Career path of the social business professional

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed some interesting transitions in career paths by people from services to client-side:

Jeremiah Owyang is tracking these moves regularly; as you can tell, these professionals have expertise in marketing and communications disciplines.

An interesting contrast exists for E2.0/IT professionals, where practitioners are moving from industry to vendors:

Movement is inevitable and as budgets come back, we’ll certainly be seeing plenty of additional switching. The overarching thread I’m seeing here is that business expertise matters. The days of talking head gurus are numbered, as their visibility decreases. I created this thumbnail sketch to outline what I’m seeing:

Very general, as the labels cover a variety of situations. Top-right isn’t necessarily the ideal position here either, as I avoided using an axis to chart out compensation. Some thoughts on the labels:

  • Carpetbaggers are often referred to as snake oil salespeople, these consultants have low credibility but can fool buyers into believing they’ve got the goods. Once in a while, these people are caught red-handed e.g. when you hear about a job announcement only to discover a quiet separation weeks or days later, or in some cases, flat out convicted.
  • Independents are a dying breed. They were flying the “purist” banner high while straddling the clue-train, like the major in Dr. Strangelove. Visibility is tougher to maintain as social business evolves and these people will need a safe haven unless they’ve already reached escape velocity. Writing an industry book is a common tactic here.
  • Consultants come in many forms, but the way I’m using the label is to describe advisers backed by a brand larger than one’s name, with the ability to leverage a pyramid of different cost resources and skill sets. In supporting their company’s brand, consultants are behind the scenes with low visibility to the outside world, often in exchange for stable compensation.
  • Analysts play in the space between corporate and vendor/service – as a result they enjoy a balance of visibility and relative stability. It’s not an easy job and success requires a high degree of commercial empathy, genuine intellectual curiosity, and ability to forgo sleep. Think Altimeter Group.
  • Corporates are a mix; on the marketing/communications side these professionals typically carry higher visibility than IT/operations folks. Yes, the stereotypes apply here. The days of the “rockstar CMO” have faded and external visibility for these folks may be low, but their importance and internal visibility are quickly on the rise. The external recognition will follow.

Having been corporate, consultant, and analyst, I’m intrigued by watching the space evolve. I’m sure we’ll see natural, common paths emerge as the social business industry matures.

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  1. I was thinking about people who moved specifically into “social” positions. Shiv’s moved from social into digital. There’s a lot of overlap in the spaces and he’s another great example of the overall trend.

  2. Hi Peter,

    This post is why I love reading your stuff. You connect the dots and bring out the insights that aren’t easily apparent. Nicely done!

    It’s fascinating that you wrote this post today. Just yesterday, a friend asked me if I would ever want to go back to the life of an agency guy or industry Yenta like I was at WOMMA or the Social Media Business Council (what you term the Consultant). My reply was “absolutely not.” As exciting as those jobs were, I enjoy my current job as the Social Media Strategist for Fifth Third Bank a thousand times more. I feel like I’m not just talking the talk, but truly walking the walk and putting my money where my mouth is.

    Bottom line — it’s infinitely more fun to point to the first-ever customer service representatives tweeting for your company instead of just talking about Twitter. *grin*

    At your service,

  3. Michael – great to hear from you. To your point, four to five years ago, the social media/web 2.0 space wasn’t mature enough to be funded internally. Now, “the space” has evolved to the point where we can actually call it “social business”. Budgets are being allocated and positions are being created at more companies, rather than dollars being covertly diverted and early adopters spending their spare time to participate. The IT-focused side of the business will watch and follow suit within the next couple of years.

  4. Great post, Peter! It’s very thoughtful and as Michael said, you’ve created great insight by connecting the dots.

    Where would you put ‘researchers’? Those individuals who are studying this space, noting trends and case studies they uncover, document and sometimes even publish? There are a number of academics who are ‘experts’ in this space, and companies often seek these folks because of their affiliation with universities or their independence. Seems like they are different from the analysts, but not really consultants either. Maybe somewhere in between?

  5. Right – I’d put academics and researchers close to the analysts, probably with the highest level of stability. Visibility tends to be low; there are certainly modern day exceptions like McAfee, Boyd, Weinberger, Haque, but as t-shirts sold in Ivy League bookstores state, “it’s lonely at the top.”

  6. I’m somewhere in that box with you, with a low to medium visibility and a rising stability as a 12-month gestation period is gradually shifting as I take control my reigns in multiple complementary areas.

  7. Right – I’d put agencies near consultant, but probably with less stability given the nature of accounts. Maybe because I’m watching the dismantling of Enfatico locally in Austin now.

  8. What should we make of the visibility vector? You went to great effort to emphasize it, but why is visibility significant? Are there any variables you can use to qualify what you mean? Visibility internally? Visibility with other “social business professionals”? Visibility with a company’s customers? Investors? People in the social space get preoccupied with visibility, but I’m not sure they really know why — other than ego. In my business (and client-side role), the social sphere is important, but marketing performance matters a lot more and social visibility matters little. Being fluent in social in order to manage relationships with stakeholders matters more than visibility.

    …agree with you 100%…talking-head gurus don’t have a big future. Cheers.

  9. External visibility – it’s difficult to quantify and best left at a general description. What is influence? A Klout score? We (you and I) have discussed influence, authority, attention, and measurement for years…in this situation, I’m using it as a loosely defined term.

    Visibility can be an enabler for many things. The question is whether individuals who gain visibility can convert that into value. What I’ve noticed is that’s not always the case.

