Social Media: Figure it out for yourself

Years ago, I worked with a Production Artist (hi, Christy!) who accidentally became the go-to person for office software issues at the agency where I worked. Everyone was always coming to her with their e-mail and other problems and attempting to ply her with empty praise while she tried to show them what they were doing wrong. I remember her confiding, “It’s so frustrating! All they have to do is play with it until they figure it out for themselves, but they can’t be bothered!”

Zoom ahead a decade, and this same training problem can be applied to social media. The early adopters, the curious and the self-trainers within your organization play with every new channel and gizmo that comes along, and accidentally end up with an additional job description: Social Media Guru. And the “guru” is just as frustrated with the demands on their time, attention and productivity as my former colleague.

Why is this happening? And most importantly, why is this happening in ad agencies and marketing departments?

When I started my first agency job, as a Junior Copywriter, I had to quickly learn the terminology, processes and tools that other specialists used to create print, broadcast and (primitive) internet ads, as well as printed and electronic collateral. If I hadn’t, I would have sounded like an idiot in front of peers and clients.

And yet, here we are, with collaborative digital engagement as established and mature as TV was in the Mad Men era, and a broad practical understanding of how to use social media to fulfill marketing objectives still seems like it’s left to the nerds and the wannabe cewebrities (**shifts eyes**).

This knowledge gap is not only a blind spot for marketers; it makes them susceptible to so-called experts who want to charge them an arm and a leg for what should just be common sense. The fact is that they simply learned how to talk the talk by hanging out in the same social media circles that are free and open to anyone.

That’s not to say that social media training is unnecessary. It takes a lot of expertise and discipline to develop a customized social media strategy as part of a corporate or campaign communications plan, and that’s what agencies like ours have to offer.

It’s the basics I’m talking about, a comfort level with the channels themselves. It’s knowing how they work, what they can do, and who is on there. If you regularly spend quality time with the big three (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN), check out developing trends (location-based networks like Foursquare, or newer contenders like Google+) and read some of the better blogs (Mashable comes to mind) you will know more than most marketing people about social media. And it doesn’t use up more office time than a Tim Hortons or smoking habit.

And yet, people do not do it. Even Gen-Y marketing people, who spent their student years as social media’s babies, can fail to make the transition from social networking for fun to social networking for profit. It requires a whole new mindset, and as young professionals madly bowdlerize their profiles for employers and clients, they often forget that the mainstreaming of social media is more blessing than curse.

Let me put it in simple terms: If you are in marketing communications (agency or client side) and you lack a basic knowledge of current social media tactics and trends, you have fallen behind. Way behind. But the good news is, it’s not too late to catch up.

Think of a person you know who seems to be up on all the latest online trends. Ask them where they got their basic training. I’ll bet you that they will not talk about a course, or a seminar or a book. (“Book”? What’s that?) They may talk about someone who influenced them, or encouraged them, or who acted as a sounding board. But for the most part, they’ll tell you how they figured it out for themselves.

Those of us who are parents, aunts/uncles or educators know that children learn by playing. But adults can do it too. Give yourself permission and time to play online, every single day, and you’ll be amazed how much you can figure out for yourself.

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