How to Have a Career in Social Media

Taken from the bowels of my Formspring page, where you really can ask me anything. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

Question: Do you have any advice for recent college graduates who want to pursue a career in social media (ambiguous question, I know — sorry, just thought I’d ask!)

Answer: Yes, I do.

1. Learn to code or don’t go into social media. Seriously, a couple CompSci classes will make you a much, much better social media professional and will give you practical knowledge as well as credibility. The people you’ll have to work with will respect you more, and you’ll understand more about your job and the Internet.

Take classes online, go to a community college, whatever, but definitely get that out of the way before too long.

2. Decide what parts of “social media” you want to emphasize in your career. What do you really care about? Web standards? Open source software? Identity? Mobile technologies? Privacy/security? Make your career about something; the web already has too many marketing/PR-focused generalists.

3. If you’re going to get into the marketing side of social media, learn how to deliver real results. Not just metrics — yes, you have to deliver those, too — but also dollars. It doesn’t have to be sexy all the time; not every client needs a Foursquare campaign. But if you’re going to do social media marketing, your results have to speak for themselves. In other words, you have to start working on real campaigns (and failing) now!

4. Learn the startup market inside out. The people in this ecosystem will be your collaborators, your competitors, your employers, your employees, your friends, your “friends,” your mentors, your angel investors… Some of ’em might be around to bury you, you never know. And if you’re in PR, journalism, advertising, or a similar field, startups are also part of your bread and butter.

5. Start blogging (and tweeting/vlogging/wtfever comes naturally to you), and be really, really good at it. Say what you mean, tell the truth, be interesting, don’t try to lead, but always try to help. Create valuable content that shows you care about what you do and you know what you’re talking about.

6. Create something. Have an idea, talk to people about it, listen when people tell you it sucks. Then fix it. When your idea is good enough, build it into a product. This is crucial, because a social media professional should have some understanding of how development, business, marketing, and all that jazz really work. The best, most thorough way of finding out is doing it yourself. Also, this calls to mind Point #1: People will respect you more and you’ll understand your job better if you can actually build something. Otherwise, you’re just a football commentator who can’t throw a spiral: In a word, you’re a phony and a tourist.

7. Have a Plan B. The Internet won’t be the way it is now forever; also, your interest in it will eventually wane. Don’t make your whole life and every waking hour all about social media.

There will be a day when the very phrase “social media” will turn to ashes in your mouth and you’ll hate the sight of every fake guru’s avatar on whatever new app we’re all using then. At that point, you’ll be glad you have something else to do with yourself — writing, investing, painting, teaching, something.

Off the top of my head, that’s the advice I’d offer to a new grad contemplating a career on the Internet.

Oh, yeah…

8. Don’t do it.

Go ahead. Ask me anything.

photo by Chris Brogan

17 thoughts on “How to Have a Career in Social Media

  1. I love that your first tip was learning how to code. It’s so true! Or even just have a beyond average knowledge and interest in computers, the internet, and technology in general. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with, social media “experts” mind you, that can barely explain anything technical beyond how to set up a basic Facebook page. Before I got into social media, I worked at a company with a team of developers and I can’t tell you how much that has helped me. To have that big picture view with the ability to understand multiple aspects of a campaign or project is priceless.

    • I agree – I wish they taught this, however there are extension and online course that are great and for coding I don’t think you need to show you did it at an acclaimed University as much as you need skill – I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

      • I’d absolutely agree Sara, and once I’ve got my damn wedding out the way (love you too hunny), I’ll have some free time to get stuck in. 🙂

        I thought the resourse below, from the Web Standards guys was awesome, and I’ll be using this to guide me where I want to go. It starts super-basic (what is a blog), but as it progresses, it takes you through more advanced steps, such as understanding different scripting languages and things like usability too. I’d highly recommend checking it out

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. Awesome advice and I really like that you posted the CompSci classes because this has been the biggest debate (keep the classes I have for coding or go get a crazy masters). It is nice to know those classes are worth something and that working on a certification is valuable and works in with what I am doing with my BA in com media/mobile ad. Love number 8 too – might be my favorite which is scary.

  3. In a short while, “social media” will probably have a new name, as more and more it’s being used for communication beyond social purposes. I hope someone comes up with a new name soon.

    And, I wish everyone entering this field well. I work with a whole community of bloggers-podcasters. Many of them remain true to posting their original material using all the sophisticated devices to link, etc., but others think sending a tweet or posting to Facebook qualifies them as a blogger. Not so.

  4. Last point was really thought provoking. You put it in a way where social media might turn into ashes while I have a very strong feeling about such thing to happen. Though not very soon. In fact, the social media hasn’t still reached its zenith. It is yet to go ‘fully’ mainstream. I also liked the part where you said about having and knowing something completely different than what one does for a living at present, which too, can earn your bread…just in case! 🙂

  5. Great post, I really like your mention of the importance of some basic code…I learned to tinker with the first blog we were ever trying to promote by using Firebug for Firefox, which allows you to inspect code and view your changes in your web browser (my apologies if that sounds ridiculous, but it helped with enough basics haha).

    Also, I agree – startups are always really fun to work with, and if they succeed and become a well-respected brand, it is so rewarding to feel like you were a part of something great from the very beginning. They also move really quickly and welcome new and creative ideas and implement your suggestions and experimental approaches more regularly.

    Also, talk to as many people as you can about the basics…should you set up a corporation/LLC? how do you write a proposal? how do you draft a contract/statement of work? I remember grabbing forms from early on and modifying them along the way. It all comes together as you go, and getting mentors who went through the early challenges that any freelancer faces is a great way to go…”seek the wise counsel of many”

    On the working with startups note, really do your due diligence before working for equity and go for at least 50/50 cash/equity compensation. It is a bit more complex than I ever realized to set it up properly (you really should have the help of an attorney who understands those types of agreements). The 50/50 part helps make sure you are getting something monthly to show for your efforts while still going for a bigger reward in the end if it is a really promising company. I thought I would throw that out there because I run into a lot of people who have had a frustrating experience, and it was usually early on in their careers, not to mention the occasional snake oil salesman who says ‘if this goes big I will totally take care of you dog!’ Thanks for the great post!

  6. As a photographer, I first have to point out just how cute that photo is.

    Then, moving along — great tips! It goes a long way towards convincing me that social media types are not, in actual fact, numpties.

  7. Jolie, I loved this post. Well, with the exception of point #8, but still, I loved it.

    I was a few minutes ago, in the “Answers” section (Q&A forum where fellow ‘experts’ can share knowledge on a variety of niche topics, for the uninitiated), when I came across one particular question that asked this very question:

    As I’m looking to enter the field, I had quite a few thoughts of my own. But to add some outside credibility, I did a quick Google search on the topic as well, and your post was one of the first ones I stumbled upon.

    Well, I’m glad I stumbled. Your post not only supported what I said, but also made me think. Particularly points #7 and #8.

    Good work! 🙂

    Robert A. Burns, II – Non-Profit Director, Public Relations & New Media Specialist ||

  8. One addition that’s often ignored in social media:

    Be proficient in the language you’re working in. You don’t have to be a master wordsmith, that’s what copywriters are for, but you should know the meaning of the words you use and be able to put them in the correct grammatical context.


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