Natalie Malaszenko has always loved pets. A 31-year-old resident of San Diego, Calif., she has a dog named Sarge and a cat named Leo. Years ago, when she lived in Texas, she took care of cows and horses and even a stray emu. In recent months, however, since beginning a full-time job at the pet retailer Petco, she has taken on the additional responsibility of tending to a breed of notoriously unruly carnivores, capable of scaring off even the most patient caregiver—namely, online commenters. So far, Malaszenko says she loves them, too.
Earlier this year, Petco executives appointed Malaszenko to a new—and trendy—job: director of social media and commerce. Across the country, companies like Petco are going through a two-step process. First, they scramble to hire social media officers. Second, they figure out what it is, exactly, that social media officers do. Blending departments—promotion and marketing, customer service and support—and requiring the ability to be shameless boosters while maintaining a light, self-aware tone, the job category is experiencing a boomlet as companies try to keep up with the new media world. The chief social media officer may be supplanting the chief branding officer as the zaniest human resource innovation in memory.
Malaszenko's initial assignment was to envision and articulate Petco's social media strategy for the future. "How do we take the great passion that people have for their pets and do something with it in social?" she asks, using the corporate shorthand for social media. "As a team, we figured out that for us it means being a part of these discussions, regardless of where they're happening." To that end, Malaszenko now curates multiple Petco fan pages on Facebook, several Twitter accounts, and the company blog, called The Petco Scoop. "Raising pets is really challenging," she says. "Dogs pee on the carpet. Cats scratch furniture. How do you help people through it and not necessarily say, 'this is the expert advice,' because we all have different opinions. We're just bringing the opinions together and harvesting [them] into a community."
The ultimate goal of her social media team, says Malaszenko, is to help the bottom line. "It's about having a conversation," she says. "But it's also about using social to influence purchase decisions....For us, it's about making money, as well."
Opportunities in corporate social media are popping up faster than cat videos on YouTube (GOOG). In addition to Petco, in the past few months, Sears Holdings (SHLD), Panasonic (PC), the Fifth Third Bank (FITB), the National Association of Homebuilders, Citigroup (C), Electronic Arts (ERTS), AT&T (T), Fiji Water, Godaddy.com, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship have all sought or hired social media experts. In Las Vegas, Harrah's Entertainment recently circulated a job listing for a "corporate social media rock star." In Chicago, Buick went looking for a handful of "social media ambassadors" to help manage Tweet to Drive, which allows customers to schedule test drives from home via Twitter. At the same time, traditional public relations and marketing powerhouses such as Ogilvy & Mather are bulking up their expertise to fend off social-media-focused startups.
Much of the justification for the corporate spending, however, is anecdotal. As company chiefs find themselves chasing another new, new thing in the digital world, they are doing so as much on faith and emotion as on metrics and case history. The hiring spree satisfies two key constituencies: chief executives who can now reassure themselves that they have someone in-house dedicated to catering to fickle, Web-surfing consumers, and self-styled experts in the American workforce finding a way to capitalize on the corporate fever for Internet-a-go-go, Web 2.0.
Pete Cashmore, who runs the blog Mashable, is a sort of life coach to the social media industry. Recently he declared June 30 to be Social Media Day. Teaming up with Meetup, a website that enables online communities to have face-to-face get togethers, Mashable helped its readers organize some 700 celebratory powwows in more than 90 countries around the world. In Manhattan, a crowd packed into The Mean Fiddler, a bar in Times Square, to network with their peers over $4 draft beers. At the back of the room, a manager for an eco-consulting firm swapped social media stories with a creative director for a watch wholesaler. Jeanette Espinosa, a 25-year-old "social media project manager," introduced herself to a chatty group and said she did social media work on behalf of an agency that represents various liquor brands. "It's an absolutely booming industry," says Cashmore, whose site includes robust job listings. "There are more positions than people right now. There are a lot of companies waking up to it and realizing that they need to have a social media strategy."
A long professional track record is not necessarily a prerequisite. Curtis Hougland, the founder of Attention, a New York-based specialist in social media PR and marketing, says the supply of seasoned candidates has failed to keep pace with demand. As a result, a swarm of self-proclaimed social media rainmakers has appeared at job interviews, aiming to parlay a high number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers into salaried positions with benefits—all of which is vaguely reminiscent of the frenzied hiring during the first Internet boom in the late 1990s. "There's a tremendous amount of B.S.," says Hougland. "The company hiring may not have the sophistication in social to verify the person's experience. They may be personally really active on Twitter and have a great blog, but it doesn't mean that they understand how to apply it to a business context."
When Malaszenko talks about being part of discussions, regardless of where they are happening, she is not being hyperbolic. Social media experts spend much of their time monitoring software platforms, like Radian 6, that track what is being said about their companies or products in every nook of the Web. The strategic challenge is then to address the rants and raves. While the rules of engagement vary, the general strategy is to amplify the affection, creatively disarm the reasonably disgruntled, and ignore the unhinged. Accepted norms in the analog world don't necessarily apply. After all, if the medium were, say, the telephone, parachuting in on other people's conversations about your company would be considered creepy. Not so on social networks, at least from the companies' point of view, where being intrusive without seeming intrusive amounts to a crucial quality in a social media director.
