A community manager’s guide to applying to big brands, startups and agencies

So you’re an experienced community manager on the job market. But a few searches in and I’m sure you’ve spotted the trend- agency, startup, brand, startup , startup, agency. The job titles might be the same but differences can range from what hiring managers are actually looking for to opportunities for mentorship and advancement. In this post I go through the basic differences based on my experiences working for multiple versions of all three.

Enterprise- the big brands!

Examples: Microsoft, Disney, McDonalds

What you need to know-

Big brands are BIG. As a marketer you’ll be working on a piece of a much larger marketing plan within a matrixed organization. Be sure you understand where the role you’re applying to fits within that organization. Words you should know: “Market”- that refers to a particular target market (e.g. Federal, European) this typically means you’ll be closer to on-the-ground sales teams vs “Corporate Team” – often this refers to the team that handles overall Brand strategy. Your job satisfaction and career prospects will be most connected to your team, your direct manager and how much power they have within the company.

What the hiring manager wants to see:

  • Patience- particularly if your resume shows you’re coming from fast-paced environments. Everything takes longer at the enterprise level and particularly for someone in social media, it can be maddening. The hiring manager needs to know that you’ll stick around when it’s been 6 months and you’re still trying to get a PO approved to launch paid ads on Facebook.
  • Team-oriented- Enterprises revolve around teams. Be prepared to highlight instances where you’ve contributed to a team win. Think about what you bring to a team that adds to its’ strength. In my case, I’ve found that my variety of experience across different types of organizations means I can bring a comparative perspective that many of my colleagues don’t have.

Is it the right fit for you?

It’s all a matter of trade offs. Big brands can do more because they have bigger budgets AND aren’t trying to accomplish an acquisition or IPO strategy. But they’re going to have established bureaucracy which means they move slow and will be hesitant to adopt new trends. For some community managers the shift from relative autonomy in a prior role to being (let’s be honest here) a cog just isn’t the right fit.

If that’s the case for you- embrace it! And don’t waste your time going after big brand jobs.

The ultimate test:

Here’s what a win looks like in a big brand- they are small. If you can look at a program piece and get a sense of accomplishment knowing you helped make that happen- then you you should absolutely apply

Agencies

Examples: Havas, Oglivy, Edelman, 360i

What you need to know:

They come in many flavors. Large and small. Marketing, PR, Advertising (although those lines are all but gone in practice- the client base will be different.)Creative “shops”, influencer matchmakers and whatever other flavor of the month is out there. Here’s the thing about agencies:

No one really loves their agency (other than the founders). It’s an often thankless and high pressure job. Brands can be touchy about disclosing that they don’t manage their own social. Agency life is a bit even crazier right now because their prior models are coming under assault. Brands are trying to figure out what that should do in-house versus and agencies are also trying to figure out what they actually sell.

But agency experience or some version is a good investment of a year or two of your career. many enterprise job descriptions say “agency experience a plus”. You’ll get to work on major campaigns, you’ll also get experience connecting your activity to clear deliverables. I’ve found that to be invaluable. You’ll get the chance to understand how agencies work which can be very useful if you get on the brand side. I’ve gone back and forth a few times and have acted as an interpreter. Lastly, you can get exposure to a wide variety of skills. It’s thanks to agency work that I learned about advertising, creative strategy and project management.

What the hiring manager wants to see:

  • Dedication– agencies have to get it right. So you need to be someone who triple checks your work and is willing to stay late to get a deck just right.
  • Latest skills– agencies particularly right now are in an arms race with each other and in-house teams. They look to new talent to give them the edge. Know the latest trends and be able to tie them into activities you’ve done.

Is it the right fit for you?

If you’re looking for clear cut hours and recognition then no. And again- both of those desires are fine- in my last job search I ruled out agencies because I just didn’t want that lifestyle.

The ultimate test:

Here’s what an agency win most often looks like- a begrudging email from your client that gets forwarded around by agency management with the headline “how can we leverage this to expand our contract next year?” (A good team leader will give you a high-five as you head into the conference room for your brainstorm)

Tech Start-up:

Many of the jobs out there will be for startups. They can be attractive early in your career because they often care less about experience and more about passion.

