The Begrudging Death of the Social Media Superstar

The Begrudging Death of the Social Media Superstar - Brass Tack ThinkingI’m not sure what’s in the water, but there’s a general unrest right now with people in their jobs, careers, and industries. Especially people whose roles involve social, either officially or unofficially.

Actually, scratch that. I know exactly what’s in the water. Or at least part of it.

When it comes to roles that involve social media, community, or similar responsibilities, we made some mistakes in how we glorified them and set the expectations around their role (and dare I say, importance any more so than any other role in the company). It’s natural for that to happen when a new kind of skill set emerges on the scene; we did the same thing with web and e-commerce people in the 90s to a certain extent.

Social roles became the “rockstar” roles in companies, promising a kind of visibility and spotlight previously only reserved for publicists or prominent executives. We took marketers, communicators, and customer service people and put them visibly and actively center stage, making them a core part of the brands they were associated with.

For example, I had a very visible role as the head of social and community at Radian6 before they became part of Salesforce. It was my job to be out there, building the brand, supporting our customers, speaking at events, providing expertise at events and writing content.

But doing that kind of thing requires a keen balance.

Many companies even went out and hired a ‘name’ to lead their social efforts. And that approach was never awesome, but it’s really starting to show its weaknesses.

Me-First Isn’t Sustainable

Personally, I never forgot that while Radian6 was providing me with a great deal of opportunity to build a platform of professional expertise, my primary job was to help them build and grow an enterprise software brand and make sure that the brand was seen as the source of expertise and leadership in its field, not just me.

Social engagement made me more visible online perhaps, but that was an artifact of my work, not the focus of it.

Many people went into jobs like this thinking the opposite. That first and foremost, they needed to get seen. Get popular. Be influential. Whatever.

Now, many years into the maturity curve of social, I’m seeing a lot of people disappointed as these roles become less and less about being remarkable or special as an individual or a “personal brand” (cough), less about garnering some kind of independent fame within their industry or on the web,  and more about being the person inside a company that can ignite a movement and make lots of other people shine.

More than once lately I’ve heard a disillusioned social media manager or community strategist confide in me, “It’s not what I thought it would be. I anticipated that I’d have a lot more visibility and freedom and that I’d be doing a lot more speaking and publishing and be more trusted to establish and guide change in my organization.”

The problem is that social within organizations is doing exactly what we’ve always wanted it to do: it’s maturing.

Which means we don’t need rockstars, we need performers. People that can further business goals within a system and build and implement strategies that fit as part of an entire organization, not just their personal agendas.

Behind The Curtain Is Critical

I think we’re in the very earliest stages of work becoming more fluid than it’s ever been before. Right now it’s starting with more distributed workforces and flatter organizations, but I think there’s even more disruption coming (like entire workforces that are purpose-built to be ad hoc, not “on staff”, based on skill sets and expertise vs. ‘roles’ in an organization, but I digress).

We talked in The Now Revolution about social becoming a skill rather than a job. A set of capabilities that every person will have, to some extent, and apply differently within an organization depending on their needs and responsibilities.

It’s already happening.

We need people who can understand social’s impact on an organization, but not just so they can be the ones to use the platforms and engage with customers online.

We need them so that they can socialize that knowledge, form key leadership teams within of centers of excellence and distribute what they know deeper and contextually inside a company so that everyone gets smarter and more immersed in social as a catalyst for better work (not necessarily the solution for it).

The social ‘superstars’ need to be the best enablers we’ve ever seen. Which means they might need to be behind the scenes, not right out in front.

These are people who are polymaths and understand the intersections of social with different corners of the company. People who are skilled in diplomacy and teaching and creating consensus, bringing lots of different people to a table to develop a unified vision and a plan to get from here to there. People who can and will do the hard work, slog through the inevitable trenches, work through the arduous process of resetting organizational memory, and sticking with the sometimes slow process of change.

This kind of talk scares the crap out of the amateurs and those drawn to this profession for the potential “stardom”, because they’re looking at the big picture and wondering where they fit. They’re worried that if they’re not the one with the obvious expertise and the visibility, that they’ll be forgotten. Invisible. Irrelevant.

Or worse yet…unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Finding Relevance in The Next Wave

If you’re a professional working in social right now, you need to think bigger. And you need to think beyond yourself.

You’ll only get so far by protecting your sandbox, worrying about who might be overstepping your job description and whether you’re the only community manager on a team. That’s role- and job-based thinking, which has strict limitations. Because once you reach the boundaries of tasks and projects, you’ve got nowhere to go.

Instead, you need to shift your mindset as a social professional to purpose-based thinking.

