Evening classes in French are nothing out of the ordinary, few eyebrows would be raised at Saturday evening salsa lessons and Yoga is simply passé. The newest of trends among the suits, however, is perhaps a little more surprising.
Academics and private tuition firms are reporting a “growing trend” in people taking Twitter lessons, as well as in other social media. They say that more and more firms are expecting their staff to be able to use social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn as part of their jobs and that, as a result, are sending increasing numbers of employees for private tuition.
According to tutors, students signing up for the lessons range from those who want to know how to use an ‘at-reply’ or get people to ‘Like’ their page, to those who – in the words of one teacher – “want to create the next Facebook,” or “find the golden ticket: a retweet from Stephen Fry”.
Dr Grant Blank, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute (OII), agreed that the past two years had seen a significant increase in the number of people running to catch up and take advantage of the connection to their customers social networking sites can give. But he added that the sites were also being used to vet prospective or even current employees.
“Something like Facebook is your own idea of who you are, your image on there is not imposed by others as much as perhaps it is elsewhere so it can often give an inherently honest picture” he said, adding: “Vetting plays a role when it comes to social media. Although it is not a policy anywhere I know of, it is nevertheless an informal practice. I have certainly seen it happen in the past.”
Students on the courses come from PR firms, marketing companies and banks. One school said it had even had a member of staff from the US State Department in its classrooms. Most, said one teacher, are companies “who have missed the social networking boat”.
Colin Welch, training manager at social media training firm Silicon Beach, said: “If your competitors have spent the last few years building up a following and a relationship with their customers and you haven’t, you are a long way behind."
Silicon Beach, like most of its competitors, caters almost exclusively for businesses and their courses do not stretch to ‘turning the computer on’ and are limited to “teaching people the rules and etiquette online”.
But, as Colin Welch admitted, that does not mean their teachers are not occasionally confronted by the more fundamental in queries. “One of our students once asked ‘how can I make sure no-one can see my tweets?’ Which, after all, rather defeats the point,” he said.
Zara Gugen, 23, attended a social media course last August, shortly after graduating and starting work for a London-based marketing firm. She said that it is “becoming more widespread, I know people who have done it and more who would do so, if they knew it existed”.
She added that she was not surprised to be sent on the course because it had become clear that understanding how to use social media sites had become “just another part” of her job.
Firms see the skills the courses teach as key to unlocking the commercial opportunities linked to the exposure social networks provide. And it is an opportunity both sides have spotted. Facebook recently launched its Deals function, through which companies can interact directly with their customers while Twitter began allowing ‘Promoted Trends’ – subjects the site is paid to put at the top of its trending topics – last June.
While advertisers point to the potential benefits, others say that commercial enterprises using social media is more of an annoyance or, at best, something to be ignored. A 2009 study from US poll firm Knowledge Networks suggested that fewer than five per cent of people use social networks to inform purchases.
And Colin Welch warned that companies risk their brand’s image if they get their online presence wrong. “Anybody who runs a blog knows how much spam there is on the internet. Social networking is self-regulating because the people you are interacting with can see spam straight away and they don’t like it.”
Mr Welch said he usually saw two types of people taking the lessons: “those who genuinely want to share content their clients want to read and those who want to use them to improve their search engine rating.
“We have had people in marketing and PR as well as people working for charities, councils and small businesses,” he added. Welch distinguished between sending a links to products, which he said, was more akin to advertising, having staff tweeting endlessly about “the mundanities of the office”, and good uses of social networking; which, he said, “should be about a genuine conversation”.
It's not only marketing and PR companies that are seeking specialist training to make social media work for them. HR and recruitment have got in on the action, vetting candidates applications’ through Facebook and Twitter.
Tracey Stern, Marketing Director at eMarketeers, another firm offering online lessons, said her company has seen an increase in the number of students in the last 18 months. She added that they run social recruitment courses that attract HRs and headhunters and look at sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to see what people do in their spare time.
Kelly Chapman, who works in marketing at Tesco, said organised a course for herself and her colleagues because she said she felt social media was “really picking up”. She denied that it was a “media cliché” and insisted that the £1,700 the company paid was not wasted money but admitted that she would not have paid to take it simply out of interest. She said she felt the training was now a necessary part of her job. “I didn’t want to be left in the dark I’d say it’s essential to get involved with social media,” she said.
It may be "easy to pass off as a fad", said Mr Welch. But, he said, “people in business are realising they should have been involved in it much earlier”. And, perhaps to the annoyance of some, firms' presence on social networks looks set to grow with their understanding of them.