Skip to main content

3 Social media executives share what it takes to build a long-term career in social

In 2016, after eight years working in traditional media relations, Kikora Mason stepped into her first social media role. Six years later, in 2022, she became the Vice President of Social Media and Community Management at JP Morgan Chase.

How did Mason rise to social media executive status? She credits her transferable skills, the support of an attentive manager and hard work for her success.

I had a manager who saw me and amplified my potential. I was at a point in my career where I didn’t need to prove I could do the work—that had been done. I needed to focus on my relationship building. As a result, I was profiled by a national publication and had my work go viral, which put me onto a national stage. All of the work I’ve done in my career has led me to my current role.
Kikora Mason
VP of Social Media and Community Management at JP Morgan Chase

And Mason isn’t alone. Roles like VP of Social Media and Chief Social Media Officer are emerging at some of the world’s most successful companies, suggesting long-term social media careers will be a fixture in marketing departments moving forward.

How can you work towards becoming a social media executive? We interviewed three execs from JP Morgan Chase, Nielsen and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—companies leading the charge in establishing social media-focused leadership roles—to find out.

Headshots of Kikora Mason (she/her), VP Social Media at JP Morgan Chase, Dann Klamm (he/him), VP, Global Head Social Media at Nielsen and Janna Zagari (she/her), VP Social Media at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The three social media executive headshots are against a navy blue background.

What is a social media executive?

The “intern runs the brand account” stereotype is finally beginning to break down. More organizations understand social media’s impact on business objectives and why it’s so important to invest in the social team. In fact, 88% percent of marketers agree their social strategy positively influences their bottom line.

A screenshot of a Tweet from Sprout Social that reads "Friday thoughts: Social media managers are the visionaries of tomorrow.

Copywriting. Graphic design. Video production.  Crisis management. Community engagement. These are only a few of the many tasks performed by social media teams. The intricate work of social media management requires vision, expertise, prioritization and leadership.

That’s where social media executives come in.

Social media executive: A person responsible for driving a company’s social media strategy, managing all members of the social team and communicating to stakeholders how key social metrics impact the organization overall (examples: brand sentiment, conversions, traffic and revenue).

A week in the life of a social media executive

How does that translate to weekly responsibilities? For Dan Klamm, Vice President, Global Head of Social Media at Nielsen, he sees his role as, “Creating a culture for my team to bring their best, most creative selves to work everyday. I spend most of my time providing vision, setting priorities and clearing obstacles so that my team can execute and generate meaningful results for the business.”

Analyze, Communicate, Plan, Repeat

Each week, Klamm analyzes his team’s social content performance and sends out detailed insights to help them optimize their upcoming posts.

They gather to discuss their learnings, review their upcoming calendar, report on social listening insights and prioritize their work. He also consults with marketing and communications leadership to demonstrate social’s impact on large marketing campaigns, brand reputation and executive communications strategy.

For the other executives, their routines are similar, and include a lot of collaboration with their direct reports and other internal teams.

According to Janna Zagari, Vice President of Social Media at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “I start the work day by virtually checking in with my team on current priorities and what we need to focus on. Staying connected with my remote team is the most important part of my job. It’s essential to make sure they are supported and have the information and tools available to accomplish their day-to-day work.”

Like Klamm, Zagari’s team has recurring weekly meetings where they collaborate with internal stakeholders to plan future content. She also provides creative input on social assets and final approval on social copy before it goes live.

Nothing incentivizes students to follow the rules like a mystery class reward! Will it be a dance party, or no homework…

Posted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Monday, July 25, 2022

Each executive agrees the foundation of their role is supporting their teams while orchestrating social media’s many moving parts.

Connect community engagement to the bigger picture

The focus of Mason’s team differs slightly.

“My team focuses exclusively on social listening and community management, so I also review the daily trends analysis my team shares out for any real-time engagement opportunities. At the beginning of each week, I meet with my team to share updates, check the pulse on the projects and brainstorm real-time engagement ideas.”

All social media teams are on the frontlines of customer engagement, from feedback and customer service to trending conversations, so executives need to understand how this relates to and fuels the bigger picture. As Mason says, “It’s always important to know your target audience and base your strategy on what will resonate with them and fulfill your objectives.”

A screenshot of Chase responding to a tweet from basketball star Steph Curry in a tweet where he mentioned a basketball program run by the Chase.

Executives can’t lose sight of the importance of building and engaging their community.

How do you become a chief social media officer?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a social media executive. That’s partly because the role is so new, many couldn’t have imagined it as they were building their resume.

Zagari noted it was surprising to see a company even offering an executive role.

“I wasn’t looking for a new role when I came across the job at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—but I was so intrigued by the idea of a VP-level social role, I had to apply. It was exciting to see a company investing in social media at a leadership level.”

Forging a social media executive career path

Each of the executives has ample professional experience outside of social media. Zagari has paid media and ad sales campaign experience. Klamm worked in marketing and outreach roles at higher education institutions. Mason focused on PR and traditional media relations in the beginning of her career.

They all experimented with different marketing disciplines—weaving in and out of social media careers before eventually discovering social was their greatest passion. For each executive, their diverse experiences spanned industries, helping them hone skills in marketing, social media, people management and more.

Their career paths looked less like climbing a corporate ladder and more like making lateral shifts in coordinator, manager and director-level roles.

If you’re unsure what your next position looks like, focus on fortifying your strengths and following your interests rather than making the move that looks best on paper.

What skills do social media executives need?

According to Mason, Zagari and Klamm, up-and-coming social leaders should focus on these five essential skills to propel their career forward.

1. Hands-on social media production expertise

Even in an executive role, social media marketers must be able to roll up their sleeves and support their team’s content creation.