  10. Hey Peter –

    Interesting look at this. I’m curious why you decided that carpetbaggers actually even belong on the matrix. Charlatans and hacks exist in every profession, though we’ve certainly spent an inordinate amount of time belaboring their existence in the social sphere. šŸ™‚ When we’re talking about the actual path of a “professional”, and honestly asking here, do you feel like there’s a value to pointing out their existence and is there some sort of correlation or impact that’s you find telling around the maturity of the space that warrants their discussion or inclusion?

    I’d love to hear if you think there’s a tangible impact on social business evolution as a whole as a result of these folks and how that’s shaping the paths or distinguishing earmarks of those that set themselves apart. It’s a dialogue that, frankly, I find exhausting and rather futile, because I believe that bad practitioners are everywhere (though certainly more visible in a nascent industry). I’m wondering when we’re just going to start leaving them out of the discussion altogether, or if there’s something I’m missing about the value of drawing attention to them.

    I’m eager to chew more on the paths and makeup of professionals that *do* deliver value, and in what capacity, because it’s then that I believe we can illustrate much better for organizations what the “right stuff” looks like – in tangible, positive terms – as they mature in social business.

    Best and thanks,
    Amber Naslund

  11. Fair question, Amber. Maturity is absolutely why I include the carpetbaggers here. How do buyers know what’s “good” or “bad”? Does a free Splash Media boot camp deliver the same education as a $20,000 Forrester workshop? Can I get the same amount of insight out of Google Alerts that I can from Radian6? Why hire Chris Brogan for a speech when I can find thousands of less expensive gurus via Google search? Who’s the carpetbagger vs. the bonafide social media genius?

    In an immature industry, I think it matters to professionals like you and me, who invest our time and energy into building solid stuff. When dollars are siphoned away from us by those who lack knowledge and expertise, it’s a shame. It’s not that I care at all about “the industry” at large. I believe that fundamentally sound businesses with distinct value propositions to help client side professionals should win at the end of the day. And we’re going to see a lot more bad stuff along the way.

  12. I think it matters, too, but only inasmuch as we can articulate what differentiates the two, and hopefully with a focus on what constitutes value so we can help educate businesses that way. Which I think is exactly what you’re saying. I agree it’s a shame when good dollars get thrown after bad practitioners (makes for a gunshy market and one prone to bad characterization), so I’m hopeful that more and more successful professionals will continue to codify and model sound practice vs. lamenting the existence and character of the opposite.

    So I’m with you in championing the cause by highlighting the fabric of what’s actually working, and how effective professionals are evolving and maturing. *That* I see value in, without question, and I think the inadequacies it will expose elsewhere will help businesses do better due diligence about their social business investments.

    Thanks a bunch, and cheers.

  13. What, I thought Forrester analysts were 9-to-5ers, right? šŸ™‚

    Certainly the Forrester analysts I worked are the basis of the definition here. And it’s been interesting for me to watch where analysts migrate when the get out of the game.

  14. Nice insights Peter!

    As you suggest, the movements of personnel perhaps do indicate a progression in the field’s maturity. I think it indicates a growing confidence in the potential of the paradigm, after the low-hanging fruits have been widely harvested.

    Do you think it is possible that there might be multi-lateral flows so to speak, as experts try to round-out their experiences with some diversity in exposure and experience ( The ones you list here do not need that!)?

    Your point about experts having to be well-grounded in business is on-the-mark. The opportunity to realize transformational outcomes, which I believe is often left unexplored, will need people who have deep understanding and the staying power to make the kind of systemic changes enterprises will need to make.

    Do you believe, that the industry has developed the appetite for taking on the next level of complexity?

  15. Sudhir, interesting point about “multi-lateral flows.” I believe that breadth of experience can help some people and I also feel that professionals are not inherently wired to succeed at many different roles. Depending on goals and skills, career pathing can come down to timing and opportunity availability in many cases.

    It’s still early for social business. People are just beginning to migrate. Think about at the beginnings of e-commerce in the mid-90s, there was no market for search engine professionals or digital media buyers. Now those roles are critical to digital marketing. Even in social, the “rockstar” social media evangelist role has already faded whereas internal operators are in high demand.

  16. Thanks Peter. Your comment about it being an issue of timing and opportunity makes perfect sense. In fact, your framework could perhaps be extended to show phases of evolution. I tend to look at this (social) phenomenon from the perspective of Innovation and the related idea of diffusion of innovations. Just as innovations progress through phases, we are seeing the next stage of their evolution, and the corresponding changes in emphasis and critical roles.

  17. Thanks Neeraj.

    Peter, I’m flattered you and Jeremiah tracked my move from practitioner to vendor.

    A year later, I can say the move has been really natural. From an ego point-of-view, it is nice to move your skills from the cost side of the ledger in one firm to the revenue side of another. The other big ego boost is the opportunity to move multiple firms in the right direction instead of fighting the good fight at just one. Finally, it provides the right product and technical resources (like Neeraj) on board to drive this whole collaboration vision in the right direction.

    Thanks again for the mention Peter… it serves as a good reminder that I need to get myself climbing back up the visibility axes by sharing what we’re up to and what is/isn’t working.

  18. Hey Peter…
    This is a GREAT post.
    I think good humor requires that at some point somebody HAS to write the “Social Media Carpetbaggers on the Move” transition piece too…
    Lots of readers for that! šŸ™‚

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