In the current environment, complaints can go viral fast. Nobody wants to become the next United Airlines (UAUA), which took a beating last year after ignoring a frustrated passenger, a musician who eventually posted a song on YouTube about the airline breaking his guitar. The video has been viewed more than 8 million times and no doubt helped inspire more than one queasy PR department to consider hiring a social media strategist.
When they're not out practicing Twitter jujitsu, social media managers craft companywide guidelines and also proselytize within the ranks. Some employees inevitably balk at the idea of tweeting about their jobs because it sounds suspiciously like more work. Others worry—often rightfully—about oversharing themselves into trouble. Last year, James Andrews, a vice-president at the PR firm Ketchum flew to Memphis to talk to employees at FedEx (FDX), one of the agency's largest clients, about digital media. Shortly after arriving in Memphis, Andrews wrote on his Twitter account, dubbed @keyinfluencer: "True confession but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, 'I would die if I had to live here.' " Someone at FedEx noticed the sideswipe and took offense, touching off a storm that resulted in an embarrassing public apology on behalf of Ketchum executives. (Andrews did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.)
Just as people sometimes type more than they should, companies rolling out a new product on social media can quickly lose control of their message. Last year, prior to launching the 2010 Accord Crosstour, Honda (HMC) set up a Facebook fan page for the model. Instead of attracting praise, however, the forum soon blew up with critical comments knocking the design of the new car, which, in turn, drew a bunch of snarky media attention and plenty of negative buzz.
Jim Durbin, the creator of socialmediaheadhunter.com, says experienced social media directors—business strategists capable of identifying a company's needs and solving them using social media tools—can command $120,000 a year and up. Further down the ladder are community managers, who oversee a company's day-to-day social media operations and earn $60,000 to $80,000. Below them are cub Twitter managers, essentially copywriters with little business experience, who typically earn $30,000 to $50,000. The higher-paid directors are often required to justify their salaries with progress reports to upper management and sometimes must fight for the respect and acknowledgement they feel they deserve. Metrics used to evaluate success in corporate social media might include: number of Tweets; number of re-Tweets (a Twitter message that's resent by a follower); instances of "customer recovery," in which an irate civilian is successfully mollified; an increase in the number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers; and the number of photos of your product that have been posted online. "We look for opportunities to take our fans and give them more reasons to share their fandom and express their love for the brand," says Rick Wion, the director of social media for McDonald's (MCD). Wion says he is currently crafting a measurement scale that would compare his metrics to the company's traditional media efforts.
Because most of the tools of the profession are free, the new class of social media managers can find themselves stuck with meager operational budgets. One solution is to team up with flush neighbors in the marketing department to create campaigns aimed at converting relevant social media "influencers" (anyone with a bunch of followers anywhere online) into "brand ambassadors" through the strategic deployment of free stuff.
Earlier this summer, for instance, Princess Cruises hosted roughly a dozen Twitter-loving travel hobbyists on an 11-day "cruisetour" through Alaska. It's hard to put a value on the results; Rick Griffin, owner of a site called The Midlife Road Trip Show, tweeted to his 20,000-plus followers: "My 'boat ride' was incredible!! Had the time of my life and I gained about 12 pounds :)."
Similarly, Ford Motor (F) last year handed over advance models of the Ford Fiesta to a hundred social-media-savvy "agents." In a press release, Ford described the agents as "witty, irreverent, and adventurous" enthusiasts who were "socially outgoing, and more than happy to share their opinions" with fellow "Millennials, the next-generation consumer group born between 1979 and 1995." Recently the company announced that if it can get 30,000 people to "like" the Explorer on Facebook, it will give away a 2011 model.
The genre of corporate Twitter writing does not, as a rule, lend itself to brilliance. Noteworthiness is not the goal. Diligence and volume tend to be the yardsticks by which one's opus is measured. The prolific Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, is often cited by his peers as a luminary of the field. On a recent Thursday he oversaw 12 updates on the Ford general Twitter account, eight on the Ford customer-service Twitter, two posts on FordDriveGreen Twitter, and one on FordMustang Twitter. That same day, Monty wrote 38 Ford-related posts on his own Twitter account. Most were aimed at other posters, creating in sum a long string of half-conversations, all of which were successfully innocuous and perfectly forgettable.
"People don't trust corporations as much as they used to," says Monty. "They trust third-party experts, and they trust people like themselves." He believes that Ford's social media strategy is "humanizing" the company by using platforms like Twitter. "Ultimately, it's the most personal of all the social networks," he says. "It's one-on-one communication in the public square. It gives a person the satisfaction of having interaction with a big company like Ford and of being listened to. And it also shows the public that we're listening and that we get it."
As Ford and others listen harder, the social media job category, which hardly existed five years ago, should continue to attract refugees from various sputtering corners of the economy. A decade ago, Malaszenko could hardly have predicted that she'd now be heading up Petco's social media practices. "This is a career path that I sort of fell into," she says. "I originally was working on a PhD in cognitive neuroscience."