Let’s talk about this story about the maturation of “social media manager” as a job.

The basic premise – that the responsibilities usually covered under that title have certainly evolved and now play a major role in the organizations where they work – isn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean it’s wholly correct, either.

In no particular order:

What’s the ROI in this situation? Masters degrees like the one offered by USC Annenberg are, I’m assuming, expensive undertakings. But the average salary for a “social media manager” job according to PayScale is a little above $52,000/year. What you’re actually paid, though, is likely to be well below that, as most job listings I’ve come across in the last few years are looking for someone to start around $35,000/year. That makes me think you’re going to be hobbled with debt for a graduate degree that doesn’t actually make a difference to hiring managers. To that point..

It gives the advantage to those who can afford the degree. One of the major factors in how upward economic mobility has been hampered in the last 40-50 years is the rise in jobs that require a college degree, not to mention a graduate degree or other accreditation. Even jobs that would once be considered “entry level” now list a degree and several years of experience as needed for consideration. So those who can’t afford such a degree for any of a number of completely legitimate reasons are locked out of an entire category and field.

That evolution took place a decade or more ago. Look, I know a lot of journalists and others like to joke about how it’s always the intern managing social media. So the emergence of degrees like this gives them an excuse to trot that canard back out even while saying it may no longer be applicable.

The reality is that any company that turned its social media marketing over to an intern was committing a form of corporate negligence. At the very least, even if an intern was responsible for actually hitting the “publish/post” button, there should have been an experienced manager or two with program oversight and who was ultimately the owner of the program. It’s exactly the kind of situation that might be found in any other part of the communications and marketing team, where the senior members actually draft the press release but the interns are the ones who submit it to PRNewswire.

Too often companies and agencies equated “youth” with “expertise” when the reality was closer to “familiarity.” Because recent college-grads were younger and had adopted these tools earlier in their development, they were assumed to be better at them. That may have been true in some cases, but it was also true that someone who made their bones in traditional PR or even the early days of blogs, wikis and RSS had the insights needed to create strategies for those platforms, even if they leaned on younger folks for insights and execution.

Regardless, no one ever should have given an intern the keys to social media without any form of senior-level oversight.

The balance between degree and experience is skewed. Who would you rather have managing your corporate social media program: Someone with a degree but little hands-on experience or someone with 15 years of experience but no degree? They both may have pros and cons, but the latter will likely have additional skills that have been built up over the course of their career which gives them the advantage, especially when crisis time comes and they need to think on their feet or offer expert guidance.

How up to date is that curricula? Building off an earlier point, there were times in my career as a social media marketing professional that new tools and features were being added weekly. It was next to impossible to keep up with the new functionality for existing platforms as well as the other things launching, all of which were relevant to the job.

It’s hard to imagine a masters degree course remaining relevant with what is still an industry that measures product launch cycles in days, not months. More to the point, it’s hard to imagine the accumulated learning being *exactly* what executives are looking for when someone graduates. Some of the broader insights and learnings will be applicable, but likely to the same extent that an MBA in marketing and communications would be at a far less expensive price point.

It misses the point of what’s really needed for social media managers. Specifically two things:

  • A career path: Social media management in my experience has been extremely siloed from other marketing and communications departments, despite the fact that all of them are extremely intertwined and interdependent. This siloing means that someone from the “Social Media” practice area is frequently overlooked when it comes to positions that oversee the whole group. New hires at any level in the social media department should be
  • Emotional health support: I speak from experience when I say that being the lead on a social media marketing program can be a physically and emotionally-draining experience. Not only are you by default on-call 24/7 but you’re often the first to be exposed to the worst of the internet’s commenting culture. Even if it isn’t aimed directly at you but at the brand you manage, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed by the vitriol of the feedback at times.

Offering those two things would help not only attract but retain talent, meaning companies wouldn’t have to turn over staff as regularly, which helps create a more consistent program.

Don’t forget the olds…

On top of all that, let’s not forget that the original batch of social media managers were put into that position so long ago that they had dial-up internet connections in the college computer lab. They got their degrees in actual things and then applied those and other skills to the emerging world of online marketing in a number of forms. While things have certainly evolved since then, many of the best practices developed on the fly in those early days are still in place, even if they didn’t come at their jobs with a masters degree in an what is still an ephemeral practice area.