Lessons Learned: Dan Phelps, a Social Media Leader

Nov 3, 2020

Our VP of Communications, Nicole Stephens interviewed Dan Phelps, Head of Social Media at Wells Fargo about his insights as a social media leader.

First things first. How did you end up as the Head of Social Media at Wells Fargo?

I was very interested in investments and technology growing up. At Clarkson University, I majored in Finance with a minor in technical communications before working in the mutual fund industry for more than two decades.

While building my experience in the fund industry, I realized my passion was for marketing. Earning my MBA from the University of Maryland with a Marketing concentration helped me to land a role managing crisis and critical communications at T. Rowe Price.

In 2011, when Facebook came to T. Rowe Price during a discussion of their soon-to-be IPO, I identified an opportunity to improve our crisis communications with our customers and communities, and began working to launch an award-winning social media program for the firm. In 2016, Wells Fargo asked me to join their team to help them create a consolidated, high-functioning social media program, which we have successfully achieved by a variety of measures.

What do you think most prepared you for this leadership role in an ever-evolving industry?

My top five ‘StrengthsFinder’ strengths are Discipline, Futuristic, Activator, Analytical and Focus. This unique selection of strengths enables me to not only assess the past, but also look to the future to actively create and deliver on a strategy. I have been involved in social since its early days. A generous contributor to SocialMedia.org, I continue to work hard to keep pace with and understand this changing environment. It’s hard to prepare for the unknown (Yay, TikTok is here – no wait, it’s leaving? No wait, WalMart is buying it?)

The best we can do as leaders is to stay informed about our space, listen to the ideas of our teams in ‘the trenches’ and make timely decisions. I often tell my team to ‘ship’ when we get above 85%. That last 15% is difficult to reach, and perfect is often unattainable. Our goal is to keep the conversation going, and that can only happen if we are willing to choose ‘great’ over ‘perfect.’

Have any particular social media brands posts or ads impacted you?

Oreo’s dunking in the dark Super Bowl spot years ago was a post to which EVERY OTHER brand lead said, ‘yep, nailed it.’ Combining creativity and real-time interactions was the innovation and we all said, ‘Okay, how do we do this faster?’

As Instagram was getting started with video years ago, I also remember Lenovo did a single post for Halloween that looked like three posts mashed together, popping out a video about how even monsters could not break their laptops. It broke the convention of simply having a single, great photo on your feed and caused you to look again – creative that makes you stop scrolling is the first step to impactful marketing.

What is your favorite platform and why?

Instagram is my go-to channel each day. As a former professional photographer, I am connected to many other photographers around the world who are posting on the platform. With its focus on photos, I enjoy seeing the visual creativity people are adding to the platform and learning how we can employ new tactics for Wells Fargo. I think the most innovative people today are the legions of creators on TikTok or Instagram who present viral (sometimes crazy) experiences well beyond what a national brand would do. Beyond Instagram, Twitter is my most frequent next stop for news and information.

Why is the social media industry difficult for people outside of marketing to understand, and how can we as individuals and companies do a better job of providing education (internally and externally) that working in social does require a specific skill set?

In the early days (2010-2014), before the revenue models were created, social media was a very altruistic and straight-forward communication channel. Brands engaged to build communities and educate their audiences on their offerings and how they were contributing philanthropically and culturally across their footprint. Reach was strong and algorithms rewarded great content.

In 2014, Facebook changed their algorithm causing brand reach to plummet from 11% to 1-2%. The only way to reacquire reach was by employing paid amplification. Of course, many of us who entered into social in the early days were communicators, not advertisers. Thus the learning curve began again.

To run an effective social media program today, expertise is required in the following areas:

●communicator/strategist to translate stories into social

●publishing execution and advertising expertise for best execution

●governance, regulatory and process management to control risks

●analytical and listening competency to ensure your earned brand story is captured

●customer service/response so that your communities feel heard and to empower engagement

●employee advocacy and engagement to best activate this audience and support the brand

I have found with many of my peers running social at large brands that we can often make this work look ‘too easy,’ similar to the IT professional or top mechanic who can always solve what looks like a difficult problem. We are as one, a group of marketing and technology entrepreneurs. We bootstrap to find budget and wring every last piece of data from our content to prove the value of our efforts. I am fortunate today to have an expert team to help me run Wells Fargo’s social program, and only through our collective expertise can we be effective for the brand every day and truly make the impossible ‘look easy.’

What do you hope to see more or less of in the next 6 months?

I certainly hope to see less Coronavirus. :) Moving forward, I think one of the big opportunities for social media is within sales organizations. In our current environment, without in-person meetings with prospects or with clients on golf courses, coffee shops or offices, social media can provide a way for salespeople and relationship managers to market themselves and connect in an efficient way. I believe that a clear outcome of this pandemic will be that external marketers will become much better at leveraging interactive communications to grow their businesses and that consumers will become more comfortable with Zoom and other digital methods of developing long-term, brand relationships.

I am interested to experience the new ways that we, as a global economy, leverage social media. With more people joining these platforms to stay connected and learn about the world around us, it is inevitable that new ideas will be shared to help jumpstart the next technological revolution.


Let us know if there is someone who works in social that you respect and admire that you would like to learn more about. Email us at socialmediaclt@gmail.com.

Social Media Charlotte (SMCLT) is a non-profit, professional development organization that helps bring together people from different parts of Charlotte’s rapidly growing social media and digital marketing community by providing resources, hosting events and fostering dialogue.