Most would agree that social media—and particularly its appropriate use as a marketing tool—can be intimidating and confusing for the new user. To begin with, there is not just one place to start, but rather a large and unruly world of apps, websites and services that a novice imagines she must master. On top of that, there’s lots of strange and often abbreviated terminology along with a substantial dose of odd characters like # and @. Worse still, this is an arena where mistakes can and do quickly gain attention, potentially circling the globe before anyone realizes there’s a problem.
It’s all almost enough to make you just want to ignore the whole thing, which certainly has been the choice of a goodly number of people thus far. For us, this situation recalls the early years of computer use in the design industry. Computers were not so user friendly back then and many people felt that the old ways of doing things worked just fine, thank you very much. Nevertheless, those with foresight took the time to acquire computer skills and were rewarded with the ability to continue earning a living in their chosen field. Needless to say, those who chose the drafting board over the mouse pad ultimately had to find new lines of work.
Today, the central importance of social media as a communication tool and brand building platform is increasingly apparent to anyone paying attention. Marketing professionals who ignore these developments do so at their own peril. Happily, though, social media is actually much less daunting than it may seem. Even better, much of what you already know about messaging, brand building and the like is still entirely applicable in this new environment.
In a basic sense, the term ‘social media’ is just a way of talking about certain communication channels. On these channels, the basic building blocks that users have to work with in constructing their messages are words and images. In that sense, not much is new at all. Indeed, you could argue that social media really just takes old things and puts them into a new context, which is generally how media evolves. Viewed in this light, the challenge for the novice becomes more clear, namely to gain an understanding of this new context and how it will color her audience’s understanding of the messages she creates.
The term social media itself is actually fairly instructive in this regard. That word ‘social’ tells us that these tools were originally designed for use by individuals, and this is the context in which they still exist and are understood today. While it is entirely acceptable and expected for brands to use social media to reach their audience, such efforts will seem awkward and stilted if they are not properly adapted to this environment.
Indeed, nowhere does the term brand personality have more significance than on social media. Since you are using a tool designed for people, it makes sense to incorporate some personality and fun into your presence. Even very buttoned down and traditional organizations can do this effectively, sometimes by playing against type. The CIA, for example, earned a lot of praise and publicity for its very first Tweet, which read “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” Just over two year and 1.5 million followers later, the Agency has very savvily cultivated a powerful amplifier for its public messages.
The real-time nature of social media also presents opportunities for those marketers with a quick wit. In 2013, when game play at the Super Bowl was delayed by a blackout in the stadium, social media predictably went wild with speculation, jokes, conspiracy theories and the like. With the game on pause, the huge audience convened to watch the game had not much to do but stare at their phones. Seizing the opportunity, Oreo tweeted a spare image of a single cookie with the friendly reminder that “You can still dunk in the dark.”
Having successfully filled the vacuum created by the delayed game, Oreo received an avalanche of publicity and goodwill for their clever Tweet. It’s tempting to say that they received all of that for “free” but the truth is that Oreo had formed a 15 person social media team prior to the game. Knowing that the Super Bowl could present just this sort of opportunity, they had “copywriters, a strategist, and artists ready to react to any situation in 10 minutes or less” according to Wired.
The ability to reach a huge audience is the single biggest selling point of social media, of course, but there are many other virtues as well. For one thing, social media is free to use. It may take considerable time and effort to grow a meaningful audience for your brand but, having done that, you can reach out to them at any time free of charge. Unlike traditional advertising, social media facilitates two-way communication, so you will also find that your audience reaches out to you. This can be overwhelming, but it is also an unprecedented opportunity to interact directly with a huge pool of customers and prospects.
Also unlike traditional advertising, social media comes with instantaneous analytics built right in. You can know for certain the size of your audience and in most cases who they are. You can see which kinds of posts garner the most user engagement and which drive the most traffic to your website. You can also see what time of day your audience is most engaged and which hashtags attract the most viewers.There is no getting around the fact that it requires time to sort through all of this new information. For those willing to devote the effort, though, the opportunities abound.
