3 Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring Digital Strategists


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Hiring talent for digital strategy and search engine optimization/management is tough. Not only has the demand for professionals that have these skills skyrocketed far beyond supply, but the relative newness of the industry poses many unique challenges when it comes to recruiting. First, unlike other professions, there are few if any recognized university degrees specializing in this field. So hiring managers can’t gauge potential candidates by the level of their education or institution they may have attended, something they rely heavily on for other job types.

Another big problem is that for senior level positions, companies generally feel a candidate should have “x” years of experience, often 10-12, or even higher. But 10 years ago, most of today’s mainstream social channels didn’t exist, and those that did were in an entirely different capacity. Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are all central to today’s digital strategists – but finding someone with more than a few years of experience managing them is simply impossible.

Another issue? Lack of tangible results. When hiring a candidate for a creative position, they can provide a portfolio of their work. Consultants can point to projects they’ve worked on, and the numbers they achieved. But the digital world hasn’t yet attached itself to a universal set of metrics, and those that exist are highly open to interpretation. For example? Can you know a candidate will be a good SEO manager? The candidate could point to site or keyword rankings, but this alone says nothing. You would also have to consider how the rankings changed over time, how many sites they worked on at one time, the competitiveness of the sites/keywords, and what kind of resources they had available. Establishing ROI has been one of the biggest challenges in the digital space – so how can a digital professional validate their abilities? Again, the newness of the industry creates a challenge: if a digital strategist could show changes and improvements in metrics over time, it would be meaningful, but again, many digital channels haven’t been around long enough to establish significant benchmarks or time periods for change. So while there’s no easy answer on how you should evaluate potential candidates as you build out your digital strategy teams, here are 3 big pitfalls to avoid:

1. Bigger doesn’t mean better (really): In traditional recruiting, the size of the companies a candidate previously worked at play a big role. Candidates with Fortune 500 experience are generally considered more qualified than those that held the same role at smaller firms. Recruiters and hiring managers like to see recognizable names on a candidate’s history, and tend to use them to make a number of inferences. But in the digital space, it’s the mom and pop shops that have been the savviest; countless reports have documented larger corporations’ struggle to catch up in the digital world. Real-time response is a crucial part of digital marketing, and corporations haven’t been able to leverage this as well as smaller, more nimble firms. Furthermore, digital professionals working with smaller budgets generally have to monitor campaigns more closely, apply more out-of-the-box strategy to keep up with competitors with deeper pockets, and be more cognizant of each marketing dollar. In my own experience, I was almost fired when I made an $8,000 mistake managing a search marketing campaign early in my career. Later, while consulting for a Fortune 500 client, I witnessed their agency lose upwards of $100,000 on several occasions, issue a nonchalant apology, and go on with “business as usual”. The fact is, corporate culture aside, the actual skills and experience of a digital person working at a small local shop will be essentially the same, if not sharper, as someone managing campaigns for a monolith corporation with 1000 times the budget. This is one area where you’re just going to have to get past the name.

2. Don’t get hung up on communication skills: Over 70% of recruiters have cited communication skills as the strongest factor in their hiring decisions, and in some ways, understandably so. It’s easy to perceive stronger communicators as more intelligent or able, and these skills may have a strong impact on success in certain roles. But when it comes to hiring digital talent, don’t let this be your primary decision driver. The fact is, many of those most passionate about the digital space are tecchie nerds. They were the ones on their computer while their classmates were out playing ball or at the mall. They may not be the most extroverted or “polished” interviewees you’ll meet. One of the best SEM analysts I ever met saved a Fortune 500 client I worked with $2.5 million within 6 weeks of joining the company. But the company had come very close to not hiring her, agreeing that she had the experience, but was “too quiet” and “somewhat boring”. In my experience, many of the best digital strategists I’ve met would probably fit that bill at first (they’re generally quite entertaining once they open up and get to know you). But don’t let this become a bias the other way either – I’ve met plenty of highly capable industry leaders that could have gone into broadcast journalism. Either way – listen more to what they say than how they say it. And don’t shy away from peppering them with challenging questions – as long as they’re relevant (Curveball “hypotheticals” have their place, but this isn’t it. A lot of your best digital talent isn’t trained for that sort of thing).

3. Rethink “Required Experience”: “There haven’t been many times in history when someone in their twenties is the smartest person in the room,” notes Steve Groth, chief architect for MDC and former co-founder and vice chairman of Omnicom’s cutting-edge Radiate Group (a network of marketing agencies that work together to provide global solutions for top brands). The fact is, younger generations have a better grasp and understanding of digital applications and their use than many of their more senior counterparts ever will. This might make many CMO’s and senior executives uncomfortable, but the longer they resist it, the further behind they will fall. Using a traditional hiring approach, which places its primary emphasis on years of big-brand experience, isn’t going to work if you want the best digital talent. The smartest of the bunch are full of ideas and have a deep understanding of how digital media is consumed by its target markets – but they don’t have the years of experience because they’re too young, and they don’t have the big-brands because they either haven’t had the chance yet, or because they had no desire to. After all, larger corporations will be slower, more process-oriented, and political than the entrepreneurial, fast-response environments smaller firms can provide. And furthermore, candidates with decades of experience may have more experience – but not more relevant experience. Because the bottom line is, anyone that says they have more than a decade of experience in digital media (as we now know it) is lying…because it simply didn’t exist.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Sakina Walsh
Sakina Walsh is Sr. Manager of Strategic Planning at Quaero. With a strong background in digital strategy and multi-channel consulting, Sakina brings a deep expertise in the various nuances of the online customer experience to Quaero's Strategy group. Her insights help clients answer key business challenges, increase revenue, and create industry-leading interactive experiences.


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