Rita Vanessa has had many triumphs at Rita Vee, the digital marketing company she founded a decade ago. From her impressive client roster to her tutorials in branding and design, she’s grown her enterprise into a highly sought-after resource for those looking to spotlight and grow their businesses. But over the last three years, she’s changed the way she presents her services to new clients.
“I moved into saying that I’m not a social media manager anymore,” Rita says. “If a brand or business owner comes to me and asks for help with social media, I say, ‘I’ll create a strategy for you, but you will have to hire a social media manager to manage it.’”
Like many others working in social media, Rita has faced the unrealistic expectations, long work hours, and numerous other frustrations of this position. She’s certainly not alone in her decision to step back from the role: In a 2020 study by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) Digital Media Research Center, Ragan Communications, and the University of Florida PR Department, 57% of social media managers said they did not expect to stay in their position for more than two years.
It’s a sobering statistic. If you’re the leader of a marketing team that includes social media, how can you respond to it? How can you take practical, proactive steps to set your team up in a way that alleviates the issues causing people to leave? Well, first you must learn what exactly is going on.
What social media managers do
Every day, a social media manager is busy monitoring the brand’s various platforms, which might include (but are not limited to) TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and various Facebook pages. The social media manager is responsible for creating, executing, and monitoring content plans for each of them. Vanessa says her daily grind was constant.
“You might be creating copy or graphics, or editing videos,” she says. “Or going in to check to see any comments that were made and replying based on company protocol. There may be things you need to flag to higher-ups. You may be meeting with the marketing director and planning what content you are working on for two weeks from now.”
And because social media is such a fluid medium, the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet. “Algorithms are changing, demographics are changing, trending content is changing, and new channels are popping up all the time,” says Chelsey Davidson, social and community marketing lead at We Are Rosie.
The heart of social media is interacting with the public, and this can be both joyful and very difficult. “Trolls are everywhere,” says Kenya Brock, vice president of marketing at We Are Rosie. “There’s always someone who’s not going to like your brand. Someone can post something very negative about your lipstick or haircare product, like ‘This color looks terrible,’ or ‘Your product fried my hair.’ It’s wild how someone will always find something negative to say.”
Obviously, this uncontrollable element of the job can damage the message you’re trying to project. And dealing with an on-and-off stream of negativity can affect your psyche, too. “People often don’t realize there’s an actual person who’s reading and responding to them,” Kenya says.
The position also requires an in-the-moment knowledge of what’s going on in the wider world. “You have to be proactive [in your content plan], but you also have to react to things happening around you,” Kenya says. This can run the gamut from light-hearted pop culture moments to divisive and difficult current events, but it depends on the company’s public profile and other factors, including HR policies.
“If you are a social media manager at a national brand, you’re going to need to respond to things differently on social than a local hardware store, for example,” explains Kenya.
Social media managers’ work: perception vs reality
Chelsey’s found that in many cases, higher-ups don’t completely understand what social media managers do.
One misunderstanding involves algorithms. “People who don’t know the social media landscape think everything [you post] will be seen and liked,” Chelsey says. But in fact, a channel’s algorithm decides what your audience sees. And that algorithm is out of the social media manager’s control.
Differentiating a brand’s content between platforms is another time-consuming (and ongoing) task. Each one requires unique content based on the channel’s demographics.
“The audience on TikTok is age 10 to 19,” Chelsey says. “So you make sure your message is tailored to that audience. You don’t say the same thing to a 16-year-old on TikTok that you would to a 35-year-old on Instagram, or as you would to a 60-year-old on Facebook.”
A great deal of research goes into each channel’s demographics. Chelsey says it can be frustrating for social media managers when their strategies are second-guessed. “Upper management might say, ‘Everybody is talking about TikTok! Why aren’t we doing more on TikTok?’ And the social media manager is thinking, ‘Our audience isn’t on TikTok. We shouldn’t spend time or energy to glean people who aren’t in our [target] community.’”
Naturally, upper management also has a strong focus on sales figures. But they don’t always realize that figures in the social media world are a different animal. “Social media managers have a lot of pressure to achieve numbers,” Rita says. “‘How many followers? How many are commenting?’ The expectations aren’t realistic.”
