The emergence of social media originally seemed to be pure entertainment, a mix between a way to stay in touch with friends and share interests among communities. As the technology matured, the commercial value of complex and virtualized social networks became increasingly apparent. From building brand awareness through social proofing to the potential for organic transmission of viral marketing materials, the social media professional emerged as a valuable contributor to many commercial enterprises.
From this perspective, social media is a commercial asset to be managed by professionals trained to understand how to capture a return on time and capital investments into that asset. This justifies both practical and theoretical investigations, ranging from short-term professional digital marketing certificates to entire degree programs focused explicitly on mastering a company’s social media accounts.
A bachelor’s degree in social media therefore focuses on how to leverage the ever-evolving variety of social media platforms to build brand awareness, engagement, and retention. This includes capitalizing on the many principles of persuasion through the vehicle of digital social interaction, while keeping the behavioral objective of increased engagement in mind. By maintaining engagement through various social media channels, organizations can retain existing customers while building awareness among each of those customers’ networks.
From this perspective, we can see that a bachelor’s degree program in social media will require the integration of marketing principles with both technology and sociology. This synthesis is a great opportunity for aspiring professionals who can link highly developed communication capabilities with a bit of technical know-how. If this sounds like a good fit, the next step is to assess the different programs available, and explore the general curriculum to see if what you’ll learn matches your career aspirations. Let’s take a look.
Getting a Social Media Degree
Studying social media seems a bit counterintuitive at first. Similar to fields like game design, social media comes off as more entertainment product than career prospect. However, when looking at the overall social media spending over the past few years, social media advertisements grosses well over a hundred billion dollars per year. This volume of capital necessitates professionals who can verify and optimize these investments.
This means the key components of a degree program in social media will begin broadly with a deep and accurate analysis of the opportunities and threats within this segment of digital marketing. Where do companies see the largest return on their investments? How can social media campaigns be categorized to identify what elements correlate with success? How can successful campaigns be reproduced in other contexts? This is the higher-level strategic aspect of a social media curriculum.
This proceeds into the more technical elements, including which platforms to use and how to produce assets that align with the limitations and prospective value of those platforms. For example, advertising on TikTok means hiring professionals in video editing, who are uniquely capable of capturing meaningful messages within extremely short video clips. This is a challenging limitation, both in format and duration. A similar limitation is placed on Twitter, but with copywriting instead of video editing. Facebook and YouTube allow for longer-form content, but encounter other limitations unique to those platforms.
A third element of the curriculum is mastering the statistical assessments that allow for a social media team to measure the relative success of each asset and campaign presently being invested in, and producing a justifiable recommendation for future investments. Social media campaigns can be altered extremely quickly, with significant investments being shifted from what isn’t working to what is working. Social media professionals need to have the number-sense required to identify opportunities on a campaign-to-campaign basis, and make the functional decisions to optimize on the fly.
Sometimes looking at the actual coursework is helpful in grounding these theoretical categories, so let’s dive into a few courses from top universities with social media programs:
- Introduction to Social Media – Introductory course will emphasize two main things: the context of social media campaigns, and practical application of social media tools.
- Social Media Analysis – As students progress past the tools and general theory, the next step is assessing and analyzing the value proposition of each platform, as well as the ability to compare successful and unsuccessful campaigns objectively.
- Social Media Marketing – Courses that focus on the marketing elements of social media will link traditional marketing paradigms with modern social media distribution channels. Professionals will learn how to integrate social media strategies within the broader marketing team of an organization.
- Social Media and Emerging Technology – A final consideration is the technological evolution social media is typically operating under. New technology is often changing rapidly, and keeping pace is significant value-add to any prospective employers.
As always, it’s worthwhile to pursue undergraduate programs that boast internship programs which are likely to translate into long-term career opportunities. The hardest part of any career path is getting your foot in the door, and taking full advantage of university programs that will do that part for you is a great way to ensure your time and capital investments pay off in the long-term.
Speaking of investing time and capital into a degree program, let’s take a quick look at the typical tuition cost undergraduate students can expect.
Tuition and Financial Aid
As with most undergraduate degrees, students can expect to pay per credit hour with a total of 120 credits to obtain their undergraduate degree. This means 40 classes, typically spaced out over a four year period (8 semesters). Students looking to get in and get out as quickly as possible can pursue summer coursework and complete everything in under three years in some cases. Of course, the key consideration is going to be the all-important cost per credit hour.
As this analysis isn’t highlighting any particular state or region, it’s useful to start with the broadest possible analysis of university cost structures. This analysis should include in-state tuition, out-of-state tuition, community college tuition, and private university tuition averages. Public in-state tuition averages out around $300/credit hour, while out-of-state students can expect to pay around $675/credit hour. It’s almost always the best move to formally live within the state you attend if you plan to go to a state school.
