Around The Table: Are young marketers ready for social media?

Around The Table is a monthly section of Marketing where we pose a question to industry leaders and get their take on the matter. Join in the conversation and leave us your comments.

The article below will be featured in Marketing’s December/January issue, on sale 30 November 2011.

Question: Brands have been attacked for allowing their social messaging and communities to be mishandled by young marketers. Is tertiary education doing a good enough job in educating graduates about this channel or is this simply a question of experience?

Andy Lark, chief marketing and online officer, Commonwealth Bank

Andy: When it comes to social media, the most important skill you can possess is a passion for customer listening. Some of this can be taught, but much of it is learned. For decades, marketers have been schooled in the art and science of transmitting messages. Today, the premium is on engagement and listening. We are shifting to a world that must balance driving impressions with nurturing expressions.

Universities are working hard to incorporate leading edge thinking in social media and new technology. At the end of the day, though, it is up to employers to provide context and be ready to harness the skills of what are essentially digital natives. The greatest risk isn’t young marketers making mistakes – the smart companies will be those that teach them to fail fast and with decreasing frequency. No, the greatest risk is companies not being ready for the digital skills, smarts and networks these graduates bring with them.

A combination of people, process and culture must be in place for any social media program to work. Looking at the mistakes made, it’s unfair to target the graduate – bear in mind, as many if not more mistakes have been made by the most seasoned of communicators and marketers. What is fair is for us all to learn what happens when we don’t build a marketing culture that favours transparency and engagement – then backs it with the right mix of people and process. These are the ingredients for social marketing success.

Melanie Novacan, head of marketing communications, ING Direct

Melanie: We can learn a lot from young marketers – their ‘can do’ attitude, combined with their generation’s easy familiarity with online technology, means that they can provide a fresh perspective uncluttered by self-imposed limitations on what can be achieved.

In fact, firsthand ‘on the job’ experience is sometimes the best education – especially in social media, which, as a communications channel, is still in its infancy. We don’t have much history to call upon in this area, so for the most part it really is a matter of trying things out, learning and doing it better next time.

It’s more about the balance between providing guidance and support to be innovative, while managing the expectations of the business, what social media can and can’t do and understanding the potential implications, both positive and negative. To truly understand this channel, you need to play close attention to what’s going on – this means actively listening to online communities and acting accordingly. The ready availability of data on what is and isn’t working influences tactical decisions, so you have to be ready and willing to adapt to the situation.

Over the past two years, we’ve adopted a test and learn approach, and are making some real progress in this area. We’re now tweaking our knowledge to meet the expectations of our customers, and ensuring that we have the right resources in place to deliver a great online customer experience.

Kate Thompson, social media channel manager, NAB

Kate: Social media enables organisations to build a genuine, two-way dialogue with customers and create new connections across the broader community. As a result, more brands are dipping their toe into the social space – and unfortunately many are learning some hard lessons.

I’m often surprised there is still a perception that social media is a skill that’s limited to the ‘youth’, given growing participation rates across a broad demographic. I believe it would be a big mistake for any organisation to put the brand in the hands of an ill-equipped and unsupported marketing graduate, due to the simple assumption that they ‘get it’.

Effective management of a brand in social media isn’t actually a question of either age, or the role of the tertiary education of the people managing the channel. A good social media strategy needs to be anchored in the desire to build better relationships with customers and the community, which is central to our focus at NAB. Brands need to join the online conversation, and provide relevant content and customer support to the community.

For practitioners, this is a unique skill set, which demands an understanding of social media’s role in brand communications and customer service, as well as reputation and advocacy – which is a challenge for any individual to deliver alone.

The reality is that social media is an emerging space for all of us – one that brings the opportunity to learn and try new things, in order to unlock the power of community networks. Ultimately, social media needs to be threaded into the fabric of a brand and should not be on the shoulders of a single individual – graduate or otherwise.

Linda Duncombe, director of digital banking, marketing and customer experience, Citibank

Linda: From my experience working with the young marketers at Citibank, I can see they have a great understanding of the underlying principles of effective marketing – and I am seeing them apply those principles across every channel – be that above the line advertising or the new non-traditional online environment.

From that perspective, it would appear that tertiary institutions are doing a good job in providing great foundations for up-and-coming marketers.

At the moment, the online and social media spaces are relatively new platforms for marketers, so we are still in a period of experimentation. There is no single right or wrong way. Different companies need to adopt different strategies depending on their own brand values and the consumers with whom they are communicating.

Our target market engages and sources information on the digital channel. As part of our digital strategy, we now have a presence on Twitter and Facebook that has come about through a gradual process of dipping our toes in, rather than diving in head-first. We take the learnings and continue to look for unique ways to engage with our customers and target market. I am personally excited at the opportunities the new world of social media is offering and I think young marketers are more than equipped to handle the challenges ahead.

Vic Wolff, head of marketing, Australia, HSBC

Vic: I’m a believer that younger marketers may actually do a better job at managing social media for brands, simply because they have more experience with it. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identified that true experts have been practising their craft for at least 10,000 hours. In this respect, many young marketers will have spent more hours on social media than some social media experts.

That isn’t to say that young marketers managing social media shouldn’t receive guidance from senior managers, who have more experience in marketing and communications in general, and who can ensure that the activity is integrated with the overarching marketing strategy. You wouldn’t leave a young marketer in complete charge of your multimillion-dollar TV campaign, and the same goes for social media.

So does tertiary education do a good enough job in educating graduates about social media? A quick survey of the younger members of my team revealed that social media was rarely discussed during their marketing degrees. They are gaining their knowledge on the subject through other means, such as conferences, workshops, books, magazines and web articles.

Given the increasing importance of social media for brands, I would like to see more tertiary education courses covering the topic. These courses should not just be theory-based, however, because at the end of the day marketing is a verb, so you will only really learn by doing it. Practical assignments that require students to set up social media accounts and manage communities themselves are a must.