Getting Started, social media strategy

Graduates: So You Want To Work In Social Media

6 Comments 26 May 2015

Creative Commons photo, courtesy of COD Newsroom

Creative Commons photo, courtesy of COD Newsroom

‘Tis the Season for commencement speeches, graduation plans, and career-promoting thoughts. Several times a month, someone sends me a message along the lines of “I’d love to get into social media…” or “I have a friend who is looking to work in social media,” or the most common question of all…” Can you help me find a job in social media or digital strategy?” I often can’t help folks find the job they want, and I don’t have the time for all the cups of coffee proffered. What I can offer is advice about what you need to do to find work in social media, and how to prepare for entering the field. Readers: please feel free to add your advice in the comments.

1. It’s a big world of social media out there. Identify why you want to be part of it.

I come from the nonprofit sector, and that’s where my heart lies. I began my career as a community organizer. In 2008, I saw the connection between organizing and social media: social media can bring like-minded supporters  together, nonprofits could listen, find supporters and leaders, gather ideas…organize. From the offset, my interest in social media has always been about how to use social media to engage deeply, listen, create trust, move people to action, change the world. So many people come to me without a sense of what they’d like to do with social media, or what slice of it they want to be part of, and why. Take the time to identify your profound motivation, use that to explain your interest in this field. Then share your dream widely.

2. Know the difference between using social media personally, and social media for business.

I hear a lot of “I really love social media and want to work in it!” within those messages to me. When I teach social media strategy at Marlboro College, almost every student mentions that he/she knew how to use social media, but the course opened up a completely different way of thinking about it. Become a student of social media: the history of social media, the definition of it, how businesses and causes use it, why social networks matter, relevant research, demographics and trends. Know that sharing Instagram posts from your own account is completely different that sharing it from the business account, and understand why.

3. Get your skill set in order.

There are a lot of skills needed to implement social media effectively, and even more skills needed to strategize. Your entry card skill set includes fluency in all the major social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.), standout emerging platforms (Meerkat, Periscope, Snapchat, etc.) and a few others that make you in the know (Reddit, YikYak).

Video and visual media production are emerging social media skills that will become more critical in the coming year. Learn how to edit and produce videos, create digital images and graphic content, edit photos, and stylized fonts. Social is increasingly supported by visual media, and the person who can create visual media will have a hand up over others.

Coding and programming skills are also a huge plus when looking for this work. The employee who can program an email, edit a blog, create basic web pages, and manipulate databases will add a lot to a company’s communications staff.

Finally, understanding social media analytics and other relevant metrics is a critical skill for any position in this field. (See next point.)

4. Be data-driven: Know what data matters, what integrates, and what is just posturing.

The job of the future is digital analyst, and there’s a reason for it: we are swamped in data and need to know what matters. Data should inform decisions and strategy. You should understand and use the major data platforms that drive decisions: native social media analytics, third-party apps that collate social media analytics, Google Analytics, email analytics, Adwords/social advertising analytics, and select databases (I’m thinking Salesforce here, but any database should apply). Know what data is relevant, and what isn’t. The question that sorts the wheat from the chaff in an interview is: “If you could only measure three aspects of your social media efforts, what would they be, and why?”

5. Understand what real online engagement is, and prove it.

My friend Allison Fine once told me that some organizations “just do window dressing engagement.” That description is so true. Know that many a status update is not real engagement. Spend time looking at organizations that “get” real engagement, and be able to identify why and how to replicate it. Know how to identify the online social media conversation intersection. Be able to state what real engagement means, what an organization has to do to create it, and what results should follow. Prove that you understand the different between window dressing and real stakeholder engagement that listens, adds value, relates, and integrates back into the organization.

6. Read, subscribe, comment, interact. Find your community of knowledge.

Be part of the professional social media community in order to know it. Whatever part of the community you want to join, there is certainly a group of knowledgeable social media practitioners, Twitter hashtags, online communities, social media sites, and real life meetups. Find them, and become part of your community. Learn, ask questions, read their stuff, contribute to the conversations wherever they happen (Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Facebook Groups, Yahoo Groups, blogs, etc.), attend conferences.

Make a list of “must read” blogs, resources, publications, and reports. Start with the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports, don’t forget to read NTEN’s research if you are interested in nonprofit, search the Alltop blog categories, find topics to follow. There is no way on earth that I will ever know all that there is to know about social media. But my community of very wise friends, colleagues, and associates can help me find what I need when I cannot. Find your community and become part of it.

If you have advice for the college grad, or anyone looking to break into social media, I invite you to share your wisdom in the comments!

  • Debra – this is such a great post on so many different levels; and from so many different perspectives. It is sage advice for your target audience of those looking to have a career in ‘social media’ but also for (1) Those looking to start their career in many different fields with things they should think about; and (2) Those of us already engaged in our careers with great reminders about the importance of keeping the social in social media and nurturing a community of peers. As usual, thank for your insight!


  • I totally agree with these 6 tips and would add one more:

    Understand what else you want to do beyond social media.

    There are very few organizations that will have a staff person exclusively working on social media. So, what else do you want to do? Social media + communications, fundraising, programs, volunteer management, etc.? Social media is often part of a staff person’s job but which team and what other skills you have will determine which jobs and organizations are a good fit for you.


  • Debra Askanase

    Bonnie – thanks for leaving your advice and adding a great tweak to why we need to be focused in this work.


  • Debra Askanase

    Amy – fantastic addition. When I was writing the post, I almost changed all references of “social media” to “digital media” for that reason. But your point about social media +?? is so on-target. So few organizations have someone whose job is only social media (strategy, implementation) and often it’s combined with those other areas you mention. Thanks for adding this valuable piece of advice.


  • This list is great, Debra. Good tips for graduates and also for organizations hiring social media and digital media employees.
    A tip that might be useful that I can add: learn to use pro tool for monitoring, planning and timing your work, such as: tweetdeck, hootsuite, buffer, zapier, etc.
    Using these tools can help you do more in your limited resources of time and money, and really make a difference between personal and business social media activity.


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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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