Can You Be Taught Social Media?

I met someone yesterday who mentioned that a friend was a professor who taught social media at a local college.
My initial reaction was “That’s interesting”. My next thought was whether social media is something that can be taught.

My take is social media is while you can take a course to learn how social media works, the only way to understand the mechanics, nuances and real-world best practices is just doing it. It is lot like when I went to journalism school; I learned more during the first three months of my first newspaper job than I did in four years at university.

Taking a social media course at a college or university is not a bad thing because it does provide insight into the different tools, best practices, and case studies of social media done well or badly. Someone who takes a social media course will receive a solid theoretical foundation and knowledge of the landscape.

However, it’s completely different world when you’re actually doing social media as part of your job. The pace, the demands, the need to respond quickly and having to create content on a steady basis makes the realities of social media dramatically differently from the lessons in class.

My advice to people who have expressed an interested in a social media course has been to just start doing social media in the real world. To me, there is nothing more valuable than getting into it to learn first-hand what works, what doesn’t, and the strengths and differences of the different tools.

Sure, you could make some mistakes along the way but that’s part of real-world learning as opposed to being in a classroom. If you’re interested in taking a social media course or class, go ahead. But the real classroom is the real world.

  • Aleksandra S

    Great article and I agree wholeheartedly. Although something like social media or digital marketing can be taught and is useful as a base, real world experience is invaluable.

    That being said, if this is a shift in your career from traditional PR to social media (let’s day) real world experience outside of your own blog or volunteering can be hard to come by…But it’s not impossible. 🙂

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  • I think you can be taught Social Media but totally agree that “Real World” experience is more valuable. This could be said for most industries. Firsthand experience is so vital and underestimated at times. Great post.

  • I agree with all so far. To me, social media is an acquired skill. You can learn utopian functionality in a class, but you actually have to get out and practice in order to understand how it works.

    I also think personality, intelligence and wit play a huge role in someone’s success (or lack thereof) in social media.

  • This is an interesting post. I do 100% agree the best way to learn is to get in there and do it yourself.

    However, a company is going to take you more seriously if you have credentials such as a social media course. Obviously the best credential is real practical experience, but what if you don’t have it? Always a complex dilemma.

    When I was looking for work in Social Media I found a free option: Internet Marketing University which is an excellent FREE resource that teaches all stages of Internet Marketing (not just Social Media). There’s a different guest lecturer on each class so it keeps it interesting. Social Media heavyweights Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk make appearances and it was a lot of fun. At the end you get an “Inbound Marketing Certification” and it didn’t cost you a dime, just requires you to pass a test at the end.

    If anyone’s interested:

  • I was just discussing this with my sister last week. She is a total newbie to SM and went to a SM conference put on by a company I won’t name, but they’re not the most cutting edge of web apps per say.

    She mentioned that the presenter was an early 40’s woman and I couldn’t help but build a profile of her in my head. Probably spends a lot of time reading about social media best practices and how to’s, but doesn’t actually spend the time engaging actually “doing” social media. I find in my travels I have met a lot of these types. They typically parrot stuff by Unmarketing and Seth Godin as gospel instead of actually learning social media first hand.

    As an aside, I don’t wish to stereotype 40+ women using social media as I know plenty that do it right.

  • Interesting post, Mark. I thought I’d weigh in as someone who teaches social media in the PR program at McMaster University. I believe social media, like many other things, can be taught. I provide a foundation in communications and network theory, case studies, PR best practices and measurement and combine that with practical instruction in the tools. I agree that participation is important and so much of social media is learned by doing. That’s why each student in my class is required to start a blog and post at least twice a week, be on Twitter, read and comment on blogs, do a group wiki project and understand social bookmarking. That’s not everything to do with social media by any means, but I think it’s a good start. And, some of the students have kept up their blogs long after the class is done.

  • Mark Evans


    Thanks for the insight from someone who does teach social media. By having students actually do social media while learning about it, it sounds like a more realistic approach to teaching. I agree about the importance of case studies, best practices, etc. but without hands-on experience, it can be difficult for social media to really sink in.


