Social media certifications prepare students, employees for social business

While social media-and its applications within the enterprise-have arrived, most businesses still don't know what to do with the new tools.

According to a Harvard Business Review Analytics Services report " The New Conversation: Taking Social Media from Talk to Action," 79% of companies are either using or planning to use social media channels, but only 12% believe they are using them effectively.

One reason why, according to the report: a lack of understanding and education at the C-suite level. That's something that a growing number of colleges, universities and businesses are hoping to fix.

College Students Need an Education in Social Business

"You talk to students, and a lot of them think they know all about social media," says William Ward, social media professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"But then you ask them, 'Are you integrating content across multiple platforms? Are you doing analytics to see how effective your community is? Are you using lists on Twitter or circles on Google+ to organize your groups?' And the answer is no," he says. "Social media is more than just having a Facebook or Twitter account, and that's what we're trying to teach them."

Last year, Newhouse became the first institution to partner with social media management company HootSuite, teaming up to pilot a new social media education and certification service called HootSuite University.

The program, which is also available to businesses and individuals, gives participants access to its HootSuite dashboard, video-based courses, 20 30-minute webinars that offer best practices and tips from industry brands, and, ultimately, a certification after users pass a series of exams. Once they do, they're also added to HootSuite's social media consultant directory.

Ward says that HootSuite's program, paired with Newhouse's curriculum, aims to prepare students to enter corporations where they'll be expected to be savvy about and innovative in the uses of social media for business-a subject that has been tricky for many educators to effectively teach.

"We knew about the statistics that said businesses are struggling with social, and we wanted to help fix that by bridging the gap between the future workforce and the employers," says Kirsten Bailey, director of HootSuite University.

[Related: The How-To Guide for Social Business]

"We started talking to professors about the challenges they were having when they were trying to teach social media and what they were using to educate students," she says.

Professors, they found, understood the need for social media education, but weren't comfortable teaching it because of how quickly it changes. They also had difficulties finding reliable resources because textbooks on the subject are quickly rendered obsolete.

Hootsuite University, Bailey says, relieves professors and business users from having to keep up with the constant changes to social media platforms. Instead, the program crowdsources information, best practices and tips from experts from the platforms themselves-Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr and more-to help develop and update HootSuite University's courses.

"Social media came up so quickly and progressed so quickly it's hard for anyone to be an expert in it all," Ward says. "HootSuite's team of people keeps an eye on APIs and upgrades and makes sure we're always informed," Ward says.

The pilot program was so successful-with 80% of Newhouse students reporting it was "extremely helpful" in advancing their social media education and all reporting they feel better prepared to use social media professionally-that it has since been adopted by more than 80 colleges and universities worldwide, including the Columbia Journalism School, University of Washington and the University of Technology, Sydney.

"We talk about how digital and social are integrated into businesses' overall strategy; we talk about analytics and how to measure the effectiveness of our efforts," Ward says. "And just as much as it's external-facing, we also discuss how to use social within an organization to improve communication, because that's a skillset companies need."

And while the students complete the class and earn a certification that Ward hopes will help them land interviews, he says it's even more important for students to exhibit that they can execute with the new skills they've learned.

"Ultimately, what we want is for students to be comfortable with how quickly things change," Ward says. "We want them to look at these new tools as an adventure and not something stressful-that's what companies want. They want you to take the initiative and show that you can deliver on every part of social media."

[Related: Students Turn Social Media Skills into Social Business Strategy]

Social Media Certifications Catch On in Business

While educators were the first to adopt the curriculum, HootSuite says it is seeing an increasing number of businesses signing on in an effort to educate their employees about social media and its business applications.

"There's an interest from companies to understand how to get the most out of the tools they use," HootSuite University's Bailey says. "We have clients from agencies, freelancers, SMBs and large businesses who are all interested in social media education."

And that appears to be a growing trend: Other businesses offering training and certifications include HubSpot, the National Institute for Social Media and Mediabistro, which offers two social media certificate programs.

Colleges and universities are also capitalizing on the trend: The UCLA Extension School offers a Marketing Certificate with a concentration in social media and web analytics, while the Harvard Extension School offers a similar program. Dozens of other colleges and universities are also following suit.

Those certifications, though, don't come cheap: They range in price from HootSuite University's $31 per month to nearly $5,000. This has Steven Levy, managing director at BluewaterLabs, a recruiting and consulting agency, skeptical about the rise of social media certifications.

"I liken [social media certifications] to a driver's license: You may have one, but that doesn't mean I want to get in a car with you," he says. "A certification could get you in the door, but it doesn't mean you can do the job."

[Related: 5 Tips to Job Hunt Using Social Media]

Newhouse's Ward, though, says anyone can benefit from social media education.

"Digital literacy and social media etiquette shouldnt be for the select few in social media-businesses should be training employees," he says. "We want to make sure the students can fly the plane and by the end of it, the certificate means something because they can effectively contribute to a business."

Kristin Burnham covers consumer technology, social networking and social business for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Kristin at kburnham@cio.com

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This story, "Social media certifications prepare students, employees for social business" was originally published by CIO.

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