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Instructors, digital professionals debate value of social media certification

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Liesl Christman is the digital content specialist for the Kansas City Public Library system. She is in charge of managing, among other things, website content and all social media accounts, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She has no formal social media training.

“To be fair,” she said, “when I started college, it was 1998. Social media wasn’t really a thing.”

Obviously, the marketing landscape has drastically changed since the ‘90s: consumers expect businesses and organizations to have active social media accounts. It is entirely possible to gain loyal customers through positive interactions on Twitter. Consumers regularly “like” Facebook pages for the opportunity to receive special discounts or access to events. Because of these changes, courses promising to make students social media–competent have cropped up across the web. One of these offerings is Kansas City Kansas Community College’s recently announced Social Media for Business Certificate.

Regardless of the amount of social media training available, Christman’s experience seems to be the norm. Sarah Eggers is the secretary and treasurer of Social Media Club Kansas City, a  professional group for networking and professional development centered around social media. She said no member of the SMCKC board, many of whom are social media managers and digital marketers, has formal social media training.

Eggers is, in fact, the only member of this nine-person board that had even looked into social media certifications.

KCKCC’s $495 certification program consists of three, one-month classes: Marketing Using Social Media, Introduction to Social Media and Integrating Social Media in Your Organization. The program, aimed at adult learners, will be taught in an asynchronous web-based model. Instructors will record lectures and post materials, and then make themselves available to work with students via message boards and email.

Students will watch lectures and read case studies concerning lessons about developing social media marketing strategies, how to use social media hosting platforms like Ning and how to engage customers via platforms like Twitter.

One of the course instructors, Jennifer Selke, said students will enroll in the classes to improve their resumes or add new job skills. She expects many of those who enroll to work for small businesses.

“… Small businesses used to push information to customers through T.V. commercials or emails,” she said. “We transitioned into the user being able to talk back to the company online and (users) talking to each other.”

Aaron Deacon, president of SMCKC (and also a member of an advisory board for KCKCC), agrees that social media is crucial for small businesses.

“Not only do (businesses) have access to their customers… so do all their competitors, so there’s just this huge flood of media,” he said. “If you’ve got a message you want to get out… then you’ve got to understand how to act in that marketplace.”

Deacon’s understanding of this market comes from years of on-the-job experience. During his career, he’s seen the social media landscape change dramatically, as has Christman. Christman remembers using primarily Myspace in her social media marketing efforts for her roller derby league in 2005, which is a platform that rarely comes up in social media conversations today.

“That’s the nature of social media; it’s going to change pretty rapidly,” she said. “The tools we use now won’t be there in five or ten years. It’ll be something different.”

The value of certification

The rapidly changing social media market obviously raises concerns when discussing formal certification. Eggers pointed this out: if she was to learn all about one platform—Facebook, for example—in a social media course, that information would be largely outdated in less than a year. Eggers, who is a digital marketer, pointed to the frequent changes to Facebook’s marketing and advertising functions as obstacles to effective learning.

Selke acknowledged these obstacles when discussing her upcoming classes and said that the constant changes to social media are actually integrated into the course.

“Every two minutes, social media is changing,” she said. “That’s anxiety-producing to an adult learner who is used to that old model of learning. They have to get comfortable in an environment where the information is constantly changing.”

She described the old model of learning as the understanding that job training ending at college graduation: “Ok, well, I learned, and now I do my job,” she said.

Professionals already working in social media stay on top of these constant changes through means other than formal training.

Eggers said she sometimes turns to YouTube videos when confused about changes to Facebook. She also suggested subscribing to social media–related podcasts and taking free massive open online courses (open-enrollment online classes that encourage digital interaction between students) , like those offered through iTunes U.

“If you’re willing to do the research, you can build your own course,” she said. “Until someone says (official certification) is why I want to hire you, it doesn’t seem like certification is necessary.”

Selke cautions those inexperienced with social media from trying to train themselves in the ways Eggers suggested.

“There’s a lot of material online… the problem is, if you don’t have the experience, you don’t know what you’re reading,” Selke said. “Is it accurate? Is it from a good source?”

Selke said this problem goes away in a formal class setting: the teachers and fellow students can help the student find only the best pieces of information.

Selke agrees, however, that certification for its own sake is not a good use of social media training.

“The value is going to be in being able to use your learning,” she said. “Only take the class if you can use what you’ve learned.”

She pointed out that her class will be most effective if its content can be used in tandem with actual social media accounts. By doing this, students will be able to apply the learning as they go.

“In an eventual (job) interview, you’ll have to provide examples of how social media will be applied,” she said. “Having that certificate on your resume may look useful, but if you don’t have the skills to back it up… you’re not going to get past the interview.”

Major Funding for Education coverage on KCPT provided by Jo Anna Dale and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

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