Is Ageism Rampant in Social Media?
In truth, a lot of companies are, in fact, hiring younger. With a down economy, hiring managers believe they can get more work out of a younger employee with social media skills than they can out of an older, higher-cost worker regardless of skill set.
If that hiring strategy was based solely on the cost of employment, it might actually hold. However, there are a number of underlying assumptions at work here, most of which are just wrong.
One assumption, for example, is that younger people are more likely to be skilled in social media than older folks. And while it’s true that they may have been texting since they were in grade school, that’s not the same as working in social media. The fact is, most social media channels have only been around for a few years, and they’re being taken up by young and old alike with equal intensity.
As a counterpoint, it’s arguable that lots of kids acquired great talent and skill building MySpace pages to promote their bands or fan their favorite soccer teams or video games years ago. In doing so, they’ve acquired an extraordinary amount of skill, albeit without formal training.
But if you hire someone strictly on the basis of skill set, without regard for their interest in or knowledge of your industry, you’re likely to encounter a mismatch. In this case, your social media person gets stuck because he or she can’t bridge the gap between their passion and their job.
Another assumption is that social media is somehow replacing another, existing job title…like PR manager. This too is false. The PR manager role is here to stay. Social media is often tagged on as an additional responsibility, or it is relegated to a marketing communications person or someone on the web team. It’s generally only in large companies will you find a separate social media manager position, but again, this complements the PR role; it doesn’t compete with it.
It should also be noted, of course, that “social media” isn’t a one-person job; it’s a company-wide activity that must be planned and managed.
In very large companies there may be a number of people involved in this task, including a community manager, community relations manager, customer relations analyst, social media analyst, social media developer, social media strategist and social video developer, among others. Some of these are brand new jobs, while others have been around for a very long time – they’ve just had social media elements added into the mix. In general, many of the required skills are transferable from other disciplines.
Having said that, it behooves everyone in public relations, marketing communications and web development to build their social media skills, or they will risk having dated skill sets. This in fact may be where the myth of ageism in social media really got started; employees who were insufficiently skilled in social media or unwilling to explore this new communications realm may mistake their aging skill set for a prejudicial hiring decision.
Another assumption is that people who are proficient in social media are also skilled in planning and managing a communications program. In fact, the term ‘social media’ actually encompasses a variety of capabilities, only some of which involve any kind of strategic planning. So there’s a big difference between someone who can “do” social media, and someone who can utilize it within the framework of a strategic program, with goals and objectives.
It is possible find all of this in a young candidate. But it’s equally, if not more possible, to find these skills in a more mature worker.
Remember, strategy is not just about goals and objectives. It can’t be created off a template or run from an app. Strategy requires an understanding of the market, the audience, the ecosystem, the corporate stakeholders and the social media community. In other words, strategy is about having a relationship with a community, and a plan for managing that relationship.
So this is the crux of the issue: If you are looking to hire an expert in social media, don’t look at how many Tweets they have Tweeted, or web pages they have created or blog entries they have written, although all of these things are good.
Ask them who their community is. Ask them how they have mobilized that community on behalf of previous clients. Ask them how they can leverage that community for you. If he or she can’t answer that question adequately, you can expect that they will require a long ramp-up time to build your community.
If on the other hand there is a strong correlation, then regardless of age, this person requires a serious look. After all, you wouldn’t walk away from a salesperson with a Rolodex that was 50 or 60 percent in common with your own, would you?
Another point. Social media is incredibly powerful. It generates far more value for a company than most people realize. Brand value, product value, personnel value, influence, credibility, authority. It generates contacts and contracts and serendipitous business opportunities. It generates speaking requests, article offers, editorial coverage, customer feedback, competitor data, ecosystem solidarity, and momentum to carry your vision along.
Some people are really, really good at this. That’s why you see photos of them, the center of attention at Tweet-ups and Mash-ups and Meet-ups and other social media events. Generally, these are social media stars, and they can be hired – on a contract basis. Many of these stars prefer to work outside of corporate walls, but they will consult with you. (By the way, many of these social media stars are well over 40. They’re just tenacious at staying on top of trends and events.) And while the younger set around these people in the photos you see may be good candidates, so are the older ones. Don’t be fooled by the flash. In the age category, most of these meetups are pretty well demographically balanced. Right or wrong, the camera simply prefers the younger face.
Again, if you have found a candidate who understands this, then regardless of age, this person needs serious consideration.
So, is ageism rampant in social media?
I don’t think so. I think what’s really going on is that we mistake familiarity for knowledge, visibility for relevance, and exuberance for ability.
The true measure of a good social media candidate is in their intrinsic understanding of strategy, coupled with a strong social media skill set and an even stronger relationship with your ecosystem – your community.
The bottom line: You can hire young, or you can hire old. But if you hire someone without a strong background in any one of these three areas, you’re setting them up for failure – or a long learning curve.