Social Anxiety

The social media manager has a key role for many brands. But can he or she really be called a marketer?

Headshot of Christopher Heine

On a humid night in late July, more than 100 social media managers flooded into a downtown Manhattan workspace—but pizza, beer and rubbing elbows with peers weren’t all that was on the menu. In a packed room with all the folding chairs spoken for, some stood for two hours to get schooled in the secrets of social media success from Pinterest and Instagram marketing gurus.

Social media managers who represent brands on leading social platforms are often called dedicated. It’s other labels that are more controversial.

Whether or not social media managers can rightly be called marketers sparked some debate on Twitter this summer, pitting digital veterans against digital natives. The way the more seasoned pros look at it, a youthful knack for Facebook and a South by Southwest badge do not necessarily a marketer make.

Don’t tell that to Liz Eswein, who, as the 23-year-old co-founder of The Mobile Media Lab, works on Instagram-based projects for brands such as Evian. “I totally consider myself to be a marketer,” Eswein says. “It’s my livelihood. I feel like since I grew up in the digital age that I’ve been engulfed in it, and I know the space in and out.

“I was on Facebook when it first came out,” she adds. “I haven’t had to learn these communications, whereas someone of an older generation has to learn how to use these things.”

Ms. Eswein, meet Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, who has worked in the digital space since 1997. “Being a paid social media staffer doesn’t mean you are a professional marketer,” he says. “I don’t want to belittle the role of the online community manager because they are important. But that call and response isn’t leading up to greater marketing goals. It’s meant to get more comments and likes on Facebook.”

Kevin Doohan, a Web marketing director since 1997 for brands including ConAgra and Red Bull, agrees with Schafer. While some compare social media managers to marketers, Doohan says, “They are absolutely different functions. It is not the same people at all.”

Yet that argument gets some social media managers—who spend much of their time tamping out consumer flame-ups on Facebook and Twitter—hot under the collar.

“To me, that’s totally ridiculous,” says Dave Brown, director of digital strategy at MKG.

Brown’s perspective is instructive. After all, he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the recent college grad who wants to post and tweet for a living.

The 36-year-old has been a digital pro for more than a decade and is something of leader among New York-based social media managers. He helped organize the aforementioned meet-up, which is a monthly event.

Illustrations: Alex Fine

Most of those who attend the meetings are twentysomethings like Eswein and recent college grads. But a dozen or so 40-ish and 50-ish faces also show up.

“There is some potential ageism, I think,” says Leslie Henry, 47, a marketing freelancer who is exploring social media management as a career and attended to the event to network. “But I was just talking to some girls, and they looked at me and said, ‘Why did you even bring up [the age issue]? It’s more about whether or not you are fun to work with, or whether we can bounce ideas off each other.’ And I felt pretty good after hearing that.”

Henry’s resume certainly pokes a hole in assumptions about the social media manager. She has a master’s degree from Wharton. But even with her Ivy League credentials, she might command a starting salary of just $45,000, according to Kasey Carpenter, a senior agent for Aquent, an employment service that regularly places social media managers. Still, social media managers for Fortune 500 companies can work their way up to six-figure salaries. “It takes a personality that wants to engage,” Carpenter says. “They have to want to truly be immersed in that community.”

Carree Syrek, chief strategy officer at Kinetic Social, points out that a short attention span—usually considered a bad trait—is a selling point for a social media manager.

“You have to be able to jump back and forth and back and forth,” she explains. “Let’s face it: The young people in our business were brought up doing that, so they’re uniquely qualified to do that jumping. Above them—the adults in the room, so to speak—make sure the train stays on the rails. You have to stay on brand. That’s one of the pieces you have to be wary of with the younger crowd.”

Syrek gives credence to the observations of Schafer and Doohan that social media managers are something less than marketers. But her statement also reveals a potential occupational hazard for many social media managers: limited autonomy.

Marketing higher-ups set the rules. So if social media managers really want free rein, they may be better off in the middle of a smaller social department that needs staffers to wear several hats.

Sometimes the hat says “marketer,” and sometimes it doesn’t.

“People are struggling to define the role,” says MKG’s Brown. “No one is sure what to call us. No one is sure what to pay us. The road conditions are changing constantly, so you have to be in it for the right reasons. You have to love it.”

Illustrations: Alex Fine

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.