Why you’re probably not paying your social media manager enough
The future is social—and that includes your bottom line
Caitlin Fairchild is an audience engagement and editorial manager at Long Dash and has held producer roles at Government Executive and Nextgov.
Social media manager. When you hear that phrase, what do you picture? Is it an eager go-getter in their early 20s, just out of college, ready to write tweets in exchange for no money? If so, it’s time to update your understanding of social media, both as a career and as a tool for growing your brand.
Our understanding of social media is shaped by our personal use of it. We scroll, maybe post a photo, get a few likes, and scroll a little more. Maybe we follow some brands and engage with their content, but don’t stop to consider the process of how that content comes to our feeds. Social media, which has been around for more than 20 years, is no longer the responsibility of the unpaid intern. It’s a complex, multifaceted professional discipline — one that continues to be underestimated to the potential detriment of many brands.
Sprout Social’s 2021 State of Social Media report found that 55% of consumers learn about brands or companies on social media. For millennials and Gen Z respondents, those numbers are higher at 61% and 78%, respectively.
Exposure to brands on social and interacting with these brands nets more than likes — it powers the bottom line. Sprout reports that 78% of consumers say they are willing to buy from a brand after having a positive experience with them on social media.
So despite its power, why does this perception of social media as the domain of the unpaid intern persist?
“I think there’s the misconception that social media is new, because it’s constantly evolving,” says Jenny Li Fowler, director of social media strategy at MIT. “The reality is the platforms and their strategy have become more sophisticated, more niche, and more targeted. However, for people in leadership positions, it’s hard for them to switch out of the thinking that social media is new and social media is for kids.”
“The reality is the platforms and their strategy have become more sophisticated, more niche, and more targeted. However, for people in leadership positions, it's hard for them to switch out of the thinking that social media is new and social media is for kids.”
To misunderstand how social media operates, and what it takes to operate well, is to underestimate the importance of social media and the power it wields. Properly understanding how your social media operates, and properly investing in it, allows your brand to better leverage it as a tool to communicate your brand’s core narrative. That core narrative is your brand’s vision, purpose, and value — it’s made up of your strengths and market opportunity, and also how you meet your audience’s needs.
“Social is akin to the window storefront of your brand. If a person learns about your brand they’re going to look for you on social,” says Charles Etoroma, a content strategist whose worked with brands like Warby Parker and Express. “It’s super important to get it right. What impression do you wanna leave people with?”
That first impression is made in part by the person behind the account. To do their job, many social media managers need to be copy writers, graphic designers, customer service reps, and data analysts, all in a single day’s work.
These efforts aren’t just limited to just one platform. Multiply those tasks by every platform the brand has a presence on. That can include: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat, Pinterest, and YouTube. Each platform has its own processes and systems for posting, building paid campaigns, and analytics; and each must be mastered.
“There are SEO specialists and data specialists. We have to stop thinking of social media as one clump,” says Fowler. “There are so many different avenues and different platforms. When building a social media team, we need to hire more specialists, rather than generalists.”
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Another complication? Many of these platforms have multiple content streams. Instagram for example, is not just Instagram — it’s the main feed, IG reels, and IG stories. That’s not to mention the new frontier of social that includes video games as social platforms, Web3 and the metaverse. Ultimately you won’t succeed on these burgeoning platforms without investing in the people that understand them.
A social media team of one or two is also not equipped to deal with the darker side of social media. The internet never sleeps — and it feeds on controversy. Social media managers, especially those that operate as a team of one, often struggle with an “always on” schedule and even DMs filled with abuse and death threats.
“There’s a lot of niche and nuanced components of social: design, copy, community building, paid ads. Then something could happen tomorrow that affects the relevance of a post that you had planned. What do you do? How do you adapt to that?” says Etoroma. “The mental capacity and fortitude that it takes to be aware of all of these different components day in and day out is taxing. And it doesn’t really stop even on the weekend.”
This recipe for burnout has caused many social media professionals to seek new careers, according to Digiday. Another reason for leaving social media roles is the low pay when compared to similar positions.
In 2020, Money reported that the national average salary for social media managers was $50,500, while the component parts of the social media manager role were paid more. The average for copywriters was $58,500, while marketing managers on average earned $65,500, and ad managers made $71,000. While salaries have increased in the past two years, the disparity has remained.
In 2022, according to Glassdoor, the national average salary for social media managers is just $66,699, while copywriters make on average $74,200, marketing managers are at $94,557, and ad managers make $94,203.
So what should brands do? Investing properly in social media means your social media team has enough time to get to know these platforms intimately through social listening and can engage with and respond to followers authentically, all to build a thriving community of your target audience.
Investing properly in social media means your social media team has enough time to get to know these platforms intimately through social listening and can engage with and respond to followers authentically, all to build a thriving community of your target audience.
For Fowler, her ideal team at MIT would consist of nine different roles. The lesson here is allowing people to specialize by platform so they can dive deep. The person in charge of Facebook doesn’t have to worry about keeping up on the latest TikTok trends, while the TikTok expert doesn’t have to foster discussion in a Facebook group. Another approach is one taken by Wendy’s. Their savvy Twitter account has earned accolades and many copycats over the years by empowering a core team to watch the landscape, monitor mentions, and quickly respond without multiple layers of bureaucratic oversight.
Social media is where people might stumble across your brand but also one of the main avenues a person will use to explore your brand more deeply, and even engage directly. Traditional media advertising only offers the exposure part of the equation.
A 2021 study from Pew Research Center found that 70% of social media users log into their accounts at least once per day. What are they doing there? For many it’s interacting with their favorite brands and discovering new ones.
“You’re there for discovery. You’re there at the front lines of what’s happening in culture within your industry to be able to react quickly, to be relevant,” says Etoroma. “Because if you’re not relevant, no one’s going to go to your website.”
Many brands are paying attention to these rising numbers, as Sprout reports 91% of executives are set to increase social media marketing budgets in the next three years. If you’re inclined to increase your social media marketing budget, you should spend it on hiring teams and arming them with the resources (and salaries) to do their jobs well. That could include paying for scheduling and analytics platforms, access to design and video editing software, or even just a separate smartphone so they don’t have to use their personal device. Ultimately, this will build connection and trust on the back end and that will carry through to the front end.
One of the draws of social media is the ability to form real human connections. That is more likely to happen for your brand with an engaged team behind the helm of the account with a thorough understanding of the audience.
“We have so much information when it comes to our audiences and what our audiences are saying about our brand,” says Fowler.
A social media team that has fostered a connection with the audience will better showcase both the brand’s product, but more importantly the brand’s values. That in turn inspires loyalty and engagement. When you hit a bump on the road, that foundation of trust is crucial as social media managers are also on the frontlines of reputation management and crisis communications for your brand.
If you’re on board with the importance of social media but want to understand more before investing, simply start by asking questions.
“I would recommend asking your social media manager what they do every day. I think so many bosses don’t know how much their social media managers are doing, or how many requests they’re getting,” Fowler says. “Start with shadowing your social media manager for a day just to get the sense of how much they’re doing.”
You may be surprised by what you learn.