The Journey of a Social Media Marketer: Q&A with Lizzy Duffy of Sparkloft Media

The Journey of a Social Media Marketer: Q&A with Lizzy Duffy of Sparkloft Media


There are more than two sides to every story, but the difference between doing social media in-house for a brand and working for an agency seem like two sides that matter a lot to the social media marketing story. Social media marketers have some pretty staunch opinions about which approach – in-house or agency – works better for specific brands and missions. And this discussion isn’t a new one either: One of our influencers wrote this piece about the conflict all the way back in 2016. 

So when we found someone who had become an expert at social media both in-house for NPR and in an agency setting with Sparkloft Media, we just had to pick her brain. Lizzy Duffy is a senior social media strategist at Sparkloft Media, specializing in strategy, editorial planning and long-form content. Prior to Sparkloft, Lizzy was the news blogger, and later, a digital producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering local and regional news. She has previously served on the social media desk at NPR in Washington, D.C.

Through our conversation with Lizzy, we learned about the best metrics for success in a social media campaign, why it’s important to stay on the pulse of platform changes, and of course, the difference between agency work and in-house.

Social Media Today: How (and when) did you start your career in social media?

Lizzy Duffy: I fell into social media in 2013 when I served as an intern on the NPR social media desk. I’d previously dabbled in social media for my college’s magazine, ‘The Montana Journalism Review’. I was curious about the space as it relates to brands, and how to expand an online presence, but never thought of it as a career until I applied for the internship. I joined a team of three full-time employees running all things social for the brand in January 2013. It was a challenging experience, from which I still pull many lessons: the importance of community management, the impact of messaging, and the dependency on brands to distribute credible information, especially during breaking news.

During my time in NPR, and then later at Oregon Public Broadcasting, I covered President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, the Boston Marathon Bombing, legalization of same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter protests, and the resignation of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, among other events. Comment threads, trending hashtags, and live-streams were where I spent a lot of my time during these developing stories, to ensure that the latest, most accurate information was shared with our communities.

SMT: As the Sr. Social Media Strategist at Sparkloft Media, what does your day-to-day schedule look like?

LD: My job is different every day. We rotate through a sort of monthly cycle, from research, planning and photo sourcing, to copywriting, approvals and ad placements. The last stage is reporting, which helps us optimize our approach before we start the next month. It’s a constant process of analysis and adjustments, with the intention of creating and distributing the very best social-first content for clients.

I also focus on researching trends and bigger-picture platform updates, and their impact on upcoming content and clients’ bottom line. In addition, I also host a monthly subject matter experts meeting, where we discuss what has happened in the industry over the past month, including updates, headlines, opinion pieces and more.

I also manage and edit our company’s thought-leadership blog, which has become a home for all of this work over the years, and I constantly compile our research into quarterly trend white papers. 

SMT: What major differences have you experienced managing social in-house for a brand versus from an agency? How are the two similar?

LD: When I managed social media in-house, I was the expert on the brand and what the brand distributed. I knew what time to post for maximum traction (during the golden era of the Facebook algorithm), I had a sense of what would do well on each platform, and I was curious to try new things.

However, there was an ever-daunting task of “feeding the beast.” At one point, as part of the constant test, I was publishing to NPR’s Facebook page 15 times per day. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to try out new features. Later at OPB, I was a daily blogger first, and managed social media on the side, and I always found time to take care of this community, but again, I was limited. We often reworked what we knew to be successful and would seek opportunities to plan ahead when possible.

Now at an agency, I’m an expert on social media first, and I work with clients to determine the best content for distribution based on my experience and research. Together, we tell their brand stories in unique and interesting ways, beyond feeding the beast. 

When I first started at the agency, I wondered how we could be effective at our jobs while juggling clients in other states and around the world. How could we be everywhere at once? Social media has made it possible to do just that. I understand the value of being an outside expert to enhance our clients’ marketing efforts.

But whether in-house or agency, both teams overlap, in the sense that we’re always doing what we feel is best for the brand. If your agency presents something that you feel is off-brand, I challenge you to question the decision. Odds are, there’s a subtle trend being showcased and research to back up the choice. 

SMT: What social media marketing lessons have you learned over the years?

LD: Social media and I have been through a lot together. I’ve trended and I’ve been trolled. I’ve entered conversations and communities I would never have dreamed of because of social media. I’ve also learned the value of those of us brave enough to take it on and keep rolling with the punches.

My number one lesson is: “We are human, and we all make mistakes”.

Yes, if you put something out on the internet, it lives there for all of eternity – but instead of beating yourself up about it, take a deep breath and fix what you can. I’m not saying you should go forth and be careless with your work, but when a mistake happens, it’s rarely worth ruining your day. The world spins on.

My number two lesson is: “We are humans – so act like it”.

Social media is an amazing tool to connect people with other people, and people with brands. It’s not enough to “set it and forget it” in regard to social media publishing. To truly be a successful brand, you have to listen to your followers, fans, and the occasional hater, in order to truly understand what’s expected of you in the space.

My number three lesson is: “Social media was always intended to be fun”.

