If I Knew Then What I Know Now – Preparing For What I Do Today

How do you prepare for a job in social media? That was the question I got from a high school senior. I’ve yet to meet Noelle Royer, who emailed me the following:

careers in social media

Image from Splash Media University

I love your job. I’ve always loved writing and, as I’m entering my senior year of high school, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should major in and where I plan on going with it. So let’s say, hypothetically, that I aspire to do what you do. I’m looking for direction. What I want to know is this: if you could do your college years over, knowing what it is you do now, how would you best use the time to prepare?

Here is what I wrote back …

I happened into this field entirely by accident and I’m not a trendcaster, so I can’t really tell you what there will be demand for, especially since everything changes so so fast! But I can tell you this, for anyone looking to do communications (and you notice I just say communications, not online or digital or multimedia, because there’s no difference now), the following experiences and abilities are key:

1) Learn to write. For the public, not just your professor. Your professors and a college education are invaluable, and you’ll get a very good grounding. But a class paper doesn’t always help you learn to write for a market, or persuasively for the public. And unless you’re the next Faulkner, chances are you’ll write for a job. Learn to write well! Learn technique, and craft.

To this I’d also add, take a basic journalism course – you’ll learn a ton about how to do the research, how to make your point, the difference between reporting and editorializing, and the value of a seriously well written lede. Journalism may be an embattled industry, but they’re still teaching journalism basics, which are invaluable in any industry. Because it’s all about being able to communicate effectively. No matter how complex the subject.

2) Learn basic web skills – they weren’t really key when I graduated, um X years ago – but they sure are now! You should, at minimum, know how to get into the back end of your blogging platform and fend for yourself when it comes to formatting your text, placing images, troubleshoot tech “urps.” It’ll make all the difference between putting up a wysiwyg blog on blogspot and running your own site with your own domain where you own your content and have a whole lot more flexibility.

This by the way, to be clear, is not the same as coding skills.  

3) Learn basic SEO/SEM – this is something professionals still specialize in, and there’s a reason why. It’s 24/7, very exhausting, and pretty soon, it’s something you want a professional to deal with for your business. But I think it would be valuable to take a basic course in SEO so you can learn how the web works, how data is framed and produced, why things go viral, and how things are easily shared so that your audience finds it easy to engage with you.

4) Start going to meet-ups and look for free conferences. The un-conferences are particularly good. Be a fly on the wall, listen to the established professionals do their thing as well as be challenged by up-and-comers. All for little to no money. You have to get to them, of course, but if you’re in a major metro, this shouldn’t be an issue. Eventbrite is a great place to look for conferences, seminars, and talks near you.

5) Learn basic business skills – many of us are already at a point where we are our own brands, bosses, and businesses because it beats waiting for a job in a perilous and unpredictable economy. But the problem is most of us did not think we’d have to be our own boss and have no idea what that entails. We know what it’s like to fill out the W-4 and take home a paycheck. We have no idea how to develop business and make payroll. That’s a whole other ball of wax. So take a business basics course, something that includes accounting, budgeting, cash flow, the basics of how to run a business. It’s unglamorous, but if you work for yourself, it may be years before you get to the level where the MBA is more necessary before basic everyday business sense.

6) Seek out content strategy courses. Because you can’t just set up a webpage anymore, regardless of your industry. You have to manage the content, keep it fresh, and always keep an eye on it. You are now your own Martha Stewart, and wholly responsible for the outcome.

7) Take a basic big data course. This didn’t exist at all when I was in school and it may still not. But look around and see who is teaching it, and see if you can audit a class. And what do I mean by big data? I mean all the information that the Googles of the world track and monetize. It’s what sets the terms of the marketing game for many industries, it’s how the conversation and communications ends up getting framed. Learn how big data works. It will be very very useful!

8) Create your own privacy. I have colleagues who think it’s ridiculous to even hold on to the fallacy that we have privacy. Perhaps that is true. But I cannot overemphasize that you should put nothing up there that you don’t want to see above the fold in the newspaper. Your tweets, your facebook updates, your photos and captions and email threads and blogposts. Jump in, but know that everything you put up there goes to create your electronic presence that is now standard to look at in a background check and job interview process. No, your employer can’t demand access to your pages and no you shouldn’t feel pressured to friend them – in fact, I would advise that you absolutely ignore such a request. But you bet they look at a lot more than your LinkedIn profile.

9) Get an internship where copy and content are both valued. And learn the difference between writing for pleasure, writing for a purpose, writing because you have something to say, writing because something needs to be said, and writing to sell. There might be overlap, but they are all very distinct things – great careers, reputations, and your employability rests on your knowing the difference. Reputation especially – I’ve learned the hard hard way to never put my name to something I wasn’t comfortable with. I was once asked to essentially write up an advertorial. I’ve done dozens since, but at the time that wasn’t what I expected I was supposed to do. I was younger, not yet able to be graceful in my objection, got boxed into a corner, and ended up having a byline to what was essentially a hideously biased puff piece. Years later, faced with the same situation, I flatly refused. And you know what? I remained employed, for another couple of years until I quit on my own terms. There will be editors, managers, buyers, advertisers, and bosses who will want you to change words in ways that don’t sit well with you. Listen to your voice and don’t back down. It’s your name. At the end of the day, it’s all you’ve got.

10) Start writing! It’s a muscle that gets better with time. As I said, there is no privacy on the web, so do think about that before you start. Because everything you put up there becomes part of the public profile that you’ll then use to market yourself for a job. And what you write at 18 may not be something you want to have recruiters see when you’re 35. But start writing. As Nora Roberts put it, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” 

As I read through my response, I already see so much more that I could add. Plus things I may have actually been wrong about – for instance, I’m pretty sure big data courses have existed forever – just not in any form that would have appealed or seemed obvious to me in the English major section of school!

But I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a communications professional and social media is big part of your workload, what advice would you give Noelle? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out? Please do tell!