She also notes that the same bosses who want big results often aren’t willing to make more room in the budget to achieve these goals. She cites competing tea companies as a possible example. “The higher-ups at Snapple might say, ‘Lipton is doing really great [on social media] with their new lemon mint tea. What aren’t you doing?’” Rita says they aren’t considering questions like, ‘What is Lipton’s budget?’ and ‘How many people are on their team?’ “Anyone can throw money at a campaign.”
How marketing executives can help reduce burnout among their social media managers
Rita, Kenya, and Chelsey agree that these challenges aren’t insurmountable. If you are the leader of a marketing team, here are some concrete steps you can take to help the social media managers who report to you, whether they’re freelance or full-time.
Assess the workload and assign tasks accordingly.
Determine the breadth of the social media manager’s responsibilities, and discuss which tasks should and shouldn’t fall into their purview. “From a resource perspective, we’re often asking one person to do four jobs,” says Kenya. “If you want constant content all the time, on all the channels, you’re going to have to outsource the creative portion. That should be a separate role within the company.”
For example: Rather than expecting a social media manager to learn graphic design on the fly, provide support in that area by bringing on a specialist, even if it’s for a short, specific engagement. “I have been able to hire contractors to help with that,” Chelsey says. “I recently did a project where we asked a contractor to make templates for us. So I’m able to plug our message into a template with graphics that are ready to go.” Having this kind of freelance support enabled her to concentrate on the heart of her work, the quality and creativity of the content.
Have realistic expectations about time on the clock.
Social media is literally a 24/7 medium that a person could work on continually. The IPR study noted above found that social media managers tend to work more than standard 9-to-5 hours, averaging between 41 and 59 hours a week. At some companies, Kenya says, “there’s this instant-gratification mentality. They think if the social media manager has a laptop, and they have access to it, they can do it. Which isn’t fair.”
That’s why, in previous leadership roles, she’s been intentional about when people need to work “off hours” for an event or otherwise. “For example, if they are monitoring social media for an event that’s happening from 8 to 11 pm, I’ve told them, ‘Don’t start your day at 9 am!’”
Finally, she’s careful about how she words any emails sent outside of office hours. “I make sure I write, ‘Do not respond until work hours,’” she says. “I want to show them that I respect their boundaries.”
Focus on fewer channels, or hire more employees to cover them.
In a perfect world, marketing team leads would hire a specialist for each channel. Chelsey says the ideal would be a team where each person is “hyper-focused on their assigned channel and has the bandwidth to stay on top of its monthly changes in algorithms, features, and trends.”
Of course, budgetary concerns tend to nudge out ideal scenarios. In that case, selecting just two or three channels to focus on is more realistic. “And it’s best to have one centralized platform where all content gets shared,” Rita says. “Then you repurpose that content out to others. But you don’t have high expectations for too many platforms.”
Rita notes that some companies divide the work between those who create the content and those who respond to it—a particularly important distinction for high-profile companies that field a lot of comments and messages on social media. “JetBlue has people [in place] strictly to respond [to the comments],” she says. “That’s all they do all day, like a customer service job.”
Have a crisis management plan in place.
Kenya says it’s important for team leaders to be transparent with potential social media managers about what the job entails. “People should be able to go in knowing who they are working for and understanding the responsibilities based on the company’s public profile.”
They should equip their social team with the information needed to address an unexpected crisis on social media, whether it’s a company PR issue, natural disaster, or other social shockwave. For these bigger issues, Kenya and her leadership team have a system in place to create and approve any public responses that would go out on social media. It would never fall on the shoulders of the social media manager alone.
And for smaller issues, like customer complaints, you can be proactive, Kenya says.
“We have a docket of templated responses. ‘If someone asks this question, here’s a response.’ It’s something that multiple people have access to.” She says that having this system in place allows the social media manager to confidently respond on behalf of the company.
Build in opportunities to decompress.
Be aware that social media managers may be fielding some unpleasant comments. “Once I had a coordinator come to me with a comment [we received] and say, ‘I don’t even know how to respond to this,’” Kenya recalls. “But oftentimes the solution is don’t respond.”
She says that when it comes to the mental health aspect of it, she tries to get ahead of things. “When it’s been a very heavy day in the world, and something major has happened, I will tell my team to shut down for the day. They might need a minute to shut off.”
And while social media might never sleep, Kenya is keenly aware that her employees do. “I don’t expect my team to be responding to things off hours. We’re not a 24-hour business. There are no emergencies in our business that would warrant that! And if that weren’t the case, then we would hire a whole team of social media specialists to split up the work—it would never fall on the shoulders of one manager!”