Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Behind the Screen of a Social Media Manager

With Dr. Josie Ahlquist, Tony Dobies, and Katy Spencer Johnson, SMS

Visit the #HigherEdSocial Facebook group and you will immediately find a passionate and dedicated community of social media managers, marketers, and higher education professionals who are tirelessly working to build community and content that is engaging, supportive, innovative, and connected. Unfortunately, it is also immediately evident that this community of professionals is underpaid, undervalued, and overworked. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated these conditions while highlighting the resiliency of social media managers, communicators, and marketers. 

The Underpaid Social Media Manager

The amplifier of brand voice, content creator, technologist; The variety of skill sets needed to be an effective social media manager are robust and diverse, from technical know-how to psychology and customer service.  In a recent Money article, the lack of compensation for the depth of scope of a social media manager position is evident: “The national average salary for social media managers is $50,500, according to Glassdoor. If you isolate the components of these positions into the full-time jobs they often represent, the pay imbalance is striking: copywriters average $58,500, marketing managers average $65,500, ad managers average $71,000, and so on.”

The Undervalued Social Media Manager

Social Media Managers are not only expected to be skilled, but they are also expected to be at the forefront of technology –  adapting to industry changes, new technology updates, social media platform functionality and user design and user interface releases, along with audience behavioral and communication trends.  “Social media requires a multitude of skills and expertise, and that expertise changes often due to the shifting landscape of social media. Because of that, and many other reasons, social media managers are likely under-appreciated and underpaid,” says Tony Dobies, Senior Director of Marketing at @WestVirginiaU.

The Overworked Social Media Manager

According to a 2020 West Virginia University study “ Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health” having to be “on” and working almost 24/7 is a leading cause of stress for social media managers. 73% of the 240 individuals surveyed suggested that working so much was one of their biggest struggles. Of the 240 people surveyed, 51% stated they are a “team of one.” 43% of respondents are teams of 2-4 and just 6% were on social media teams of 5 or more people. 

It will come as no surprise that nearly half of social media managers in higher education say they do not have adequate support and/or resources to ensure good mental health (Higher Ed Social Media Managers and their Mental Health Study, 2020).

The study also concluded that ongoing crises signals increased risk of mental health declines for social media managers: 

“ … social media managers struggle with their mental health during an average day and much more so in a crisis situation, according to a study by West Virginia University. Using a 0-10 scale where 0 represents poor mental health and 10 represents excellent mental health, social media managers, on average, rate their mental health a 6.35 in a given day. The average decreases to 4.52 when dealing with a crisis.”

Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health Study

Despite these occupational challenges, social media managers continue to serve as the voice of their communities and their administrations, navigating the day-to-day complexities with finesse, with their creativity and innovation limited only by character count and social media platform specifications. 

Behind the Screen of a Social Media Manager is a two-part series look at social media manager occupational mental health and advocacy.

  • This post looks at how social media managers can advocate for their roles and prioritize self-care and mental health.
  • The second in the series is written for leadership highlighting the unique challenges of a social media role and how to support employees. (Found here)

It’s critically important for social media managers and higher education marketers to find their voice, use their voice to advocate for themselves and their communities that they serve. What tools can you employ to prioritize your wellness? What strengthens your resilience? We asked several higher education social media professionals to weigh in. 

Log Off From Social

Seemingly counterintuitive to a social media manager’s role, several professionals stated the need to log-off from social, to balance the time spent on screen, and to carve out time for creativity.  

Tyler A. Thomas, Social Media & Integrated Content Senior Director at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and Professor at the Harvard Extension School reflects establishing your own best practices and advocating for them in practice.  

“A few things I do: 

    1. I block out the first hour of each day to read, process and think about what’s going on in the world
    2. I block out lunch each day so I can have “me” time. For a walk, nap, or breather, it’s all focused on me
    3. I’ve started to add non-digital media back into my consumption habits. Yes, I’m talking about books. Get away from the buzz, bing, and ding and pick up a good book to escape, learn, build. Whatever it is, disconnect, literally! 
    4. When times get tough, and you want to hit the panic button, hit the reset button. Take time to reset expectations, with yourself, your team and your boss. By hitting the reset button you are giving yourself permission to stop and start over. If you just hit the panic button, that’s like a bandaid on a geyser, it’s not effective.” 