To remember that your purpose in your organization today is to help the entire company bridge the gap from social media to social business. In fact, you might even look at it as working yourself out of a job.

That may very well mean setting aside your own visibility in favor of making sure your knowledge and expertise gets in the hands of everyone who needs it in your company. Truth be told, the former probably happens pretty organically with the latter. But like I said before, it’s the artifact, not the focus of what you’re there to do.

This change is happening, and companies are making this shift.

The era of the superstar is giving way to the era of the enabler. The person that can help ignite and sustain this kind of transformation from within and activate others. The person who really understands the difference between being indispensable and being irreplaceable (hint: you want to be the former).

It means your job can be more important than it’s ever been, if you can handle the fact that your fame won’t come on Twitter but on the balance sheet and strategic results you help realize for your company.

That’s a pretty massive undertaking, but it’s what will legitimize social in organizations for the long term, and the professionals who understand its place in business, as well as their own.

Are you up for that challenge?

  • davefleet

    So true, Amber. Well said.

    • Amber Naslund

      Thanks, Dave.

  • Scott Ayres

    Holy hell this makes my head hurt! And will piss many off.. Love it..

    • Amber Naslund

      I don’t know if pissing people off is the right metric for success here, but glad you liked the post (I think you were saying your head hurt in a good way?).

  • ginarau

    Great post, Amber and you really nailed the social rockstar phenomenon. I’ve seen too many examples of people that no one heard of, put into a lead social role at a big brand and use their title to justify their righteous behaviors. Often times, there’s nothing on their resume to back that attitude up, yet they throw it around like it’s their right. I’ve actually heard one of these social rocks stars say “I’m head of social at xyz, I can do anything… just because”.

    The real social stars are those within an organization that are making things happen everyday. They’re enabling and empowering employees, finding new ways to integrate social technology and the insights gathered into the business and making impact. They may not be the head of social and we may not know their name because they’re workin’ it – for the brand or company they work for, not their own.

    • Amber Naslund

      I think it’s important to point out again that jackasses exist in all disciplines. There are always people who will take advantage of their position, or fight for themselves first, or justify poor behavior. That’s a personality and character flaw, not the fault of social.

      However, social gives people like that a stage and a spotlight more so than it ever has. So we can see it more readily.

      But your point is correct: the real work is taking place inside of organizations. What matters is what you can DO with what you know, not how loudly you can preach it (irony noted).

  • John LaRosa

    I agree with your post 100%, Amber. This is one reason why, while most people might not know who I am, my clients rehire and refer me. I’m good with that (although, for purely selfish reasons, I would like the #BaldIsBeautiful hash tag to trend some day). :)

    • Amber Naslund

      Haha! That’s awesome. The fact that your clients rehire and refer you is more important than anything else. Regardless of what changes, that will forever be the thing that makes the business world go round.

  • Gawed

    I don’t know what speaks better of you: The amazing insightfulness of the post or the way you create interaction and input from other people here in the comments. Reading your posts is always a long time task because it is not only the text but all the comments that give so much great food thought! congrats on all that.

    not much to say about all this, the other great thinkers before me have said it. I can only sigh from my LATAM vision where reading this post makes me realize that LATAM is farther behind in strategy and vision about social business than what we think.

    It is not only rockstars over here, but as you say at the beginning: We created the idea on a lot of them that they have the magic keys of business in their hands and that nobody else in the company “gets it”. Thus now we have not only rockstars who love the attention but also a lot of people who almost think they should be running the company and guiding it because THEY know the customer, they engage with him and cause the “old guy” doesn’t understand that ROI is not important and all that b.s.

    The first “experts” created them, with their quickbuck trainings that told them they were the greatest, even if they were only trainees or entry level guys. I’ve found a lot of CMs here in Mexico who actually have NO aspirations of getting higher in the company or doing other things, they actually think that being the CM is the ultimate position, and while i may agree in some degree… come on!

    anyways… great post and hope to see you soon!

    • Amber Naslund

      I thank you for the kind words, as always. I take zero credit for anything other than raising the topic. The conversation is created by the people here in the comments.

      Social business concepts are slowly but surely making their way into companies, and we’re actually talking to a few orgs in Mexico and Brazil right now that are very much on board with it. So it’s out there, it just takes time. And we’re hoping to bring some of that to the LATAM market, actually, because we see lots of potential there.

      • Gawed


        That sounds great and hope you can someday share or convince some of those companies to come forward as flagships of the social business change in the region, we really need case studies and examples that act as starters.

        And would love to see a SideraWorks office in Mexico ;) hey! would love to be part of it! ;) let me know!

