Social Media Expert: How long does it take to become one?

So I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book The Outliers the other night and he goes into a discussion about Violinists and on how long it takes them to become a master at their craft. So without spoiling the book for you – the bottom line was – it takes 10,000 hours to become a Master Violinist. This got me thinking about how it could apply to Social Media and how long it would take to become a Social Media Expert.

If you listen to popular books on becoming an expert in your field of study – most of them say “read an hour a day in your field”. Members of my team will recognize this from their goal setting with me as I often coach them to read an hour a day of good marketing material. But 1 hour a day x 5 days a week means you would be a social media master in about 38 years! Let’s say you are really dedicated and you up that to 1 hour a day x 7 days a week means you cut that time down to 27 years just in time to retire!

In my new role at Avaya I am traveling 3 hours a day (1 ½ hours each way) by car – listening to podcasts like MarketingOverCoffee, HubSpot TV, Duct Tape Marketing – essentially turning my commute into a rolling Social Media university. So if I factor that into my calculation – 3 hours a day x 5 days a week means I could master social media in 12.8 years. Assuming I throw in 3 hours a day on the weekend and it drops to 9.1 years! By the way 10 years was also an average that Malcolm Gladwell cited in the book for most people to master pretty much anything.

But wait – I also practice Social Media on the job for a few hours a day. So let’s say 3 hours a day learning more about social media and 2 hours a day practicing social media x 5 days a week means I could become a social media master in 7.6 years. Throw in the weekends and that drops to 5.5 years!

People like Dan Schawabel (one of the hardest working people in Social Media I have ever met), have the luxury of practicing social media 40 hours a week as the Social Media expert for EMC – 40 hours a week x 5 days a week means you reach social media mastery in 4.8 years. But Dan also blogs, writes books, a magazine and more so say he works 80 hours a week (including weekends) and you can reach social media mastery in 3.8 years!

My point being Social Media is still relatively new and there are plenty of people out there calling themselves Social Media Experts but in reality they would have to have a pretty aggressive schedule of social media learning and practicing to become one. In essence, there are a handful of people who truly have a good head start on the pack but it’s not too late for you to get started in creating your own plan to become a Social Media Expert. So what’s your plan? I would love to know.

29 comments to Social Media Expert: How long does it take to become one?

  • Douglas Karr

    Curious how we would define an ‘expert’ as well. Is an person an expert simply by using the medium? I’d argue that an expert is someone who has mastered the medium and recognizes the strengths and weaknesses in each for building business momentum. Do you need hours to do that?

    I judge ‘expertise’ alongside of ‘success’. Currently, I’m at a successful social media company with a growing clientele and I’m successful at my personal goals in my position there. I would classify myself as an expert in that regard.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Doug

    When I was drafting this blog post I was thinking of you as an expert as well

    I remember fondly your 500th blog post in less than 1 year – and asking you about it on our podcast

    Clearly you used the first 500 blog posts a crucible for learning a form of social media that propelled you to the success you have today

  • Catherine Allen, SHIFT Communications

    Putting it in black and white like that sure shows us all that we have a long way to go. And in reality, social media will be continuously evolving – making complete mastery more of a vision that we all strive for, together. I think in the meantime, even those of us who spend our work time, free time and the time in between living and breathing social media, should still consider ourselves students.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Catherine

    I agree and as social media continues to evolve we have to stay on top of it (like any technological advance but this one happens to be in Marketing)

  • Tony Eyles

    I reckon there are no masters only influencers in this new frontier. And expert has to be only a relative term given the medium is a moving target.

    So, because “those who don’t know don’t know they don’t know”, I am wary of people who call themselves experts in social media – it suggests they overrate their knowledge.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Tony

    Great point – we are all on a journey with Social Media

    thanks for commenting

  • Andrei

    Well put. Some self-claimed social media experts haven’t been alive for 10,000 hours.

  • Howard Kang

    Agree. Great points you brought up.

    What’s tough is that with the ability to write your own description, many are calling themselves what they wish to be.

    My belief? You can never be a social media expert. I say that because social media revolves around user-based content. It can never be completely understood or predicted. However, you can have the expertise to know what works. Social media is evolving at such a rapid pace as well.

    My plan to understand? Just jump in and experiment. Luckily, I have the luxury of experimenting and working in social media before I finish up college.

