On Knowing (And Experience)

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How old should a Social Media Manager be?

It’s not hard to create an online firestorm by blogging something that is more perspective than experience. No one is feeling the brunt of this more than Cathryn Sloane these days. On July 20th, 2012, Sloane published a blog post titled, Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25, over at the Next Gen Journal in which she attempts to explain why the best Social Media Managers are those who understand the Internet more than everybody else because they grew up with it. She states: "…every generation has changes in history that define them, and social media happens to be one of those for mine. I do commend the way companies (and basically the entire population) have jumped on the social media bandwagon and recognized that it is the best way to connect with people nowadays. Yet, every time I see a job posting for a Social Media Manager/Associate/etc. and find the employer is looking for five to ten years of direct experience, I wonder why they don’t realize the candidates who are in fact best suited for the position actually aren’t old enough to have that much experience."

It’s a ridiculous statement.

I’ve blogged about this before. Just because I use a lot of electricity (I’m constantly turning on lights, flicking switches and plugging in stuff), it doesn’t mean that I should be an electrician. I’m not an electrician. I’m not trained. I haven’t practiced and just because I use something or have always been around it, it doesn’t mean I have any semblance or experience or expertise with it when it comes to using it for success in business.

Knowing how to use something is not experience.

I hate talking about young people in this manner, because it makes me feel old and like a parent. I’m also cautious because I would never want to discourage anyone from speaking their mind or putting their thoughts out in public. Blogging is a great way to do some critical thinking and get some additional perspective. So, instead of attacking Sloane’s thinking (enough people have already done so… just look a 550-plus comments), let’s look at the more macro truth: you can’t fake experience. Experience (actually doing the work – and not just tweeting about it – day in and day out over a progression of time) is something you can’t fake. You have to earn it… the hard way. There’s a reason why so many blogs have failed to gain significant traction over the years: most of the bloggers lacked real work experience (which provides vision) to see it through.

Social Media is still fairly undefined.

That’s the real 800 pound gorilla in the room. Social media isn’t an ad, it’s not a marketing campaign and it’s not customer service (sorry). It’s a publishing platform. It’s a place where any brand (or individual) can publish – in text, images, audio and video – instantly and for free to the world. With that comes a group of people who see it as a free broadcasting platform, or people who see it as a place to help customers get their answers, or a place share ideals. This judgmental attitude is silly (to me). It would be like going back to the days of Gutenberg’s press and demanding that everything being printed must be a certain way. Do you think we would have things like poetry, comic books, magazines and fanzines if we judged the printing press the same way we judge social media? We’d probably all be priests and nuns.

Don’t be confused.

Sloane’s heart was in the right space. She’s right: her generation understands the very underpinnings of what makes something social and why people behave this way. That shouldn’t be swept under the rug. We’re going to need that generation to help us reshape the very fabric of what it means to be a marketer. That being said, those with the greyer hair should not be thrown out with the bathwater, either. Last I checked, I was in my mid-teens when modems and BBS‘ came online (the original social media) and being connected through these digital channels is something that I have been focused on for around twenty years. I’m not blogging this to toot my own horn, but rather to demonstrate that connectivity, digital media and social media was happening long before Mark Zuckerberg thought up a better way to do what MySpace and Friendster were messing around with. Just because it was popularized in the generation that Sloane represents, it doesn’t mean that what came before it didn’t have the same level of significance, or create a layer of experienced and seasoned professionals able to handle the tasks at hand.

In the end, opinions and ideas are great. Experience is much harder to come by.


  1. Although this post is more about experience than living with invention, I wish to comment on the inherent entitlement plague which ails some members the 25 age group equally.
    It would be wise for all generations to remember that we did not invent the wheel, we are simply the beneficiaries of invention. That just because we are born or grow up with them it doesn’t make us the inventors, nor does it make us an expert.
    “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
    Ideas come from people of all ages, and experience sometimes means mistakes. Cathryn Sloane may have just gained more experience than others her age.