What the hiring manager wants to see:

  • You have “it” Knowledge on your resume will get you in the door but once in an interview 90% is going to be culture fit. Read up on the brand’s backstory- know what the founder believes they’re disrupting.
  • Dedication to the “mission”– go through your resume and figure out how you’ll be able to help with the startup’s prime directive. Be very careful to get this right – once I Interviewed a candidate who went off on a ramble about how they didn’t approve of big brands – not realizing (I assume) that those brands were the clients of the startup. The startup wanted to disrupt them -not end them!

Is this the right fit for you?

A startup marketing role is great for experiencing how marketing connects with other areas of a business. As a strategist I learned a ton that gas benefited me in future roles. A startup is a place to practice what you know- there won’t be time (or room) for genuine professional growth. So if you’re clearly on a career path in a marketing specialization such as content marketing, paid advertising, internal comms- think hard about that trade off.

The ultimate test:

In startup land “wins” are whatever the founder seems them to be. You can be at the top of the world one day only to plunge into the abyss the next. So it has to be about something more than just a job. Those who succeed in startup land have something else keeping them- whether it’s your team, the “culture”, belief in the mission. If it’s just about the position- don’t do it. Chances are the job will change before your first day and then again on your second.

In Conclusion:

I hope this has been a helpful overview of the industry. When you’re in job search mode it’s all too tempting to get desperate and apply to anything that looks like a fit. It’s tough to decide you’re not going to apply to a particular group of positions. But it’s worth it. Realizing what you’re actually looking for will only strengthen how you position yourself in the market. And that’s what will ultimately get you that offer.

Next time I’ll go into what every community managers should look for in a prospective marketing team (the good and the bad). Be sure to check out the first post in this series- 5 tips for standing out from the community manager applicant crowd .

5 tips for standing out from the community manager applicant crowd

I started working in the social media space 7 years ago. While a lot has changed since then on the job front one thing is a depressing constant. Hiring managers have no clue what they’re looking for. The professionalization of the industry has actually made this worse. When I started out- basically being in your 20s and knowing how to pull up a free analytics tool could land you a job. Social media was low cost and high reward.

Now it’s different- sort of. Hiring managers know that they should be looking for more but they’re still not sure what. So you end up with bizarre Frankensteined job descriptions saying everything and nothing. Meanwhile on the job seeker side things aren’t much better. In a world where your best work is designed to vanish in 24 hours how are you supposed to demonstrate your value? How do you figure out which skills to invest time in when job descriptions seem to depend on the latest trend? (Remember when everyone demanded you have experience running Snapchat campaigns?)

The way to stand out is to take charge of your story. Decide what you want your path to be and then make sure that comes through in everything you do during the job search. Be the professional in an often informal and unprofessional situation. It’s a great way to stand out and is a great way to demonstrate what you bring to the table. Let’s face it- most marketing departments are noisy and disorganized. By being the super organized and professional applicant, you highlight additional strengths you’ll bring to the table once you get the job.

Taking control begins with your resume and LinkedIn.

  1. Be data driven- go through everything you’ve done and find numbers. Even if they’re estimations always include numbers they show hiring managers that you understand the importance of data- not just hype
  2. Emphasize your skills. Community management means being a multi tool. Make a list of everything you do and reword it to generalize your skills to other marketing roles. For example: Responding to twitter DMs= first touch customer service and triage, social media audits = data storytelling, creating and scheduling posts= content marketing
  3. Be crystal clear about your category. There are types of community managers and in 2019 most jobs are looking for you to be a specialist rather than a generalist. I’ve listed a few typical categories in the table below. You’re probably a combination of these- that’s fine! Go back through everything you’ve done and start to build a resume around each. You want it to SCREAM your specialization.
  4. Support it with LinkedIn. Think of your LinkedIn profile as supporting documentation for everything on your resume. Don’t be shy about asking for recommendations. I try to ask for a coworker and manager at everyplace I’ve been. Be sure to put your best foot forward. Add links to work you’ve done. If you already blog, crosspost the ones you’d like a hiring manager to see to linkedin pulse for added visibility. Even if they don’t read it, just having them there will register.
  5. Know the market, what you’re looking for and where to find it! Have a dream of managing the Wendy’s handle? Don’t apply to Wendy’s! It’s outsourced to an agency. Want to do work with nonprofits or the arts as a community manager? Again- probably going to be an agency. Want to work for a particular brand? Look through all their marketing, comms, customer experience positions to get a sense of where they are in their digital journey. Few companies are hiring community managers but they may be hiring content marketers or analytics specialists. Talk to your connections not just to get a job opportunity – get intel from them about the type of candidate they look for. Use the opportunity to learn about their process – it can help you read the signs later on!
CMGR TypeMusts
Content
Creator
Enjoy wordplay, Love Grammar, have graphic design experience
Customer
Service
Be very patient, Detail- oriented, Good in a crisis
AnalystPivot table geek, Data visualization, Stickler for statistics
Campaign/ Event Strategist Problem solver, Strong presentation skills, Planner

