How to Take Advantage of Unpaid Internships Before They Take Advantage of You

unpaid-internWe’ve all seen this one too many times, especially in the past three year: “This is an unpaid internship”.  We were understanding at first, if a little grudgingly, because the economy took a nose dive, and we hoped it would turn around over the next few months. Little did we know, those months became years, and the “unpaid internship” became the norm, and the norm became annoying, and in many cases, illegal. Many of the ads I see on, Craigslist, Mediabistro, and other job listing aggregates include open positions that are, in every sense of the word, “jobs”. However, by adding the word “internship” to the end of the ad, that position magically becomes a source of free labor. Don’t fall into that trap. There are many things to look out for while job hunting, and once you recognize them, you’ll be better equipped to protect yourself against labor exploitation.

First and foremost, you need to understand the definition of a proper and legal internship. According to the United States Department of Labor, there are 6 criteria that a legal unpaid internship must meet:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Doesn’t sound like 99% of the job ads you’ve seen, does it? Most of the social media internships I’ve seen ask that you are an “expert” in social media. In many cases they’re seeking “ninjas”, “gurus”, and on occasion, “Jedis” (I’ll have a post about this coming up next). If you’re already experienced in social media, then the job lister had better come up with some advanced social media techniques to teach you, otherwise they only want your skills for free. What about number 2? Some would argue that the experience you gain from that internship is a direct benefit to you. True, to an extent. But if you’re not learning anything new, and you’re doing actual work, then you ought to be paid for it. Then there’s number 3. You need to be working under close supervision from existing (and usually more experienced) staff for the position to be a legally unpaid internship. And no, having someone check in on you once in a while doesn’t count. Most important is number 4, which is why I highlighted it on the list. It really speaks for itself. If a position needs to be filled, and that position serves an important function to the company in question, that position is, by definition, a job, not an internship!

This message is geared toward those who want to break into social media, because that’s where I have the most experience. This career path utilizes a tool that you use every single day to communicate frequently and effectively to large audience. You already know how to use these social platforms, and what’s left for you to learn are the bells and whistles you might not yet understand or even know about. If you’re looking to become more experienced, look for a legitimate internship where you know you will be taught the right kind of language, methods of written communication, and proper use of social media tools. There is a wealth of knowledge and tutorials on the web, and if you’re serious about becoming a social media marketer, you need to educate yourself on your time! So how do you know what to look for? By seeking out illegal unpaid internships.

Wait, isn’t that a little counter-intuitive? Not necessarily. By looking for these job ads (don’t worry, you’ll find them quite easily), you can find out what potential employers are looking for in an ideal candidate for a paid position. Once you know what employers want, you can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, find the tutorials and online classes you need to bolster your skills, and become more desirable on the job market.

Just remember: internships are for learning and gaining new skills. Jobs fulfill a specific function for a prospective employer. You can learn and gain new skills without some company reaping the benefits of your hard work. You shouldn’t have to compete with more experienced people to land a position that’s supposed to educate and help the less experienced. It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and most importantly, it’s illegal. Find out what skills are required for the job you want and educate yourself. You can put these skills to practice on your own and make it as visible or invisible as you’d like.

Buzzword #2: Organic

urlWhat exactly does “organic” mean in social media terms? It’s actually very similar to the definition of the farming and food definition. Organic search results in search engines like Google come about from hard work and dedication without paid advertising or bidding on keywords. When an employer wants better ranking in organic search results, they are asking for the very basics of search engine optimization. While SEO may be the most cost-effective way to maximize your online marketing efforts, it is also the most time-consuming. It requires you to post quality content frequently while managing inbound and outbound links and making sure what you’ve submitted becomes visible and easily found on all your social media platforms. The process might be methodical, but the content is where you show off your expertise in whatever you’re advertising.

How can you be sure your submissions are counted by Google? Like I mentioned early, you need to post quality content frequently. But what does “quality” really mean? It means to avoid copying and pasting large blocks of text. It means flexing and expanding your vocabulary. It means to be creative. Organic results are awesome, but only if you put in the time and effort to make it worthwhile! As a long term investment, it will make you a strong and reliable source of information, which in turn maximizes the influence you have in directing traffic and generating hits.


1. Avoid expository text in flash objects. Your text might very well contain the keywords required to improve your organic search results, but because they’re imbedded in videos or flash files, Google cannot pick findthem! If a video or flash object is absolutely necessary, make sure to have a well-written description that make use of your keywords.

2. Vary your terms! While it’s fine to use terms like “social media” frequently if you’re optimizing for social media, you can break term up and still be relevant to Google’s search bots: “See what media is saying about social networks”.

3. Pictures draw them in! If you’re going for a longer article, make sure to include a picture every few paragraphs to give the reader a different kind of mental stimulation. It will keep them interested in what you have to say. Likewise it is usually best to start off with a picture to get their attention in the first place.

Click here for Buzzword #1: Viral

Buzzword #1: Viral

Viral MarketingWhat does it mean when something goes “viral”? It’s quite literally an idea that’s gone pandemic – infections, far-spreading, rapid, and global. Sounds great, right? Not necessarily. While marketing campaigns strive to become viral, they must also be prepared to lose all control. How far it goes and for how long is completely dependent on the consumers, and the results can be spectacular on both ends of the good and bad spectrum. Take, for example, the ever popular music video “Gangnam Style”, which features a Korean pop star making his debut return to show biz.

Here you have a video that was already popular in the Eastern hemisphere, generating thousands of hits within days of its release. But once it caught wind in America and the rest of the internet, it went full blown viral, becoming the first Youtube video to hit ONE BILLION views in the space of a few months! You can’t hope for anything better than that!

