Where the Smartest People in Social Go Next

by Ryon Harms on May 19, 2014

Nearly 4 years ago, Jeremiah Owyang, then at Altimeter Group, wrote a landmark research report called, The Two Career Paths of the Social Media Director. It was the first piece of research that spoke to me on such a personal level. As a rookie social media director at a big brand, it was as if Jeremiah was speaking directly to me. Not only did that research report ultimately push me to eventually hire Altimeter, it gave me a glimpse into the future.

A key insight from that report: the social media director’s job is to work himself out of a job. Eventually, as social media proliferates through the enterprise, the novelty of social media will wear off and everyone will have an element of social as part of their everyday work. I don’t think many of us have worked ourselves out of a job quite yet, but helping other departments within an organization adopt social has been a key part of the evolution. But where does the social media director go from there?

I’ve been reconnecting with a few folks I respect in the business. Each one seems to have taken a different career path. It’s opened my eyes to how some of these really smart folks have evolved their careers and where the industry is headed . I thought some of their stories might give you some insights too.

Let’s start with Jeremiah Owyang. Jeremiah started out as the Blog Program Manager and Blog Evangelist at Hitachi Systems. That was way back in the social media stone age – 2003. From there he spent a couple of years as an analyst at Forrester, where he met Charlene Li. He and Charlene then founded Altimeter Group, where he wrote research papers, like the one I mentioned above, and consulted with clients. Consulting seems to be a well-worn next stage for former directors of social.

What’s interesting now however is Jeremiah’s most recent move, founding Crowd Companies, a council of large corporations who want to lead in the collaborative economy. Here is a natural evolution of social media technology – it becomes a part of the actual business model. Companies like Airbnb and RelayRides are creating social networks for sharing physical goods. In the collaborative economy, sharing is the new buying. Getting heritage companies to rethink their business models is a huge, but necessary undertaking, and Jeremiah is positioned to be at the forefront of that movement.

One of my favorite people in the business is Zena Weist, the former head of social media for H&R Block. I saw her speak on a panel at BlogWorld as a budding social media director. I approached her after the panel and she proceeded to give me some concrete instructions on how to manage social at a huge financial services company – exactly what I needed! Zena left H&R Block a couple of years later for a short stint at Expion, but she eventually ended up where Jeremiah predicted social media directors are likely to go next – customer experience.

“At the end of the day we are in the business of being customer advocates,” Zena said to me when we recently caught up. And she’s right, though we often lose track of that in the rush to be clever content marketers. Customer experience may seem to be less glamorous than social media to some, but it is at the core of every successful business and thus a smart and prudent career choice. You can now find Zena designing customer experiences at Level Five Solutions.

Zena wasn’t the first to jump from a big brand to a social software company like Expion. Software firms are keen to hire corporate social media folks for several reasons: they have real world experience, they get the space, and it inspires confidence in their clients that they can empathize with their unique in-house challenges. And with huge sums of cash being raised by the likes of Hearsay, Sprinklr, Spredfast and others, they have the funds to acquire some of the smartest minds in the business.

Greg Gerik is currently transitioning as the head of social at 3M to the VP of Product Marketing at social software vendor Shoutlet. Gary recently told me, “When I considered the different opportunities before me, I could hear myself getting the most passionate when I described the opportunity at Shoutlet. That’s how I knew where I wanted to go.” And Gary isn’t the only one, folks from some of the world’s the biggest brands, like Ashley Brown formally head of social at Coca-Cola, are leaving to lead strategic services at places like Spredfast.

However, not everybody is leaving their high profile brand-side jobs. Rick Wion, director of social at McDonalds, has been there for a social media century – over 4 years! He has the coolest social media job in Chicago, but his tenure is still an impressive feat when you consider that the typical stint lasts just over a year. Still several others are leaving for jobs at other big brands, like Umang Shah, formally global head of social at WalMart, has now transitioned to Campbell’s. There’s still a very healthy market for proven social media directors at big brands.

At one point or another, all of us have considered starting our own thing. I’ve met a few former heads of social that struck out on their own and then found themselves back in the warm comfort of a corporate paycheck. But some are thriving on their own. Like Liz Bullock, formally at Dell, and now the founder of SASI Social. She took the success of her SMACK employee engagement program at Dell and turned it into a burgeoning business.

It’s been exciting to see the evolution of social media at big brands. Whether it be a transition to the sharing economy, in social software, or even entrepreneurship, the industry is evolving and maturing. Those that got into social media early, when it was still unproven, are now reaping the rewards of that risk and vision. Given their aptitude for change and innovation, where they go next may very well provide an insight into the future once again.

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