I hope this has been useful. I’ve been on the market quite a few times and I know how scary and overwhelming it can be. It’s a huge irony that exuding confidence is a the key to getting past the vulnerability of unemployment. It’s definitely a case of fake it until you make it- and one killer way to fake it is to take control of your search.

Check out part two of this series where I go into some of the nuances of applying to startups versus agencies versus big brands.

10 things you can do TODAY to improve Marketing-Sales alignment

Want some bad Martech jokes? Just Google “Marketing from Venus Sales from Mars”. (If you want to get seriously depressed- particularly about gender bias- just check out the image search results.) It shouldn’t be surprising that a podcast of the same name from marketing automation software provider Marketo is one of the first results to pop up. Just like the self-help industry thrives on convincing couples of their fundamental differences, the lead scoring industry thrives on convincing Sales and Marketing that we’re fundamentally at odds and in need of external support to effectively communicate. Particularly in B2B.

As I speak to Enterprise marketers one thing comes up again and again: there’s a fundamental disconnect between how Sales and Marketing operate leading to two general models.

  1. Marketing operates independent of Sales ROI, focusing in big sweeping visions (example: Etsy circa 2016)
  2. Marketing is dominated by Sales priorities and the Brand’s focus on the present, misses the forrest for the trees (example: Oracle and the Cloud Wars)

Both are short-sighted. The fact is that both organizations contain answers that the other is craving: Sales contains the budget- justifying attribution that Marketing needs while Marketing contains the long-term strategy & consumer insights that Sales needs. 

While ultimately it’s on the executive leadership to foster a genuine Marketing-Sales alliance, there are tactics that you can use as a marketer to begin to collaborate with your partners in Sales. Like any relationship- it takes work but it’s absolutely work it. Some of my most creative campaigns have come out of  joint brainstorms with my partners in Sales.

Here are 10 things you can do to jump-start your relationship with sales:

1. ASK: “What are you measured on at the end of the day?”

As marketers we get wrapped up in Vision and Strategy. We love a good digital transformation in the next 5 years hour-long conversation. That won’t fly with your sales partners. To begin to translate this for you sales partners you first need to see what the world looks like from their organization .

2. ASK: “What marketing activities best support your goals?”

This is a tough yet essential question to ask. The answer may surprise you. In one case, I found that demo requests on our website was the best source of marketing qualified leads. Considering all the effort exerted on other activities that was a painful pill to swallow. But also incredibly important to understanding the next steps we needed to take to align towards actual business value.

3. ASK: “Do you tend to see the value from activities like [fill in marketing activity you work on]?”

The key is to stay in listen and learn mode. Avoid “What happened to all the leads we gave you after last month’s webinar?” Instead try: “Do you tend to see value from activities like webinars?” Then follow up asking what could be done to make them more effective. In one case I found out that the lead delivery was too slow for effective follow – up. In that case the solve had to occur in marketing operations rather the at the content team level.

4. ASK: “What collaboration opportunities do you see between our departments?”

This is another critical question. Be sure to ask for their ideas before you jump in with your own- very difficult for marketers! How they answer this question will give you just as much information as the actual answer.

  • If they don’t have any ideas and/or sound skeptical of marketing-sales collaboration, then you know you have some TLC work to do with this particular partner. It will take some actual evidence to show them that marketing can benefit sales.
  • If they have given it thought then you will get a vital perspective and first step to building your partnership. As soon as you can work on a shared goal you will see significant progress in marketing sales collaboration.

5. ASK: “How can we work together?”

Sales organizations have very specific existing processes, with typically much more stratification than marketing. You will find your collaboration chances are best when you work with departments that already are set up to act on marketing information. Those teams will also already know how to give marketing attribution so the answer to your question may well be ” You work with me by working with x team. ”

6. OFFER: Audience/ Account Research

Find out how your sales partners gather information about their prospects. It ‘s been my experience then there’s a lot of crossover with Marketing Strategy research. This can be an opportunity to provide value to sales by providing them with work you’ve already done. Often all it takes is a little reformatting to make your research actionable. Be sure to follow up with your partners to find out if the research was useful and how it contributed to efficiency.

