What is a Social Media Professor?

With social media becoming the main channel of interaction, establishments such as the University of Louisville now offer courses in it. Also jumping on this trend, University of Florida offers a Masters in Social Media.

Hofstra University has worked with us to create a social media curriculum, using our ContentFactory University partnership program where we assist teaching social media and analytics  to universities.

We sat down with Scott Sanders and Karen Freberg of University of Louisville, both professors of social media, to talk about how they teach social media in the classroom.


What is a “professor of social media”?

Scott A professor of social media explores how information communication technologies shape and transform our relationships with our friends, our collaborators, and our communities, among other examples, in both the online and offline spheres. As scholars we try to further the collective understanding of how social media platforms shift the way that people interact with information.

How do they find, evaluate, prioritize, engage with, and filter the information they encounter? Most importantly, how are these activities altered when conducted online, within a social media construct, as opposed to in ‘real life?’ These are the types of questions that drive our research, as well as our pedagogical efforts in the classroom.

Karen: A professor of social media is a professional who specializes in the understanding and application of emerging technologies across disciplines. Whether it is involving social networking sites like Facebook to photo sharing communities like Instagram, a professor of social media continues to evolve their point of view across these various platforms.

They have a strong theoretical foundation of course in research and theory, but they are also able to apply their findings strategically across industries and disciplines who are also exploring these new tools.

When we started the search for our new social media position at UofL, we knew that this was going to be a start into building a new specialization within our department and university.  Social media continues to be a growing area both in practice and in research, so we felt it was essential to bring in an expert in this field to help us build the social media program at UofL.

We are very excited to have a position dedicated to social media in our department. I was part of the search committee last year, and we are all very excited about having Scott on board to share both his experience and expertise in social media in research, teaching, and in service to the professional and academic community.

How do you incorporate practitioner expertise in an academic curriculum, as most universities are struggling to adjust here.

Scott:  I think as academics we have an obligation to help our students dynamically bridge the gap between theory and practice. I try to do this by assigning a mix of texts in my courses that includes readings from the popular and business press, as well as work by public intellectuals who have done a lot to make the field of Communication central, accessible, and most importantly – relevant.

I think this juxtaposition helps students to understand that they can move ideas beyond the classroom and apply them in their working lives. As I plan my courses for the year, I’m also thinking about how I can help my students become more familiar with social media as practice by exposing them to guest speakers from industry.

Karen:  It’s a constant struggle within academia since you have basically two sides: you have the theorists and then you have the practitioners. However, it is important to have a hybrid approach when you are in the classroom because this is what the workplace is showing us.

Students are not only asked to think critically to form their points of view, but they have to be creative and innovative with how they apply these principles to solve problems and address opportunities. We try to balance both perspectives in the classroom by having equal discussion on both parts – which is key especially in a social media class setting.


How does your approach tie in with marketing, business, computer science, advertising, law, etc, to reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of social media?

Scott:  I am primarily interested in the communication behaviors and cognitive processes that influence how people assess the credibility of information in online environments.  When I conduct research I often draw not only upon the literature in my own field (communication) but also on literature from a variety of fields including marketing, psychology, economics, and biology.

Furthermore, as Karen points out, there is a tendency for social scientists to work within research teams and more and more these are cross-disciplinary.  The real strength of these teams is that each person can bring something to the table that isn’t duplicated in the other team members’ skill sets or knowledge.  As a researcher I’ve worked with professionals that range from computer scientists to pediatric cancer nurses.  Overall, it’s very rewarding and allows us to answer questions that alone we wouldn’t be equipped to tackle.

Karen:  What is great about social media is the fact that it is not just happening in one field or another. Previously, public relations professionals or communication scholars only stuck to their field in terms of research, or if they did branch out, they would go to sociology, psychology, or sometimes even in marketing.

However, we are seeing a growth in transdisciplinary research groups – where groups of individuals are working together on research projects from various disciplines to look at a particular issue, opportunity, or problem. For example, I was part of a project where I had a systems engineer, a psychologist, a public health professional, and a weather and risk specialist.

We are all coming from various points of view – but we bring something to the table equally that helps elevate the brainstorming sessions and discussion on how to apply these findings to our respective disciplines. We can’t afford to just stay in our field for research and practice – we have to continue to be explorers and seek out new collaborations with other professions.

This will not only help evolve the ideas involving social media, but all natural and social sciences.

Scott:  I don’t think there is any immediate concern about the obsolescence of social media.  In general, communication technologies that have reached the level of acceptance of social media take an exceedingly long time to truly die.<span”>  For example, it was just this June that India, one of the most populous countries on earth, ended its telegram service.   In fact, some people have argued that technologies never really go extinct and always remain in use somewhere in the world.

Will “social media” be obsolete soon, when cross-channel integration is further along?

I also don’t believe that cross-channel integration is going diminish the importance of social media.  Although it’s important for brands to have a consistent message across media, people trust information from other social media users about products and services because they are not perceived as self-interested.

Building positive word- of- mouth will continue to be an important public relations strategy and social media currently provides one of the best platforms for this.  For example, one of the (many) great things aboutPinterestis that users provide an implicit endorsement of the products that they pin.  In turn, this can directly drive purchases when the pins link back to retail sites.

Karen: I think social media will continue to evolve, but it won’t be obsolete. I remember the day where I was told in my PhD program not to study social media because “it is a fad.” I think we are seeing technology continue to evolve, which is both exciting and challenging for researchers and practitioners. However, cross-channel integration will continue to be a trend to note and be aware of.


Q: How do you measure social ROI?