Katy Spencer Johnson, Social Media Track Chair for the 2020 EduWeb Digital Summit and National Institute for Social Media certified Social Media Strategist, reflects on the value of logging off:

“Take that day off. Seriously. Take it. I implemented space during my day or week to step away from my desk, my phone, and my social media management. This is just enough time to breathe, take space to be creatively inspired, and to decompress but also still feel like I’m doing my job. I strongly advocate for social media managers to talk about their experiences, to leave a DM unanswered if needed and know when you’ve reached your maximum of processing information and engaging.“

Logging off isn’t easy. Nor is actually taking even just one day off. Jump into this thread from Kati Hartwig, Social Media Coordinator at Youngstown State University.

Other recommended ways to log off from social:

    • Set boundaries – you do not need to be on social 24/7. Communicate your availability, have a teammate be your backup, hold that post till Monday. 
    • Take vacation days. This benefit is part of your income – don’t leave it on the table. A staycation can be just as effective as a trip out of town, as long as you get off the grid.
    • Exercise and move your body. Burn off any pent-up emotions, realign your posture, stretch and strengthen. 
    • Create (if that’s your thing). Make music, art, crafts. Redecorate your space. Journal. Try a new recipe. Engage your brain in a different (and enjoyable) way.
    • Meditate. Five or 10 minutes a day can help clear your mind. Be still, be present in the moment.
    • Get outside. Fresh air, vitamin D, maybe even wave to your neighbors.

How are you logging off? No seriously, what is actually working for you? Tell us in the comments!

Know and Demonstrate Your Worth

One of the strongest ways in which a social media and higher education marketing professional can advocate for themselves is to know and demonstrate their worth. Many social media professionals find they have to defend the value of social media for an organization frequently but often fail to advocate for their own value to an organization. These two are not incongruent in conversation or reporting to leadership.   

Marketing and social media managers are not magicians nor is “magic” – as Jenny Li Fower, Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT shares:

Erin Supinka, Assistant Director of Digital Engagement at Dartmouth College finds that the best way to advocate and demonstrate worth is to invite colleagues to job shadow:

“One of the best and most effective ways I’ve advocated for myself is by inviting people to see what I’m doing. For example, does your team not realize how much effort into just publishing (let alone creating) an Instagram story? Set up a meeting for the next time you’re publishing and invite them to watch as you set it up. It can be hard to visualize and comprehend how nuanced and tricky our work is so having opportunities for them to observe or even assist you can be an incredibly eye-opening experience. I keep track of stats as well. I’ve found people can lose sight of the true power of social media, especially if their focus is on other forms of content, engagement, or work. By keeping tabs on your data, you can make sure to interject the potential your channels have (how many people did you content reach last week, how many people did it engage, etc.) when the opportunity arises. I’ve found that a lot of the time social is one of the only communication tools that an institution has that is passively and actively reach new audiences.“ 

Tony Dobies, of West Virginia University applies the concept of a mood elevator, first written about by Larry Senn in his book of the same name. Be aware of how you present to leadership, how you demonstrate the value of social media, and the value of your role to your leadership: 

“When you have the opportunity to be in conversations and meetings, add value where you can. It’s not about the amount of time you speak but the value you add.  Spend time thinking about how the content you produce can help to accomplish goals your leaders care most about – and refer to those goals often.  Showcase your expertise. Don’t downplay your position or your knowledge. Have confidence in your thoughts and decisions.  Pick your battles. Every battle is not worth winning. Pick the ones that really, truly matter and have more long-term significance to your work. We talk at WVU a lot about a “mood elevator.” Keep an eye on how you are representing yourself in meetings. Be active participants. Add value. Don’t allow your frustrations to affect your relationships.“ 

Jon McBride, Director of Digital Communications at Brigham Young University, also reflected on the emotional barometer for social media managers, writing a blog post on how social media managers can use emotions as information. Here he explains how reporting can help you and your leaders process negative sentiment. 

“Let leadership know just how hurt our community is, convey how hard it is to earn back trust when negative things go viral about our institutions. Outrage spreads so much further than reactive messaging ever can. Be the expert in this field that you are to talk through these things with data and industry best practices to back you up.”