  2. So… I think the value of experience, the value of knowing.. its like.. how we weight these things.. depends on various factors..
    I’m reminded of a.. I guess a cultural anthropological theory of art and culture.. which suggests you have these two types of person… the first type of person.. .a critic says “what you’re doing, it’s just like what that other person over there did” and for this first time of artist… lets call him or her.. that’s a terrible insult… they’re work is derivative…
    But then there’s a second group.. who you say that work reminds them of X and they’re like “yeah, thank you sherlock ,the movie is called a western, I’m not inventing western, the question is how good am I at crafting a western, where does my western hold up in the over all genera…
    So.. two groups.. the first we could call the conceptualists… where concepts are important, the second crafts people.. and in practice you might say people are mix of the two..
    Well.. conceptual artists often peak earlier in life.. where as crafts people.. it takes a lifetime to build that craft…
    So in a way.. I feel like you’re saying that marketing managers have to be crafts people, not conceptualists.. or like conceptualists wouldn’t have the same quality of
    Or.. I just that that was an interesting way to think about / challenge what you were saying a little bit.

  3. Sloane’s comments sound similar to the anecdotal claims made by Malcolm Gladwell that Bill Gates was so successful, in part, because he was born into a generation that grew up with computers. This claim was disputed by economists and statisticians who found those born outside the window identified by Gladwell were twice as likely to be successful software entrepreneurs.
    I also sympathize with her sentiment: the under-25 generation grew up with social technology and, therefore, are more familiar with it. This doesn’t mean they are best suited to manage social media campaigns.
    I believe there are current best practices for social media management and those best practices will evolve as social technologies evolve – the best social media managers are the people with the experience to know best practices and the ability to quickly adapt.

  4. Great. Give your social media over to someone who doesn’t understand basic principles of marketing, doesn’t understand your company’s brand, doesn’t understand your customers, has never pitched presented to a board of directors, has never been in sales, has never executed a successful campaign, doesn’t know how to “network” unless it’s through a device, and more than likely has embarrassing photos littered across the web.
    (The above rant applies to job applicants from 16 to 96. I hope you didn’t think it was targeted at any specific group.)

  5. Agreed. I saw that post on Twitter and didn’t even bother clicking through. It’s a ridiculous statement. People who manage brands’ social media feeds should have some marketing/PR background, and understand their audience and engagement best practice, that’s way more important than mere age.
    Keep up the good work, Mitch. I always cite your podcast for people starting out in digital marketing.

  6. Perhaps youth needs experience and experience needs youth. I am consistently amazed at the things I learn from my teenage children. They look to me for experience and I to them for the cutting edge. We collaborate if you will. It’s not us (bald…gray long gone) vs. them. It’s not a competition, but a shared learning opportunity. My experience with our young people in business is they are as eager to learn as they are to teach. Like anybody, they just want to be heard. The late Dr. Covey was right: “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Youth represents the future, as such, they deserve the very best leadership, guidance, and council our experience can muster. Oh yea, and our patience, which will surly be tried.

  7. I agree with your point Mitch and I do think that a company cannot just let Social Media in the hands of a 22 years old with no real work experience.
    On the other hand, I agree with Cathryn Sloane that some job posting for Social Media managers are quite ridiculous. Some are asking for 7-10 years experience in community management, I’m not too sure there was a lot of MySpace community managers back in 2002.

  8. The bottom line is, that she got so much attention and this is actually an acknowledgement she does know something about Social flow!

  9. I’m pretty surprised to see social media postings asking for 10 years of experience too. I could see you having related experience in marketing, PR or media but 10 years in social media is a rare find indeed.
    I just turned 26 and my biggest problem isn’t that companies aren’t hiring 20-somethings for social media. I’m more concerned about the number of companies that don’t think they need someone with experience to plan, execute and measure results. I see a lot of them hiring social media interns with no experience and I wonder how much guidance and resources they are given to learn. I am lucky to have found mentors early who showed me the ropes and continue to lend advice.

