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I f you respond to queries about your company’s social media engagement with, “We’re on Facebook,” prepare to read something you’re not going to “like.”

There’s a growing divide between leaders and laggards when it comes to social media; the latest shift involves the hiring of full-time executives with titles like “director of social media,” “social media marketing manager” and “social media strategist.”

Some come from more traditional marketing/PR backgrounds, while others have simply grown up online. Regardless, they’re increasingly finding a spot in the executive circle — not to mention newfound respect for all that time spent on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, foursquare and other trending forums and communities.

“Companies are still trying to figure out social media,” says Shauna Causey, who spent a year as senior social media manager for Nordstrom before leaving to become a consultant, “and it’s still evolving. Sites that didn’t exist more than a year ago, like Pinterest, have the chance to emerge as a valuable traffic and sales tool. To know about these kinds of tools, companies need to hire people who are well-versed in technology and social media trends.”

At a broader level, she says, companies that support “creation of a ‘social media center of excellence’ and give their social media leader a seat at the senior leadership table will come out ahead. It’s important to have a strong leader for social media to make an impact on the organization.”

Last year Walgreens named Adam Kmiec director of social media for the brand, and numerous other companies are seeking the same. Since much of retail is about interaction with customers — and social media is ideally about engagement rather than just broadcasting a message — it won’t be long before hiring a social media executive is an absolute must. Some say it already is.

“Social shopping is occurring in many forms and social commerce is materializing,” says Bernie Brennan, a longtime senior retail executive, former NRF chairman and co-author of Branded!: How Retailers Engage Consumers with Social Media and Mobility. “While social commerce is currently very small, it will continue to grow, and social media is a golden thread to growth in retail transactions.

“Forty-two percent of online consumers follow retailers on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and the average person among them follows six retailers,” Brennan says. “If a retailer understands this vital link, they would not hesitate ... This is a minimal investment in relation to the market opportunity.”

Citing Forrester Research, Brennan says social media marketing “is forecasted to be over $2 billion in 2012 and growing to $5 billion in 2016. When you consider these numbers and the massive opportunity of consumer engagement, it should not take a long executive discussion to make the decision to hire the appropriate manager.”

Dollars and cents
M any retailers have been reluctant to invest in this magic-bullet position, partly because social media is difficult to monetize. Direct ROI remains elusive, and working with a manager who doesn’t fully understand both the industry and the field of social media can leave a company open to blunders on a grand scale — like one company that deleted negative Facebook posts about a new ad campaign, then offered an apology perceived as insincere.

“It’s hard to find very good social media employees, harder than any other marketing position,” says Ken Sundheim, CEO of sales, marketing and media recruiter KAS Placement. “You have to not only know how to use Twitter and other avenues, but also how to monetize them. And a lot of social media employees don’t know that.”

Social media, he says, is about engagement and providing the information that consumers want. “But it’s also the ability to quantify it ... when you can say, ‘The company’s social media initiatives have brought in this or that.’ A lot of people stop with, ‘This is the exposure we’re getting.’”

Retail is hiring more social media executives than the business-to-business category, he says, “because retail is a lot more competitive in any marketing space.” Some retailers employ outside firms rather than make a permanent hire, particularly when it comes to creating strategies that could be executed internally or assisting with shorter-term campaigns.

Old vs. new
T here are those who still believe social media will be a passing trend – or they may be hoping it is. Example: Although 82 percent of chief marketing officers plan to increase social media use in the next three to five years, more than half confess that they feel unprepared to do so, according to an IBM study released late last year.

Therein lies another conundrum: Can traditional marketers and PR executives be taught new tricks? Sundheim believes the ability to write interesting content and understand what the consumer wants is “a lot bigger than any age variable,” but the importance of experience cannot be diminished.

Brennan, however, notes the difference between the old-fashioned ideal of “one-way communication with the customer” and the two-way engagement now needed. “We work with a lot of young, talented people who have very rapidly grown up in the digital age and have been texting, downloading and communicating digitally as part of their everyday lives,” he says. “Utilizing this talent will enable retailers to effectively move to the new digital world.”

Regardless of a company’s take, executive support is essential once a decision to dive in is made, Brennan says.

“Look at Macy’s, Zappos, Best Buy and Starbucks,” he says. “Each has their own CEO approach, but all have provided the important leadership and culture to embrace social media. ... Some actively participate in social media, others totally bought into the consumer-engagement opportunity, deputizing the right people to execute.”

Causey says she often finds herself giving advice to others hoping to follow in her footsteps; she recently posted her credo on a blog for her new company. She encourages social media leaders to be “generous” and think beyond the sale, as well as to be curious learners. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to expand on the way things have always been done.

While working in public relations prior to her Nordstrom stint, Causey “was pitching reporters via Twitter instead of a phone call or an e-mail… and having a lot more success than traditional channels.”