Ai Zhang

Digital Dinosaur to Digital Savvy: How Social Media Transformed My Career

By: Ai Zhang | September 12, 2016 | 

Digital Dinosaur to Digital Savvy: How Social Media Transformed My CareerAfter earning my master’s of arts degree from Syracuse, and my Ph.D. from Maryland in 2009, I thought I was finished with learning.

Boy, was I wrong!

I am a college professor who teaches public relations and social media classes.

During the 2015 spring semester, I had a wake-up call from one of my students who said he’d never heard of Pinterest.

I was in shock and disbelief, initially thinking I’d misheard him.

I assumed that digital natives were digitally savvy.

Are Digital Natives Social Media Savvy?

The truth is, many of today’s digital natives are NOT digitally savvy.

Sure, they know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram to chat with their friends.

However, that’s pretty much the extent to which most students use social media.

Not many know how to use social media strategically, professionally, and responsibly.

And few have truly grasped the ramifications of having a digital footprint.

Even fewer know how to use analytical tools to draw meaningful implications to strategize their content production and distribution for the purpose of personal branding, professional development, and career advancement.

Unless they’re being coached, most young people are merely using social media as a social toy.

What’s the Missing Piece?

There was a gap in my teaching, a disconnect in my classes, and an important missing piece in my students toolbox—and that gap started with me as the educator.

Unless I embraced and embodied change, the change I wanted to see among students would NOT happen.

I embarked on a journey to fully immerse myself in the digital world, hoping to use my own experience to influence my students and lead by example.

Little did I know that simple decision would bring a 180 degree transformation to my own professional career.

The opportunities I received with my visible digital footprint were amazing: Speaking engagements, research collaborations, guest blog invitations, book chapter invitations, and many others.

More importantly, I built a close community with an awesome group of people who I respect and collaborate with, which would not have been possible otherwise.

I’m sharing the specific strategies I learned during my digital transformation so you can employ them to transform your career.

Building a Community Using Twitter Chat

Platforms come and go, but people stay.

I agree with Brian Fanzo’s discussion of building communities and fans, not just followers.

The platform that helped build my online community is Twitter, specifically Twitter Chat.

If you are a digital dinosaur like I was, you must embrace Twitter Chat!

Spend as much time possible participating in, and even hosting, Twitter Chats.

It’s a great way to meet others and learn more about the current state of your field.

Seriously! Pause Netflix and jump into a Twitter Chat right now.

When I started my digital journey, Twitter Chat helped me build my personal brand.

I did two or three chats a day.

It helped me connect with professionals in the field of higher education, social media marketing, and even parenting.

I’ve hosted two Twitter Chats: One with Deirdre Breakenridge #PRStudChat (a must-do if you are in higher education), and the other with Public Relations Student Society of America’s monthly Twitter Chat #PRSSA (a must-do for students or junior PR pros).

Hosting these chats exposed me to a much larger community, expanded my network and personal brand, and enhanced my digital craftsmanship.

Within a year, I grew my Twitter followers from 300 to 2,440!

I love the Twitter community I’ve built for my brand.

Your community is what makes your brand successful.

Personalize Storytelling and Communications

How many of you are camera shy? Raise your hand! I know I was.

I remember that raw feeling when I did my first video on Snapchat.

It felt awful.

I couldn’t stand my own voice or the way I looked, but I pushed through that initial stage of discomfort.


I personalize messages by sending video greetings, engaging in extended discussions via video or audio chats, and by expressing gratitude to those who engage with me regularly.

I am not afraid of sending video or audio messages to people I’ve just connected with online.

I am passionate about sharing my life stories through digital platforms, and am certain I’ll do a video announcement upon the publication of this blog!

I love what Caleb Maddix said about transformation, “It is through application that we experience transformation.”

Without the doing part, nothing can happen.

I’m sure Gary Vaynerchuk would agree with the application part, as he puts so much emphasis on execution and taking action.

The bottom line is: If we don’t change old habits, we will never have breakthroughs in life!

Embrace Videos and Livestreaming Apps

The hottest trend in social media marketing is real people using video or live streaming in real time—as Deirdre Breakenridge discusses here.

Audiences crave authenticity and transparency, which are possible via live streaming and videos apps such as Periscope, Facebook Live, Snapchat, and Instagram Stories.

Snapchat has been my favorite tool to tell stories and build my personal brand as a college professor, a social media enthusiast, a homeschooling mom, and a vegan.

Between the stickers, geofilters, bitmojis, and emojis, Snapchat is a lot of fun to use.

I find the real power of Snapchat is its ability to engage in one-on-one conversations with people.

If globalization has made the world smaller, then used strategically, social media envisions us to experience what communities look like in the digital era.


What is the key feature of social media?

It allows you to socialize and be sociable!

