Marketing departments are starting to turn the tide in the latest budget battle with IT departments. The theater of war? Social media. Our best hope for peace lies in savvy social media strategists that just might possess the pioneering spirit necessary to establish a collaborative truce – as long as they know what they’re getting into, and how to stay several steps ahead of the opposition.

Finally, being unconventional and unpredictable pays off

When discussions embedded with negative comments about companies first started popping up online, most marketing departments turned to IT for help in dealing with them. The initial response was to consider any online issue as a “trouble ticket” that involved trying to “remove” negative comments from the Internet and fixing the subject of concern quietly like any other customer support issue.

As online consumer feedback became more formalized among social groups, the battle of responsibilities began. Because most companies had not yet grasped the importance of participating in the online dialogue, many marketing departments found themselves responding retroactively to dynamic issues revealing themselves on the Web.

Figuring out how to handle the new level of exposure that came with unfettered online dialogue between consumers was challenging enough, so it was common for marketing departments to deem it IT’s responsibility to handle issues that required the use of online technology in order to respond in kind. IT would usually push back, saying that measures taken to deal with issues of public image should come out of a public relations budget.

During these early years of back and forth, a particular kind of hybrid employee emerged out of necessity – someone who was as skilled and confident in the use of technology as she was in upholding the corporate image. In most cases, these unusually adaptive individuals rose from the trenches in IT. Often referred to by their bosses and colleagues (perhaps derogatorily) as loose cannons, these staffers in the past tended to ignore the boundaries between IT and other departments in order to get problems solved quickly. They would go off and do their own thing because they typically had an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility about getting things done efficiently (which is a nice way of saying they didn’t show much regard for policies and procedures that got in the way).

It was these loose cannons who often rose to become a point of both promise and contention within organizations. Managers in marketing, IT and other departments found themselves fighting over employees’ allocated time and responsibilities because of the value of their diverse skills, and putting out fires caused by the employees’ proactive yet undirected behavior. Eventually these skirmishes would come to the attention of thought leaders within the organization, who were already becoming aware that the company needed to be an active part of online dialogue in order to protect their brand. They started putting pressure on the department currently responsible, and that’s when the battle truly started.

Loose cannons – entrepreneurial early adopters who are more likely to fail forward – within organizations continue to ruffle the feathers of many a manager, but as social media strategy slowly becomes entrenched as a career path, they are finding what appears to be a new form of safe haven created just for them. They must be careful, though, to realize that social media is still a minefield when it comes to job security, and take specific measures to preserve and protect their position.

The pitfalls of social media careers

In the recently published Altimeter Report: The Two Career Paths of the Corporate Social Strategist. Be Proactive or Become ‘Social Media Help Desk’ by Jeremiah Owyang, only 41% of social strategists were in a position to successfully plan for the expected increasing demand from internal and external customers. The rest were spending most of their time reactively (assisting with the management of help desk tickets because of insufficient resources) instead. Only 23% of the social strategists surveyed said they were working with a formalized, long-term program.

The report identified six challenges that present obstacles for any social strategist currently working:

  • Resistance from internal culture
  • Measuring ROI
  • Lack of resources
  • An ever-changing technology space
  • Resentment and envy of the role
  • A looming increase in business demands

The predicted outcome was one of two career paths for social media strategists – the chosen one of long-term planning and leading the industry in pioneering social media, or the inadvertent one – an ongoing scramble to help catch up on outstanding service tickets and put out fires.

Survival skills for social strategists

The most important skill that any social strategist can bring to the table is a head for business. They must be able to sell other departments on the value of their contributions, and the best ways to do that are through communicating ROI using data analysis, and staying well ahead of customer demand.

It takes an orchestrated combination of IT and marketing expertise for social media strategists to fulfill their roles. Because of this, out-of-the-box thinkers tend to be well-suited for the work. When done well, their work puts the power and precision of technology behind the presence and persistence of the brand.

When preparing resumes and when interviewing for social media positions, job applicants should:

  • Bring attention to their strengths in digital and marketing work experience.
  • Emphasize the importance of selling business strategy, using data analysis, and tracking industry trends to communicate ROI over promoting new technologies.
  • Describe how they are prepared to make a lasting positive impact.
  • Communicate their interest in long term planning, connecting customers with the company, managing incoming requests, and building scalable programs.
  • Keep in mind that many recruiters are not familiar with social media lingo and what job experience is applicable, so it’s up to job seekers to explain the benefits and relevance of what they bring to the table both on their resumes and in interviews.

Employers who are not looking for these attributes may be in over their heads when it comes to social media programming.

Strategists should be sure that a given position will provide enough support from senior management for them to take on risk safely, and that there’s room in the position for them to do what comes naturally – be unconventional and strategic:

  • Make sure direct supervisors are fully engaged – both willing and able to handle internal conflicts that may arise, and know how to leverage strategists’ skills. Ask them why they consider social media important to the organization. If they can’t sell it to a potential employee, they can’t sell it to upper management.
  • Ask about the organizational “climate” with regards to social media, and what obstacles might present themselves when it comes to strategic planning for a specific company. If a key part of the role is described as “making progress in getting stakeholders to buy-in,” the job seeker might want to ask more detailed questions about who’s on board and who’s not.
  • Inquire regarding the current load of requests, how successful the department has been in meeting requests in a timely manner over the past year, and what strategic planning is already in place.
  • Seek out organizations that have clearly defined lines between social media help desk and social media strategy, and value both equally. This allows those with interest in social media to find a role within an organization that best suits their interests and competencies.
  • Look for receptivity toward not just to the “old school” broadcast marketing strategy but newer approaches such as opt-in and consumer-controlled engagement.
  • Try to get a sense of how stretched the company is financially. This, of course, makes a big difference in both budget and workload, as well as job security.

For those who are already in social media strategist positions, there are steps they can take to be proactive rather than reactive in their approach that will prove advantageous when cultural obstacles present themselves. In addition to taking guidance from the suggestions above for job seekers, they might want to:

  • Stay high-level and proactive to avoid slipping into a more hands-on role.
  • Build a large centralized team as soon as possible so that demand doesn’t outpace supply.
  • Be sure to get the right mix of people to help get internal buy-in as well as handle the different areas of social strategy.
  • Spend as much time on the strategy for the transformation of internal infrastructure as on strategic external development.
  • Find the value in the journey when it comes to winning cultural support, because it can take years before the strategist can truly create opportunities and take on new challenges.

Social media programming has enterprise-wide impact, so strategists should be sure to implement or take advantage of a collaboration platform such as Zendesk – especially between marketing and IT. Until they are able to bridge the gap between the two oft-competing departments, strategists’ most powerful asset in the battle for resources is a robust, efficient, quantifiable social media presence.

Ellen Berry writes about a variety of topics related to education and careers for BrainTrack.