The reason why there is so much debate about it is because there are so many different types of people, of widely varying experience, who can occupy positions with a social media remit.
On the back of these discussions, and to help organise my own thinking on the subject, I thought it might be useful to try and classify the different types of social media consultants and the pros and cons of each.
It is difficult to categorise these types without making some generalisations which may not capture the more diverse skills of some of the especially talented and experienced people out there. So, please take with a pinch of salt and help evolve and add to the categories via the comments section at the end.
The seven types of social media specialists
1. Social media specialist with a communications background
This type of consultant typically has a communications degree and has spent a bit of time in a PR-style function.
Usually, the comms-shaped social media consultant has adapted quickly to the explosion of social media and has improved their knowledge / skill in the area of online self-publishing and the creative use of digital assets.
Pros: A communications background helps these consultants provide advice about the potential pitfalls of over-zealous social media activity and are well-equipped to construct strategies which enable sustainable long-term relationships with online participants / influencers.
Cons: Not a specialist in things like media buying, SEO, digital design and utility development which may lead to a narrow view of what is possible.
2. Social media specialist with a digital background
This type of consultant has the ability to see what can be built to capture the attention of online participants and often focuses strongly on campaigns.
Pros: Understanding technology and digital trends can lead to the creation of solutions and platforms which can change the way a organisation interacts with its stakeholders.
Cons: The production focus can sometimes lead to a shortfall in understanding how to get people to engage beyond a bells-and-whistles solution.
3. Social media specialist with a SEO background
This type of consultant can look at social media from a very specific entry point, especially in relation to the visibility that can be created by well-resourced social media activity.
Pros: Understanding search habits and how to optimise content for visibility and interaction can mean online reputation management can be activated on a large scale. It can also lead to the development of solutions that consultants from other disciplines may not consider e.g. using a PPC campaign to reach online participants who may be vocal in the social space.
Cons: Content created by SEO experts can sometimes be developed with a quantity first, quality second mentality to tick the ever-changing Google algorithm boxes. They may also not focus on developing genuine relationships with influencers as the focus can be weighted towards reaching them en mass.
4. Social media specialist with an advertising background
The social media specialist with an advertising background can often develop the most creative and buzz-worth solutions.
Pros: The big budgets often find their way into advertising teams first, so creating big campaigns with social value should be a cornerstone of this type of specialist.
Cons: The campaign focus can often mean the important post-campaign phase isn’t considered. Additionally, the focus on creating big explosions may alienate the people who the campaign relies on because they haven’t been considered until they are required.
5. Social media specialist with a direct marketing background
Direct marketers have a lot of experience in communicating directly with people as opposed to going via third parties. They also understand the importance of encouraging and facilitating loyalty.
Pros: Probably very solid at interpreting data and developing incentive-based activity to build audiences / communities.
Cons: Potentially not equipped to generate content strategies which rely on participation as opposed to one-way delivery.
6. The native social media specialists
This person is likely to be a little younger and may have studied something more tradition but got their first job in a social media style role.
Pros: Social media is second nature and online participation habits can lead to socially-shaped solutions.
Cons: Experience may be an issue, especially in dealing with challenges that derive from crisis management scenarios.
7. The integrated social media specialist
This person is not only rare but also in very high demand.
While this person’s career may have started in one of the places listed above, they have spent a lot of time working across each of the disciplines to be able to provide the most complete advice possible.
Or, this person might be someone who has worked in the online communications space for a number of years and has evolved as the online space has evolved.
Pros: Self explanatory, but more than anything a person with this skill set can help organisations ‘become’ more social and opposed to just helping them ‘do’ social well.
Cons: Not many, but may find it difficult to stay entirely on top of the nuances associated with every platform by not always being at the coal face.
Which one is right for your organisation?
This entirely depends on the purpose of the role in question, and, to a degree, what you are willing to pay.
In an agency environment, your client base might require someone who can augment the skill set that exists or challenge the status quo.
In a brand or business environment, corporate reputation might be the priority.
Eventually, the senior social media people within smart organisations will be a hybrid of all the disciplines, but it takes a lot of personal time investment and exposure to responsibilities beyond the traditional job description to achieve this.
And, it will also take some uncomfortable growing pains as often mistakes are made when adding strings to a bow.
There are probably a few more iterations of the types featured here too, but this hopefully provides some context if you happen to get into one of ‘those’ conversations.