  • Joe Chernov

    Very nice job with this post Amber. It’s thoughtful, self-aware and constructive. Really, good work. When I left a relatively high profile job running content / social for Eloqua, fresh off an IPO, to join a relatively unknown start-up, a number of people (most in fact) thought the move was crazy. Maybe it was. Time will tell. But I was betting on exactly what you say in this post: the longest career will go to those who make a meaningful difference for the business, not those with the highest “influencer score.” Said another way, never go long on a trend. -Joe

    • Amber Naslund

      The crazy moves are the ones that define you, Joe. And they’re almost always worthwhile in some way or another. I had a successful independent firm when I took my job with this little Canadian startup back in 2008…. I was crazy, too. And I was crazy again when I LEFT Salesforce after the acquisition to risk it all and start my own firm, again.

      The trick here is that there are trends AND an undercurrent of substance that really will matter in the long run. I’m incredibly confident of that. Whether we always call it social business? I doubt that. But the shift and the change is real, and impact never goes out of style. Keep it up!

  • Faith

    The “Superstars” work for themselves usually because who’s going to continuously pay someone $425/hr?

    • Amber Naslund

      Lots of companies who have had agencies, consultancies, and outside experts like lawyers on their payrolls for years. There is *always* a market for adding business value, and a premium one at that.

      I think this is a generalization that’s aiming at the wrong problem, and I know plenty of superstars working in organizations, too.

      The question isn’t charging the rate, it’s proving that you’re delivering more than that in value. That’s always what separates the opportunists from the investors.

  • Rich Brandt

    Interesting read, it looks like a lot of folks are watching this scenario play out in real time. Thanks!

    • Amber Naslund

      It’s definitely happening in real-time, that’s for sure! Quickly.

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  • Laura Monroe

    Amber, I cannot tell you how much this speaks to me. You have articulated what I’ve been sensing, and certainly live every day now. Thank you for putting this out there!

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  • Rex Lee

    Great post. Thanks!

  • Tom George

    This is a very crafty piece, it is obvious to me you are an excellent writer, communicator, as well as an innovative thinker, however rock stars are in the spotlight and play in bands, usually make millions and produce something their fans die for. Did I miss something, or did someone actually get famous simply by using social media? Hey look there’s that Twitter guy! The problem is the notion that you can take social media, which was never really designed to be used as a business tool, in the first place and simply use it as a one size fits all. The fact of the matter is corporate starting using these platforms, I think because of the obvious reason, there are over a billion people there, but also for reputation management, to remain in the driver seat, and to stay current with something potentially very disruptive. And oh boy has it been right! Another thing social media does is intertwine personal feelings and opinions into a new form of marketing which is muddying the waters. I believe they are personal media tools, but it’s not cool enough, I mean if you named this piece “The Begrudging Death of The Personal Media Superstar” that would not have been nearly as cool. It’s all smoke and mirrors, The real players and people who get ahead in life and in business are hard working. No matter if they are rock stars, or communications specialists. There is no magic formula for success really, you cannot bottle it and sell it. I may personally hate a company, you or your brand, but my friend may like it and vice verse. You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic your looking for, (sorry little levity) Billy Joel popped in there. No but seriously, as the smoke settles and personal media does mature, people are going to expect companies to use the tools to meet their needs and if not they will simply do business else ware. I think so, but nice insightful post Amber. I poured my soul into this comment. I apologize in advance for it being a little lengthy. You certainly got my attention.

  • profesional web design

    Great advice! It’s important for marketers to focus on the strategy and tactics that work. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Debra Askanase

    When I was a community organizer, we used to say that a great community organizer NEVER EVER spoke to the press. A great organizer stayed behind the scenes and encouraged community leaders to take the credit and share their stories. Same with a great social media community manager, strategist, and employee at a company.

    I hate the terms “rock star, guru, and expert.” Seriously – those people just die out in blazes of glory or fade into the ether.

    Great post, Amber.

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  • Insight247

    With the greatest possible respect to the author, the article confuses social media oriented roles with that of a brand ambassador.

    Anyone with any real knowledge of the social media landscape already knows that social media executives are firmly entrenched in the background, and rarely venture out into the field. Close links are formed with the SEO, working on ways where organic brand awareness can be achieved.

    I don’t dispute that the role of the brand ambassador or community engagement officer will go through a transition, but that was never questioned.

    Anyway, whilst I don’t agree, it’s certainly a well written piece.

  • professional web design

    Good thing that you shared this kind of information.

  • yepi

    This is a nice post in an interesting line of content.Thanks for sharing this article.

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