7. OFFER:  Trends and Insights

Is your sales team targeting marketers? Make yourself available to help them identify trends and various angles to reach people similar to yourself. You can also surface trends based on what you are seeing on social media that allow Sales teams to connect with the personas they’re targeting. Again- chances are, your team is already identifying these trends so it takes little additional effort to ship them over to your sales partners and add more value to your relationship.

8. OFFER: Social Media Best Practices

Marketers often voice frustration when they see sales teams awkwardly prospecting on social media. But how often do we actually offer to help them get better? Sales leadership knows that they need to train their teams on social selling. Often they’re struggling as non-digital leaders to understand these networks themselves. You don’t have to set up a training program. Simply offering your services as a subject matter expert- perhaps on a monthly sales call- can be massively useful.

9. OFFER: Content Curation

As part of social selling, Sales people know that they need to share thought-leadership focused content. Identifying this content takes up precious time during their day. There’s a good chance that at least part of this task can be picked up by your content curation team as part of their brand management. While there are various advocacy tools that can help automate this task, you can test it out as a proof of concept using a simple shared doc.

10. OFFER: Advocacy

Sales is more susceptible to negativity around your brands image than you probably realize. Particularly in a B2B company, Sales turnover each year tends to be quite high so they need to maintain a strong recruitment pipeline. Moreover, rival sellers increasingly are using poor brand reviews on Glassdoor and other sites to secure wins with prospects. By ensuring a constant stream of advocacy posts from both customers and employees, allows sales to push back against those attacks and ensures they can recruit the best talent.

A few last tips: Remember – sales always feels pressure to perform. The best way to work with them is to create genuine efficiencies for their teams. Be sure to check in to make sure that what you’re sending over is actually useful. Also make sure to keep any meetings you have very focused and as short as possible. Time is quite literally money for Sales. The more you demonstrate that you get that and respect their time, the more they’ll respect you and support you in the return.

Facebook should be worried.

Why did you sign-up for Facebook? I’ll wager it’s a question you didn’t really think about until the past few months. Maybe it crossed your mind earlier in which case- bully for you- but as I’ve written about elsewhere, the insidiousness of Facebook is how seamlessly it fits into our offline social interactions and network. I remember the first time a family member said that they didn’t want me to post photos of my niece and nephew on Facebook- I was a bit uptight about it. What a strange emotional response- right? But that was probably at the height of my platform usage. I was in grad school and fairly isolated from much of my family and friends. Facebook was my window and so I was upset that I couldn’t share those images with my network. It felt like I was being told I couldn’t pull out old-school wallet photos of them.

But therein lies the absolute critical differentiation. Wallet-photos are mine. Facebook images aren’t. Rather in exchange for our ability to share, we allow Facebook to peer over our shoulders, scoop up our meta-data and conduct dubious studies on our emotions by manipulating the types of stories and content we’re served. Looking back, I blush thinking about that. How absolutely right my family members were to keep their kids off of the network. And how invested I had become in a one-size-fits all solution, like Facebook, to take care of the work of maintaining relationships.

Let me be clear. I knew that Facebook was collecting data and I probably knew a more than you did because this is the space I work in. I definitely shut my eyes to the possibility for abuse- I think many of us did.

But what worries me is that every sign points to Facebook and the other networks looking at this current uproar as a PR issue versus a fundamental societal awakening to the need for privacy. The former is something that Zuck with his creepily boyish charm can bat away while the latter would indicate a core shift in user behavior. If anyone at Facebook is currently connecting the dots, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer should send chills down their spine. Between 2017 and 2018, Edelman documented a profound loss of trust in our institutions, observing the deepest decline ever measured.

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Dig a little deeper and the problems for social networks such as Facebook come into even sharper relief:

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 5.07.08 PM.png

Trust is the foundation of our relationship with our environment and each other. Every day we go through life obeying certain societal norms because we trust that others in our society will as well. As anyone who has been in a family feud knows, once that trust is broken it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild. Distrust rots the core of any unit. It’s for this reason that Authoritarian regimes go out of their way to strip away public trust. Most famously, the Stasi used networks of informants and blackmail to the point that no one could trust each other (Read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File). My point is that trust is far easier to break than it is to restore. And once trust is broken you suddenly find yourself questioning everything you know, all decisions you make. You find yourself altering your behavior and, most notably, vowing to never make that mistake again.