Of course, for all of the wonders of social media there are numerous pitfalls as well. The single biggest source of problems, which happens far too often, is for someone who doesn’t understand “the social media” to outsource it some young person who knows how to work the apps but doesn’t understanding anything about branding or messaging. The results can be cringe-worthy or worse, as many companies have learned the hard way when errant posts have caused anger or embarrassment. In short, just because your summer intern has 6000 Instagram followers and a tattoo that says “#hashtag” doesn’t mean he is qualified to run your company’s account.
Since anything online can potentially go viral, mistakes can be compounded with astonishing speed. Because of this dynamic, the risk-reward ratio of your actions must be considered carefully. While your audience and brand equity are built slowly over time, they can be destroyed almost instantaneously. For this reason, ‘First do no harm’ is an important rule to guide all of your social media behavior. Always remember that your words can easily be taken out of context and don’t try to get too cute with anything controversial or touchy.
Like we said before, one thing that can make learning social media marketing particularly mystifying for the novice is the fact that there are so many different platforms out there. Fortunately, though, there are just a handful that dominate the rest and becoming familiar with those major players is a very good start.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn can be considered the Big Four of the social media world, accounting for the vast majority of online interaction and content sharing. Other important channels include Pinterest, YouTube, Snapchat and Tumblr. As you develop a more advanced approach to social media marketing, you may find that some of these or even other niche platforms are a great fit for your brand.
On a practical level, the multiplicity of social media platforms can make it difficult to maintain consistent brand standards across different sites. In general, on each platform you will be setting up some kind of profile, which will be your main opportunity to anchor the brand on that platform. In addition to a main profile image, most platforms these days also allow for some kind of background or header image. The specifications for these images tend to come in arbitrary numbers of pixels, and of course vary from platform to platform and change over time. There are lots of useful cheat sheets out there which compile all of these standards into one place, Google can help you find the most up to date.
It may be annoying to have to generate a different version of your logo for each social media profile, but at least that is a simple task. Much harder is the more subtle work of developing an understanding of the culture and etiquette that has evolved on each platform. Mastering that nuance is what will allow you to unlock the full potential of social media and, in truth, requires a substantial investment of time. For now, the information below should be enough to get you started and help you avoid some common mistakes.
Facebook wasn’t the first social network, but in lot of ways it’s the only one that matters. With more than 1.7 billion registered users, Facebook is a sprawling web of profiles for individuals, businesses, non-profits, clubs, teams and other groups that want an easy way to present their public face. Because it is so large, Facebook can be thought of as a microcosm of the whole internet and it is a rich world unto itself. For starters, the most important thing to recognize is simply the singular importance of Facebook. Its user count dwarfs all other sites and many internet users spend almost all of their browsing time logged into Facebook, therefore making it the only way to reach a substantial number of people
If nothing else, the prominence of Facebook pages in Google results means that establishing a Facebook profile is an important step in making it easy to find a business online. The single most important function of Facebook, as defined by the company itself, is allowing users to share what’s going on in their lives. It is, therefore, a very socially oriented place and your presence there should take this into account. It’s a great place, for example, to share photos of your team building afternoon at the ropes course. On the other hand, it’s probably not the best place to find an audience for your highly technical white paper.
The Big Idea: Facebook is all about building and maintaining relationships.
The Good: More than 1 in 5 people on Earth have a Facebook account, so it’s reach is enormous and you can’t really afford to ignore it entirely.
The Bad: Facebook tends to take a lot of liberties with things like cropping images to create thumbnails, so you may not have as much control as you would like.
Instagram lets you edit and share photos (and brief videos) along with captions. Other users can view, like, and comment on your photos. It’s pretty simple like that. When Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, the $1 billion price tag left many scratching their heads. Today, as users upload over 80 million images to the app per day and its use as an advertising platform skyrockets, the investment looks pretty smart. With a clean interface and fun tools for enhancing photos, Instagram is pleasantly simple to use and therefore garners huge quantities of people’s time.
