Is your company’s social media team grounded in the culture of your organization? Younger, new employees are often strong in procedural understanding of social media tools, but they need to be guided by a strategic vision.

Many companies turn to interns or freshly-minted college students to staff their social media efforts. But that’s a risk: because these inexperienced employees are not well versed in their new company’s organizational culture or strategy, it is often difficult for them to meet organizational objectives with social media initiatives.

More dangerous, younger employees don’t know what they don’t know, which can be a recipe for disaster when companies hand these rookies a social media megaphone to speak on behalf of their company.

I have taught social media to both undergraduate and graduate students since 2006. Undergraduate students typically have a strong procedural understanding of social media tools. They use social media frequently, employ a wide range of features, readily experiment with the newest social media platforms and are often savvy at integrating or separating content for separate audiences. Because of this sophisticated procedural understanding, most think they understand social media well when they begin class.

Yet, this procedural understanding is not the same as understanding how to achieve business objectives with social media. By the end of the class, most undergraduate students comment how little they knew when they started and how much they still have left to learn. It is striking that many of these comments come from students who had already worked as social media interns at major companies.

Graduate students, in contrast, tend to have a stronger strategic understanding of social media. They start more slowly and skeptically than the undergraduate students, and are not as steeped in all the details of the latest cutting-edge platforms. The same might be said about the managers I have worked with as well.

But while these older students and managers may initially struggle more with using the tools, particularly with learning the non-explicit or normative uses of tools like Twitter hashtags or trends, once they get over this initial learning hurdle they are quicker to envision the organizational opportunities enabled by social media. (It’s a vision that is often in stark contrast to many of the email- and meeting-dependent companies in which they work.) Graduate students often comment that social media training early in their MBA programs fundamentally changes the way they collaborate throughout their programs. They are also better able to recognize potential downsides and risks of these tools.

Classes that include both types of students are often more effective than either one taught separately. Younger students benefit from the experience and pragmatic wisdom of the older students in thinking about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of organizational applications of social media. The older students observe first-hand the procedural expertise of the younger students, leading them to quickly realize that social-media enabled organizations are not necessarily a nebulous future but an imminent reality.

These differences have implications for how companies should think about, approach and staff their social media initiatives.

Companies may find it easier and more effective to train existing managers about social media than to teach new hires about the strategic goals and direction of the company.

Likewise, the most effective organizational social media initiatives may be partnerships between younger employees demonstrating and experimenting with social media technologies while more experienced employees harness that enthusiasm and those ideas to give them strategic direction. This brings together the best of both worlds, combining procedural and strategic know-how.

One way to involve young social media-savvy employees is to obtain their aid in jump-starting social media initiatives. The main impediment to social media adoption in organizations is often critical mass — getting sufficient activity from employees to generate a sustainable community. Managers can harness younger employees’ facility with and willingness to use social tools to generate momentum and buy-in for new initiatives.

8 Comments On: Procedural Versus Strategic Approaches to Social Media

  • Dr. Ed Pullen | July 19, 2013

    As an older physician, blogger and leader in a private practice group the technical and procedural barriers have been high, and you’re right, our younger employees have not been very helpful in stragtegic use of social media. Do you have an online class?

  • Patricia May | July 19, 2013

    I have the same question.
    As a business owner I’ve come to realize that our social media presence needs a strategy. Do you have an online class?

  • filip.galetic | July 19, 2013

    How exactly do you teach social media, pray tell?
    Also, shocking: younger, less experienced students lack long-term vision? You don’t say.
    Social media did not come to be as something that was ever to be used strategically, and as a social media “strategist” I can tell you, that’s just an empty, jargon, a buzzword people like to throw around to make it sound like they’re doing something more important than it is. There is not strategy on social media except being there and using its features and experimenting. What’s the problem about calling it tactics? You don’t have a strategy when you mingle at a party.

