Creating standardized and recognized ways of identifying someone's skills in many different areas has become a necessity in the digital marketing industry.
"Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!"
Mexican Bandit, "Blazing Saddles," 1974
If you've ever been responsible for hiring someone, you know that it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Sure, they might have a stellar resume, have sailed through the interview process, and have glowing references, but it's still tough not to feel that little tug in your gut the first day they show up at work and you have to ask yourself "Will they actually be able to do what they say they can do?"
Hiring an agency or a consultant is no different. Will they perform? Were they worth the investment? Will they embarrass you in front of your boss? Will one bad consultant hiring decision cost you your job?
Considering the kind of work marketing professionals do, there are good reasons to be nervous. After all, measuring what makes someone "good" at their job is often more of an art than a science. Marketers deal with a lot of subjectivity and most work is done in teams. Even if someone brings you a portfolio of their past work, it's tough to determine exactly what part they had to play in it.
Because we online marketers are in such a young industry, job titles don't mean much either. The person who is a "web designer" at one place might be considered a "developer" somewhere else. An "account leader" at one agency might have similar skills to a "project manager" at another. Heck, just because someone's a "chief [insert noun] officer" doesn't guarantee that they know more than a lowly "director" or "manager" or even "analyst" somewhere else.
When looking at any job in the "digital" industry (even though we have a tough time defining even what that means), it seems like they usually follow a pattern as a technology matures. When a new technology arises, those who "specialize" in it are usually more technically-oriented. As that technology matures, jobs seem to split into technical and strategic/creative/content camps. Rising complexity necessitates increasing specialization. In the early days, self-taught "experts" usually have to be able to master both the technical and the creative, but over time the "creative" and/or "strategic" folks move away from the hands-on work of mastering the "technology" and the more technical move closer and closer to the code. It wouldn't surprise me if many of you old-timers reading this (or…ahem…writing this) who now function in more strategic roles haven't touched a line of code or had to master the intricacies of a new application for a long time. You've got other people to do that stuff. You focus on the big picture.
The result of all this is a lot of confusion when it comes to hiring. Titles don't mean much. Skills are hard to determine. Standards vary from organization to organization. While older, more mature disciplines like medicine and the law have standardized job titles and credentials through a system of certifications and licensure, we're still in a state of flux.
Right now there's probably nothing more confusing than trying to sort out what people with "social media" in their title do. But that's not surprising…the whole social media marketing industry is pretty young. Still, however, the slapping of "social media" onto someone's title can cause some pretty strong reactions: Peter Shankman (of HARO fame) even goes as far as to declare "I'd never hire a 'social media expert,' and neither should you" in his article of the same name. "I was going to call this article 'All Social Media Experts' need to go die in a fire," he writes, "…If you call yourself a 'Social Media Expert,' don't even bother sending me your resume."
I'm not so sure about the "die in a fire" thing, but I know that I'm not the only one out there who's snorted in disgust when encountering so-called "social media experts." Sure, there are some people out there who are pretty savvy about how to market with social media, but there are also an awful lot of BS artists who declare their "expertise" after creating their first blog or Facebook page or Twitter feed. There are also a lot of "experts" who happen to be pretty adept at making HootSuite dance, but who couldn't write (or strategically think) themselves out of the proverbial paper bag. Slapping the "expert" sobriquet on themselves seems a little extreme.
Extreme, but understandable. After all, what does it mean to be a "social media expert" anyway? Is it an indication of your technical expertise? Does it mean that you're great at devising ways to build relationships with customers using social media tools? Does your "expertise" derive from the fact that you're incredibly connected and have managed to build a list of followers in the thousands? Could it be that you're just an obsessive tweeter?
The fact is that there's no way of knowing. And the disappointment left in the wake of this expertise confusion does nothing but damage the industry. People with real expertise are lumped together with others calling themselves "experts," and clients have no way to tell what's what. "Heck, my son/niece/neighbor's kid put up a Facebook page," they think, "what makes you such an 'expert'?"
But before you get too worked up, you have to look at it in the context of the history of the digital industry in general. In the early days of the web, those of us building professional websites often had to contend with the "my kid can do this…why should I pay you?" attitude often displayed by unsophisticated clients. And while we've pretty much long gotten past that (I used to respond with "I'm sure your kid knows how to use a video camera too…do you want him to shoot your next TV spot?"), the rapid growth of new technologies keeps bringing back the problem. And until we do something about it, we're all going to continue to suffer the consequences of skill and title confusion.
That's why I was excited recently when I received an email from the eMarketing Association announcing its new Certified Social Media Marketing Association Certification. While details about what exactly is being "certified" are still sketchy (and the industry recognition and influence of the eMarketing Association are somewhat debatable), it's a step in the right direction. Creating an industry-wide certification is a big step in the maturation of the digital marketing industry…and a big step in making everyone's life easier by insuring a standard set of competencies. Whether this takes off or not, it definitely bares a serious look…and serious support.
And yeah, I know: many of you out there are going to balk at the idea of "standardizing" your "complex skill set." Heck, the AIGA has resisted any kind of "designer" certification for decades now, and it's incredibly well recognized and respected. But all you have to do is look at one of the other biggest creative industries - architecture - and compare it to the design industry if you want to see what a difference certification can make. Anyone can call themselves a "designer" (with cringe-worthy results in many cases), but calling oneself an "architect" means something very specific and understandable, mainly as a result of the efforts of their trade association, the American Institute of Architects. The PR trade has made great steps in this same direction with the PRSA's "APR" certification. If you've had to hire a PR person, you know that an "APR" after their name actually means something.
If you step back and look at the big picture, it's no wonder that the eMarketing Association is moving toward certification. In a world of rapidly-changing technologies, multiple alternative avenues for learning (such as free online universities, self-study, online tutorials, etc.), declining valuation of college degrees, and general industry confusion, the idea of creating standardized (and recognized) ways of identifying someone's skills in many different areas starts to make sense. In fact, the Mozilla Foundation (along with the MacArthur Foundation) has even begun an "Open Badges Initiative" to examine ways of awarding "badges" (really "mini-certifications") for a wide variety of life skills…no matter where they're learned. It's a great idea and one that I hope catches on.
Do we really need those stinkin' badges? If we're going to grow and mature as an industry, the answer is "yes."
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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