  10. When I was 17, I wrote a “very well thought out” article criticizing the school system and offering “efficient” solutions that “would make high school experience and learning process tailored to individual needs, wants and inclinations of each student. Well, I knew better because I WAS this student. Now when I look back I am actually grateful I had no say in my education and no choice but receive firm foundation in every aspect of modern science and civilization. But then I knew best:). In defense of Cathryn I must say that in some fields or industries focused on her generations her voice might sound more authentic, therefore more appealing to the community. However, a lot of HR managers do agree with her that only young people can effectively engage online community and you hear a lot of out of place bubbling, such as “LIKE this post if you love pancakes!”. I am advocating a differentiate approach and picking the right person for the specific target audience.

  11. Davey, you are so right. The “kids” still have a lot to learn about what constitutes “effective” communication, especially when marketing to a very large portion of the population that is over 50 and using social media quite easily, even if we didn’t grow up with it. And we who once didn’t trust anyone over 30 to steer us toward a better future, need to understand more about how this new generation of young adults communicates. I’m concerned when I see how my kids rely so much on communicating in abbreviated phrases. So often the meaning is lost because they have to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. But since this is the reality, I work hard to understand their communication process to communicate with them effectively.
    We can learn from each other, and I think the generation that is now under 30 is in a much better position to appreciate that than my own did when we were starting our careers. We were responsible for some great innovations, but there was a lot of wisdom we ignored, to our deficit.

  12. Great post. But it made me feel old. I feel like a dad watching a child try and run before she can walk. Based on the comments on her post, this is going to be a bumpy first step. She is about to learn a valuable lesson in the first rule in social media – Be careful what you say. You never know who it will affect or offend.

  13. I began working as a social media manager after an older, “more experienced” social media manager (experienced mostly in traditional marketing and sales) failed in the position. Although I’d never been a social media manager before — and certainly wasn’t after the position — I took it because I have ties to the company and I care about their growth.
    Since coming on, I have fundamentally changed how the social media is managed. Whereas before the focus was on numbers and immediate ROI (push marketing), it’s now on active engagement with consumers and (especially) industry influencers. Over the past several months, this new focus has lead to increased sales overall as well as increased brand recognition online.
    I believe my understanding of what needed to be done is due directly to having grown up in an online environment. I’m a bit older than 25 (I’m 29), but I am also a geek, for better or worse, and I’m infinitely more comfortable on Twitter than at a networking ‘mixer’. What people miss is that social media activity is more than a new marketing avenue, it’s a way of communicating that is different from other types of conversations in format, but not intent. Lots has been written on not treating social media marketing like traditional marketing for good reason … but I just don’t see older media managers doing that. An old dog *can* learn new tricks, but can it un-learn old ones?

  14. LNM, that’s a good, intelligent and measured reply. But I disagree that the issue is age. It’s whether the individual gets social media.
    Just because someone is 25 doesn’t mean they’re comfortable interacting with people through social media, or understand best ways to engage on any particular platform

  15. LNM: Yes, I believe an old dog can unlearn “tricks,” but it takes a conscious old dog, one who can take the best of the old and incorporate it with the new. Some of the best social media managers I’m aware of in the healthcare space are over 40 or maybe even 50. They are people who have most likely always used their intuition and empathy when it comes to communication, so they get the power of engagement and don’t need daily analytics to confirm the power of relationship building.

  16. As Mitch wrote, experience is harder to come by; it’s also what teaches, helps us turn information into knowledge, right? It’s that perspective that you can only get by going a lap or two around the block.
    It’s fundamentals.. they have not changed. The tools are new, “different” and certainly there’s a change in culture. Businesses are more open, more connected, get that communications w/ their community are essential. How often do we read and hear about how generations don’t ‘get’ the other? Like speaks to like. I’d never exclude someone b/c of age or youth, wouldn’t rule out someone by default if they ‘only’ joined FB two years ago.. it’s very much about the right person for the gig cc @Barrett. FWIW.

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