By Lon S. Cohen
You see it all the time. A new job listing pops up seeking someone to fill a social media position. In the details it says that the company is not looking to hire a true professional but… an intern. Some may offer the carrot of possible full time employment. Nothing in the ad says what the stipulations are to gain said full time employment. What measurements will they use to judge if the plan is worthy? What is their bar for success? Do they even know? If you don’t know anything about social media and you hire a non professional to do the job then what are you using to measure performance?
Seems anyone advertising that a potential hire will be “the front face of our company” (as I saw for one job listing seeking an unpaid intern) would want someone little more experience and work history. As someone said to me on Twitter discussing this very topic: Put the best people forward, or don’t bother.
So to dispel this unconventional wisdom below are some good reasons why a company of any size should not trust an intern to its social media plan.
They don’t know your business or industry.
Even if your intern is a communications major in one of the top tier schools in the country do you think they know your industry? What do they know about your particular business? Your customers? Unpaid help tends not to do the deep research needed to achieve the goals you’re looking for. Can interns answer customer questions on Twitter in real time? Can they develop insightful blog posts about a part of your industry? Can they field questions from reporters contacting them through any of a number of social networks?
An RFP from a consultant will net you some useful data about social media and your industry that you wouldn’t get from ten interns. And if they think there’s a good possibility to land a contract, a marketing firm will do their due diligence in research about your company and the marketplace. Better yet, a good relationship between internal marketing and communication employees and an outside firm with expertise in social media and social networking can be a great way to get the ball rolling on a plan. This way business knowledge is shared and vetted before putting together a plan.
The logic that many companies use to justify getting an intern to develop their social media plans is flawed. Managers reason that younger people just “get” social media. Why? Because they use it. In that way of thinking if I use a car – a very complicated piece of machinery with many working parts – then I must know how to build one from scratch. No company manager would say to themselves, “Hey, this kid knows computers, let’s make him head of IT.”
Just because you find a college student that uses Facebook doesn’t mean he knows how to utilize the platform in the best way for your business. Every industry has a specific way they can leverage each individual social network and it’s not the same across the board. Many banks use Twitter for customer service, while retailers have found success in specific discount coding to drive sales from followers back to their websites. A nonprofit might want to foster a community that interacts and shares stories on a Facebook Fan page while a music website might want to use it to share pictures of bands and post music clips. The nuances of the media can be easily lost on someone unless they have spent a lot of time studying what works best for a particular company.
No company loyalty.
Face it, and intern may or may not be a potential employee but do you want to trust your entire customer facing media plan to someone who is in it just for the college credits? In general, an intern will stick around for a season or two but that’s it. Hopefully, you want to develop an audience and a customer based community for longer than a typical internship. So if you want to develop lasting relationships online, you might want to invest in an employee who will be around to continue to grow those relationships and make them as strong as possible. Consultants of any caliber have an intense vested interest in the success of your company and their plan. Employees even more so.
Even experts are prone to misspeaking.
Forget ROI. If your investment is zero then expect to get zero out of it and possibly end up in a negative if that intern does something to damage your reputation. Even experts have been known to tweet out stupid or damaging comments that they thought were offhanded. So why would you expect anything more of an intern. Many young people are responsible and professional at work and as interns. But it seems logical that your idea of a casual business relationship may not be the same as your college interns. Just peruse your teenager’s text, IM and Facebook messages for a little while and you’ll know what I mean. Why take a chance?
Social media can have more impact than a television ad. The viral nature is well documented and when something big happens in social media the mainstream media is quick to pick it up and run with it. So if your company is thinking of hiring an intern to be the new social media representative ask yourself if you’d trust that same person to go on television to represent your business on the news because it’s very possible that’s where an errant video or tweet might end up. And forget about what might happen when someone makes a connection between your social media intern and a picture from last night’s frat party on Facebook.
Lack of connections in the social media industry.
Here’s the crux of the problem. The social media industry is growing fast. There are many fly-by-night companies out there who promise you 500,000 Twitter followers if you use their simple plan. But the truth of the matter is that this industry has a very reliable and professional base of experts working to improve it and create operational standards to follow. An intern is limited by youth. Many experts have spent years developing connections in marketing and communications as well as a number of other industries.
At this point social media as an industry has been around long enough that practitioners have also developed connections within the industry not only between other marketers but also with ratings, analytics and research experts. There’s applications developers, user experience designers, search engine marketing providers and website creators as well as content producers who need to be consulted for a good social media plan to work. There’s a whole gamut of professional services dedicated to improving social media. Does your intern have these connections? The idea that a young person of an age where they’d take on an internship has a better understanding of social media is fictional and dangerous to the integrity of the field.
If you are putting your entire social media plan into the hands of an intern then you also have to have someone who will closely manage her activity. That means resources of some manager must be diverted from other duties. It’s not a simple case of giving someone a task to complete then checking if it’s done to spec. Social media marketing and communication is partially a science and partially an art. Do you think a fresh-faced intern is up to that task without constant monitoring