Why We Still Need Real Social Media Strategists


by Shannon Paul on October 10, 2010

Even though business strategies come from the top down in organizations we still need strategists, or at least strategic thinkers, in every area of business, but especially social media. Not only because so few businesses have direct experience with social media used to deliver on business goals, but because it requires a fundamental shift that the same old evolutionary approaches fail to address.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the deliverables in a social business are almost always a matter of fulfillment, not department. I mean this in the sense of the traditional departmental silos found in most companies inhibit the ability to work cross-functionally.

Bottom line: fasten your seat belts. .

Viva La Revolution

The word strategist gets a lot of flack, and for good reason. It seems like everyone and her brother are claiming expertise in this emerging field with respect to everything from digital marketing to content development to social media communications.

No doubt many are far less than expert in any digital discipline or even fundamental business practices, but that doesn’t change the fact that you still need a strategy.

However, frustration over how people use any particular word doesn’t diminish the importance for strategic thinking and strategic communication in any successful integration of social media tools and communication into existing business processes. Fakers, posers and resume-inflaters exist in every field

The real role of a strategist: organizational alignment

The word strategy is still one of the most misunderstood concepts in business. When delivering on any big strategic goal, it’s important for internal subject matter experts or agency partners to provide translation between the big goal and the nuances required to succeed in the particular channel (in my case, social media channel/s).

Two necessary ingredients for strategic alignment:

  1. Context – Your role as a strategist is to provide enough context for leaders in your organization to understand your creative choices with respect to your discipline and to trust that they are indeed aligned with their big strategy. I often use the example of traditional broadcast TV advertising: the person in charge of selecting a particular advertising strategy or creative direction should be able to explain their decisions in terms of effectiveness with respect to the particular medium AND connect the dots between their decisions and the overall business strategies at work in any given campaign. One might also argue empathy as a prerequisite for an ability to provide context, but I will save that for another post.
  1. 360 Degree Reinforcement – Organizational alignment rarely happens overnight in any company larger than just a handful of people. Even then, other cultural constraints may inhibit whether your message is received, understood or respected.

The first obvious reason for the need for strategic communication is to help translate the BIG corporate goals down to the day-to-day activity (tactics). However, the often overlooked role of a strategist isn’t focused on top-down communication, but rather on the opposite.

People don’t like change / People change every day

In my mind this aligns well with the concepts addressed in one of my favorite books on change management, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. If we want to help an organization change in order to adapt social technology into their current business operations, we need to make our communication incredibly crisp; crisp enough to cut to the front of the line in a growing list of known priorities. Then we need to prescribe the tweaks in day-to-day conversations and operations to get the most leverage the fastest. From there it’s all about communication, iteration and continuous improvement all while you’re still handling the day-to-day stuff of social media.

Nobody else is interested in learning our acronyms

Every function in a company has plenty of technical jargon to go along with what they do. For most people who live blissfully outside the social media echo chamber, there is a huge learning curve associated with shortened URLs, APIs, FBML, RSS, PHP, hashtags, embed codes, and any number of apps or sites you use on a daily basis. The reason may have a job or a client probably rests with the idea that you can understand much of this so they don’t have to.

If you spend time in meetings with executive decision-makers hashing over tactical details you will earn a reputation for wasting others’ time. Unless, of course those meetings are about reinforcing skills with those on the front lines.

Strategic communication makes all the difference

In the end, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, or how much you know if you can’t connect the dots for others between what you do and what they do, or between what you know and what they would like to do.

Photo Credit: Phil Romans

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

October 10, 2010 Adam Singer 1

Nice post Shannon, agreed. More importantly – that is a picture of the game Stratego above in the post image above. Didn’t realize you were a player – I’d challenge you to a game sometime :)


October 10, 2010 Shannon Paul 2

Thanks, Adam. Yes, that’s a picture of Stratego! I might have to brush up on the rules prior to accepting your challenge – it’s been a very, very, very long time.


October 10, 2010 Ivan Walsh 3

Hi Shannon,

You kind of beat me to it…
Empathy is where things make or break.
Most strategists/consultants etc don’t grasp the underlying problem facing the org that needs to embrace social media.
Until you can put yourself in their shoes, explains ‘relationship status’ and sm ecosystems is not going to work.
The people who read this blog, and seth, and chris b etc are mostly power users.
But the folks you’re dealing with… some haven’t embraced email yet. Yes, they’ve scratched the surface but that’s it.
You really need to walk a mile in their shoes before you see things from their perspective.
and then it’s easy. ok. easier.



October 11, 2010 Social Steve 4


Social Steve


October 11, 2010 Davina K. Brewer 5

Shannon, Gotta agree with you and Ivan on the empathy; walking a mile, seeing things from the other side is key. It’s showing each side how they connect, putting the tactics and metrics in context of how it impacts the overall plan. Not all “experts” have that ability to 1) play the it through to the end, look ahead see how step 1 will drive step 7 and 2) knowing the planned ending, work backwards to keep steps on track per overall business goals. This is why I think we will ALWAYS need real social media strategists, FWIW.


October 11, 2010 Rosemary ONeill 6

I think there is often a knee-jerk reaction against anyone who does “strategy” for a living, because it’s not tangible. You are absolutely right that it is incumbent on the strategist to ensure that what they’re doing is aligned with the goals of the organization and demonstrates its own value. Then, hopefully the results WILL be tangible.


October 11, 2010 randyclark 7

Is social media inherently a silo buster? I had not considered this, however I have, in retrospect, been forced to work around – over – under the silos. If an SM strategy is to be successful it must tear down interdepartmental barriers. Thank you for the insight and now I will look for every opportunity to tear down those walls.


October 12, 2010 Dean Holmes 8

Great post/great work.

No doubt we get beat up for even mentioning strategy sometimes, especially outside of board rooms. Fact is that most companies, especially those in struggling industries, fail to focus on strategies that are outside of the core business model.
I reference 3 books by Chris Zook, from Harvard Publishing, Crisis at the Core, Beyond the Core and Profit from the Core as at the very least what leaders of many organizations should read.
This type of thought behind DeBeers for instance, crafted strategies that most stock markets would kill for in forward looking statements.
We also owe it to ourselves to always think different as consultants. Always. It’s why companies hire us, it’s why they need us and it’s certainly how we grow together as a group.
The fact is, I learn everyday. Not by ripping off ideas from those who have “walked the miles” but from taking key learnings of how they think, what it took to come up with this ability to see something so simple everyone else missed. Those are the moments I am proud of.


October 12, 2010 Nikki Stephan 9

You are so smart. :)

Your last paragraph is what really hits home with me. As always, thanks for your valuable insight.

- Nikki


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