On the other side of the spectrum you have Mitt Romney’s 47% video, whose viral status may very well have cost him the campaign:

Going viral may be an unstoppable force, but if its influence falls in your favor, you can build upon it and ride the wave like Old Spice with their body wash commercials with Isaiah Mustafa.

This video is 33 seconds long. Thirty-three seconds! And that was all it took to make it one of the most effective ad campaigns to date! Granted it cost Old Spice a pretty penny to have it air during the Super Bowl, but it was money well invested in a clever idea that tickled the audience in the best possible way. From there Old Spice released more commercials and videos featuring Mustafa, and the internet fell in love with his smooth, rugged, and manly…advertisement.

Sometimes unintentional ideas become viral, like with the straight razor scene featured in the movie “Skyfall”. Since its release, straight razor sales have gone through the roof by as much as 405%! As a social media marketer, you must be ready to latch and take advantage of any ideas that have the potential of going viral. That means you must stay connected, jacked in, and ready to go. Looks like there’s no time for rest when it comes to social media. Or maybe that’s just an excuse to surf just a while longer :).

Click here for Buzzword #2: Organic

Buzzwords – When to Use Them

Buzzwords serve a very important function, but they’re only effective in certain environments. They are convenient shorthand versions of complex or verbose ideas, and sometimes it’s more efficient to condense it all into a single word. this also makes it easy to fall into the habit of using them all the time. While buzzwords can encompass an entire paragraph into just a few letters, they’re only useful to those who are privy to the long form definition. If they aren’t, you might as well be speaking a different language or showing a graph with an undefined legend. In short, use them as often as you’d like with other social media marketers, but be prepared to explain their full meaning in simple and effective terms. After all, social media is about communication and the transfer of ideas; you must always refer back to the roots and tenets of your trade.

I will be exploring some of the most common buzzwords in the upcoming posts and will include examples of how they work along with tips on how to use these ideas to your advantage.

Click here for Buzzword #1: Viral

Crowdsourcing Media – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord

hitRECord_Wallpaper_fraeuleinThe future of entertainment is changing forever…at least that’s what I hope.  Even since before the social media takeover of television shows like American Idol, the very premise of the competition called for a sort of crowdsourcing: fans call in and vote for their favorite singer. This was quite literally a “Like” button before the Like button existed. This idea made the show very enticing because it made the audience feel like their opinions mattered, and for the most part, they did. It spawned a whole new generation of reality television where the outcome was not decided by script or by judges alone, but by audience participation.

Coming soon to its very own channel, Pivot, Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be launching a cable television show that will take audience participation and crowdsourcing to the next level: HitRECord. The premise is simple – the content for the show will be generated by anyone who wants to participate. That’s right: anyone! Furthermore, if the content is used on the show, the creator or creators will be compensated for their efforts.

This form of social media will allow creative personalities to flourish in an era where math, science, and engineering is once again becoming the forefront of education and career development. It will help build communities around amateur film makers, poets, classical artists, animators, etc.: everyone whose career and livelihood is dependent on exposure. What greater potential for exposure than social media combined with cable television? This is a very exciting prospect, and I can’t wait to see the heights HitRECord will reach. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you’ve always been a cool guy. This project makes you the coolest of guys deserving of the highest of fives!

Here’s an example of one of HitRECord’s projects:

Building Your Community

It’s not about how many “Likes” you have anymore. Anyone can build a page and get people to push a button, but the most important aspect of any Facebook Page is an active and enthusiastic community. What does it really say when a Page has 50,000 Likes with a mostly empty wall? Or even a wall where a majority of the posts come from the Page’s owner? It means that while you have fans in the barest definition of the term, they’ve “Liked” you and now they’ve forgotten you. It means what you’re pushing isn’t important enough to be part of their daily lives. Let’s focus on a few things that will improve the quality of your Page and possibly help foster social growth.

Post Content
What’s going into each of your posts? Deals? Coupons? “Where to buy” links? While you shouldn’t skimp on these marketing essentials, keep in mind that you don’t want to come across as an automated post bot. If all you do is solicit, how would you be different from a mindless machine programed to do a single task? You need to tease out the participants and entice them to join in the conversation. You need to let them know their voices are heard and that their opinions count. Don’t just post calls to action; post questions and surveys. Ask them what you should do!

When someone posts something on your wall, they’ve taken a very conscious step in reaching out, and it’s up to you to meet them part way. Responding to relevant content is easy, but to connect with someone or someones on a level that touches your personal lives, you need to understand your demographic. For example, the demographic for the company I work for is very much into sporting events. When the Ravens won the Superbowl this year, my first thought was to post a product we’ve named the “Raven”. Seize every opportunity to go beyond being a representative and show that there is a real person behind the username – a person who shares their interests.

Encourage Participation
The most important aspect of growing your community is to encourage your fans to post original content, and the way to do this is with incentive. It can be a tangible prize or something as simple as an “official” mention. The internet is a vast and populated place, and a chance to be in the spotlight is a very enticing one.

You can also draw in your audience with promise of perks that are exclusive to the most avid fans. One way to do this is with a memberships-only newsletter, which serves as a two-pronged benefit: you increase the number of people following you on social media channels, and you have better insight and analytics on your demographic.

Stay Active
Just because you’ve gathered a few thousand followers does not mean you can take a rest; your job is never finished. So long as your audience participates, you have to stay on the ball. Stay active, post often, and post quality content.