Three Critical Traits Of a Social Media Grown-Up

By: Guest | August 13, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Mark Story.

Cathryn Sloane’s article “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25” caused a bit of firestorm last month.

The debate surrounds how experienced – and old – someone should be to succeed as a social media practitioner.

I weighed in, as did the Huffington Post. and most people took Cathryn to task for suggesting young people “get” social media and are the ones who are best suited to incorporate it in a business setting.

I’d argue there is a bigger point here: You have be a social media grown-up; and that may or may not be tied to years of experience.

Being a social media grown-up means you have the essential skills to be a really good practitioner. Most of these skills are gained with time and with experience, but just like “you can’t fix stupid,” you can’t teach smarts. When seeking to fill social media positions, I would rather hire someone junior with less experience who is bright, because I can’t teach someone to “get it.”

So what is “it?”

Three Critical Traits

1. Excellent verbal and written communications skillsTwitter and Pinterest may have lulled some people into thinking words don’t matter anymore. Wrong. They matter in social media more than ever. You must have good verbal communications skills because you will be engaging in conversation, teaching, and evangelizing. In order to do so, you must be articulate and clear.

As for written communications skills, you cannot be successful at social media without being a good writer. Almost every aspect of online communication (more so in client-driven work, which makes up a large part of the social media world) involves informing and persuading people via the written word. You will need to reply upon your writing skills to tell a complex and compelling story; and sometimes you’ll have to do it less than 140 characters.

2. Tolerance for change and intellectual curiosity. In social media, the only constant is change. Today’s successful Pinterest was yesterday’s much-discussed Quora or Empire Avenue (read: #fail). New tools and tactics come along monthly.

If you want to have a career in social media and be a grown-up, you need to stay on top of what is out there, if for nothing else to make a recommendation to your boss or your client on adopting a social media platform.

Way too many organizations become entranced by the latest shiny object. The social media grown-up knows what’s new, how it works, and if it might add value to the company or clients’ social media efforts.

3. You must provide sound advice. Cathryn Sloane’s controversial statements stemmed from this: She referred to her generation of digital natives as those who are most comfortable with, and fluent with, tools such as Facebook and Twitter because they grew up with them.

True as this might be, knowing how to post status updates in Facebook is vastly different than offering social media advice to a Fortune 500 company, a government agency, or even a  shop down the street. Each client has differing communications objectives, constraints, and sometimes legal requirements.

Experience helps to inform the counsel you give. This is not to say that someone who is in their 20s is not as seasoned as someone in their 40s, but let’s not confuse being fluent with the tools with getting paid to give strategic advice and execute tactics on a very large scale.

I could continue, but I’ll stop at these three core competencies to be successful in social media. These are the “must-haves.” You can be a social media grown-up in your 20s or in your 40s, but don’t forget that good communication, intellectual curiosity, and sound advice are all at the heart of being a good practitioner – and a social media grown-up.

Mark Story is the author of “Starting Your Career as a Social Media Manager,” to be published on September 1, 2012.  He is a new media director, blogger, podcaster, professor and Social Media Old Guy. You can follow him on Twitter at mstory123.

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  • Number two really caught my eye. Shiny object syndrome causes all sorts of issues and one of the things a “social  media grownup” should be able to do is explain why some shiny objects have more/less value than others.
    They also need to be able to help the company understand what sort of results are realistic and what aren’t. Sometimes I hear people pitching services that include “overnight, viral success.”
    That might work for a cold but for the overwhelming number of social media campaigns it is unrealistic. A good campaign online still requires some time just as those in the offline world do.

    • MarkStory

       @thejoshuawilner Good point.  00001% of campaigns are “overnight, viral successes.”

  • gchesman

    I really like this post, Mark (@mstory123). I’m 26 with a background in Communications and PR but I’m currently working as a social media strategist. Growing up with technology and using it correctly as a business tool are not the same. Also, most companies would prefer someone with experience instead of a young gun. However, universities have courses on utilizing social media for business and, since it’s such a constantly changing field, age and experience don’t necessarily mean the same thing. That being said, the 3 traits you pointed out are crucial for anyone working in social media. 

    • MarkStory

       @gchesman Thanks for your kind words.