Notice that, social media is not called sales media!

Although selling can definitely happen, social media is not primarily about selling stuff.

Relationship and community building should always take precedence.

A key strategy that worked extremely well during my digital journey is engaging with others.

When I follow people, I comment on their articles, Tweets, videos, pictures, and snaps.

I send videos to greet new followers on Snapchat, and thank those who interact with me.

I give shout-outs to people who have inspired me.

I send videos to congratulate accomplishments and acknowledge special moments in life.

Staying engaged is hard work.

But if you are seeking what Connor Blakley has termed, Return On Interaction (ROI), engagement will eventually guide you to where you want to be.

For example, through engaging with Brian Fanzo, I got the chance to write a guest blog for his website, where I discussed five ways I use Snapchat as a teaching tool.

That article was shared a few hundred times, which far exceeded my expectations.

After some interaction with Deirdre Breakenridge via her #PRStudChat on Twitter, I was offered the opportunity to include some of my students as special guests on her Twitter Chat.

By engaging with PR influencer Carrie Morgan, together we hosted a Twitter Chat during one of my public relations classes.

As a public relations professor, I used to struggle with finding quality guest speakers for my classes, but by actively engaging with all these industry professionals, I now have an amazing lineup of guest speakers for my classes.

It’s such a humbling experience knowing how professionals truly want to give back.

Quality > Quantity (Evergreen Content)

Let me start by saying that consistency is absolutely critical to building an online presence.

Like many with a hectic lifestyle, I am not good at consistently producing content.

I do my best to ensure the content that I produce is high quality, evergreen content.

As an example, a Brazilian journalist found me through a guest blog post I wrote, and subsequently interviewed me about how I use Snapchat as a teaching tool.

It just goes to show that you never know where these experiences will lead you, or who might read your blog post.

So if you cannot make the time to produce content consistently, then seek quality.

Don’t ever sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity.

Without high quality, your readers will NOT engage with you, regardless of how often you publish.

Lifelong Learning

Confucius said, “There is nothing happier in life than applying the knowledge that you learn.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Learning is rewarding and fun.

I love discovering new things and applying knowledge I have learned to make an impact.

Many others have inspired me on this digital learning journey, and I thank them all.

Never stop learning. Never stop growing.

“Our degrees and diplomas only represent our past. It is our ability to learn that moves us forward and brings revolutionary changes to our lives.”

image credit: shutterstock

About Ai Zhang

Ai Zhang is an Associate Professor of Public Relations at Stockton University in New Jersey. She received her MA in Communications from Syracuse University, and her Ph.D in Communications from the University of Maryland. Dr. Zhang is a social media enthusiast. She is an advocate of incorporating social media and digital devices into higher education as teaching and learning tools.

  • Thanks, Ai, for the #PRStudChat shout out. Let’s keep learning and growing. Glad to be with you on the path to more knowledge … always!

    • Thank you very much, Deirdre! You are such an inspiration to so many. We will continue to learn and grow together. Yes.

  • I’m traveling so have to read your post in more detail later but just a quick “hello” to a great member of the #chatsnap community!

    • Thank you so much, Paula! That’s incredibly kind of you. Yes, please check out the article later and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your feedback. “See” you soon at this week’s #ChatSnap.

  • What a wonderful post, Ai. I love how direct and open you are about your learning process.

    But what I love most is the awareness factor. You felt the disconnect and did something about it. You conquered your fears and jumped in.

    Though Twitter is not what it used to be (lots of noise and spam these days), it’s still a great platform and the easiest way to connect with people. I met many of the PR pros that today I’m honored to call friends through Twitter chats.

    If I were to choose my fav platform, Twitter still holds the first place.

    I agree, never stop learning and challenging yourself is the key to success for any professional.

    Thanks for a great post, Ai.

    • Thank you so much for the comments here. I cannot agree more with you, Corina. I truly love Twitter even though it has lots of spams nowadays. It is such a great platforms to have easy communication with people. Twitter chats got me connected with so many wonderful people and friends such as you. I think if i didn’t embrace my fear of tech/SM at the first place, i wouldn’t be where I am today. Super grateful for my social media journey.

      Thanks again for inviting me to be a guest blogger! Much appreciated. XOXO

  • Hi! Great article!! I would love to stand corrected on certain things.
    (I am a marketing student and have a few questions!)
    Twitter – The way it helped boost yourself is so true. One is right when one says that twitter helped build one’s brand. But, Snapchat? that platform – isn’t it for something else? (Chatting with one another) How does Snapchat justify in building one’s brand? for me it seems as if it is a different channel for different purpose.
    With the Livestreaming apps, is Facebook live anyway good? It seems to notify one’s friends if one were to be live on Facebook. I think it is decent in a way (also, cost effective!).

    Thanks in advance!