Every resource, tutorial and commentary, online and off, about social media marketing insists that it’s NOT marketing. Rather, they tell you, social media marketing is about conversations. It’s about relating to your customers. It’s about telling a story. You amplify your brand, so they say, by giving your customers something to talk about.

Fair enough.

Yet here’s the quandary: how the hell does someone go about learning how to do this? And I’m not talking about business owners who need to manage their Facebook pages, but about marketing professionals who want to do this as their profession.

One solution lies in the (over) abundance of training resources found online and elsewhere. A quick Google search of “how to market on Facebook” yields up 825 million results. A quick search for resources on Amazon.com about “marketing on social media” finds north of 1,000 results.

Thus, there’s no shortage of guidance on the subject (heck I’ve written dozens of articles myself and even one of those books).

But what about real training?

Well, here again we find much in the way of outlets and resources. Of the 218 million results found when Googling “social media training,” we find the first three pages listing online training programs – some even free.

But then let’s go beyond even that. Let’s say some young up-and-comer has his or her eyes set on spending a lifetime in the digital marketing space. What options exist for them?

And this leads to the second quandary for me: what does a real education in social media marketing look like?

In the past few years many private and public colleges and universities have created such programs, so finding an answer should be easy.

Easy, yes. But satisfying? No, not really.

You see, not surprisingly many of the programs I find locate the program in the school’s marketing department. But wait, if social media isn’t marketing, why is it in the marketing program?

The answer seems to be, “by default.”

But calling the degree by something else finds it located elsewhere entirely. Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies calls it “Social Media Management” and describes it as a program for everyone from marketers to those in public relations.

And the School for Communication and Journalism at USC Annenberg offers what it simply calls a M.S. in Digital Social Media, which, like the Georgtown certificate, seems a very broad approach with little or no specific focus (but which allows students to focus through electives, assuming the students know which electives to take).

Simply put there is no single cannon of curricula, no shared model of study, used among universities to help people become professionals in social media marketing or management (whatever that is). They all define it differently and all approach it differently.

That may be why some insist that a formal education in social media marketing (or any of its related titles) is a waste of time. Their thesis seems to be that nothing can replace the real-life experience of actually working in the field combined with gaining relevant knowledge through conferences and online learning.

While I agree in general that some formal education can be replaced by working in the field, I think this approach leaves out much of the important education related to social media marketing but not specifically in the disciplines of social media or marketing.

There is an abundance of skills needed by social media/digital media professionals that people entering the field may not think they need, but which become crucial when actually performing the work. Many of these skills, further, are completely absent from the degree-offering programs in most every university and college I’ve looked at.

However, thanks to resources like YouTube, most all of these skills can be had for no price and for no enrollment fee, but with instead a dedication to learning and making connections.

So what skills/lessons/training should people wanting to become professional in social media undertake? Obviously, as stated above, there isn’t one consensus on what’s needed, but drawing on my own success and experience, these are the skills I use on a daily basis to meet the demands of social media marketing as a professional.

  1. Social Media Technologies

Probably the easiest subject here because I’m talking simply of the toolset. In other words, learning the mechanics of the various platforms, their own unique tricks for interaction, where things are located and what you can do with them. Sure there are a variety to learn – LinkedIn, SnapChat, Facebook, etc. – but this series shouldn’t involve itself in how to use them in the real world, only how to use them mechanically.

  1. Visual Design Skills

This is a large set of subjects that includes things like studies in visual communication (think Gestalt theory), digital photography and even Photoshop. More and more people working in social media are required to create content, and much of this content is based on images. Understanding not only how to manipulate images, but how to create them and the theory behind which images to use and why are essential skills to successfully using social media platforms.

  1. Multi-media Skills

Similar to understanding basic visual design for images, social media professionals will increasingly be called on to create and edit video content. As more platforms are embracing video – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. – it will increasingly become an important component of any effort. Future professionals in social media should learn the basics of digital video (the mechanics, that is), as well as theory and video production software (basic programs like iMovie could be enough but professionals should probably be able to use more advanced programs, like Adobe Premiere Pro).

  1. Rhetoric, Persuasion and Argument

When marketing and advertising first became recognized professionally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rhetoric as a discipline was commonly taught in most colleges and universities as a general course of study that everyone took. That’s not the case anymore. Now it is a specific program only offered at a few dozen colleges across the nation. But for social media marketing I don’t think there is a more useful knowledge set than those you learn when studying rhetoric (and yes, I’m biased). Rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, is “the art of discovering every available means of persuasion,” and day in, day out this is what I do while managing social media efforts. Understanding what drives people to make decisions, how to implicitly or explicitly create arguments and (most importantly), understanding how to convince people to agree with your position or proposition are perhaps the most difficult skills to learn, but they are also the most important.

  1. Analytics

I know few people who enjoy statistics (well there was this one weird guy I knew in school…), but unfortunately understanding the return on effort in social media is crucial, and understanding statistics and how to measure success is an important skill. In fact what separates those who are successful in social and digital media marketing and management from others is the ability to quantify the effects of their work. Studies should include web analytics and insights and statistics.

  1. Marketing with Social Media

I began this article by discussing the wealth of advice available about how to market through social media, and this is finally where all that advice fits in. Learning the approaches or methods of marketing, or un-marketing as some call it, is crucial for putting all the pieces together. There are hundreds of videos and presentations by experts that will help you understand how and when to create just the right post or send the perfect tweet that will garner attention and move your audience. Doing this requires you to understand persuasion, images or video creation, the mechanics of each platform and the statistical insights that are reported after posting or tweeting.

In Ending

As a rule you should never stop learning, and there are a number of other skills and topics I could have included here (web design and development come to mind, for example). It’s important to understand that, quite frankly, successfully marketing through social media is difficult. It’s so much easier, in fact, to erect a billboard or take out an ad in the newspaper, but the days of marketing like that are drawing to a close. Because these platforms are new they are more complicated, but as they grow more familiar so too will the marketing techniques they demand.

For the time being it’s important to grow as much as possible and so while I am of the mind to recommend avoiding traditional degrees in social media, I am a proponent of an education in the subject. While I’m obviously biased towards what I’ve listed I don’t believe that these are the only subjects or courses that people should take.

What did I miss? Use the comments below to list what you think are more important, or are perhaps as important and why. Do you know of any comprehensive degree programs that I obviously hadn’t looked at? Let me know where it is and why the program is so great.