  • I just read an article titled “11 Reasons a 23 year old shouldn’t be handling your social media” and yes, both the article for over 25 and under 23 are equally disturbing. I mean, when did age begin to matter so much. I am a shrink and I see confused and totally lost 20 year olds and I see some very confused 50 year olds too. And the 50 year old has a very “mature” 18 year old. See, numbers don’t mean anything as long as you have got your act right. 
    Yes, there are times when age will matter (the kind of job you are given) – maybe, a 21 year old won’t be made the boss on day one because experience counts. But undermining anyone on the basis of age might be a little objectionable. 
    I like how you mention the three critical traits here and yes, I hope the age-based analysts are listening! 😉

  • tla_bc

    Great Post! via @familyLLB @ginidietrich @mstory123 Excellent communication skills & other traits of a soc med grown-up

  • Love the conversation. I’ll get attacked but here goes: young people know how to hit a button or one fact and they consider themselves to be geniuses. What’s troubling is there’s such a bigger picture out there that they don’t see and only time and experience will get it into focus.

  • magriebler

    Nice post, Mark. So sensible. So grown up!

    • MarkStory

       @magriebler Thank you!

  • FelicityFields

    @ginidietrich Just bought Marketing in the Round. Hoping it will bridge the gap with my “traditional” PR-trained clients.

    • ginidietrich

      @FelicityFields I hope it will too!

  • mstory123

    @marshallk Thanks, Marshall!

  • ELR_RuthyLopez

    @marshallk Thanks for posting this. Really excellent insight.

  • rdopping

    Mark. I agreement with your points but what bothers me about your post the preceding comments about fixing stupid and teaching smart. I come front a different school of thought. Im my mind if someone is willing to learn and put the work in they can grow into their own an excell in any forum.

    Anyway off topic but I have a few young people that work for me that were given to ne branded as slackers or uninterested. They simply needed some coaching and mentoring to see the value of their potential.

    Great post. Very sensible.

  • Liz

    Mark – I appreciated your initial response to Cathryn’s post but I am starting to suffer fatigue from this story. I’m not sure what can be gained by continuing to coattail the ageism in social media thread. That being said, however, I do agree that sound advice and intellectual curiouristy are key job requirements. But as a seasoned, professional writer and journalist, I find myself questioning the ‘good writing and verbal skills’ advice. IMHO, there are a majority of SM practitioners who lack both or at the very least, are not experts in either. Writing is a skill that requires more than the ability to post in 140 characters or with all due respect, interest a business publisher. There are many, like myself, who don’t necessarily ascribe to the viewpoint that just because you blog, you are a writer or journalist or just because you’ve authored a book you are a writer. I am not sure if others will agree that the distinction can be made but I’ve spent a lifetime honing my skills and getting paid to do so. I will probably argue to my grave that great writing is a hard pill to both obtain and swallow. 

  • WhoWonTheWeek

    These are three great tips for anyone working in social media engagement, especially for many Facebook brand pages. If you visit you can get a FREE report of fan growth, interaction rate, and more compared to others in your category!

  • shonali

    @howiegoldfarb @mstory123 @ginidietrich Heh!

  • ginidietrich

    @theadclub No! Because it has nothing to do with age.

    • theadclub

      @ginidietrich As a 23 year old social media manager, I couldn’t agree more! Loving all the push back that article got!

  • cmtrapolino

    Being a master of the tools is not how you provide the most value — the tools are one training series away from being accessible to anyone.  It’s the fundamentals that matter most, and that’s why your post is spot on (even if you’re baiting a bit with the ageism story references).  😉

  • The most astonishing thing about this whole kerfuffle is the poor quality of Cathryn’s article. The syntax and vocabulary was especially bad, so I suppose this makes it even more of an achievement in a way. The article reads like a high school essay yet it garnered huge attention! That said, her premise matched her style (and I use the term loosely), as clearly marketing is more about personalities than it ever was about age. I’m currently reading “Social Marketology” by @RicDragon, and enjoying it immensely, as it goes into some considerable detail about what a social marketing strategy is all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lively and well-read 22 year old, or an admittedly immature (I prefer “young at heart”) 46 year old; if the addiction of social media is within you, you’ll have the appetite and drive to make the account succeed. Personally, I think the well-rounded social media personality is pretty rare, and with the exception of outstanding accounts such as @Betfairpoker, @OldSpice and @ArenaFlowers, most corporate accounts tend to be be overly emphatic in one direction or another. They’re either all promo, all links to industry-relevant topics, or all customer service. It takes a well-rounded person(s) to build a well-rounded account. We have a Twitter account for our company blog called @Live_Toast, which we try to keep balanced, and so far we’re doing a good job. But (gasps! – he started a sentence with “but”!) it’s not easy and it takes energy. At this stage I am planning to take advice from experts like Ric Dragon to develop a long-term strategy to complement our content and link efforts. Our team has an average age of around 35, and we’re all dedicated to providing compelling content and being at the head of whatever the latest news is, be it tech, marketing, celebrity, entertainment, sport, you name it. To be honest I couldn’t imagine a 23 year old having the experience and maturity to make the kinds of posts we consistently make, but I’m probably an old stick-in-the-mud.

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