What now for social media specialists?

I sense a certain ennui amongst senior social media pros. A sense that it is all not quite as exciting as it used to be.  This was eloquently expressed by the brilliant Tac Anderson (former Head of Digital Strategies at Wagenner Edstrom), who wrote in a recent post: “To me, all the big social media puzzles have been solved. There’s nothing new anymore, it’s all just variations of the same thing”

I have a lot of sympathy with Tac’s viewpoint.  Like him, I am one of the biggest enthusiasts for social media’s crucial and central in the marketing mix.  The problem is the ways clients are acknowledging this fact has fundamentally changed.  So much of social media marketing now seems derived from client’s fear, not their brand ambitions.

I read client social briefs full of two types of fear:

  1. Aggressive fear, shown when marketers want to demonstrate to their superiors that they can simply out do a competitor brand. At its heart, the old keeping up with the Joneses scenario: ‘their videos gone viral, so we want ours to’; ‘they have 50,000 fans; we are going to get 100,000’.
  2. Jumpy fear, expressed through a general request to be doing more ‘social’.  When you drill into it the sentiment is usually ‘let’s throw money at social with an agency, so it won’t worry us anymore and we can have some reports to show the boss’.

If you let it, it seems to me that PR / social media agencies could become very dull places if they simply respond to the 99% of PR and social briefs placed on the table these days.

Most social strategy work for brands used to be highly ambitious, fun, honest and experimental (backed five years ago by only the most forward-thinking marketeers). As social media engagement has become de rigeur, the solutions expected have become blander and those commissioning the work have become a nervy middle-management, not the maverick CEOs or in-the-know junior marketeers with a point to prove, with only small budgets and free reign.

So what can social media experts who have flourished during the social media revolution do now that much of the revolution (mind-set-wise anyway), has taken place and those commissioning work are now simply wanting boxes ticked not achieve big solutions from new channels? If you accept, as Tac Anderson argues, that most big brand milestones in social have now happened, then what next? What do you do if you don’t want to start painting by numbers?

As for me, I am now a partner at Inkling, a company with big ideals and passionately held principles, where I’m now part of something more holistic than being wheeled-out as the digital or social media guy.  And while that’s fine and dandy for me, I think all heads of digital might be looking in the mirror and beginning to ask is this their time for a professional mid-life crisis?

I think there are, of course, other ways of avoiding doing “variations of the same thing” beyond joining a company like Inkling:

  1. Do something different – if digital experts are needed by brands for increasingly boring purposes, then find a new challenge. Leave the business.  Or create a business that will act as a catalyst for changing the new status quo.
  2. Get more techie – the innovations are coming through accessibility to coding now and the bringing about of the cybernetic life, not through the in-depth understanding of social media. Time to create and invent using technology, not just connecting brands with consumers off the back of it.
  3. Widen your vision again – most “digital experts” were generalists before they went so tightly down that avenue.  Reconnect with how much you can offer focus brands with their broad business, marketing and strategic challenges and invest less brain time specifically on the social media side of a brief. Instead unlock your potential to be the client’s less definable 360 support and advisor.

In short, get out the box and refuse to get back in.

The difficulty is that involves risk, which may lead to less briefs, so less money potentially.  But in marketing, you simply don’t have principles unless money is at stake to test them against.

And surely creating marketing that makes a greater difference for a brand, rather than a client’s next review appraisal, is worth it?


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