According to Zagari, “Until recently, most leaders with executive experience didn’t have social experience. Because I worked in social media production, my team knows I have their back and can jump in at any time to write copy, schedule posts, run ads or whatever else they may need support on.”

Most social professionals have a core skill set, whether it’s creating organic posts, running paid campaigns, managing a community or building an employee advocacy program. But Klamm says leaders should be familiar with all sides of social so they’re always able to help their team.

As you work on growing your career, never stop up-leveling your social media skills. Think beyond your current role to become a well-rounded social marketer.

2. Effective communication skills

Everything social media executives do requires strong communication skills. As Klamm puts it, “So much of our work is about communication: writing content, editing posts, developing strategic plans, coaching team members, inspiring colleagues around the company to be part of your social media program and so much more.”

The ability to promote a culture of open, authentic communication is equally important. Top-notch social media leaders communicate clearly and directly, but also listen with empathy and embrace a learning mindset. Mason says, “Being able to communicate effectively goes a long way. If something isn’t working, say that in a kind way.”

And, as Klamm reminds us, don’t undervalue good listening skills, a small ego and diplomacy. They’re non-negotiable for social media executives.

He says, “It takes a unique disposition to harness input from around your company, channel actionable insights back to your team (while protecting them from unhelpful feedback) and build relationships with a wide range of stakeholders, all with varying interest and experience with social media.”

Whether you’re an individual contributor or manager, model effective communication to those around you.

3. Data and analytics expertise

Analytical skills are essential to landing a senior-level social media position. As Klamm puts it, “You have to understand and explain not just how a social media campaign is performing, but why it’s performing that way. This requires digging into data and developing actionable insights you can articulate to a variety of stakeholders to shape and optimize campaigns in real-time.”

Remember to tie social media results to your business objectives. For example, Klamm suggests asking how social performance has impacted brand perception, revenue, recruiting and retention.

Executives are typically the ones dictating departmental goals that contribute to the success and growth of the greater business. Develop an eye for analytics and a strategic mindset so you can translate data into compelling insights that prove the value of your work.

4. A close pulse on internet culture

Social media changes at lightning speed. It’s important to have a strong pulse on internet culture and a passion for social trends. You must ensure your brand stays relevant and engages with trends your community cares about.

As Mason says, “It’s impossible to know what’s hot all the time with the internet, but you need to know what kind of content resonates well with your target audience so you can meet business objectives while still remaining relevant in a space that evolves by the second.”

Don’t get lost in the social buzz or follow fads just because they’re trending. Mason warns, “The internet never holds back when a brand is being inauthentic.”

Practice balancing emerging trends and staying up to date on platform changes while maintaining a consistent brand voice.

5. A coaching mindset

Learn to be the empathetic and empowering manager you always needed in your career development. That’s the ethos Mason lives by.

To me, being an empathic leader is critically important. I believe in leading with love—when you genuinely care about people (and they feel it), you’ll see the results. People first, work second. We’re living in such an interesting time and you never know what people are struggling with. I always make it my business to ask people how they are doing and feeling before I make any request of them.
Kikora Mason
Kikora Mason, VP of Social Media and Community Management at JP Morgan Chase

Be a leader who trusts and values their team members. As Zagari puts it, “Listen to your team. Their on-the-ground experience is invaluable, and a strong leader recognizes and champions this expertise.”

A screenshot of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt responding to an employee who is celebrating being hired.

As you assemble your team, remember to bring together people with diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. As Mason explains, having a culturally diverse team with different perspectives contributes to your success.

If you want to strengthen your leadership skills, focus on building emotional intelligence and always look for opportunities to be a team player.

What challenges do social media executives face?

A career as a social media executive doesn’t come without challenges. Here are some Mason, Zagari and Klamm face, and the strategies they use to overcome them.

Balancing it all

Like any social marketer, effective social media executives juggle many responsibilities.

As Mason puts it, “These days, managing social is a delicate dance of analyzing data, being a creative internet zeitgeist and reading the room. It can be a challenging dance at times, but you never regret learning it.”

What’s the key to balancing it all? Accept that you can’t. Learn to depend on others, set firm boundaries and take breaks. It’s the only way to prevent burnout and creative block.

Working in a charged landscape

Your brand’s social presence doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While your team is trying to promote your products and services, a crisis could strike. You have to be prepared to deal with the fallout and pivot.

Our world is a complicated place, and every day seems to bring fresh challenges on both a personal and professional level. A social media team is constantly trying to balance whether it is the right time for their message to be put out into the world. You are working to raise awareness, sell a product, motivate people to take action—but these posts are floating around with the latest pandemic news, political clashes, climate change and more.
Janna Zagari
VP of Social Media at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

As a social media executive, you must consider how world events will impact your ability to lead your team, too.

“You will face adversity; even more so as a Black woman leader. But it’s important to keep cool under pressure, take a beat when you feel challenged and don’t act impulsively,” says Mason.

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post by Kikora Mason where she shares her experience working in social and navigating trends as a Black woman.

Advocating for resources

Even in an executive role, you will be challenged to prove social’s impact on your business.

According to Zagari, “Even though most people use social media, there are still companies that refuse to invest the resources, money and personnel needed to build a successful social presence. A social media executive must be able to showcase the value of social media and stress how important it is to take it seriously.”

Executives must advocate for social media and prove how social marketers play a pivotal role. Practice the art of persuasion and come prepared with data to validate your social media practitioners’ subject matter expertise.

Prepare for a long-term career in social

As more companies embrace social media, the future is bright for the next generation of social marketers. More social media executive positions will become available, and—eventually—long-term social careers will become the norm.

Prepare for the social media C-suite by building your skills as a practitioner, communicator, data analyst, internet culture whiz and a leader. Start envisioning how you would structure your social media team and leave your mark as a leader.