On a bitterly cold, snowy morning in November 2006, Kate Barazzuol decided to work from home in her warm apartment instead of trudging into the office. The social media strategist for Vancity had just begun moderating an online pilot project called Change Everything, which encouraged people to make a difference in their communities.
It seemed like all of Barazzuol's friends had taken a snow day — except for one, who was working in the Downtown Eastside. She told Barazzuol it was going to be a tough day for the homeless in the frigid weather.
"I thought, I can do something about this," Barazzuol says. "So I wrote a blog post."
Within hours of asking for donations of warm clothes online, the Change Everything community had galvanized and Barazzuol spent the evening with a donated co-op car and a camera crew from Global TV picking up contributions. After 48 hours, over 4,000 items were donated to local shelters.
And Change Everything was transformed from a pilot project to a permanent community that Barazzuol still moderates today.
Welcome to the world of the social media manager (or social media specialist, or online community manager). No matter how you label them, these roles are changing the public face of organizations across the country.
What do social media managers do?
Depending on the organization, the job responsibilities of social media managers range from formulating high-level online strategies to updating Twitter feeds. They are always on the lookout for new and interesting material that will be relevant to their audiences, finding ways to engage their supporters, creating valuable content, listening to online conversations and making connections with multiple communities on the web. They may launch an awareness campaign one day and solicit donations the next.
"With the variety of work, I don't think you could possibly get bored doing online community management," says Theo Lamb, an online community manager for The Big Wild and BC Children's Hospital Foundation.
Whether an organization is on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Youtube, its social media presence is inextricably linked to its overall communications goals, mission, brand and messages. Social media managers get better results when they use social media tools to support and enhance existing communications strategies.
"I always try to remind people that social media is a game changer in a lot of ways, but it's not in a lot of other ways," says Barazzuol. "It's just a new tool to communicate."
Ultimately, what nonprofits are trying to do through social media is initiate two-way conversations that engage and build community.
"This is about building a community, it's not necessarily about a one-off marketing campaign," says Lamb. "You want to nurture relationships and treat each member — whether you have 30 Facebook fans or 30,000 Facebook fans — as a really valuable community member, because they are."
Education and experience needed
While courses are cropping up that address best practices in social media, you can't get a college or university degree in it yet. Since social media presences are often grounded in marketing and communications, having experience in these areas can help.
Lamb studied broadcast journalism and worked at a radio station before falling in love with social media, while Barazzuol's experience organizing people as an activist led her to online community management.
"I was an early adopter and an early online community developer," says Barazzuol, who used emails and fax machines to spur action before Facebook came along. "I was building communities online before there were really tools available to do that."
Elaine Wong, the e-philanthropy coordinator for the Alzheimer's Society of Ontario, has a background in fundraising. Though her job description didn't initially include social media management, her role has changed and evolved to use social media as a key tool for raising awareness and building relationships with potential donors.
One key element employers are looking for in social media managers is relevant, hands-on experience using social media tools.
Catherine Kenwell, director of marketing and communications at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, is in the process of hiring a social media specialist. While she's looking at candidates with communications experience, what she really wants is someone who lives for social media and has accomplished results using it.
"What I've seen in our applicants are people who have real hands on experience and have developed a ton of stuff," she says, "or I'm seeing the sort of theoretical people who say, 'Well, my background is in communications and journalism so I can do this'. I really want the hands-on person; I want to see what they can do."
Alexandra Samuel, a cofounder of Social Signal, the world's oldest social media agency, has been hiring candidates for social media positions for the last five years. She points out that in addition to being fluent in the social web, applicants with good social media connections are valuable.
"It's great to have someone who participates in the social media networks that are relevant to your audiences," she says. "So if you're a local nonprofit in Toronto, you want somebody who's been going to the Tweetups and Meetups and who is friendly with the major bloggers in town. The same way you'd hire a media relations person partly on the strength of their media relationships, you want your social media person to have good social media relationships."
How to be a good social media manager
Social media managers are great listeners, strategic thinkers, experienced content creators and conversational writers. They have creative energy, sound judgment, curious natures and innovative spirits. The online world moves at a very fast pace, so they need to act quickly, efficiently, accurately and wisely.
Samuel says that a social media manager's enthusiasm is crucial.
"One thing we think is really important is hiring someone who is passionate about the issue you are talking about or the kind of message you're delivering," she says. "Don't just hire someone because they have 5,000 fans on Facebook or 5,000 followers on Twitter. You want somebody who is really, deeply passionate about your subject because they need to be able to talk about it with people and to sound smart when they do."
Lamb believes that treating community members with appreciation and respect is one key to social media success.
"As an online community manager, you have to be excited by likes, posts, feedback, criticism — any indication that people are listening, interested and engaged," she says. "Continue to congratulate community members who contribute because that's such a big deal. There's so much going on out there. It's a lot of noise, so when they single your message out as being worth commenting on, donating to, or speaking out on behalf on, that's a gift."
Barazzuol thinks that a little patience goes a long way, too.
"You need to be really patient," she says. "You have to be a good listener and get people up to speed, and realize not everything will happen on your own time. People get really scared around social media, so you're almost like a counsellor than someone who's highly technical."
Speaking of the technology side, social media managers must be familiar with multiple social media tools and platforms, but they don't have to be supreme technical experts to be successful.
"You do have to have some technical experience, even if it's just enough so you know how to ask the right questions to the experts," says Lamb.
"You can teach anyone how to run a content management system or run a website, but what you can't teach someone is how to listen and how to see what's around the next corner," Barazzuol points out.
How to crack into social media management
It's important that employers can find you online. Have a profile on Facebook or LinkedIn, write an engaging blog or maintain a Twitter feed. You don't have to be on every platform, but you'll want to show prospective employers that you can use a few necessary tools.
And remember, you can use traditional job search strategies for online positions, too. For example, decide what kind of organization you'd like to work for - do you want to be in the health care field? Talk about environmental issues? Help single mothers or the homeless? Once you've matched your interests and passion with a field in the nonprofit world, start networking.
"I don't think the rules have changed. If there's an organization that you're interested in, what would you have done five years ago?" Lamb asks. "You probably would have reached out to them and explained what your value added is."
Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.