  • Anthony Scaffeo

    Like Seth godin said, social media is a process not an event…. It keeps changing… What happens when something like computer design changes every yr… The value of ur education goes down… Same thing with social media… U have to learn it in real time not a point in time

  • Great post Mark. I think this topic has been heavily debated on and I agree with you in some sense that social media is a process of adapting, thus learning by doing. I also believe that as a newbie coming into the social world that a few points from experts that have ‘been there done it’ is worth the time investing in. But all the information is free online, it’s all about connecting with the right people, and following the most relevant content on the web to make the best use of your time to learn social media.

    That being said, anything that goes on the web, stays on the web, and people will talk about it. I think from a business perspective, it would be important to know all your facts before jumping into it, unless hire an individual who’s qualified and has the skill sets to manage your social media campaigns, then that’s different. Regardless, you are paying some sort of fee; learning (time) or hiring (salary). But it’s also important to note that everything is experimental, and that by adopting social media in your marketing strategy does not necessarily mean you will see results right away. A presence takes time to build up, and I think that’s what people need to be educated on.


  • People can learn the mechanics of social media ie: how the platforms work and how each of them differ but the most important part, the “social” can’t. But this knowledge is very short term focused because the platforms and their features change so often.

    I think that certain people will always be better at social media than others based on certain elements of their personality.. how comfortable they are with being personable…. sounds hard but those that don’t do it right come up as being inauthentic and wooden. This kind of skill would be really hard to learn because I think, for the most part, you got it or you don’t.

  • Danny,

    Great point.. Social Media is a lot about personality. And also writing ability if someone can’t write properly it can be a painful situation.

    I’ve also seen many of these inauthentic and wooden personalities.

    I agree. Certain characteristics of social media are virtually unteachable.


  • Mark Evans

    The other thing to remember is social media approaches and efforts evolve over time as a company’s strategy and products change. It makes social media a medium in which the learning never stops.

    cheers, Mark

  • I always thought undergrad marketing and computer classes were a waste of time – mostly common sense stuff packaged with a textbook and regular lecturers. Teaching social media seems like the same thing.

    If you’re in school and you’re interested in social media, get on Twitter, find the top social media reporters, thinkers and leaders. And read. ALOT. You’ll learn more and it’s free.

    Then go study something useful – math, science, English… You get the idea.

    Might be different for a small business owner – you don’t want to do something that will waste time or, worse, hurt your company’s image. In that case, maybe a crash course is useful.

  • Well I am going to be in the minority I can tell.

    Of course it can be taught. Social Media is still a media form. You need to know how it works, how to write concisely, identify an audience, focus a message or story and understand the basics of communication techniques.
    If you want to learn on the job and wing it you’ll be playing catch-up and if you want to do it as a living you’re expecting your employer to pay you to play. Not in my world.

    Anything can be learned.
    Do you get better with experience, learn the nuances and find practical way to deal with the theory? Of course. That is the very definition of experience.
    Does your personality come through over time? Of course it does but if you didn’t learn the basics first you are not going to sparkle. Bad experience and practice offline translates into bad online.

    Will it evolve over time? Geez of course it does. Or do you think the TV you watched last is the same technology, content, and programming that appeared in the fifties because that is all anyone ever learned?

    I really, really, really hope the boys and girls at Sysmos aren’t winging it and learning on the job with my account money. I hope you all learned something first and are now applying what you learned.

    If I’m an experiment where you are learning by doing and counting on me to supply you with the Monopoly money, then my comm budget is going up in smoke.
    To even suggest that social media can’t be taught simply makes the snakeoil showmanship I see every week online all the more worrying.

  • I agree Mark that social media can be taught. I think that it can be taught to someone else but some people are saying it cannot be because there really is no set way that is 100% yet in terms of using it. Whether you are leveraging social media for your business or even using it in your personal life it definitely takes experience.

    Learning something is one thing, but applying it is a second step. I think that everyone who commented is correct.

  • Lewis Poretz

    Great topic. I would like to add what I consider a few important musts for a newbie to understand which do not get taught in a classroom and unfortunately many learn the hard way —>>

    1) – Be as honest as you can be. Social Media platforms are the worlds best BS detectors.

    2) – Look up the definition of transparent and live it.

    3) – There is no such thing as a “woops” button. If you say it, you better mean it.

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  • I guess in some degree it can be taught, at least the basics and the principles, especially if the would-be social media user would acquire his account to build a brand and a presence to promote himself and his company.

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