How Social Media Went From a Distraction to Businesses’ Biggest Opportunity

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Why you should care

Because there’s money to be made when social media is done right.

Back in the early aughts, when social media was a domain relegated to angsty teens, the adult workforce would have laughed at the idea of an employer demanding they take certification classes in managing their Friendster, LiveJournal or Myspace accounts.

But that is exactly what SocialB, a U.K.-based digital marketing firm, offers its clients for today’s social media platforms. With courses like “Social Media Masterclass” and “Social Selling Training,” Socialb attracts pre-eminent clients, among them the United Nations, the BBC and Virgin Management. So why are some of the world’s most powerful organizations seeking social media advice? 

Historically, companies blocked social media websites that they felt were irrelevant … and a distraction from productivity.

Tessa Horehled, managing director, Move Shake Make

Turns out, there are lots of reasons: 1.3 trillion to be exact. As in $1.3 trillion. That’s the amount McKinsey Global Institute says companies the world over stand to gain annually from effective use of social media. But to get a piece of it, they need to overcome what is known as the social media skills gap — that is, the divide between new digital demands and a dire lack of employee training.

According to a study by the Technical University of Munich published in June, just 5 percent of businesses surveyed strongly agreed that their organizations have enough personnel to handle the digital transformation. That reflects research Capgemini published in 2013, which remains the most in-depth study on the topic: It found that just 7 percent of employees surveyed believe they have strong social media skills.


A growing number of training consultants wants to radically increase that number and help companies bridge the gap. “We are not taught at school or college how to use social media, and even with the launch of digital qualifications at university, I don’t believe they educate people on the personal brand aspect or how to really use social media for businesses,” says SocialB CEO Lynsey Sweales. “The decision-makers in business who are trying to recruit a digital or social media person aren’t always sure what skilled questions to ask or the answers that validate that expertise. This either means they don’t recruit at all or they recruit the wrong person and don’t see the results they are expecting.”

Why is the workforce so unprepared when 34 percent of those workers are millennials who grew up with the internet? The answer could be that the universe of social media keeps expanding. Facebook was once a platform exclusively for college students; now it’s used by more than a quarter of the world’s population, according to Internet World Stats. When Instagram launched in 2010, it was just another photo-sharing app; today, companies see Instagram stars as “influencers” and treat them as powerful marketing tools. Other firms are turning to Snapchat, which began life in 2011 strictly as a teen app, to reach the youngest customers. With this ever-shifting digital landscape, it’s not surprising that employees struggle to keep up.

But they really must if their company is in the online game — and these days that means most companies. According to a 2014 eMarketer report, 88 percent of U.S. companies use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms to promote their products and services. It’s a highly effective marketing tool: 78 percent of consumers report that it influences their purchases, according to a 2015 Forbes survey.

When it comes to ramping up those social media chops and reversing that trend, employees are not getting much in-house help. Of the companies surveyed by Capgemini, fewer than half were investing in the development of their employees’ digital skills, and none of them planned to invest more than 20 percent of their training budget on social media/digital education. “Historically, companies blocked social media websites that they felt were irrelevant to an employee’s function and a distraction from productivity,” says Tessa Horehled, a global digital marketing strategist and managing director of digital marketing firm Move Shake Make. “As social media has become a more prominent business tool, not only for the marketing team, these previous restrictions are gradually falling away.”

Fortunately, some companies are starting to step up their game. Although management once assigned social media duties to a specific person or a team, most innovative outfits these days recognize that it has become the responsibility of all employees. According to a 2015 study published by Altimeter, 47 percent of companies surveyed reported that they provide social business training for staff, a steady 2 percent increase from 2013.  Alternatively, employees can independently seek out social media training and certification from sites that offer online courses like SocialB, Hootsuite Academy, Splash Media U, Expert Rating, Mediabistro and Market Motive.

When it comes to training, Fragkiskos Filippaios wants to go further upstream. Filippaios, associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Kent and co-author of the paper “Social Career Management: Social Media and Employability Skills Gap,” thinks higher education could take a more prominent role in improving social media education. “Universities and colleges fail to appreciate the need to include the use of online social networks in the curriculum,” he says. “[There is an] urgent need to … equip graduates and future professionals with those tools.”

The idea of social media penetrating all levels of society, including the workspace, has recently become the subject of dystopian narratives like the 2017 film The Circle and multiple episodes of the hit TV series Black Mirror. It seems as though offices that function like social media platforms may indeed be the future. But rather than the oppressive hierarchies dreamed up by sci-fi writers, workplaces where every employee is equally capable of contributing to the centrally important task of social media management may in fact create a more egalitarian “economy of trust.”

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