  • Hochschulmarketing

    Cool. So you are a specialist. Could someone be an expert by having more knowledge by using more time to interpret the books they are reading? I figuered out, that many people just read, understand and delete. If people were more open to ask themselfes more questions about the read topics and how it relates to their lives. That could help to get an expert: just think more often.

  • Anonymous

    I believe a significant characteristic of someone on the cusp of expertise or influence must understand 3 things: Industry dynamics, business, and have the vision to recognize future trends combined with an innate understanding of how and what technologies will enable strategy and support execution. Lots of big idea people calling themselves experts but expertise is the big picture.

  • Roy Young, President

    Fascinating question, Paul. In fact, I have wondered the same thing about marketing “experts” in general. Put the term into Google and you get 1,040,000 results. While marketing has been around a lot longer than social media, already there are 124,000 “social media experts.” Low barriers to entry on both, I am afraid, and their may be a lack of discerning “buyers.”

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Andrei – amen

    @ Howard – sounds like Social Media to you is like nirvana – it can never be reached totally

    @ Roy – with all the distortion in the marketplace – its buyer beware!

  • Postcard Printer

    Outstanding review this is very useful.

  • Bernie Borges

    The term “expert” is a relative thing. Compared to some I may have expertise and compared to others my expertise may not be as deep. In my view, as long as I don’t blatantly misrepresent my expertise, I’m comfortable positioning my acquired knowledge along with my 223,000 hours of business experience as expert to some extent. The bottom line to me is what my clients believe. They are the ones who pay the invoices sent for “expertise.”

    I also acknowledge that social media is very much evolving. Today’s expertise is not necessarily tomorrow’s.


  • Henning von Vogelsang

    First of it all, there is no Social Media. The Internet has been social from its roots, it is kind of its core function to connect ideas, and the people who have them. A lot of things happening today were foreseen around 2000, when the Cluetrain Manifesto was born.

    People call it Social Media these days because they are tired of calling it Web 2.0, and because the term expresses two sides of the Internet medium we have just discovered recently. Yes, it can connect people and their ideas, and yes, therefore it has the power to change us, everything really, in an evolutionary way.

    What Social Media really is about is people. It’s enabling us to do things we weren’t able to do before, and in most cases (Twitter, Facebook), we even have a hard time tracking down why they work so well. Marketing experts go nuts because they’re unable to explain it to their clients. Clients go nuts, because 50 years of marketing have been turned upside down. “What do you mean, people can change my brand?” Even worse is the common reaction: “Can’t we control that, or prevent it somehow?”

    You can’t compare mastering a violine with mastering Social Media. What there is to master has always been there since we were born, and before. You got to learn it like a new language. You will never be a master at it, but at some point, very early, you will be able to speak its language and you’ll understand people speaking its language.

    People have always been social, they have always wanted to connect, loved some things and hated others, bashed, banned or simply abandoned things. The fantastic thing about Social Media are the dynamics of evolutionary developments. Somehow, somewhere, somewhat takes care of the ones disturbing the flow. Troublemakers are weeded out by passionate defenders of a matter. Matters of common interest or need always find their disciples. Especially if it’s part of pop culture.

    Companies and their brands have known this all along. In the eighties and nineties they thought about tribal movements and they were searching for patterns in society to replace the then outdated classic models of the “common housewife” and the “little working man”.

    What does it take to gain mastery in Social Media? An open mind. A capability to listen and to translate learnings. Great willingness to accept change, no matter what that may be or involve. An understanding that this is an ongoing development, and it won’t settle any time soon. An acceptance that in 12 years listening to Podcasts, things may be entirely different.

    Social Media is the zeitgeist word of our time, but you shouldn’t forget we are in a Guttenberg era of a greater evolutionary development. This is a major step forward, but it won’t begin and stop like the age of steam machines.

    Social is the new currency, for everything. The Web naturally becomes what it was always meant to be, an evolutionary extension of our minds. Humans have always had this capability to connect with one and another, and communication was the key to it. So it was only a matter of time until the Web, a communication medium, would be shaped into the thing that moves us forward.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Henning

    I really enjoyed your perspective on this – thank you for commenting

  • Leadsmarketer

    How can SEO and a search engine marketing campaign improve Leadsmarketer website ( position in the search engines? Our marketing and sales department invested a lot of resources in writing all the content for our web site but we just can’t seem to be ranking high enough in the engines, while our competition is on top. Do we have to re-write it all over again?

