You can only go so far as a social media specialist

September 6, 2012

Social media

All specialists will hit a career and financial ceiling at some point (Image credit:


Recently, I had a meeting with a senior communicator for whom I have a lot of respect. I meet with this person from time to time and we talk shop. Everything from what’s going on with her job, new challenges I’m facing in mine and what the future holds. Usually, after we’ve updated each other, I ask her something like: “What could I improve? What do I need to do better?

The answer I usually get is, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” But during our most recent conversation, she gave me a different point of view that really stuck with me. It went something like this:

“I want to see you fully evolve into a business and communications strategist. Someone who can help a client solve a problem from start to finish. It’s not enough to just be the social media guy anymore.”

I used to love being the social media guy. When I was starting out in my career, it helped me make a name for myself.  It even helped me get my job at FH. There was always a need. Companies are always looking for specialists. And it’s pretty cool to have that unique skill set that no one else has.

But here’s the problem. Specialist positions come with a ceiling. You can only advance so far in a company — and only make so much money — as the social media guy. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it. When it comes down to it, specialists are often just tactical executers. I was. Or if they develop strategy, they only do it within their own channel — social media, email, mobile, etc.

So the question you have to ask yourself is: What are your career aspirations? Do you want to be the best at one thing? Or do you want to be the best at helping companies figure out the one thing that can change their business for the better? Because executive-level leaders at agencies and companies are problem solvers who start by looking at the big picture and work their way down. They analyze research, look for business insights, develop strategic frameworks, set cultural values.

And yes, some do use social media and use it well. We could list them all here, but let’s not. Instead, let’s list the number of social media specialists, or other specialists for that matter, who have remained specialists and gone on to become Fortune 500 executives, agency partners or even just communications directors. Keep thinking…I’ll go make a sandwich. Be back in a sec.

Can’t think of any, huh? Neither could I. Because no company in its right mind would hire an executive or department director who only excels in one area.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with being a social media specialist…for a while. It can help you get noticed and maybe even advance to a certain extent. But you will hit a ceiling where you can’t go any further in your career without expanding your vision and stepping away from tactics to embrace strategy.

So here’s a piece of advice…Even if you are the social media specialist, stop marketing yourself that way. It’s not going to help you in the long run. Look for opportunities to work outside of your comfort zone. Try and get as much exposure to strategic planning as you can.

If you don’t believe me, go ask a senior communicator you respect. Then come back and tell us what they said.

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Nikki Little
Nikki Little 1 Like

This makes perfect sense, but I'm curious to hear how you would recommend someone who does currently market himself/herself as an SM specialist go about broadening their skills. The benefit for those of us in PR is that we come from a strategic foundation, and unless we pigeonhole ourselves into particular fields, we should always focus on being strategic communicators with an emphasis on whatever specialities we have. But, not everyone has that benefit. 

JGoldsborough moderator

@Nikki Little Great question, Nikki. I think at least 50% of it is perception. Even if you're a social media specialist, stop calling your self that. Go for something like business or communications consultant with social media experience. We counsel our clients all the time about the importance of perception. Second, raise your hand and ask to be put in situations where strategic planning is happening. Even if all you're doing is listening. Step outside your comfort zone. Don't just do social media all day every day. And show you're being strategic about the way you use social. 

In an ideal world, we should be consultants who solve problems for clients using whatever tactics we need to -- including social media where it makes sense -- to get the job done. As some have noted here, being a specialist at the start of your career is probably ok. But five years in, if not sooner, you don't want to be someone who specializes in a tactic. Take the initiative and ask to be part of or trained on strategic planning sessions. Too many millenials these days assume they should know strategy when no one has taught them. Heck, I'm still learning strategy every day. And too many folks who've been in the biz a while assume millenials should know strategy when no one has taught them. Someone has to make the first move. My thoughts. Yours?

Nikki Little
Nikki Little

@JGoldsborough Completely agree that perception plays a big role. But, sometimes there isn't much you can do about a title at work. My title is social media manager, but that doesn't mean I only focus on the tactical part of social media. That's my specialty area, but I make sure social is aligned with everything else my clients are doing from a communications/marketing perspective. 

