Type "social media" in the keyword box on most job-search websites and dozens of help-wanted postings appear. That wasn't the case just a few years ago.
A growing number of businesses and organizations of all sizes are searching for ways to tap the power of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, which millions of people now use to stay connected online.
Experts say companies' need for social media expertise has increased dramatically this year and will continue to grow as more people come to understand and recognize its value. And that means an explosion of job opportunities throughout the country.
"This has been the year where every organization has come to realize the importance of social media, rather than just a handful of organizations," said Augie Ray, a Forrester Research analyst who specializes in social computing.
It's unclear exactly how many social media-related jobs exist, but companies want their messages to get to where the people are.
Facebook, created in 2004 and now the Internet's most popular social network, has more than 500 million users throughout the world. And it's not just young people who are drawn to it: The number of Internet users ages 55 to 64 on Facebook has grown 88 percent in the past year, according to a study by the Pew Center's Internet and American Life Project.
Some major brands, such as Dell Computers, have helped set the stage for other companies by showing early success with social media marketing. Last year, for example, Dell said it generated $3 million in sales with links from its various Twitter accounts.
"It wasn't until 2009 came around, and initiatives on Facebook, Twitter and other social channels were producing soft and hard ROI (returns on investment) by major brands, that the hiring really started," said Mark Krupinski, social media director for MindComet, an Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based interactive-marketing agency.
But the social media field is still in its early stages. Ray warned that some companies are far more advanced than others about their social media plans.
"Social media is a little all over the map right now," he said. "It reminds me a great deal of the late 1990s with where we were in respect to the Web. At that time, companies realized they needed a new set of skills that they historically had not valued or needed. ... They went out seeking those skills, but at the time, many didn't know what they didn't know."
Shawn Vincent, digital-marketing director for Brand Advance, an Orlando, Fla., interactive-marketing agency, said the influx of jobs in social media is a double-edged sword.
"For the most part, a lot of companies still don't know really what they are doing with a digital-media plan. They are not quite sure who they are looking for most of the time," he said.
Many job descriptions appear too broad or unclear, or the identified skills being sought don't fit what the company actually needs. Job titles, which range from "digital community manager" to "social media strategist," don't help.
"Right now, some companies are not necessarily mature in [the] way they view or use social media -- but they recognize they need it," Ray said.
Using social media is different from other types of marketing. In a conventional campaign, the staff may spend months planning the project, Ray said. They would then launch it and move on.
With social media, the real work begins after the launch, he said, because someone has to keep track of how people react to the campaign, then respond to their comments and switch gears if needed.
That could require hiring someone capable of creating an overall digital strategy and employing a variety of online tools, experts say, or simply adding someone who could monitor and respond to public comments on Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites.
Amy Jantzer, an Orlando-based social media consultant, said she often gets calls from businesses unsure about what they need or want.
"I'll get the phone call, 'So-and-so told me you were the person to call about social media, and I guess I need to get this up and running,' " she said.
"They rarely have a plan."
Some social media experts predict that, eventually, nearly everyone in the workplace will need to be social media savvy to do their job properly. But Ray, the Forrester Research analyst, said businesses will continue to need people with specialized skills who can keep up with the fast-paced changes in social media and be among the first to identify the next big trend.
Krupinski, of MindComet, said that, just as some consultants and agencies specialize in certain niches, such as data storage, others will focus on social media as more businesses seek out trusted advisers.
"But remember anyone can say they're a 'social media guru,' but do they really talk the talk and walk the walk?" he said. "Ask for specific examples of successes before your start a relationship."