Home > Blogs > Social Media: Valid Certs or Snake Oil?

You don’t have to look very hard or very long to find a raft of certification programs and credentials on social media. A quick Google search on “social media certification” turns up numerous training and consulting companies that offer credentials to students, and a sizable number of academic institutions that offer certificate programs in this subject matter as well. But what separates a serious, well-crafted certification program from a blatant cash grab? I’m glad you asked! I’ll explore what makes certification both real and serious, and explain how some programs succeed while others fail in measuring up to these criteria.

There's a LOT of social media "out there!"
(image courtesy of LunaMetrics)

As I write this post, a Google search on “social media certification” produces over 50 million results. In the list of results I see programs from online colleges and universities, and offerings from a variety of technology (HootSuite) and training (marketmotive.com, socialmedia-academy.com) companies. I also see numerous blog posts and articles with titles such as “The ‘Social Media Certificate’ – Smart Move or Scam?” and “Social Media Certification Is Absurd.” All of this speaks eloquently to me about a kind of “wild digital frontier” where strong buzz plus equally strong business and marketing interest create a marketplace for all kinds of learning and credentialing opportunities in the white-hot area of social media and social marketing.

This leads me to suggest a list of questions to which prospective certification candidates would be well-advised to seek answers before signing up or plunking down any cash for social media training and certifications in general, but for any relatively unknown, untried, or unfamiliar IT certifications in general:

1.       Does the same organization that provides certifications, certificates or credentials also provide training to help candidates earn such things? If so, you’d better be on your guard, because if they can persuade you to part with your time and money, they may have already gotten everything they need from your mutual business and learning relationship.

2.       Does the certification provider have any industry association, professional society, or trade group affiliations? Most of the non-vendor IT certifications originate from and/or involve industry groups interested in promoting specific tools, technologies, or IT agendas. Involvement from such groups in a certification is good, and involvement from big and well-known industry groups is even better. If the officers of the training/cert company are also officers in the purported trade groups, this is a warning sign that relationships may be too cozy to be good for you, but certainly not too cozy to be good for them?

3.       Can the certification provider speak to the methodology used to develop its credentials? Most “serious certifications” – like those from CompTIA, Microsoft, Cisco, and so forth – depend on detailed interviews with subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop exam topics and a “common body of knowledge” for the credential as it’s so often described in many programs, along with detailed job task analyses to figure out what kinds of topics to cover, questions to ask, activities to simulate or model, and so on and so forth. Most serious certification programs also go through painstaking psychometric analysis to make sure questions are not only technically valid and relevant, but also statistically meaningful in separating candidates who know their stuff from those who don’t. The idea is to create testing instruments that successfully identify individuals who understand the common body of knowledge for the certification sufficiently well to do the jobs that are associated with the topics, tools, and technologies the certification claims to cover.

4.       Does the certification provider have a relationship with a big international testing company like Pearson VUE or Prometric? Are their exams proctored and regularly updated? Covered by aftermarket practice tests, published study guides and Exam Crams, and so forth? Lack of an aftermarket speaks loudly about popularity, market relevance, and staying power – all important characteristics for a certification program to survive and thrive.

5.       Are the subjects for the certification clearly described? Can you find detailed objectives for the exams involved? Does the provider require in-class or online training to sit for an exam, or can you challenge the exam without mandatory training? All these things can indicate potential sticking points, though they are not always indicative of substandard or ill-conceived certifications. For example, VMware and Oracle both regularly require cert candidates to attend authorized training classes, but their certifications are well-designed, and meet other requirements for concept, design, methodology, and delivery.

By the metrics and measurements inherent to these questions, very few social media certification or certificate programs measure up. Among those my search turned up, those from better-known academic institutions may cost more, but will at least offer college credit, and a well-documented program and curriculum that candidates can examine and evaluate. Before jumping into any such program, I’d urge candidates to seek answers to my questions, to ask about job placement services and success rates for certified professionals, certificate holders, or graduates, and to talk to those graduates to learn about their experiences, their level of satisfaction, and the degree to which attendance produced a positive outcome. That’s the only way to be sure you’re not just forking over cash to make somebody else happy, instead of investing in your future and adding to your career potential.