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Not all fun and GIFs: inside the lives of startup social media managers

Creativity blocks, panic attacks and extreme comments — it's time to look beyond the fun side of managing social media at a startup.

By Cecile Bussy

“Our job is to tell a story — but what’s happening behind the screen isn’t as pretty as what we share on social media,” says Roxana Irimia, social media manager at French email marketing startup Lemlist. 

Running a company’s social media accounts might sound fun — but people often forget that behind the glitzy feeds, social media managers face the stress, pressure and negative health consequences of spending a lot of time on these platforms.

Living through the pandemic may have made some of us more mindful of our screen time, but a digital detox is a luxury that social media managers at startups don’t have. They are often the only ones running the show — and Twitter never stops.

So how do they cope? 

We spoke to three social media managers working in European startups to hear how they have dealt with these challenges and care for their mental health.

The stress of staying creative during lockdown 

“When you’re looking at the same walls, it’s hard to come up with new ideas,” says Irimia, who moved to Paris for a new job two weeks before the first lockdown in March 2020.

A former digital nomad, working online by herself wasn’t new to her. But being restricted to her new apartment became challenging as she tried to generate content ideas for a company she had just joined. Back then, social feeds were also all about Covid-19. 

“I ran out of ideas on how to take creative photos of a bank card,” says Richard Cook, who manages social media at digital bank Monzo. “In lockdown, the circle of people you talk to becomes really small.” 

FOMO is perhaps the most difficult aspect of working in social media: the digital crowd never sleeps and it can easily become a non-stop job. Unless social media managers constantly check feeds, they could miss out on a big opportunity to be part of the conversation –– and win loads of followers at once. 

“I’m on my phone and have Tweetdeck open all the time…” Cook told Sifted.  

He said that being back in the office since May has helped him find a better work-life balance: he uses the office to switch on and off work, and likes bouncing around ideas with his colleagues. 

“At times when I feel stressed and overwhelmed, who do I vent to [if I work from home]? I missed that. In the office, when you say to people ‘I’m so stressed,’ people give you hugs.”

Managing the company reputation in 240 characters

In addition to the stress of staying constantly up-to-date with the latest trends, social media managers play a big role in building a company’s reputation, especially at startups whose survival depends on growing their customer pool. 

“You’re the face of the company; your mistakes are not just public knowledge, they are out for public opinion as well,” says Rose Scanlon-Jones who joined sustainable investing startup Clim8 last month.

She points out that every decision made by any team –– product, marketing, PR or founders –– to share about a particular topic or product will impact her workload: “We’re at the end of the funnel.” 

Irimia also told us about the stress of not meeting set targets. At Lemlist, she manages the social media accounts of the CEO, and his following hasn’t grown as fast as they expected — despite trying different strategies.

“Now I’m stressed because his account isn’t growing and it’s difficult to attract an audience to the page. And it’s stressful because we have KPIs. He’s not putting pressure on me, but I feel bad.”

The constant algorithm updates and the dance between producing creative and strategic content can make the day-to-day job nerve-racking: “Sometimes you want to explore this tongue and cheek tone of voice –– and it absolutely tanks. And at the end of the month, you have to give your report and be like, ‘That didn’t do well and it’s all [on me],'” says Scanlon-Jones. 

Handling the negativity of the internet

Social media managers take pride in their work, but they can also fall prey to the negative spiral of social platforms. 

“If we get 50 good comments, and one bad one, that’ll be the one I will remember,” says Monzo’s Cook. “You need to remember that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. It’s amazing that you publish anything.” 

Negative comments about a post are only one side of the social media hurdle. It gets worse when brands work on controversial and highly-politicised issues.  

Scanlon-Jones previously worked at tree-planting app Ecologi, and was confronted with extreme content, such as climate misinformation, racist and satanic accusations. 

“I was very hopeful about what we were doing, but the amount of comments and negativity would actually cause me to get a panic attack. It’s very hard on your mind,” she said. 

Although social media platforms enabled important conversations and social movements like #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo, they also expose humanity’s darker side. In 2019, the Verge revealed the trauma of Facebook moderators, who watch and sift through harmful content on social media for a living. The consequences for their mental health can be disastrous. 

Most people –– including top managers –– don’t know what a social media manager does

Many people have opinions about social media –– probably because most of us use it privately –– yet not a lot of people actually know what it’s like to manage these platforms professionally. 

“People don’t understand sometimes and they refuse to understand [what it means to run social media] –– you can be told often to handle customer support, manage all our social media accounts and do paid social media as well,” says Scanlon-Jones, who’s been a social media manager for seven years. 

Limited staff budgets could explain why social media managers at startups have to handle so many things beyond just content creation. But it also comes down to education and transparency. 

“In general, people look at the output, thank you for making all that stuff, but ask you to make some more. I had to speak to the team and make them aware of how hard it is to make that all the time,” says Cook. 

He’s been working at Monzo for three and half years, and has seen the digital bank grow from 500k to 5m customers. With that came more products, marketing campaigns and therefore more social media content to create. 

“As social media managers, it’s good to be more transparent about how we make this stuff, which is a lot of hard work. Once you share how you work with people, they back off a bit.”

Personal-work life boundaries

Scanlon-Jones, Cook and Irimia all said that the solution is to set boundaries — but that’s easier said than done. 

“The more we kid ourselves that we can do everything, the more we can’t,” Scanlon-Jones told Sifted. 

“Being a social media manager is not me, it’s my job –– it’s about having clear boundaries and keeping up with them.” 

She now doesn’t work beyond 6pm, and has set times during the day to check notifications and comments. “I told my manager that I don’t have notifications turned on on my phone and it’s in her best interest to respect my boundaries. But if she sees anything urgent, she sends me a screenshot.” 

Irimia believes that open communication is important to avoid stress and misunderstandings. “Every week when I meet with my manager, we agree that when we feel down, we have to express it.” 

Social media is still seen as a taboo topic for employees and executives: recent research from Spill found that 47% of tech employees don’t see themselves opening up about their mental health challenges.

“People still think that [mental health is] something personal and that something personal should not be discussed in public. It’s totally wrong, we’re still human beings, we’re part of a community, especially in a startup. It’s normal to speak about how we feel and it affects our jobs,” Irimia says.  

Some European startups have taken action to take care of their employees’ mental health: energy startup Bulb offers online mental health services such as Unmind, HelloSelf, Sanctus and Spill to its staff.

Meanwhile, location SaaS what3words has built its own employee assistance programme that includes support, expert advice and counselling.

 

Ultimately, every job comes with its own set of challenges. But what keeps social media managers going?

“It’s the best job in the world! It’s the perfect mix of creativity and having a real impact,” says Cook. “When you come up with fun ideas, you execute them and it does really well, that makes it worth it.” 

Cecile Bussy is Sifted’s social media journalist. She tweets the latest news on European tech and climate tech from @CecileBussy

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Evan
Evan

I think it’s Clim8 Invest. The other Clim8 makes thermal garments.