Cathryn Sloan was correct – but not in the way that she thought.
The 2012 University of Iowa graduate recently caused an online firestorm when she published “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25” on the NextGen Journal website. In a nutshell, her reason:
…we spent our adolescence growing up with social media. We were around long enough to see how life worked without it but had it thrown upon us at an age where the ways to make the best/correct use of it came most naturally to us. No one else will ever be able to have as clear an understanding of these services, no matter how much they may think they do.
Within days, her short essay had garnered 624 comments (at last count) just on the site itself – the vast majority of which were negative (and often rebutting with personal attacks rather than professional opinions). The reactions ranged from Peter Shankman simply stating in the comments, “I no longer wish to live on this planet” to lengthier responses elsewhere from marketers including Mark Story and Virginia Backaitis.
Sloan did have a few defenders. Forbes writer Kelly Clay interviewed MineThatData owner Kevin Hillstrom, and his comments suggest that the young graduate’s thoughts were accurate:
“I find that Baby Boomers use social media, and that younger customers transact because of social media. This is a fundamental difference in user behavior.” And this is where the disconnect emerges. As Hillstrom elaborates, “Most of my clients want to use social media to generate sales increases and profit improvements. These efforts frequently fail to resonate with Baby Boomer audiences.”
Hillstrom’s solution is something that we will address later. First, we need to examine what exactly Sloan wrote. In her opinion, young people are better at social-media marketing because they understand how to use the networks themselves – they have always known the intricate tips and tricks within the networks’ interfaces because they have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, and every other social website. This is a reasonable statement to make (regardless of whether one agrees).
However, what Sloan seems not to understand is that knowing how to use a medium itself does not mean one knows how to use the medium for a strategic-marketing purpose. An example: Someone may have watched television his entire life, but that fact alone would not make him an expert on television advertising. A modern example: Someone may be an expert at producing an Internet podcast, but that experience alone would not teach him anything about marketing a podcast.
So, Sloan’s precise point is not accurate. However, the larger theme that she addresses is relevant: The disconnect between younger and older marketers in the context of social media.
Marketing on any medium – from newspapers to Facebook – needs first a strategic plan and then an execution of that plan. Since a marketing strategy requires research on factors including demographics, costs, required content, best execution methods, and likely results, any plan will usually have to come from an experienced marketer – most likely a vice president of marketing or a director of public relations. Unless your company happens to have a star marketer just out of a top MBA program, most people in such positions will be much older than twenty five because they will have the experience needed to produce a quality strategy.
However, a person younger than twenty five can execute a strategic social-media plan that has been developed by someone with more experience – especially since a young staffer will likely know how to use the mediums very well. It all comes down to how one defines, in Sloan’s term, a “social-media manager.” The plan needs to come from top management; the execution can come from someone younger. (And, perhaps, that was Sloan’s intention even though she may have not written her essay in a clear manner.) Any marketing effort based on a faulty strategy – or worse, no strategy at all – will usually be ineffective.
This is where Hillstrom’s comments on how both younger and older marketers need to contribute to a company’s social-media efforts come into play. He tells Forbes:
The problem, however, is that someone older might use social media differently than the 25-year-old, and as he says, “if the goal is to sell something via social media, and the 52-year-old customer isn’t likely to buy via social media, then the key to success is to focus on customers under the age of 30. Given this focus, it’s pretty important to include the knowledge of a younger consumer in social media marketing efforts.”
While Hillstrom personally believes that successfully using social media to sell to a specific demographic requires the social-media manager to also represent that demographic, Hillstrom finds that older marketers have the “experience and business savvy” that those who are younger do not. As a result, he believes “both sides need to be working together, learning from each other.”
As we have written before, social media is not a medium that you should leave to an intern (or any other single person) by himself. Whoever manages your company’s daily social-media marketing needs to work with public relations to understand the overall brand, messaging, and strategy.
And that person, as Sloan may have meant, can be under twenty five – as long as he or she is executing a quality strategy developed by public-relations executives who are likely much older.