  • Susan Deisenroth | July 20, 2013

    What’s missing in this article as well as frequently in organizations, is the fact that the strategy of large organizations never makes it out of the Board Room. Digital Teams, old or young, are frequently blamed for not being strategic. Ask them what the organizational strategy is and what the goals are to meet that strategy. They may have no idea because that concept has not been passed down the line, given to them in a concise format and made their priority.

  • Zachary Chastain | July 21, 2013

    My first instinct as a young employee who is very involved in both tactical and strategic use of social media for our clients is to disagree with you, but then when I consider my own experiences with other young social media employees in the past, I realize that perhaps I’m the exception, not the rule.

    I’m thinking that the knowledge gap and cultural misfit is more an issue with the way organizations approach social media and training young workers, rather than an issue with young workers themselves. I’ve been blessed to have started out in the social media industry with a great (small) agency and wonderful (big) clients that have given me the right mix of opportunities to take on new projects and oversight to make sure that everything I’ve done is on track and fits in with the overall strategy. I started out my second year submitting a very detailed content calendar with overall strategy for a client down to daily, weekly, and monthly themes and campaigns for a community of 2 million fans. Of course there have been tweaks here and there as we go to fit in with mid-year changes, but I have to credit my quick growth to working for a very small agency where I have been given a lot of opportunity for advancement and a lot of responsibility.

    You make a great point about people just coming out of college and internships not having anything beyond tactical experience. I would point out that many of the people I’ve know personally and also those I have worked with that are interns at larger agencies typically aren’t given much responsibility and are instead in charge of repetitive daily tasks, grunt work. Of course they don’t develop any skills in creating strategy, they aren’t given any real responsibility or opportunity in that space, so they never have the opportunity to learn anything beyond tactics.

    I suppose that’s a natural progression though, you learn tactics and then work your way up to more responsibility regarding strategy.

    As many times as I’ve seen this discussion thus far though, I have to wonder, are there really any examples of large brands (beyond just your average mom and pop small business) that put their full social media tactics and strategy in the hands of recent graduates or even interns? I’ve never seen anyone actually list any of the brands that are doing this, do you know of any specific examples?

  • Gerald Kane | July 22, 2013

    Thanks Ed and Patricia. I’m glad you liked the piece. Unfortunately, I don’t have an online class, but please drop me an email and I may be able to help out somewhat. Also, you can read posts by my social media students on my class blog (starting again in September) at mi621.com. They’re usually quite good.

  • Gerald Kane | July 23, 2013

    Thanks for all the comments. A few observations…

    1) Odd that the word “tactics” keeps coming up in the comments, yet it’s never used in the post. I was really trying to point out that younger students know how to use social media as individuals, which is very different than using it for organizational purposes. Just want to be sure we’re all on the same page.

    2) I agree with Susan wholeheartedly, which is why I think traditional companies are going to have real problems using social media going forward. Organizational use of social media requires empowering employees in ways that most large companies are not used to doing.

    3) I also agree with Flip that there is much hype around social media, and most people that call themselves “social media strategist” (or guru, or expert) right now really aren’t. Yet I still fundamentally believe social media has considerable potential for business, and to achieve that potential it must be aligned with organizational objectives and processes – what I call strategy.

    4) Zachary, it does seem like you are proceeding in exactly the right direction. My observations are generalizations that won’t apply to all people or situations. I think most companies that turn social media over to interns are those who want to say they are doing social but don’t want to commit to it. Results will be lackluster, yet poses real risks.

    Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I’m also happy to respond via email or Twitter!

  • Ramesh Ramakrishnan | August 21, 2013

    Nice post Gerald Kane,

    Some companies just take a ‘me too’ approach for social media and the team members do some isolated work. When the strategy is not social and executives think that ‘social media’ is another channel, that’s perfect recipe for some more isolated social media work!

    Here is my blog on this subject – Why You Need A Strategy That Is Social, Not A Social Media Strategy
    Read more at http://www.business2community.com/social-media/why-you-need-a-strategy-that-is-social-not-a-social-media-strategy-0520536#Ti5j0DmEPAOilRrQ.99
    - Ramesh Ramakrishnan

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