Once I switched over to a title with social media in it, I actually was worried that people would get the perception that I'm the "social media person" and was only good at doing tactical SM work. If you look at my bios online (LinkedIn and on my blog), my personal email signature and bios for speaking events, I always note that I'm a PR professional and social media manager at Identity. I feel it's important people know I come from a PR foundation/background, and while I may not do a ton of media relations or writing press releases now, the fundamentals of PR still play a huge part in my work (mainly the strategy part). 

tex_mex_manda 1 Like

Exactly! Just had this conversation with a senior comm. person this week. On my way to earning my Masters in Public Comm. to round out my experience, reading like crazy, and reaching out to other comm. people for guidance. There's no other way up without expanding your skill set. Thanks for putting this so simply!

cwilmc 1 Like

@JGoldsborough Great post, definitely a lot of food for thought for those of us just starting to progress through our careers


@cwilmc Thanks. We always talk about how our clients need to be aware of perception. We do in our careers as well.


@jessberlin Thanks, Jess. How are you and baby doing? When's your due date again?


@JGoldsborough Doing well. I'm due Nov 2!!!


@JGoldsborough Interesting insight. The trouble I'm finding is getting the rounded experience. How to do that when one is only a specialist?


@shartenberger 1 of best pieces of advice I got from colleague was to raise your hand and try as much as you can first 5-10 yrs of career.


@shartenberger I think you really have to seek it out. Take people to lunch. Pick their brains. Read a lot. Raise your hand for new opps.


This is a very good post, Justin, and along the lines of what I have been thinking about a lot recently. Unfortunately I feel like I've backed myself into a corner where the only thing appealing about my resume is that I've done social for a long time. I don't want to be a one-note for the rest of my career, but I'm also struggling to find opportunities to try out different things. 

JGoldsborough moderator

@snackmantis I hear ya. That's where I was 3 years ago. Having that social media experience can provide you opportunities at your current job or a new one down the road. But I would definitely start asking to try new things and be part of the conversations about strategy. Read as much as you can. Even ask to attend professional development sessions around strategic planning. All good ways to broaden your skill set. 

 But above all else, don't call yourself a social media specialist anymore. Call yourself a communications strategist or something similar. Talk about yourself in broader terms and you will find more opportunities that align with those terms.

cbaccus 1 Like

Great post Justin.  This is why the University where I did my MBA didn't do specialist MBAs. You simply did a Masters of Business and learned a broad understanding of approaching business situations. 

JGoldsborough moderator

@cbaccus Exactly, Chris. Couldn't agree more. My background is in journalism and communications. But if I'm doing my job well for the client and my agency, I'm a business consultant using the IMC toolbox to solve problems. That is a lot different than being a specialist. Hope all is well with the new city and gig. Cheers!


@JGoldsborough Good article. This is an interesting dilemma as a future grad, since tactical jobs are a such a good foot in the door.

JGoldsborough moderator

@zMcQ Some good advice from @sjhalestorm. Being a specialist isn't a bad thing, especially when you're first getting started. But even if you're a specialist, you can take initiative to try new things and ask to be part of the strategy conversations. Even seek out professional development around strategy. I didn't learn how to talk "goals, strategies, objectives, tactics" until I was almost 30. I waited too long.

sjhalestorm 1 Like

@zMcQ I completely agree with Justin in this article as it applies to evolution of a career, but not necessarily for young pros, students, or recent grads. If you get really good at one thing early in your career, you're in a good spot. Specialists are needed, and the better you are at something, the more time and energy you have to learn other things. Executive positions might not be filled with pure specialists, but they each have their strong background area of expertise - their bread and butter. 

JGoldsborough moderator

@sjhalestorm Well said. Being a specialist at the start of your career can get your foot in the door. Being a specialist 5-10 years into your career can start to move you toward the ceiling. Important distinction.


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