Social media as product management

Learning about product management taught me that social media channels -– and arguably the platforms themselves –– are products. If you don’t think of social media as a sort of product management, or don’t understand how important it is to connect your product and business development teams with social teams, this is my attempt to change your mind.

Here’s where this all started. 

I wanted to understand how product managers work, so I read and listened to dozens of books and podcasts during the last year. I personally know so many product managers and leads who are smart, connected people who seem to have an endless capacity for finding opportunities to facilitate and build stronger relationships and results. Learning a little more about what they do every day led me to clarifying insights about how we can sustainably approach social media in the coming years.

You may work in a job where you don’t have time to dive into so much background research on a field you “don’t work in.” I wish I spent time ten years ago investing in learning about design, product management, and web development because leading social media teams is essentially a bit of each.

To be clear:I don’t think I’m an “expert” just because I’ve read a bunch of books.

My attempt here is to make a comparison between what PM experts shared in what I read/listened to and what I know about social media. It has so many broader applications to the future of work, too. But before I jump into the list of what I learned, I want to say that I don’t think there’s enough discussion of social media as a place to test what end users want in a way that influences broader decisions about products. I’m not alone in thinking this.

Lots of folks already approach social media this way. If you’re nodding your head, hi! If you’re feeling sympatico, I want to know: how do you approach your work from a product management perspective?

Without further ado, here are four things about product management that apply to building social media strategy: 

  1. Value first: Product management demands an unequivocal focus on strengthening the value of the product and openly discussing what constitutes that value. There are many ways to provide value to social media audiences, who are by default the end user of whatever content they see. And those ways aren’t just to “engage.” Not all products should be designed to necessitate engagement or CTAs. I think I’ve always been a champion for this approach, but because social media was such a new field when I joined it, I never had the words to describe it this way.
  2. Practically driven: Product managers tap into the back channel, internal debates where “final” decisions are first shaped. Many companies lack methods to build strategies that incorporate water cooler wisdom. This isn’t just a problem with social teams, though! Good management is all about making sure that strategy-level decisions are influenced by everyday insights, frustrations, and user-first perspectives. But like PMs, social media leads need to make sure they’re prioritizing internal interests to find the best long-term solutions for the user (as opposed to solutions that only benefit short-term internal interests). This reminds me of the evergreen debate in video: should viewer needs/wants shape pre-production? This is a debate worth having but that discussion should always focus on practically providing value.
  3. No silos: Product management is often about making strong decisions without owning any of the “glory.” It takes a lot of research to build something that simultaneously works and is flexible enough to change and grow over time. This startup-inspired approach to building great products and services isn’t new. But social media isn’t being discussed as products with values that are both dependent and independent of their uses (and even users). The end user should come first, but often there are conflicting perspectives about what that entails. Insights don’t come overnight, and if one can pull off this juggling act right, it should be celebrated as the hard work that it is: product management.
  4. If we think of social media as a beta product, we should assume it’s going to change. One inevitable conclusion of approaching social media this way is that, suddenly, we can let go of any assumptions we might have made about how it’s supposed to “work.” Do you believe something you’re doing can work and is it in the long-term interest of your end users? Then don’t let it go until you find your way through the challenge. This isn’t about defining the value of your work by numbers on a platform, it’s about measuring value in the way your users define it. This approach can mean worrying less about things your users don’t even see (like impressions) and worrying more about what they notice.

To all you product managers and leads: What did I get right? What did I assume? What did I describe wrong about your approach? What’s an example of how your work approach applies elsewhere?

Self-critique: Looking at this list, all of these approaches are great management skills in general. However, since they’re the points that personally resonated with me, at worst this makes for a list of things I want to do better, and I’ve confused a few people about it. At best, this list opens a door to a more informed discussion, and we can learn about each other’s work together.

I hope this helps anyone who is curious about how they can apply these introductory learnings about product management to their work. Coming up next: There are many books I’d recommend reading, as well as a lot of podcasts, but it’s a long list –– one I’ll post separately.

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