By Patricia Daddona
PBN Staff Writer
For Marina Hare, social media networking is all about raising her employer’s profile – a skill the 20-year-old is perfecting in her job as digital marketing coordinator for a real estate agency in Newport.
Her unpaid internship in social media at Newport Life Magazine led to a part-time and then full-time position this spring at Lila Delman Real Estate. That and the course “Issues in New Media” taught by Donna Harrington-Lueker at Salve Regina University in Hare’s junior year that sparked her interest in pursuing a career in social media.
According to Jeni Pardo de Zela, Lila Delman’s marketing director and Hare’s boss, metrics show Hare’s engagement on Facebook is paying dividends.
“Since Marina took the job [in June], year over year, my Facebook leads increase is 500 percent,” Pardo de Zela said. “The way she’s handling our posts has been fantastic. She’s really captured the voice of Lila Delman, which is probably the hardest thing to do.”
Coursework in social media has been in place at many colleges and universities in the region for the past several years, including Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University, Salve Regina and the University of Rhode Island, as well as the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Wheaton College.
While most schools are continually developing a still-limited array of programming, and classes remain small (up to 20 students or so), Providence College is launching a not-for-credit, six-week certificate in social media on Sept. 6 and URI expects to launch a for-credit certificate in 2015.
Janet Castleman, dean of Providence College’s School of Continuing Education, said she and Sylvia Maxfield, dean of the college’s School of Business, saw the need to expand college offerings with an intensive, less expensive course (cost: $500) that would focus not only on social media networking but also digital marketing strategy.
“One can’t function in business nowadays without having some level of understanding of social media, social media marketing and keeping up with competitors,” said Castleman. “It’s really how business is done today.”
Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based job market analytics firm, and the Washington, D.C.-based Education Advisory Board, share data on the value of social media skills in employment at conferences – data that Castleman found convincing.
“Social media is now the second-most-requested skill for marketing specialists (after marketing itself),” Burning Glass CEO Matt Sigelman said in an email. “Employers advertise an average salary of $51,748 for entry-level social media jobs such as social media specialist and social media manager. This represents a sizable premium over many other kinds of entry-level jobs.”
Winnie Brownell, dean of URI’s College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the Harrington School of Communication and Media, said she and Harrington interim director Adam Ross are sorting through course content to determine what to offer at URI.
“We can deliver a certificate and minor right now,” Brownell said. “What we’re doing is trying to decide what courses are the most critical for a certificate and potentially for an undergraduate minor.”
Faculty and employers are asking for this type of study and skill development, Brownell said, but alumni especially are seeking a supplement to other skills in communications, journalism and public relations, in particular.
“When [graduates] get hired, they are frequently asked to become the social media expert [in their new job], and because they’ve used social media for social networking, they’re recognized as experts. [But] just because you use social media doesn’t mean you know anything about social media communication strategies.”
Employers as diverse as Alex and Ani LLC and Care New England Health System are hiring routinely for positions that rely on social media skills. Those skills include not only familiarity with everything from Twitter and YouTube to Vine, Instagram and Tumblr, but expertise in best practices and how to increase community engagement.
In Alex and Ani’s case, students’ exposure to sophisticated digital and analytics tools promoted by Fortune 500 companies including Adobe and Oracle is critical, says Ryan Bonifacino. He would like to see these skills taught in Rhode Island.
“It’s up to the university to form relationships with those organizations,” said Bonifacino.
At Alex and Ani, he said, using social media effectively is a means to promote authentic and responsive interaction with customers, the way founder, creative director and CEO Carolyn Rafaelian did when she was operating in the beginning, before the firm’s rapid growth, as a single store in Newport.
“She knew customers on a first-name basis,” Bonifacino said. “And as you become this large corporation, how do you keep that strategy in place? … That [social media] team needs to be an extension of Carolyn.”
For Care New England, which is hiring a Web coordinator, managing social media sites is part of the job description.
“The skill set we’re looking for is someone who … not only [knows] how to get information and share and engage, but also how to understand what’s happening in the world and what’s needed: the analytics around that, understanding where the communities’ needs lie and then being responsive,” said Patti Melaragno, Care New England’s assistant director for marketing communications.
Coursework or certificates that demonstrate a job applicant’s ability to navigate social networks and concentrate on strategies would be “of value” in the hiring process, she said. Women’s health is just one of many areas targeted for social media development at hospitals, since middle-aged women are big users of Facebook, Melaragno said.
“These are the caregivers in their family,” she said, “so we want to engage them and have some good conversations around how to help them maintain their health and their families’ health.”
Professors at RIC, RWU and UMass Dartmouth have found social media a popular subject that enhances careers their students are pursuing.
Russell Potter, professor of English and media studies at RIC, teaches two courses, “Media Culture I and II,” which explore the history and theory of social media.
“I try to show students both examples of interesting failures and cases where I’d say it is a good example of effective use,” he said. “Because social media, unlike other business practices, is something people do anyway. It’s a question of doing it purposefully.”
At RWU, Paola Prado, an assistant professor in journalism, is teaching a new major launched in 2013-14 focused on digital journalism.
“We still teach the basics of reporting, except that every single journalist that comes out of RWU is conversant in social media, can create, write and produce for digital platforms and exist in a universe of social media that many of the veteran journalists are not so comfortable with yet,” Prado said.
“By the time students graduate, half of them already have jobs and part of the reason why is, we are training the journalists of the future.”
UMass Dartmouth was one of the first schools to require students taking electives such as “Social Media Marketing” to earn HubSpot Academy Inbound Certification, said D. Steven White, professor of marketing and international business.
“People that have these skills and can demonstrate these skills get hired quicker than people who do not have these skills, and that’s one of the reasons we went to the HubSpot certification,” White said.
Social media coursework and training developed by universities add to college graduates’ marketability in many fields, the Burning Glass CEO added.
“Universities that prepare their students to add business value through social media tools will find their graduates sought after in an increasingly competitive job market,” said Sigelman. •