  • Henning

    @Paul – I forgot to mention, I adore Malcolm Gladwell (all three books are awesome) and I like the subline on your other blog Reputation Garage.

    In an age of Experience, trust is the commodity that is gained through products that just work, where the user experience, product marketing and customer voices become a brand stream.

  • Olivier Riviere

    With 25 years in marketing I simply don’t believe in experts and get VERY suspicious with people who present themselves as such. One can have expertise, but calling oneself an expert is always an exageration.

    Regarding social media, I believe in the sailor’s experience. Social media is like the oceans and seas: huge and diverse. There are no experts of all oceans and seas. However, there are people with a rich experience and wise enough to link their experience to a given context. In the social media space too many “rules” or “expert’s advice” are emitted without context (Twitter being currently the most outrageous example).

    My recommendation to everyone willing to navigate the world of social media; listen to people with a true experience, and be very sharp on understanding not only what has been done but in which context. Then try to figure out what you can use from their learning and experiment for yourself. Ha, and don’t forget to stay modest and avoid calling yourself an expert.

  • Jeremiah Owyang

    Putting an hourly number on being an expert is ridiculous. What matters is what can you do, and what have you done in the past?

    I once had a martial arts teacher who said someone came into his class and asked how long it would take to become a black belt. He told this young guy his school was not for him and ushered him out the door.

  • Tom Pick

    Paul – excellent post as always.

    “Expert” is in the eye of the beholder. As noted in Social Media – Expertise without Experience? there are lots of people who use social media for marketing and PR, write about it, study it, present about it, theorize on it, etc.

    But are they experts? Ask their clients/employers and peers. Social media is a public forum. People will decide who qualifies as an expert without any one-hour-per-formulas or self-proclamation.

  • wolske

    I’m re-listening to The 4-Hour Work Week on my commute this week, and yesterday was the “how to become an expert in anything in 4 weeks” chapter. I’m sure most of you would argue against Tim Ferris’ definition of “expert”. If you know more than 90% of all people in a certain field, you’re an expert as far as their concerned.

    You’re an expert if people refer to you as an expert; and the smarter those referrers are then the more valid your claim of expertise is. Expertise = reputation, which needs to be backed up by some demonstrable knowledge and application.

  • John Mosier

    Greg Verdino’s somewhat cynical blog post on this topic really resonated with me.

  • Richard Fouts

    I related with Gladwell’s assertion, having taken about 10 years to learn to play the piano. Even after 10 years, I had a ways to go, even though I had reached a point where I could play just about anything. But it is the practicing part that Gladwell points out. I could have read about the piano for years, but it wouldn’t have contributed to my ability to play the thing…you have to practice.

    So you need to engage in social media, not just read about it, to become a real expert. We develop our expertise in marketing from running marketing organizations… we read about it of course, but we become experts when we have to do it, defend it, pitch it, execute it.

    I found the Gladwell principle at work when I became a writer. I thought I was a good writer (I knew how to write good sentences and paragraphs) but then I started to actually produce real marketing communications, pitches, investor proposals, annual reports … it was another ball game entirely. Being a good writer was a good baseline, but I spent years and years learning how to structure and produce a good communication.

    If I add it up, it equates to the Gladwell 10,000 hours rule.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Jeremiah – Love that story and I agree it seems frivolous but it was a good point of comparison

  • Paul Dunay

    @ wolske – how to become an expert at anything in 4 hours – reminds me of a 6 Pack abs commercial – maybe I should have named this post – How to be a social media expert and get 6 pack abs in one week – LOL

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Richard – sounds like you really honed your writing skills like your Piano practice over a period of time

    like anything it takes time to become really good at it – and that is what I tell my 2 boys!

  • […] appears I’m not the only one who hesitates addressing those who provide social media advice as “experts,” but it still concerns me that most people continue to focus on the sprint to the finish line rather […]

  • tata elvis

    wow i love the feed but then practicing and working will mean putting in alot of time well thanks for feed i am into social media and will appreciate any more lessons thank again

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