That’s why Facebook and others should be worried. Altered user behavior. A death-knell for platforms that measure success by MAUs.

Rediscovering my voice

I took the latter half of 2017 off from blogging. Not because I didn’t want to write- quite the opposite. It’s that I couldn’t figure out how to communicate what I wanted to say through the persona that I’ve created for myself. I’ve felt fundamentally stuck.

And I don’t think I’m alone nor that it’s just a function of social media. The 2016 election and 2017 fall out has ruptured the pseudo-belief that we could (and should) have a separation between our work selves and “personal” [read: political] selves . (Others went further and said that there IS no separation- most notably the google-glassholes and brogrammers.)

We created empty personas for ourselves- using motivational quotes and stories as substitutes for actual authenticity. The rise of livestreaming led to an additional level of pseudo-transparency. “Look”, the self-proclaimed motivational speaker states, “This is what my day-to-day live looks like. If I can do it, so can you!” And yes they get followers and build up fan bases- because that’s what we do as humans- we look for opportunities to connect particularly with charismatic individuals.

So this new breed of thought-leader/motivational speaker began to write books and get speaking gigs, all coining their various branded hashtags and “communities”. And we let them do it- in fact we supported them.

But did you ever take a moment to look at them? I mean really look at them? Notice any similarities?

Yep.

But we couldn’t talk about it. Just like we couldn’t talk about the fact that “diversity panels” tended to be led by men or the fact that a celebration of women in leadership turned into a carefully cordoned off “women’s lunch”- where men feared to tread.

The BIG no-no was calling out the lack of diversity in speaker line-ups and influencer lists. “Women just aren’t interested” was the line. Heaven-forbid there be any type of systematic bias.

But there was. And there is.

I could go on and on but I won’t- there are already some excellent articles documenting the barriers women and minorities face in the “thought leadership field”.

My point is that these are the issues I didn’t know how to raise on social and my blog. Like women in other industries have written, I too worried that I’d be labeled as “difficult to work with” which could be a death knell to advancement in our very relationship-based industry.

So I set up guardrails. My Twitter account and blog would be for social media and marketing related content. On Facebook I used lists to limit visibility to posts containing personal opinions to non-work contacts. Over the years I made two exceptions: Ferguson (during which I lost a lot of Twitter followers due to my retweets) and marriage equality. But when you look at the blog posts I wrote about both (here and here) you can see how I threaded the needle.

Then Trump got elected and everything changed. Really it had been building up over the summer of 2016. That’s when many of my marketing “friends” wrote posts on Facebook saying that they were unfollowing (in some cases unfriending) anyone talking about politics or the election. (I had quite the blog post written about that on my phone which I never posted.)

It hit me how much I let others dictate what I talked about and how I talked about it. It also struck me that I was enabling this to continue by teaching others how to selectively wall off the parts of themselves that might make others uncomfortable in the creation of their own “pseudo” personal brands.

I came to realize that I’ve long operated according to the rules of another’s dream: to have a space free from uncomfortable personal issues- such as gender, race, culture, politics, immigration status, maternity/paternity, age- all of those things that startups allude to when their “well we didn’t have HR excuse”.

I don’t exactly know where I go on to from here. I don’t quite have a strategy- which for me is rather disconcerting. But I do know that I do others a disservice by not sharing my truth and by failing to speak up.  Let me be clear- speaking up does not have to mean shouting or condemning. Rather it is adding an additional point of view to the conversation and insisting that it get equal treatment.

This, then, is what I’m going to be devoting 2018 on this blog to. I’ll be discussing how we have conversations with each other online and offline. How we ensure that all voices are brought equally into the conversation. If that’s something that you’re interested in as well then I invite you to follow along and share your thoughts.

And finally a special thanks to my community who has stood alongside me since this blog’s beginning back in 2013. This blog has always been a place for me to try to put the various pieces of my reality together and pull together what that means for me as a professional. This is where with your support I believe I first came into my own as a social strategist. It seems fitting that this is where I take the first stab at articulating my next steps.

If you enjoyed the POV of this post then definitely stay tuned….

