Author | Marketer | Speaker

I help companies turn data, ideas and relationships into reach and influence. 

Should social media marketing expertise be certified?

A few nights ago, I stumbled upon a profile of Josh Kaufman, founder of PersonalMBA.com. I wasn’t familiar with his story or work, but I was intrigued by his assertion that business schools, “"teach many worthless, outdated, even outright damaging concepts and practices." MBA programs, it seems, are largely unable (or unwilling) to keep up with our ever-shifting business climate. These supposedly bad teachings are too firmly entrenched and prevalent to merit the tuitions students now pay for them, and anything of value that does get taught can just as easily be learned outside of the lecture halls. Formal education, as the argument goes, has nothing on relevant experience.

I’m in no place to confirm or refute this claim, but I can see why it has legs. And as I’m prone to comparing apples to oranges, I began thinking about the legitimacy and value of a formal social media education.

First, yes they exist. I saw an ad the other day for an Advanced Social Media Certificate from the University of San Francisco. A quick search revealed several other such programs, including…

…an MA in Social Media from Birmingham City University in the UK

…a four year degree in Interactive Web Technology Management from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

…a Social Media and Web 2.0 program at UC Irvine

…a Social Media Marketing Certificate from the University of Nevada, Reno

Are we seeing something akin to the anti-MBA movement, but for the opposite reasons? In other words:

  • People are speaking out against traditional MBA programs because they’re, well, too traditional, lack modern currency, built on long-abandoned premises, etc.

  • Are people speaking out against social media programs at otherwise-traditional schools because the space is simply too new, lacking in universal standards, not studied in an academically-rigorous way, etc. ?

I think so. And I understand the sentiment. But I’d ask opponents of formalized social media education:

  • At what point does a field become program-worthy?
  • At what point does knowledge of a subject merit certification, whether by diploma or official certification?

In Exploring the 4 Eras of Thought Development, Wilkie and Moore point out that the establishment of Marketing as a distinct academic discipline occurred during the “Founding the Field Era,” from 1900-1920. This is the first time we saw “courses with marketing in the title”. But traditional marketing had existed since at least 60 years before its academic recognition. Key excerpts from the Wikipedia marketing timeline:

  • 1836: first paid advertising in a newspaper (in France)
  • 1864: earliest recorded use of the telegraph for mass unsolicited spam
  • 1867: earliest recorded billboard rentals
  • 1880s: early examples of trademarks as branding
  • 1905: the University of Pennsylvania offered a course in "The Marketing of Products"
  • 1908: Harvard Business School opens
  • 1922: radio advertising commences

To say that ideas develop faster these days is an almost-comical understatement. We no longer need to wait 60 years before we can study something. Just think of the body of literature out there on social media already—I’ll venture a guess that within a few years or less, the total amount written about social media will exceed the total amount ever written about marketing. We have access, for free, to nearly all of it. But that doesn’t mean we can possibly process it, or even a fraction of it, in a meaningful, productive way. Remember, we’re also living in the era of the Exaflood.

I think there’s a space to be filled with a formalized social media education. Just like all education, there will be terrible programs, excellent programs and everything in between. The quality of the educators will also vary wildly. Even the best institutions have the occasional bad professor.

Yes, there will also be the equivalent of diploma mills. Just as surely, there will also be trusted industry experts like Olivier Blanchard to expose them. As with all education, the ability to make informed choices will fundamentally determine what a student gets out of it—“buyer beware” will still be the name of the game.

What do you think? Are we ready for social media degrees and official certification? If not, when will we be ready?

© 2016 Ian Greenleigh