Scott: The value of social media goes far beyond directly driving purchases.  First, online brand communities can foster identification with brands that not only may increase the likelihood of purchase but can also decrease the chances that a consumer will defect to a rival brand.  Second, users learn from each other how to use products innovative ways. This increases the products value to the user.

In sum, a brand has to know what they’re trying to accomplish in order to accurately assess the ROI of social media.

The common trap people fall into when trying to measure ROI is the assumption that they’re selling eyeballs as they would with television or print advertising.  While measuring “likes” or “followers” provides nice summary statistics, it fails to capture many of the ways that social media contributes value to brands.

Measures of engagement or knowing the size of the active user base are better as they can tell you whether you have a thriving community.  However, at the end of the day nothing can replace having a human being observing what is happening in the community.

Karen: This is a discussion that always generates a lot of points of view, even among academics! There are of course various points of view on what are the main metrics to look at when it comes to social ROI (ex. sentiment, influence, conversations, engagement, reach, resonance, etc). One set of new media standards has been published that appears to be on the right track is from Katie Paine

One of the challenges we have to look at here too is what ROI means not only to social media, but how it is measured and evaluated across different social media platforms.  Is a calculation of engagement on Twitter the same in weight at engagement on Instagram or Facebook? I am not sure –so I don’t think we have the magic equation for all of these yet – but at least we are having these discussions among researchers and practitioners.


Q: What does it take to be successful as a social media professor?  Got some good examples?

Scott:  First, a social media professor is always cognizant of the fact that social media is an area that remains subject to constant flux and rapid change. Consequently, good professors in this field engage in online life by participating in the communities that they’re teaching and writing about.  Personally, I try to stay on top of new developments by reading company blogs (I find the engineering ones quite helpful), as well as the social media commentary offered by online news outlets such as TechCrunch or Wired.

Good professors also create assignments that directly engage their students with social media platforms by challenging students to use social media tools to communicate ideas clearly and effectively.  I’m considering using Storify this year in class as it will stimulate students to collect information from various parts of web and use these pieces of content to construct a coherent and persuasive narrative.

Finally, success as a social media professor also has a lot do with helping people to approach these technologies as critical thinkers. Although the ‘millennials’ have been immersed in social media for much of their lives, this doesn’t mean they thoroughly understand it from a phenomenological standpoint. For example, I think there is a tendency for many people to view social media platforms as monolithic.

Here, a good professor is going to help the students identify specific channels of communication and  the technological affordances and limitations that shape the user experience. To illustrate this idea, consider that Facebook is platform that provides a number of communication technologies ranging from threaded discussions to picture-sharing.

We can characterize these channels along a number of dimensions such as the degree of privacy they afford, the level of active participation they require, or how much they reduce uncertainty. It’s a single platform but it’s incredibly rich and nuanced. It’s my hope that my courses will help students open up to a whole new way to approach and understand the world of social media they experience every day.


Karen:  In order to be successful as a social media professor, I think there are several qualities these individuals need to possess: being a life long learner, walking the walk when it comes to social media, having a balance between theory and practice, creativity, and hard work ethic.

Since social media is evolving, we have to constantly look at what is coming up in the pipeline in terms of new platforms, trends, and issues/opportunities for the profession. We have also an obligation to keep up to date with these trends on our students behalf as well. We can’t send the students into the workplace thinking that social media is just like email (which unfortunately, some professors think this is the case still).

Walking the walk means of course practicing what you preach to the students when it comes to social media. Having a blog, a strong presence on social media, and engaged in the emerging technology both in research and consulting are a few ways to do this. Presenting both research that has been done in social media but also discuss how these findings can be applied in the workplace is going to be a balancing act for professors to do, but it is necessary.

Social media professors have to be creative both in research and teaching. Coming up with ideas on questions that have not been addressed yet in the field or asking students to do some new assignments are just a couple of examples. Finally, hard work ethic is key for social media professors. Keeping up with trends, looking at new research, and working on projects takes time and dedication. In terms of examples, there are many professors who are actively engaged in practicing and researching in social media that I would suggest looking at for examples.

However, I highly recommend looking at what Dr. William Ward (Syracuse University), Kelli Matthews (University of Oregon), and Robert French (Auburn University) are doing when it comes to social media professors. These are three professors who are setting the bar for other social media professors to follow.

I am not sure how many official social media professor positions are out there right now in universities, but we are very fortunate at the University of Louisville to have Scott on board to serve in this role. We are very excited about growing our social media research and professional group at the university as well as in the academic and professional community.

WS Sanders

 W. Scott Sanders is an assistant professor in social media at the University of Louisville.

Karen Freberg

 Karen Freberg is an assistant professor in strategic communications at the University of Louisville.

Dennis Yu
Dennis Yu
Dennis Yu is co-author of the #1 best-selling book on Amazon in social media, The Definitive Guide to TikTok Ads.  He has spent a billion dollars on Facebook ads across his agencies and agencies he advises. Mr. Yu is the "million jobs" guy-- on a mission to create one million jobs via hands-on social media training, partnering with universities and professional organizations.You can find him quoted in major publications and on television such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR, and LA Times. Clients have included Nike, Red Bull, the Golden State Warriors, Ashley Furniture, Quiznos-- down to local service businesses like real estate agents and dentists. He's spoken at over 750 conferences in 20 countries, having flown over 6 million miles in the last 30 years to train up young adults and business owners. He speaks for free as long as the organization believes in the job-creation mission and covers business class travel.You can find him hiking tall mountains, eating chicken wings, and taking Kaqun oxygen baths-- likely in a city near you.