Community colleges come in at an even better rate than in-state colleges and universities, which are often either free or well under $200/credit hour. Private universities are going to be the priciest option, with an average tuition over $900/credit hour. It’s often remarked that the best method is to go to a state school for your undergraduate degree, work for a few years, and then pursue a graduate degree at a top-tier private institution. This is easily the best way to get the best bang for your buck!
Of course, financial aid is also an option to help pay the way. This can be based either on need or high performance (i.e. high school GPA, test scores, or other metrics). If need-based is where you’re at you could start with FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application will check your circumstances against a federal database of scholarships and financial aid, and deliver which ones that student is viable for.
Scholarships are often divided out based upon the discipline being pursued as well, and social media professionals can be considered under both marketing scholarships and communications scholarships. The challenge with this approach is going to be standing out amidst the competition, which begins with writing a great essay and spinning a compelling story about why you want to pursue your studies. As a social media marketing professional, you can view this as great practice prior to your degree program!
Assuming you know what you want to study and how you’ll be funding those studies, the final step on your journey is establishing what types of jobs you’ll be pursuing (and how much you can expect to make as a return on your educational investment). Let’s briefly touch on the more common roles within the social media landscape.
Social Media Careers
Social media is a surprisingly broad category, encompassing not only the creation of assets but also the management of teams, distribution of those assets, and analysis of broader social media campaign success:
- Social Media Coordinator: The most common starting point for a social media professional is coordination. With the huge variety of platforms, professionals able to juggle the myriad of tasks related to posting each asset in its proper platform is valued by marketing teams. Consider this a tour de force of social media, a great starting point to map out the territory of modern media distribution. Salary is around $46k/year.
- Social Media Manager: As you continue to grow, a coordinator may be promoted to a manager. A social media manager is responsible not only for posting all of the content, but also managing some elements of the creation of both the campaign and the related assets. Salary is around $56k/year.
- Social Media Analyst: If statistics and technical integration of business intelligence dashboards is more your speed than coordinating the campaigns themselves, social media analytics is a solid choice. This involves building reports and digestible dashboards, which will inform content strategists and digital marketing executives on their decision-making. Salary comes in at $70k/year.
- Content Strategist: As a social media manager masters the art of digital communication, they may step into a more creative role within content strategy. Content strategists work directly with copywriters and artists, integrating strategic-level branding initiatives within the production of social media campaign assets. Salary is around $68k/year, though highly successful strategists can make nearly $100k/year.
- Digital Marketing Manager: Social media is generally considered digital marketing (or possibly marketing more generally). A digital marketing manager will often manage multiple teams, including artists, videographers, copywriters, analysts, and business intelligence groups. An executive-level digital marketer will be accountable for all spending (which can be extremely high), and the efficiency of that spending across all digital media channels. Salary comes in around $82k/year for a managerial role and $160k/year for an executive role.
This short guide of job titles could act as a ladder worth climbing, beginning as a coordinator of specific social media campaigns and rising all the way up to the strategic level of determining broader digital branding initiatives for the entire organization. Of course, strategic management isn’t for everyone, as many enjoy being more directly involved in the creative work of building, analyzing, and distributing social media assets across a huge community of engaged followers. Either way, the best starting point is identifying the perfect degree program to kickstart your social media career.
Social media programs are no more or less competitive than any other undergraduate degree program selection, and the competitiveness will likely center more around the university you pursue rather than this specific major. The best practice here is to apply to a couple top-tier programs, a couple mid-level programs, and a few lower-level programs.
Salary will range from $40k-$75k per year for entry and mid-level roles, with no real upper limit at the executive level. The key to achieving a higher salary will largely revolve around how much unique value you can derive. Demonstrate your successes through hard data (ask the analytics team for help), and identify the value proposition your work brings to your organization. Social media professionals have an advantage in this regard, as digital interactions are easily tracked and demonstrated quantitatively.
The technology industry typically requires four key roles in social media management: coordinators, analysts, managers, and strategists. Coordinators are master multitaskers, capable of juggling a ton of different campaigns across many platforms. Analysts can deliver easy to digest reporting on the success of these campaigns. Managers lead creative teams towards iterative asset improvement, and strategists translate executive-level branding concepts into actionable campaigns. Understanding where you fit into these roles is a great starting point for your job search.
As they say in the writers’ room, the best way to break into creative fields is ‘show, don’t tell’! This means building your own social media accounts, and demonstrating your mastery of digital marketing through boosting and maximizing community engagement around your own content. Start with an interest of yours, and see how far it can take you. Do you love traveling? Set up a social media community for fellow travelers. How about cooking? Build up an Instagram profile proving your culinary mastery. The proof is in the pudding!