Dear Snapchat, It didn’t have to go down like this

Things are not good in Snapchat land. On Thursday, Snap announced that it had gained a mere 7M daily active users in the past 3 months- up from 166M in May. “So?”, you might say, “that’s still growth- at least they aren’t loosing users”. Well…. The problem is that during the previous 3 month period, they had gained 8M daily active users. Healthy social networks mean exponential user growth and that’s what investors expect to see.

But that’s really been the problem all along for Snapchat- it never invested in the user experience to become a social network. For me, that’s really the unforgivable part of this whole saga. It could have been great. But they decided not to listen to the voices along the way who have been clamoring for features such as robust native analytics (still MIA), links (added July 2017), group chat (added December 2016) long before Facebook ever got into their turf. The lack of those key features kept many individuals and, importantly, brand strategists from adopting Snapchap as a core network. Instead we used it for the tech, not for the relationship outcomes. That’s why Facebook was able to swoop in and undermine it so quickly with Instagram.

Successful social networks have technology and community. That’s why Facebook was able to survive Google+ but Snapchat is becoming entirely undermined by Facebook.

Google+ went after Facebook HARD. People, including myself, loved the Google+ interface. Recall that this was around the time that Facebook was facing uproar from their original users about privacy, the algorithm and ad-creep. We were looking for an alternative to the social network whose founder said that privacy was no longer a social norm.  The hope was that Google, with their motto at the time of “Don’t be evil” could provide that. Moreover, Google+ had better tech as well- from higher resolution photos to native video integration with YouTube and Hangouts (light years before Facebook would introduce video)- they outpaced them. And yet they could not, for the life of them, build a user base.

Fast forward to the present where Snapchat is in the battle of its life because, wait for it, Facebook is copying features. Yes it’s true that Snapchat can still hold onto the “cool” factor amount teens. But that same 2016 report spelled doom for monetization-showing that teens hate ads or, even worse, simply ignore them. Also let’s be honest once those teens mature out of their anti-establishment phase, there is a very strong chance that they will migrate over to the platforms that their sorority sisters, frat brothers, universities, and yes (gasp) even parents are on (college kids get homesick).

In his article “Why I’m leaving Snapchat and so are all of your friends” Owen Williams summed it up well:

I think, after years of being an active Snapchat user and fan, I’ve decided to move on. The service was fun, but I’ve realized recently that it doesn’t offer anything unique, and even if Facebook was copying the company in the first place, it’s done a better job than Snapchat ever could.

The majority of my friends have moved across, and those who initially relented seem to have started getting their feet wet with Instagram too. Facebook, be it accidentally or on purpose, has created an Instagram renaissance that has us more addicted than ever before because we get to see beautiful photos in the feed, then the raw, real life stuff in stories.

Google+ was pretty much doomed from the start but Snapchat didn’t have to be. They had several years of unsullied market share that Facebook tried and failed to land grab. But instead of thinking through ways to strategically strengthen their signal, build out platform stickiness and monetization opportunities, their boy kings decided that they were too good for such things. They were Snapchat.

Well. Good luck with that is all I can say.

 

My 5 Keys to the Classroom

On Tuesday evening I wrapped up my 4th semester at NYU SPS teaching Social Media and the Brand. It was the largest group to date- 23 total- and probably the most diverse as well. My students hailed from across the US as well as from South Africa, the UK, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela. Experience-wise, it was a strong blend of professionals looking to add to their skillset and full-time students. As a group it was definitely the most engaged and talented bunch I’ve taught so far- which makes me excited for where the Integrated Marketing degree at NYU SPS is headed.

Anyone whose taught will tell you that a class of engaged students is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly rewarding- because you get a sense that they actually care. BUT, particularly for those of us who battle demons of imposter syndrome, it can be daunting- because they WILL challenge you. This can all too easily turn your classroom into an egotistical clash of wills where student questions feel like a zero-sum game. When I was a student I remember all too well a few professors who fell into that trap- and honestly it was embarrassing to witness for all involved. I’ve also seen this happen in professional settings where insecure bosses feel that they have to be the authors of all worthwhile ideas. In both cases it’s the quickest way to loose innovation.

