds to do this in this case). 65% of Facebook users and 55% of Twitter users are over 35: and some of us still understand the coded references to One Direction, even if ‘One Dimension’ sums up our opinion of them more accurately – there’s quite a thick line between ‘getting it’ and ‘caring’
  • When a new thing arrives in the world, everyone gets the opportunity to embrace it simultaneously. I first used the web in 1994, and I was already over 30. My then-employing organisation gave me the web connection as they knew I had ten years’ experience of using email, conferencing systems and bulletin boards by then, not because I was young or I could type more quickly than the others. “Growing up with something” doesn’t mean you were a child when the learning began
  • Beyond the most banal chatter – which I think we can discount, as the original writer was talking about Social Media Managers – communication hopefully exists to distribute or at least disseminate some kind of wisdom. (Or failing that, maybe just data will do.) This is, perhaps, particularly true of organisation’s use of social media: customers generally want to have faith in you, not just chuckle along zanily. But there’s a more important point lurking here …
  • Learning social media in a social context doesn’t necessarily equip you to do so with the same (let’s call it) prowess in a workplace environment. The workplace isn’t high school or your sofa, and the audience that you are engaging with aren’t classmates or friends: organisational social media communicates with existing and potential customers, suppliers, competitors … “the witty, honest, energetic atmosphere these social media outlets offer” may be true in some settings, but not all situations are equal. The same people may attend a wedding and stag night, but the codes of behaviour will probably be rather different
  • However much it may annoy Marshall McLuhan fans to say so, the medium is not the message, at least in terms of prioritising the skills of the people crafting the messages. The mechanics of using social media are pretty simple – who would use a platform that takes months to command? – but the skills required in communication, managing relationships, groups and communities are much more subtle and complex
  • Social media is not about ‘being hip’. The Salvation Army has a YouTube channel. The UK Civil Service has a Twitter account. The Institute of Directors is on Facebook. Social media has most definitely arrived, and all sorts of people who invoke visions of grey suits and blue carpeted corridors in the under-25s are using it. (They are more likely, perhaps, to be responsible for buying decisions other than the purely personal, and to manage larger budgets. In that much, they are probably of greater interest to those communicating to them: business remains business, however it is communicated.) It is probably safe to assume their audiences wish to be informed and engaged with rather more than they hope to be entertained, although there is, of course, no accounting for tastes.

All of which possibly drags us back to another of social media’s chestnuts in the organisational context: who should own it. But isn’t that the wrong question? Shouldn’t we be trying to identify the criteria for skilled social media managers and then looking for them, rather than assuming they’ll be working in X division or Y department? (Having seen the storm that arose when someone suggested that should be under 25, let’s not go there.) But what might they be?

  • Inter-personal skills: think of social media interactions as phone calls the world can read transcripts of – if person X would make a bad job of handling the call, why make them responsible for Twitter?
  • Product and service knowledge: people asking questions expect answers. Age, gender and so on are not barriers to providing them, but a lack of knowledge is. Provide product/service training to those managing your social media: your internet presence is not a call centre, and callers do not expect to ‘have their call transferred’
  • Emotional intelligence: in media that filter out body language and tone of voice, sensitivity to emotional tone is critically important. Social media managers conduct multiple simultaneous remote/virtual relationships in contexts where the outcome is important
  • Business awareness: social media takes time, and time remains money. Skills in monitoring use of time and in prioritising aspects that reduce costs and maximise revenue should be very welcome, albeit with the understanding ‘maintaining a relationship’ is as hard to quantify offline as on
  • Appreciating and understanding diversity: your audience may share your gender, age group, faith, ethnic group, orientation or even favourite football club. None of those aspects of ‘you’ should be a potential offence to ‘them’
  • Organised and informed: an organisation that tweets with one hand, blogs with another and sends email campaigns with a third looks like it doesn’t do a lot of internal communication or planning, especially to the audience that receives all three. Sometimes looking up from the screen and considering the bigger picture from a different perspective can be refreshing and illuminating

Many, many organisations have drawn up their own lists – try, for example, SocialMediaHQ, Huasman Marketing, Sprout Social or (for a less marketing-led and more analytic overview) McKinsey & Company. Their own lists are potentially skewed in some cases by an underlying assumption about where social media ‘sits’ – to which one might pithily point out that the audience don’t actually care.

Which is perhaps why I think the best entry for a skills list came from Todaymade.com, where Julie Niedlingler echoed many of the web’s original pioneers when she emphasised the same aspects of networks as them:

Skill One: People
Social media is 
less digital than it is analog. It’s made of people, and that means a social media manager has to have people skills. Just about anyone can learn to use an app. People skills are a different story.”

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