Yes, the platforms may constantly host “not-so-fun” subjects, but that’s a whole other conversation. People join and participate in social conversations to connect – and unlike social media marketers, they’re coming online to take a break from their day. Make it worth their time. 

An exercise I like to do when I’m feeling uninspired is to mindlessly scroll through social media (don’t tell Mark Zuckerberg). I watch those weirdly satisfying videos, I flip through bloggers’ Instagram Stories, I tag my friends in memes, I might save an article or two to read later, and after 30 minutes or so, I reflect about what I enjoyed. It helps when considering human behavior, and what Facebook might be prioritizing that day. It also takes me back to having a little fun with my work.

SMT: Can you share with us a recent successful campaign you ran at Sparkloft? What was the strategy and what do you think made it successful?

LD: This isn’t a campaign in the creative sense, but it’s work that I’ve been particularly excited about.

To better manage a client’s ad needs, while also reaching their annual goals, I created a quarterly ad experience which focuses on specific results each month, and utilizes Facebook retargeting. We were seeing that objectives, like website traffic were costing the client, because, in short, we weren’t playing by Facebook’s rules. This quarterly ad experience funnels new audiences from awareness to consideration, to finally conversion, driving down the expense of costs per results. I’m proud to say that we’re working on stretch goals for this client now to capitalize on this.

SMT: What defines success for not only your clients at Sparkloft, but also for you in your role with them?

LD: Impressions, engagements and video views are always exciting to watch grow, because it seems to validate that people are equally excited about what you created. But what I truly see as success is when people share those personal connections with a brand – they share an image of their experience or a story. According to the marketing funnel, advocacy is the hardest action to accomplish, which might be why it feels so good when it happens.

SMT: Which metrics do you focus on when determining the success of a campaign?

LD: Figuring out metrics for success is getting more difficult as people move into private communities like Facebook Groups or one-to-one messaging apps. Social media marketing has been focused on growth for so long that defining what works and what doesn’t isn’t as easy to interpret. It’s a big change as well as an opportunity to refocus our efforts.

Speaking specifically to a public social media presence, I find engagement rates, quality engagement (e.g., genuine comments from followers), and, if you regularly include link content, link clicks, signify success.

These metrics show the health of the community around your brand:

  • Engagement rates – Understanding how many of your followers are regularly engaging with your posts will show you what content or themes provide the most enjoyment. In 2014, 16% of a Facebook Page’s total audience would see an organic post – that dropped to less than 2% in 2016 and has continued to decline. Are you seeing this in your reach? If you are, what could you change? And if you’re not, what works for your audience?

  • Quality engagement – Would you rather have: 100 comments that say something like “Love ur IG, plz follow me” or 5 comments from fans, sharing their personal experiences with your brand and tagging their friends to have a conversation about your product? As platforms work to clear out bots, we’ll continue to see our vanity metrics fall, but that type of inflation never really helped us in the first place. A bot might be a follow or an engagement, but it will not visit your business or buy your product, which doesn’t spell success.

  • Link clicks – Converting people to click out is one of the hardest actions to do. Facebook makes it more expensive than an awareness ad because they [would] rather keep users in the platform. That’s why it’s important to watch how much traffic you drive from a link post, with a comparison to time spent on site. Link clicks are as good as a genuine engagement because it shows how many people are invested in your brand to the point of converting.

You can still watch impressions, engagements, and shares, etc., but I recommend examining what else is going on in the world. Look at headlines that mention the latest purge, examine other client’s reports to identify trends, join marketer Facebook Groups and watch for discussions around changing metrics to see if you’re affected.

SMT: In your opinion, what does it take to be a good social media marketer?

LD: It’s not easy to pin down specific qualities or experience needed to be an effective social media marketer – after all, I started my social media career not truly realizing that this was even a career path. I value my previous journalism experience, but I also see the benefits of the backgrounds my coworkers bring: Whether in-house or other agency marketing experience, we [all] approach social media [differently] to create a smarter product.

All of the successful social media teams that I’ve worked with had very specific strengths: They’re storytellers, they’re creative, they’re solution-focused, and they’re curious. They respectfully challenged each other’s perspectives, and are dedicated to research. Social media changes too quickly for any one person to have all the answers.

One attribute we all have is the ability to roll with the punches. Social media can change in a moment, depending on the latest updates or trending conversations. We’ve had to throw out entire campaign plans before, but the agility of our teams makes it possible to take all the pieces and put together something even better.

SMT: How do you predict careers in social media to evolve over the next 10 years?

LD: Social media’s function will fundamentally change even over the next year. Where Millennials, in some cases, overshared their lives on social media, future generations will continue to move into private spaces. And when they interact with brands, they’ll expect a personal, unique experience. Artificial intelligence used to proactively engage with followers will be increasingly important to social media. Brands would be smart to think about “choose-your-own-adventure” type media, creating content that speaks to specific audience interests.

Social media will be less about broadcasting and more about long-term relationships between people and brands. Careers in social media are likely to expand in social-first production, though there is an expiration date on vertical video. With mainstream VR headsets on the horizon, production should also be thinking about what immersive media looks like.  

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