On the hunt for guidance about how to build a career as a social media executive, I interviewed all three. Here is their advice for someone looking to grow in the field.
For too long, many brands and individuals have considered running social media accounts ‘easy’, something that could be handed over to the intern. This couldn’t be more wrong. Managing social media requires the expertise of executives like VPs and Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) who are dedicated to social media.
The March 2023 CMO Survey revealed companies spend 17 percent of their marketing budget on social media. Experts predict that figure will increase to 20.3 percent by year-end and 26.4 percent in five years. It’s the responsibility of the social media executive to own this budget and ensure it delivers a significant return on investment.
As a social media executive, your core job is to effectively deploy resources to produce results your higher-ups care about.
This mindset shift is crucial because it helps you perform optimally in your role. Plus, if you’re a junior social media manager, your ability to drive great business results makes you more valuable and increases your chances of becoming an executive.
Managers and clients care about business impact, says Tom Basgil, Social Media Consultant at Tom Basgil LLC. “How is social media driving the bottom line, increasing revenue, or nurturing leads? The key is to educate stakeholders on what social media can and cannot do.”
The key is to educate stakeholders on what social media can and cannot do
“Organic social is great for top-of-the-funnel brand awareness, while paid can be used to drive leads/sales,” he adds. “For organic, I share impressions, engagements, and share of voice. Paid is focused on conversions, click-through rates, and costs-per-acquisition.”
Besides seeing a return on ad spend (ROAS) for paid ads, Amelia Munday’s managers at Custom Neon where she works as a Marketing Specialist, also care about creating differentiated, engaging, and on-brand content.
“They want the content that we are sharing on our social platforms to stand out from the crowd and differ from our competitors,” she says. “It’s important that our platforms are growing and that our audience and followers are engaging with the content we are putting out there.”
Chi Thukral, now Social Media Team Lead at HubSpot, says her managers in a previous role at Yanko Design, where she worked as Senior Digital Marketing Manager, wanted evidence of experimentation.
“My higher-ups are all for pushing boundaries and experimentation,” she explains. “They care about seeing initiative, executing the ideas, and analyzing the results… It is important to see me pushing the boundaries, being creative, and learning how to pitch unconventional ideas in a way that they will get approved.”
Some experiments become big wins. Some fail. But for Chi, the greatest joy comes from producing work the team is proud of. “The best validation is seeing our employees internally share that content, feel proud about it, and validate company culture,” she says. “The intangibles are just as important to keep track of because likes are not everything!”
The major part of your day will involve planning, analysis, and reporting. This involves analyzing your content strategy and performance to understand what’s working, what isn’t, and what can be improved. For Chi, this means “checking on the feeds to see how the published content is performing.”
For Amelia, a typical day involves touching base with their digital agency to check in on how their paid Google and Meta ads are performing and looking at ways to optimize them and do lots of forward planning, she says.
“We are constantly considering what we can do next and plan our campaigns out a few months ahead, meaning we start working on Black Friday in July!”
Content consumption and production
Social media executives also draw inspiration from content made by other creatives and brands.
“Since I lead Twitter [X] and Instagram for HubSpot, I spend an hour on each platform scrolling to get a sense of what is trending that day and also doing community management/brand interactions,” she says.
Managing a team requires you to provide feedback. The better the feedback, the better team members are able to function independently. For instance, Chi manages a team of 16, so her workday starts with giving feedback to team members and mentees.
She also reviews her content to incorporate feedback from her managers. “There are a lot of Zoom calls in between because I work fully remote,” Chi says.
There’s no clear-cut path to becoming a social media executive. But the career journeys of our interviewees show common threads that, if followed, will increase your chances of landing an executive role.
Gain hands-on social media experience
A marketing-related degree helps your chances, but it’s not required for a social media career. Being competent in a range of social media skills is more important — as is constantly keeping abreast of the trends and changes across platforms.
For instance, Amelia is self-taught. “I’ve taught myself many of the skills required for my role, and I’m constantly learning and growing, especially with changing algorithms and new platforms popping up,” she says
Proactively go after opportunities
Within three years of gaining social media management experience, Chi joined Yanko Design, one of the world’s largest design publications, as a Senior Digital Marketing Manager.
