When Abbey Hudetz thinks back to the beginning of her social media career, she remembers the content she created, the social accounts she managed and the campaigns she ran. She also remembers an unwanted nickname one colleague gave her: “Facebook girl.”
“I distinctly remember [that] coworker coming up to me and saying, ‘I told my wife that your job is to sit on Facebook all day,’” Hudetz, who now runs a digital marketing agency called Oyster Creative, told Built In.
“Throughout my career, I battled with work environments that did not understand the scope of work involved in social media management,” she added. “I think it was hard for people to grasp what a social media marketing manager does.”
“I think it was hard for people to grasp what a social media marketing manager does.”
Hudetz’s story is a familiar one. Many marketers feel as though their early career work in social media wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been. That it was misunderstood, if not minimized.
“Back in those days, it was ‘the intern’s job,’” said Ish Verduzco, director of growth and marketing at Crave It, who, for a couple of years, starting in 2015, ran LinkedIn’s student outreach social channels. “Few people at the company knew the amount of work that it took.”
When platforms were still in their infancy, there was less data to track, and fewer tools to use and KPIs to measure. So for a time, it made sense to associate the role with entry-level professionals. But the responsibilities were never as easy as people imagined. It was never a passive job. It never was about “sitting on Facebook all day.”
“It was still a lot of work,” Verduzco said.
As social platforms grew more popular and sophisticated, social media professionals got more responsibilities. Soon the job required a Swiss Army-knife-like set of skills.
But the intern trope stuck around.
The Origins of the Social Media Intern Stereotype
Whenever a corporate Twitter account posts an insensitively worded or ill-conceived tweet that sparks a backlash, it’s a good bet that someone in the replies makes a joke about the company’s social media intern getting in trouble.
Of course, it’s a near-certainty that the person running the social media account representing a billion-dollar company is not an intern. And while it may be the case that most people cracking the joke during a brand Twitter snafu know that, the knee-jerk reaction to apply the label pejoratively in these instances highlights how the work of social media professionals has always been diminished.
Anna Rose Iovine, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, pins the “intern” misconception on the fact that, generally, tweets are crafted to maximize engagement, and are therefore written in a relatable, humanized tone. A tone many misconstrue as “unprofessional.”
“Readers may hold a certain schema for what it means to be professional; when they see an account tweet ‘lmao,’ it breaks that schema,” Iovine wrote. “A full-time, salaried employee can’t do that, they think. Only an intern can do that.”
Others, such as Alana Hope Levinson, point to sexist undercurrents to the social media intern stereotype. At the time of her writing, women comprised the majority of social media leadership roles (55 percent), while accounting for less than a quarter of leadership roles in media and journalism at large.
In her story for Matter, Levinson spoke to one woman who noted “a vibe of ‘let’s give this easy job to a girl, she can handle it’ around the office, that social media is seen as easier, ‘fluffy.’”
Ella Dawson, an author and digital strategist, offers this take: “The way social media is disrespected as a field is the result of a lot of forces. It’s the disregard of emotional labor as real work. It’s ageism that dismisses social media as something ‘kids’ just know how to do. It’s the result of workers rights being rolled back.”
Whatever its true origin, it’s difficult to deny that social media marketing has had a stigma attached to it from day one.
Views on Social Media Are Evolving
In the past couple of years, however, the work that social media professionals are doing has gained much more respect among their marketing colleagues, and in the tech industry more broadly. That’s because business leaders finally realized that social is extremely important to their companies. They can’t afford to neglect it.
“Social media is no longer just another marketing channel or part of a bigger brand campaign. It is the connection point between a brand and its audiences,” said Jamie Gilpin, chief marketing officer at Sprout Social, in an interview with Forbes.
Greg Fass, vice president of marketing at Liquid Death Mountain Water, told Built In that, when talking to industry peers, “everyone is on the same page about how social is extremely important.”
“Everyone is on the same page about how social is extremely important.”
Fass began his career as an intern at a music management and booking agency, where he was tasked with creating and managing artists’ social accounts, writing copy, promoting shows across several social channels and reaching out to bloggers. At the time, people didn’t quite grasp how social media impacted business, so his colleagues “just tossed it my way,” Fass said.
The perception around social media has changed a lot since then.
“The biggest investments in advertising and marketing have some sort of digital social component,” Fass said. “So that’s a pretty good gauge in my mind that social is taken very seriously these days.”
Despite the growing importance of social media for every company’s marketing strategy, social media leaders are still expected to do more with less. Many toggle between playing the role of copywriter, graphic designer, community manager, analytics guru and growth strategist.
“A lot of social media managers I know do all of those,” Verduzco said.
Matthew Kobach, the director of content marketing at Fast, has been beating this drum for a while now. Two years ago, he tweeted a list of all the things social media professionals understand about the companies for which they work: marketing, communications (especially during a crisis), branding, industry trends, customer service, creative, how to create and nurture brand advocates. Kobach ended the tweet calling today’s social media professionals “the future CMO/CCOs.”
The growing importance of social media is also reflected in the prevalence of senior job titles within the specialization. Where five years ago, the role may have topped out at “social media manager,” look on job boards today and you’ll spot several roles with the words “director” or “VP” right next to “social media.”
But More Work Is Needed
Despite social media professionals getting more recognition lately, there’s still work to be done to give them the support they need.
Too often, according to past and current social media professionals I talked to, social teams still get the short shrift from their organizations — and individuals in social roles are routinely saddled with enough responsibilities to keep two or three people busy.
And since the pandemic all but eliminated field marketing and in-person events, businesses have started applying extra pressure on their social teams to perform, often without the benefit of having the workload distributed across several team members.
As a result, many social media professionals are “emotionally exhausted and burnt out,” Verduzco said. “If you’re a basketball player or football player and you have game day every single day for a year straight, you get tired. You don’t have rest or downtime. And that’s pretty much how it’s been since the lockdown.”
Indeed, in most cases, the job of social media manager comes with heavy burdens and little support — and it doesn’t pay particularly well.
Ever look at the replies to a brand’s Twitter account when it does something unpopular? A person has to read and respond to those.
“They’re the mouthpiece of the organization, working around the clock, and often find themselves on the frontlines when something goes wrong,” Kimeko McCoy reported for Digiday.
Are SMMs the Next CMOs?
Marketers from social media backgrounds say that people in the job are uniquely equipped to take on broader, more strategic roles within organizations.
Verduzco, the growth marketer, says it’s the social media professional’s ability to think fast and stay cool under pressure, while encountering a deluge of notifications and balancing a high volume of creative assets, that will most help them get ready for an eventual, pressure-filled role in the C-suite.
“Part of the reason why so many social media marketers are seen as potential CMOs down the line is because we’re being pushed to perform like no other role within the marketing organization on a daily basis,” Verduzco said.
“We’re being pushed to perform like no other role within the marketing organization on a daily basis.”
And although social media seems specialized, the role requires wearing lots of hats, which mirrors the multifaceted nature of senior roles extending beyond social, according to Fass, the marketing VP at Liquid Death.
“Crafting a brand voice, understanding a brand narrative and storytelling, learning how to engage with your customer base, content creation, influencers partnerships, and also customer service,” Fass said, rattling off all the things a modern social media manager might have in their toolbox, before adding, “If you can master all those things in a social sphere ... you can take that to the next level.”
Caroline Hart, director of brand and product marketing at tech startup Brainbase, agrees. She started her career as a social media strategist at a boutique New York advertising agency, where she had to “learn how to tailor your messages to fit certain channels, how to tailor them to fit certain personas and segments and audiences,” she said. “It’s almost like a little microcosm of what you do at the higher level running large brand campaigns.”