Two years ago, 93% of Americans believed companies should have a social media presence. Today, brands are hiring social media specialists for customer support, crowdsourced product development, promotions and even leads generation. At this point, with Twitter and Facebook having hit critical mass and millions opting into location-based advertisements, the issue for most organizations is transitioning from ad hoc profile updates to long-term strategy.

According to a report released today (embedded below) by Altimeter Group's Jeremiah Owyang, "only 23 percent of social strategists have a formalized program with long-term direction". Internal resistance, non-standardized metrics, multiple (and confusing) platforms and lack of resources prove great obstacles to planning.

That being said, the study was conducted with input from 50 of the leading pioneers in social media including Ford's Scott Monty, Edelman's Steve Rubel and Qualcomm's Liya Shariff. If these pros are seeing major barriers to their success, then what chance do others have in moving the needle?

The Proof Is In The Revenue

Perhaps one of the reasons social programs are so poorly resourced (with an average of three or less dedicated full time staff) is the fact that most are still measured by retweets, comments, fans, sentiment and followers. While engagement points can translate into leads and money saved, it's up to social media strategists to connect the dots and make the case that their efforts generate revenue efficiently. In justifying and expanding programs for longer-term planning and budgeting, 48% of social strategists place measurement as a primary objective in 2011.

Hiring The Right Candidate

In order for companies to avoid reactive or "social media help desk" environments, Owyang recommends hiring the right candidate with these points in mind:

  • Choose Strategists over Fame-Seekers: It's not about the tools being used, it's about creating programs that can help you juggle multiple projects in pursuit of your business goals. Hire innovators who've created successful programs across organizations rather than just Twitter superstars, and ensure that they understand how to build programs rather than just execute on them. This includes knowing how to engage advocates across the organization as well as how to assemble a team of external vendors.
  • Find Risk-takers and Give Them a Sandbox: While social media programs require leaders who have a knowledge of analytics programs, they also require leaders who are comfortable with calculated risk. After all, virality often tends to be based on ideas that are new to the public. If you choose a candidate with an entrepreneurial spirit you're much more likely to produce an award-winning program. Encourage experimentation with pilot programs and obtain approval from the highest possible executives.
  • Recognize Talent and Invest in Their Development: While social media specialists blaze new trails for your organization they often find themselves "alone in the wilderness." Encourage them to join professional communities for their career growth and compensate them in a way that is comparable to the packages of your other marketing staff. According to the study only 6% of strategists hold a VP title. In other words, if you leave little room for promotion the only thing your strategist can do to elevate their careers is to look outward.

It's pretty clear that brand conversations are happening regardless of how we monitor or react to them. The point here isn't to create a "Social Media Help Desk" where one junior communications person answers the needs of the organization off the side of their desk. The point is to scale programs proactively so that employees can act under a common brand and improve the customer journey through a variety of means. The conversation shouldn't end after conversion. It should be measured, kept alive, supported and finally - utilized beyond the realms of the marketing department.

Photo by malko