While students may not choose to drop your class they will check-out- and that’s a sad loss for all concerned. I gauge my success over a semester by the degree to which I feel I’ve created a space for sharing knowledge. There are always quiet students- and I make it my mission to make them comfortable speaking up. I feel a thrill of success when they raise their hand to share an insight or ask a question. It’s difficult- particularly when the language of instruction is second or third for the majority of the class.

Culture also plays a part- the American classroom is one of the more participatory. Over the past few semesters, I’ve learned that going around the room to ask each student to share a thought about the week’s reading is often more productive than inviting them to raise their hands. Because the classroom should not be about a clash of wills or egos or Type A personalities- it should be about a collective learning experience. Otherwise- what’s the point? I’m painfully aware that there digital alternatives to my course and it’s up to me to create a value-add for my students so that they tune into my class. If I don’t want my students to simply treat my class as a necessary check-off on their way to an NYU degree- I have to “bring it”.

I know that the fall semester is just a few weeks away and in that spirit I wanted to share 5 keys to creating a successful classroom culture.

  1. Check your ego at the door:

    This is huge particularly for anyone teaching social and digital media. I actually set the stage on day 1 of teaching. I introduce myself to my students talking about the range of experience I’ve had in professional settings, applying social media tactics to business problems. But I make it clear to them that I too am constantly learning and invite them to share any specialized knowledge they have. This helps to defuse their egos as well- because there are students who enjoy showing up professors (particularly female ones). By defining my role as a discussion leader, based on my professional experience, I keep it from being any type of zero-sum game.

  2. Take time to get to know your students and their personal expertise:

    Again, this occurs on day 1. I go around the room and ask all of my students to tell me their names, where they are from and what they want to get out of my class. I then make sure to take this into account for the rest of the semester. For example, this summer I had several students tell me that they had a background in analytics. I knew that my analytics stand-alone class was one of the shakier ones so I used this information to make sure to invest time in revamping it. I also took the time to weave in analytics into other parts of the curriculum and invited the students who had deep backgrounds in it to share their expertise during those lectures.

  3. Let them talk and share their ideas:

    This is something that is hard for me to do and has taken me several semesters to really buy into. When I was a student I always hated prolonged class discussions- I wanted to hear from the expert in the room. But now that I’m teaching I’ve found that there’s a balance and it’s really useful particularly for students who do have professional expertise. Letting them share this gives them a bigger stake in the class. On a practical side, it also adds to my credibility as an instructor when they share a professional example that illustrates the principle I’m working to get across. A big part of this is also to never EVER dismiss a student’s idea or try to embarrass them by being a smart ass. You can always say something like “that’s an interesting idea” or “I hadn’t really thought of it like that before”. If the student is totally off-base then turn it into a conversation- I often use these instances as examples to students of the different perspectives that come to bare in crafting a social strategy.

  4. Be practical- address what your students NEED to get out of taking this class:

    In my case this is a class for a professional graduate degree. So I try to tie everything I teach back to a professional skill that my students can use when they are either in a job or trying to land one. When I was teaching undergrads at the University of Virginia, I tried to teach them how to make strong arguments and write well. But I also made sure to be transparent about what they needed to do to get the grade they wanted out of the class. Most of your students are taking your class to fulfill a requirement- so get over yourself. It’s up to you to help them realize that this class can actually be useful for them. This is an attitude I SO wish more of my professors had adopted when I was a student.

  5. Set the a tone of professionalism:

    For several semesters I struggled with how to deal with cellphone use, laptop use for other activities, and stupid grammar/spelling mistakes. I finally came up with a solution that seems to be working. I tell my students that a critical component for their careers is pay attention to coming across as a professional. Texting would never fly in a business meeting. Similarly, I tell them, that when they use their laptops to shop, scroll through images, or otherwise not pay attention- it’s sending me a signal that they don’t care. Which, when I grade them, will keep me from giving them the benefit of a doubt. Similarly, not doing a simple grammar/spell-check on their laptop conveys to me that they don’t care. I use all of these as educational opportunities for them. It’s not about my personal preference or something that is irritating- it’s about preparing them for the professional world. I then do the same thing- I treat them with respect, make my guidelines transparent and try to be as organized as I can. This changes the conversation and, ultimately, will help them in the future.

Teaching is difficult. But I’ve found no greater joy than hearing one of my students make an observation that they would not have made at the beginning of the course. In an age of debate about the overall value of a college education, as instructors we have the ability to demonstrate our worth by creating positive and vibrant classroom cultures dedicated to innovation and respect.