“I learned about Yanko Design from a family friend,” Chi said in a previous interview. “I approached the CEO, and I emailed him with plans until he finally gave in and said, ‘Fine, fine, we’ll bring you on board.’ I didn’t just pester him. I gave him ideas of what I could do to make things better, how I would do things differently, and the new ventures I wanted to start. One of them was their sustainability wing.”
In terms of measurable success indicators, Chi grew the brand’s Instagram followers from about 500k followers to over 1 million people within a year. Chi’s phenomenal work caused Forbes India to recognize her as a 30 under 30 in 2022.
Network, network, network
Chi’s story also highlights the importance of networking.
Building your professional network is important — but this doesn’t mean relentless spamming. Focus on cultivating intentional, mutually beneficial relationships and, like Chi did, provide value where possible. If you need help with networking, this article by Austin Belcak is a great place to start.
General hands-on social experience is crucial to becoming an executive, but these skills will likely be important for your role, too.
Video creation for YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram
Short-form video is dominating social media — and showing no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. According to a 2023 study by Wyzowl, 91 percent of businesses use videos as a marketing tool.
Seventy-eight percent of marketers also say videos have been very effective for their YouTube channel, followed by LinkedIn (69 percent), and Instagram (67 percent). These stats suggest engaging video creation skills will remain important and it’s one you need to master.
In-depth analytics experience
The ability to own and deliver a significant ROI is a non-negotiable skill for a social media executive. Insights from your social media analytics tool are the key to understanding the effectiveness of your efforts, improving your social media marketing strategy, and increasing your marketing ROI.
If it’s in-depth, multi-platform analytics you’re after, Buffer can help. Here’s how to get all your insights in one place and create beautiful reports your managers will love.
Knowing how to build and manage a team
Being a social media executive is a leadership role that requires various managerial skills, including effective communication, delegation, and project management.
While there are various manager skills courses available online (LinkedIn Learning has plenty on offer), the best way to hone these people skills is to take on more responsibilities in your current role. Not only will this boost your social media resume, but it might also give you a leg up in climbing the ladder.
An understanding of internet culture
Understanding and staying plugged into internet culture is essential to your effectiveness as a social media executive. It lets you create content that resonates and avoid cultural missteps that can become huge PR issues. I like how Jen Hartmann puts it:
According to Chi, Tom, and Amelia, here are some challenges you might face as a social media executive.
Finding competent team members
“Finding the right team members is very difficult,” Tom says. “It’s not enough to be able to write copy or analyze metrics. You need an obsessive attention to detail, the ability to think quickly on your feet, an understanding of human psychology, and the technical understanding to take insights from internal and external experts and relay them in layperson’s terms.”
If finding the right hire is tough, consider mentoring someone who ticks most of the boxes and is, perhaps most importantly, willing to learn. Develop an internal training process to help team members improve that you can roll out for all new team members.
Creating differentiated content
For Amelia, one major challenge she faces is trying to stand out in a saturated market. “When Custom Neon began, there were few competitors, especially in the Australian market,” she says.
“Now globally, the number of companies that offer a similar product to ours is high, so we need to stand out and state what sets us apart to show customers why they should choose us!”
Evaluate competitor content to find gaps and consider how to make your content more relevant to your audience. Also, consider studying what unrelated brands in saturated niches are doing to stand out on social media.
Fatigue is bound to set in when you’re a social media lead by day and creator by night. This is Chi’s dilemma.
Chi now realizes that “you need a break from the internet to continue consuming and creating without burnout.” To do this well, Chi blocks time to ensure important work gets done first and promptly. That way, she can take breaks regularly and engage in activities that refill her creative tank.
A social media career can be rewarding. If, like Chi, you’ve discovered that you love social media, go for it.
Start by developing relevant social media management skills and gaining hands-on experience. Next, invest time in building a solid network. Afterward, create your opportunities by pitching brands you believe you can serve. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it.
Give yourself a head start as a social media executive with Buffer. Manage all your platforms in one super-simple dashboard — with Buffer you can create, schedule, and publish posts, respond to user comments, and track the performance of your social campaigns.