Because of its inherent focus on visuals, the platform is particularly attractive to brands who like to tell compelling stories through photography. Now that Instagram also allows short videos, the possibilities are nearly endless. Many users turn to Instagram as a bit of a refuge during the day, basically a chance to look at some pretty pictures while they decompress. People take their feeds personally, therefore, and you should treat them with respect, endeavoring to share content they are likely to genuinely enjoy or connect with. While the temptation to do so is strong, it is considered poor form to clog up your followers feeds by ‘Overgramming,’ i.e. posting many times per day. On Instagram, quality definitely trumps quantity.
The Big Idea: Instagram is a platform for sharing still images and videos, which are most effective when they tell some sort of story.
The Good: The visual focus of the platform leads to heavy engagement and makes it a designer’s dream.
The Bad: Brands must strike a fine balance when using this platform for marketing, messages that are too commercial or direct may turn off users and lead to lost followers.
Twitter, on the other hand, is famous as the place where you can tell the world what you had for lunch and then tell them what you thought of it and what you plan to do for dinner. Often referred to as a ‘microblogging service’, Twitter allows users to share brief text posts that are limited to just 140 characters. Because of this limitation, Twitter is full of abbreviations and other linguistic shortcuts, which can make it particularly impenetrable for new users. Indeed, Twitter is where the now ubiquitous hashtag first gained popularity. Due to its heavy use by early adopters and other cultural influencers, things like the hashtag and the use of the @ have a tendency to filter from Twitter to other social media platforms.
Pretty much everyone agrees that Twitter is difficult and unsatisfying for most new users (which leads many to abandon it quickly), a fact that has weighed heavily on its stock price. Those who do stick around, though, are often very engaged. Because Twitter makes it very easy to share another user’s content via a retweet, there’s always the possibility that your post will get seen and shared by someone with a big following, potentially expanding its reach well beyond your own audience. On Twitter, it is entirely acceptable to post many times per day and even to repeat yourself. Many major news organizations, for example, will post the same story many times in a day, the theory being that most users only dip into their Twitter feed periodically and therefore won’t notice the repetition. You can be sure that these big media companies have the data to show that this strategy is effective and you shouldn’t be afraid to adopt it as well. Twitter is notoriously full of unfriendly folks looking to pick on something or someone, so do be aware and try to avoid providing them with material.
The Big Idea: Sharing news and opinions in real time.
The Good: Lots of influential people are on Twitter and the content you share there can sometimes find a huge audience via re-tweets
The Bad: Building a meaningful audience can take a long time and there’s lots of abuse and other unsavory behavior that keeps many people away.
LinkedIn could be thought of as the somewhat boring professional counterpart to Facebook. People have profiles that basically serve as resumes. Businesses set up pages they hope will look attractive to prospective employees and business partners. There is a lot of great content being shared on LinkedIn these days and, depending on your industry, it can be an excellent platform for sharing insightful analyses of important topics (you know, like the one you are reading right now).
LinkedIn Groups and Introductions are two useful tools for business development, both of which can help you expand your circle of contacts. Perhaps most importantly, LinkedIn is a powerful recruiting tool and can bring you an avalanche of applicants in a hurry. More than any other platform, LinkedIn is designed with business use in mind, so it is appropriate to tone down the personality a bit here and keep things pretty professional. Many LinkedIn users treasure its more staid feel and will respond poorly to the sorts of fun photos that your Facebook friends may adore.
The Big Idea: LinkedIn is a place for professionals to build their networks and learn new things
The Good: LinkedIn can help you identify and connect with important people or organizations
The Bad: It can be a bit stodgy, so it’s not a great fit for all brands or messages
We could go on, but that’s a solid start. There is no substitute for your own personal engagement with these tools, so now is the time to fire up your smart phone and download these apps if you haven’t already. Think of the brands you respect or compete with and give them a follow. You will learn a lot by watching how they manage their presence online and you may also notice some things that could be improved upon. Just remember, we taught ourselves to use computers 25 years ago and we are confident that you can do the same thing today with social media.