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The Good, Bad, & Ugly Approaches to Working With a Social Media Intern

The Good, Bad, & Ugly Approaches to Working With a Social Media Intern Blog Feature

Jessica Palmeri

HubSpot Trainer, 8+ Years Of Digital Marketing Strategy & Project Management Experience

June 11th, 2019 min read

Social media is a force of nature that no marketer can ignore.

It’s pervasive. It’s constantly evolving. More importantly, it’s no longer just the “hip, new marketing tool” that can instantly grow your organic reach; it’s an integral part of your day-to-day brand strategy.

According to Nielsen’s latest Social Media Report: “Social media gives marketers a chance to reach out directly to consumers, amplify their messages, and pitch their best value propositions to their best consumers wherever they may be…”  

But not every team can afford to hire a full-time social media strategist.

When a team with tight resources is looking to expand their social media efforts, they often turn to one solution: A social media intern.

Summer internship season is in full swing, which means you may already have a social media intern in your office eager to learn the ropes. They can be a great asset to any team, but only if utilized appropriately and with the right approach!

The key to this is to clearly outline your business objectives, individual expectations, and ultimately set up everyone up for success.

Why Would I Want to Hire a Social Media Intern?

The wrong answer is: “I want to outsource my company’s social media strategy. I have just enough work to justify hiring a low-paid intern, but not enough work to justify hiring a full-time employee.”  

Let’s be real -- if your primary motivator is to cut corners and figure out a low-cost way to outsource work, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

An intern should be a valued addition to your team, not a cost-saving solution to resolve your social media skills gap, especially considering many interns also sign up hoping to learn.

The right answer to this question should be: “I want to hire fresh talent to take on this project so that they can own it, and invest the time and energy needed to do it right!

Justifying a new full-time hire to a department head can be a major ask in some organizations -- especially when many still aren’t convinced on the value of social media.

Budgets are tight and additional overhead is a fixed cost that you can’t easily reverse.

Hiring an intern with a limited employment timeframe, however, can be the perfect compromise -- plus working in shorter sprints with an intern can be advantageous to a marketing department that wants to test out new strategies.

For example, if you want to expand your social media efforts into Instagram to drive customer engagement, you could assign an intern to own that task for the summer.

They can dive in, A/B test different approaches, and find out if this new strategy is worth further investment.

Remember, though, even if it’s only an internship-level position, it’s still a new hire, and more importantly, a new member of your team.

Your social media intern needs to feel like they have a defined purpose within the organization and the agency to get the work done while aiming to accomplish the company’s larger goals.

They have skills to bring to the table, and they should feel valued and appreciated for those contributions.

Now that we know the right reasons to hire a social media intern, let’s look at our formula for success -- including the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media internships.  

The “Good” Approach to Working With Social Media Intern

The basic formula for social media internship success is an internalized brand understanding + structured expectations + creative freedom. Here’s what each of those mean.

Look for Internalized Brand Understanding

One of the key elements to a successful social media strategy is engagement -- via tweet, status update, or comments and replies.

Speaking with an authentic voice is the best way to generate meaningful brand engagement and positive online discussion (which raises your company profile!)

Without a strong grasp of the core brand, anyone (let alone an intern) risks accidentally striking the wrong tone and possibly offending or alienating your audience.

The best case scenario is to onboard a social media intern who is already familiar with your brand and your company’s core values.

If they’re not already familiar, the next best thing is to start with a strong onboarding program that invests the necessary time and energy to bring them up to speed.  

Give your intern a crash course in your brand’s tone and voice, have them study your style guide, and review previous social media posts to ensure a smooth transition.

Have Structured Expectations

Always, always, always set expectations (particularly if you’re hiring a college-level intern.)

College students are most familiar with a structured syllabus presented to them on the first day of class. They appreciate clearly-defined goals and instructions on how to get there.

As a manager, you’re used to setting monthly, quarterly, or annual goals for your marketing department. Once those goals are identified, you define appropriate tactics, measure results, and report on the ultimate outcomes.

You can mimic this format by establishing internship-level goals and structured work assignments that give guidance, without boxing out creativity.

For example, an internship-level goal might be to test out Snapchat marketing over a three month period to see if it’s worth additional company resources.

Some defined assignments might be...

  1. Create a Snapchat account for your company brand
  2. Test Snapchat engagement strategies to grow your online community
  3. Report back on the number of followers you generate over that three month period

Sticking with a pre-set structure helps offer guidance on what needs to be achieved, but doesn’t say exactly how it has to be done.

Your overall mission as a manager is to set a safety net, where your intern has a clear set of goals and an idea of how to get there, without being burdened by the fear of not knowing where to start.

Allow Creative Freedom

Finding the right balance between structured oversight and creative freedom is the “secret sauce” to your ultimate success.

You likely hired an intern to bring a fresh, new perspective to your social media strategy; don’t waste it by limiting creative freedom through endless reviews and oversight.

If you do the legwork up front and hire the right intern, you should trust them enough to do their job (and protect your brand reputation in the process.) 

The “Bad” Approach to Working With a Social Media Intern

The overly simplified formula for a mediocre (or downright bad) social media internship is a hire with little to no brand understanding + overly structured expectations + zero creative freedom.

Without a proper understanding of the brand, your social media intern can’t authentically speak on behalf of your organization.

As we mentioned above, onboarding your intern to bring them fully up to speed helps them internalize your brand, tone, and messaging approach -- but if this doesn’t exist, your social media efforts will fall flat.

Overly structured work assignments can waste valuable time and energy on redundant internal reviews -- which won’t help to add bandwidth to your team.

This behavior also ultimately demonstrates that you have little to trust in your intern’s abilities.

Providing zero creative freedom guarantees the same old, tired strategy and ensures that you won’t be able to fully leverage your intern’s potential.

Remember -- a  social media intern can bring a fresh, creative perspective -- don’t discount the value of a new set of eyes!

The “Ugly” Approach to Working With a Social Media Intern

If you want to throw all caution to the wind, the formula for absolute social media chaos is zero brand understanding + zero structure + unchecked creative freedom.

Things can get ugly when handing over your social media logins to someone who doesn’t understand your brand, has zero structure or direction, and total creative freedom to run amok.

You know how this story ends: totally off-brand commentary, marginally offensive tweets, or (worst case scenario) a minor PR social media catastrophe, but all this can be avoided with a little planning, structure, and legwork up front!

If you want to build a stronger social media community with more online engagement, you need to give guidance on how to strike the right tone, set a clear strategy, and appropriately work towards these goals.

Wrapping Things Up: 4 Steps to Social Media Internship Success

Always keep in mind is that a social media intern has the potential to help your team expand their project bandwidth, while simultaneously deepening your company’s engagement on social platforms -- but the only way to ensure that you and your team achieve these goals is by setting up your social media internship the right way.

How do you do that? Try these four steps:

  1. Start with an accurate job description, with clear job requirements and responsibilities.
  2. Hire someone who knows your brand, or make it a point to teach them your brand/company culture on day one.
  3. Have a plan! Provide strategic goals and structured guidelines on how to approach social media at your company
  4. Work to find the right balance between structured oversight and creative freedom in your working relationship. You hired a social media intern to offer a fresh perspective -- support them as they grow and help them utilize that creative perspective to benefit your team.
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