Other recommended ways to demonstrate your worth: 

    • Speak up during meetings to contribute to the conversation. What have you learned from social listening that leadership should consider? Where are opportunities, pain points, problems to solve? How does your expertise add value?
    • Request access to leadership. Direct contact to key decision-makers will help you work more efficiently and effectively. Knowing the full backstory informs external messaging and tone. 
    •  Develop a consistent reporting structure of quantitative and qualitative data that shows impact and engagement. Share monthly, and/or at the close of a campaign. Interpret and provide context for the data – why is it meaningful? Determine who needs to see the report: your boss, your department, your president/chancellor?
    • Invite others to “job shadow” you to show the strategy that informs a post/story. Let them see you’re not just playing online.
    • Share success stories both with data, as well as with visuals. Screenshot a well-handled DM, show your most engaged-with video, celebrate your new followers. What best represents sentiment trends?
    • Accomplish the goals your leaders care about. Remind them why social media engagement is a tool for recruitment, retention, donor stewardship, alumni and parent relations, and more. How does your content support the work they do?

Work More Effectively

The job description and other duties as assigned continue to add up for social media managers:

Organizing your time, and working more effectively and efficiently can help you create clear, definitive boundaries in a position and industry that seemingly has few boundaries. 

Use the technology that you are seemingly tied to, to your advantage. Erin Supinka, of Dartmouth College, leverages Do Not Disturb functionality to filter her notifications:

“One of the best things I ever did was set up ‘Do Not Disturb’ on my phone. It starts at 10 p.m. and goes until 6 a.m. It mutes all notifications but doesn’t block them (so I can see them if I’d like). Since I do need to be reachable in an emergency I’ve set up a prioritized group of contacts and notifications that will still come through. That way, I’m not getting inundated with notifications from everything but don’t have to worry about missing a big one.“ 

Tony Dobies, adds: “One of the most helpful things I’ve done over the last few months is block off routine spots on my calendar to ‘work.’ I spend 75% or more of my day within meetings and so it’s tough to get to email, projects, etc., without this dedicated time. It allows me to feel more comfortable to fully and actively participate in meetings knowing I have time on my calendar for the other things I may not get to right away. The key is sticking to this ‘work’ time and not allowing others to schedule during it.” 

Other recommended ways to work more effectively: 

    • Block work time, and don’t let others schedule over it. Allow yourself “deep work” time without distractions. 
    • Be responsive and reliable. Know who and what takes priority. 
    • Take exercise or movement breaks. Moving your body can boost energy while giving your mind a rest can improve focus when you get back to your desk. 

Build Support Networks

Just as many of the social media communities that we manage to rely upon social media for networking, connection, and collaboration, social media managers and marketers across higher education can and should create support networks, both on-campus and online to help prioritize mental health, troubleshoot, benefit from shared expertise, and share concerns.

J.S. Stansel, University of Central Arkansas relies upon the higher education social media community for support.

“You really can’t understand the strains of this job unless you’ve done it. It is vital to have a community of peers who have gone through the same struggles and understand the pressures.”  

Recognizing the limitations of your organization to provide support or boundaries, Katy Spencer Johnson, advocates that you cultivate support networks to cultivate a culture of support outside of your organization: “There will be some organizations who cannot or will not be able to provide you with the support or boundaries you need as a social media manager. Cultivate your support network of other higher education professionals who are often experiencing similar situations. These relationships that you actively build can provide support, outside of your organization.“ 

Here is an example of support in action from Jamila Walker, Social Media Manager and Professor at Old Dominion University:


Other recommended ways to tap into support networks: 

    • Network with peers. Commiserate, learn, console, advise. 
    • Identify other supporters in your organization outside of your department or division. Even if they don’t fully understand what you do, they recognize how you do it well. 
    • Reach out to those doing now what you want to in five years. Ask about their journey, request advice, join professional organizations, consider advanced certifications. What small step today can help you advance to your goal?
    • Participate in conferences like EduWeb Digital Summit, CASE SMC, or Social Media Marketing World. Learn from leaders in your field and meet others doing what you do.
    • Join social media manager communities on social. Connect with peers around the globe.

Social Media management is an intrinsically important job in the world of digital communications when leveraged in healthy and helpful ways in coordination with university leadership, marketing strategy, and communications plans.

As a social media manager, there are tools, strategies, and processes that you can implement at your organization. You are a valuable resource to your team, your organization, and your community at large. Cultivate continued conversations with your manager and within your organization, and brainstorm ways to support social media management that is audience focused and social media manager first.

Showcase your expertise. Don’t downplay your position or your knowledge. Have confidence in your thoughts and decisions and remember your mood elevator, do not disturb is your friend, and that we are all in this together, to build stronger communities, brands, and to help each other by thriving.

Resources for Social Media Managers

Academic Study: Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health

Digital Communities

Conferences/Professional Development


Other Media (Podcasts, Marketing Campaigns)


And just because…

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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