Ask the nearest social media manager how they found their career—no really, try it. (Or just check out this Twitter thread, if you’re reading this stretched out on the couch at home.)
Chances are you’ll hear a variation of “well, I just fell into it” or “my boss asked me to start running our social media accounts… and it just became my job.”
Now that we’re well over a decade into social media, some marketers do plan to work in the field from the start of their careers. But the majority continue to segue into social marketing from fields like English, communications, even political science—all without formal training in digital marketing.
Even social media managers who took marketing or business programs aren’t fully prepared for the chaos on social. University curricula are planned out well in advance, and even the most adaptive programs struggle to keep up with every new change on social media.
Think about it this way: Anyone who graduated before 2019 has zero formal training in TikTok tactics and strategy. That’s the center of the internet right now, and every social marketer you know has been told to jump in the deep end without a lifejacket.
This is why social can still feel like the wild west of marketing—anyone can join the action and everyone’s learning the ropes as they go. Mistakes get made all the time. Small mistakes can be laughed off (like the Olympics failing at Twitter polls), but bigger ones can seriously dent your brand’s online reputation.
Most social marketers are getting by without formal education or training, but they could be thriving. Social is only becoming more important to the bottom line, and if your brand doesn’t support your social team’s long-term learning, savvier competitors will beat you to the punch.
Here are the facts you need to know about why there’s an education gap in social marketing, why it matters, and what you can do about it.
When it comes to social, most marketing programs only scratch the surface
Prepare to be shocked: Only 2% of marketing schools require courses in social media. Yes, only 2%.
Of course, marketing schools have read the writing on the wall. They do know social drives modern marketing, and 73% offer courses in digital marketing, according to a recent report. But the courses offered to undergraduate students are only introductory, and most of the time, they’re electives.
What’s more, 36% of schools offer only a single digital marketing course, and only 15% of undergraduate marketing programs require that students take at least one course on digital marketing. And of that 15%, the least common required course is… you guessed it, social media.
Why this matters:
Covering the basics of social media within a larger digital marketing course is very different from providing comprehensive training in social marketing tactics, content creation, and strategy. And while some old school marketing tactics are evergreen, that’s not always the case.
The basics might cover planning a social content calendar. But what about providing customer care on social? Or the ever-evolving opportunities of social commerce? Marketing schools aren’t to blame here by any means—social simply changes too fast for most to keep up with.
However, more and more higher ed institutions are incorporating lessons from real, working social media managers into their curricula. Through Hootsuite’s Student Program, for example, almost 40,000 higher ed students have gained access to social media courses and certifications that get regular updates as the social marketing field evolves.
Self-directed learning has its pitfalls too
With formal social media education lacking and the industry changing on a day-by-day basis, social media managers have to constantly be teaching not only their co-workers but themselves, too. It’s not easy to teach yourself a dozen skills that could all be separate jobs while still keeping the boss happy.
Imagine spending your morning on content creation, your afternoon creating analytics reports for curious stakeholders, and the end of your day dealing with a PR crisis on Twitter. Are you going to have the energy to learn about the TikTok algorithm or automating customer care afterwards? Probably not.
Because nobody has the time to learn everything, different social media managers tend to develop their own areas of expertise. There are social team members at technology giants Intel and Samsung who focus on social customer care, while the social media manager behind Sephora’s Instagram specializes in community management.
And then there’s the absolute legend who runs the Twitter for frozen meat company Steak-Umm. They’re an expert at… meat puns and political science? We’re not quite sure, but it gets the people going.
But everyone has blind spots, just as they have strengths. The field of social marketing is just too broad, and social media managers are stretched too thin. They simply can’t keep up with every single new tactic and skill they’re expected to learn.
The weak spot could be analytics, content curation, or campaign planning and strategy. We can guarantee your team’s got one, though—and there’s zero shame in that.
Why this matters:
It’s not the early 2010s anymore. Social media has become a central communications channel across all industries, so your team needs to be masters of many tactics, not specialists of a few.
By 2026, brands will be spending 24.5% of their marketing budgets on social marketing, almost double pre-pandemic levels (13.3%). In other words, social teams are holding a bigger bag every year, and you’re at more risk every quarter that your social team goes without the training they need.
The biggest skills gap is in strategy and planning
Social media strategy and campaign planning are both hard, and unsurprisingly, they’re the areas where social marketers are struggling the most.
In the United States, 63% of social marketers struggle with strategy and planning skills, according to a Digital Marketing Institute report. Overall digital marketing skills weren’t much better. Across the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland, only 38% of social marketers demonstrated entry-level skills.
To put these statistics into perspective, see if you can answer these questions on strategy and planning:
- What networks does your target audience use?
- Who is engaging with your posts?
- Should your Instagram Stories campaign focus on views, replies, or swipe-ups?
- How long is your next social campaign going to run—and why?
If you’re stumped, you’re probably not alone. The answers aren’t obvious, especially when you’re scrambling to keep up with day-to-day content creation and community management. But knowing them is important. That bird’s eye view helps align each post your social team creates with the brand’s top-level marketing goals.
Why this matters:
Content creation is important, but your brand’s social presence won’t make a big business impact without expert strategy and planning. Those skills aren’t being taught in school, and they’re hard to master on your own.
Okay, so the knowledge gap exists. How do we fix it?
1. Provide structure and space for self-directed learning
Social doesn’t stop changing—so it makes sense that your social team should never stop learning.
Now, we’re not suggesting that you send them all back to marketing school. Like we said, the standard curriculum can’t keep up with social’s non-stop evolution. And we’re not saying your social media managers should do this training on their own time. Social media managers are already working far beyond the typical 9-to-5 working hours as is.
Instead, you should explicitly carve out time during working hours that isis dedicated to learning and development, and set up opportunities for your social media team to learn from industry experts. This approach to learning will keep your social team on the cutting edge of social marketing, show your company’s commitment to their learning, and prevent employee burnout.
Brands are just realizing how vital social media managers are, and starting to double down on their learning. Right now, there’s a massive opportunity for brands to upskill their social teams and leave unprepared competitors in the dust. Only 18% of organizations in the United States provide essential social marketing training. If you leave out large corporations, that number gets even smaller.
If this wasn’t reason enough to double-down on your social team’s training, consider this: Brands that invest in training their teams earn 218% more per worker. Not too shabby, right?
2. Give your team the strategic support they need to succeed on social
Giving your team the right tools is just one piece of the puzzle. As we’ve pointed out, there’s a big skills gap when it comes to strategy and planning in marketing, and social is no exception.
So don’t just give them a fancy social media management tool and then leave them to figure this all out on their own. Give them a dedicated partner who can ensure that everything they’re doing is aligned with broader business goals—and that they’re making the most of your investment on social.
3. Give social a seat at the leadership table
Without formal education and training, social can often be siloed off from the rest of the organization or treated as an afterthought used to repost promotional messages.
In reality, social should be treated as a core function of any modern organization—and that means looping senior members of your social team into high-level strategy and planning. This will get your social strategy fully aligned with your organization’s goals and objectives, and help your social team see how their work fits into the bigger picture for your organization. And your social team will get a wealth of knowledge to share with your customers online to boot.
Ready to take action? We created Hootsuite Services to give social teams (like yours!) the training and guidance you need to keep your skills razor-sharp. Our team of friendly experts lives and breathes social strategy—and we’ve already trained more than 200,000 marketing pros just like you.
Learn how Hootsuite Services can help you conquer any (and every goal) you have on social media.
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