Social Media Managers Are Becoming the Main Character
Is that a good thing?
Back in December the luggage company Away posted a TikTok with text that read “We invited social media managers from other brands on an outdoor escape and here’s how it went”. The video then shows social managers from brands like Saie Beauty, Shake Shack, and Getaway on a picturesque camping trip together. The comment section quickly filled up with other brands (well, social managers) wanting an invite. United Airlines commented “joke's on @away bc we woulda taken them to Tahiti” while Bush’s Beans got in on the action by commenting “Camping and no beans? Hmmm 🤔”. More accounts like lululemon, The Denver Broncos, and The Weather Channel weighed in. Most of Away’s TikTok views hover in the low thousands, this one received over 122K.
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We’ve very quickly seen social pros go from an anonymous “brand voice” to an actual person who very clearly runs the brand’s channel. If you scroll TikTok, it’s not uncommon to see self-aware posts from the social manager of a brand. This has been fast-tracked thanks to trends that poke fun at the process of being a social manager. Like when P.F. Candle Co. posted “when the social media girl needs you to be in a TikTok” with a trending sound. Back in August the shoe company Clark’s posted a TikTok “POV: when the social media manager asks you to photoshop corn into a shoe”—the video got over 3.4 million views. The Philadelphia Eagles got over 1.9M views on a TikTok of their social manager doing a "day in the life" video. A quick search on TikTok of the phrase “when the social team” will pull up hundreds of brands talking about their social media team in a very breaking-the-fourth-wall manner. Many of these types of posts from brands overperform compared to their other content.
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When I asked Cameron Sackett, Senior Associate of Social Media at Away, how the trip came about he echoed a similar observation of social managers becoming the main character. “Last June, Away launched F.A.R—For All Routes, a brand new line of outdoor-focused travel bags and accessories. As an extension of the marketing campaign timed to the F.A.R launch, we aimed to bring the ethos of the collection to life in a fun and unique way, all while capitalizing on emerging trends that we were seeing across social platforms, including social media managers becoming a more noticeable face and personality on their brands’ feeds.”
Of course, with social managers becoming brand personalities, comes fandom. Jack Corbett, who works on the Planet Money TikTok account, is known as “planet money tiktok boy”—seriously, it’s in his Twitter bio. He has a very dedicated following. There are tweets about him that read “i admit that i am in love w the npr planet money guy from tiktok” and “i really want to be friends with the planet money tiktok guy is there someone at npr i can complain to about that???”. Carmella Boykin, who is part of the Washington Post TikTok ensemble, also seems to have built her own fan club. Videos of her posted to Twitter will often receive comments like “Carmella is a treasure!” and “Carmella never misses being at the leading edge of a TikTok trend.” Last year I wrote about the fandom surrounding Raye at Nuggs, and what happened when she left the brand. Hint: people wanted her back.
While it’s clear we are in the golden era of social managers as faces of brands, I think it’s important to call out some of the risks that come along with that.
The main one being: Are you being paid like a social manager or are you being paid like the face of a brand? More traditional faces of brands that you see in commercials can reportedly get paid from $250K to upwards of $1M per year. I understand TikTok is different, but there’s value beyond social strategy that a company is getting by using your likeness to build their brand.
I also think protecting yourself through a talent contract is important. Things like exclusivity, term, and paid usage could all be things that are negotiated here.
Because we’re so early on in this era we haven’t seen what happens when a face of a brand leaves a TikTok account to go run another. Will you forever be known as X brand’s TikTok person? What are some of the potential downsides of that? I can’t help but think of Paul switching from Verizon to Sprint.
Finally, it’s not fun being a recognizable face of a brand when shit hits the fan. You become a very real person that people can tweet at and DM. I’d imagine it was partly why Raye, the face of Nuggs, was actually a pseudonym. If you scroll through Southwest’s most recent TikTok there’s a comment that says “you not gonna say nothing about the 8,000 flights y’all canceled”, as if the social team is responsible. But if you are going to humanize your brand, people expect human responses in those moments.
I think in 2023 we’re going to see more and more brands lean into showing the faces and personalities behind social channels. I also think we’re going to see way more brands lean into social manager-led partnerships, similar to Scrub Daddy and Duolingo’s collab, and even plan “social manager trips”, similar to what Away did. In fact, when I spoke with Away they told me they are already planning their next Social Media Manager Escapes trip and will “bring together even more brands in a new and exciting way!” At this point, it may just seem like the norm to put yourself as the face of a brand, but this is your reminder to make sure you’ve protected yourself to be able to do that in a way that benefits not only the brand, but you too.
It’s okay for a social manager to be the main character, just make sure you’re getting treated like one.
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This is such an important thing for SMM to explore! A company I worked for deleted/hid all content that featured me when I left. Fortunately I have records for my portfolio. Now this brand pays an (unknown) actor 7 figures to be their social face. Wild!
This was a great piece, Rachel — raises lots of questions.
We’ve essentially come full-circle: SMMs going from managing influencer campaigns to being the influencers themselves.
SMMs might want to look into how actors handle this when being the face of a TV show.
It’s the same concept, and all conversations around pay, exclusivity, terms, and non-competes come to bear here.
Actors may also get paid future royalties for all episodes they feature in on a show. Are SMMs entitled to future royalties from ad revenue earned from content featuring them? How would they claim this, and how would fair pay be determined?
It’s definitely a great time to be in social, but SMMs also have to protect themselves from harm or backlash — just as an entertainer may get real life threats for playing a character.
And just like actors, SMMs will also need to protect themselves from *typecasting.*
For example, if you’re known as the spaghetti brand TikTok chick, how might that affect your prospects of handling social for a B2B brand (one that pays more, for instance), or transitioning to comms for the government or UN?
Typecasting is not necessarily hard to overcome, but it’s def something worth thinking about.
As for SMM-focused brand campaigns like what Away did, that’s just brilliant — and I hope we see more of that going forward.