Social Media: an Informal Guide

This was originally published on Medium in September, 2013.

Table of contents

  1. Facebook
  2. Twitter
  3. YouTube
  4. SoundCloud
  5. Websites & Blogging
  6. Tumblr
  7. Instagram & Vine
  8. Other

Intro

This is an informal guide to social media for small organizations and individuals trying to manage a brand (corporate or personal) online. I’m not sure that anyone necessarily has credentials to write about social media, and often the people that claim to only offer advice that will turn you into themselves: shameless spammers and self-promoters. With that in mind, keep in mind that the fundamental rule of social media (and in truth any form of expression) is to be authentic and honest. If any of my advice contradicts that, no matter how much else it may promise, throw it out. However, the doctrine of authenticity must be comprehended in juxtaposition with the selective and subjective nature of social media. Though superficially the two may seem at odds, fundamentally the one cannot be understood apart from the other. To be authentic is at its core to be subjective, to present the truth through the unique lens of your experience and personality. Authenticity, in this light, is thus the heart of effective branding; indeed, only if you successfully communicate the truth through that beautifully subjective and entirely unique lens—either your own self or the core values of your organization—can you create a brand with true value.

Facebook

Ah… Facebook. Perhaps the most important thing to know about Facebook is that about a billion people use it. If all that was needed to build a brand was an audience, then you could conceivably get by only with Facebook. To achieve authenticity and selectivity, though, it’s of the utmost importance to diversify across networks, because each has its own peculiarities and only through properly exploiting these can you maximize authenticity. Think about it musically: everyone can connect to a solid I-IV-V-I chord progression, so you’ll have a built in audience if that’s what you play, but if you don’t have anything else in your toolbox then that audience won’t mean anything, because you won’t give them any reason to care.

Facebook doesn’t give anyone a reason to care, but it does give you an audience.

So how should you use Facebook? Let’s start by going over what you can do with Facebook. First, you can create a personal profile. Second, you can make public pages. I’m not going to waste time here explaining exactly how to do that: this isn’t a tutorial. While it’s vital to have a personal profile, and to build up a network of friends on Facebook, you need a public page. Even if your brand isn’t for an organization, don’t make the mistake of conflating your brand with life. I don’t know for sure about the dichotomy of private and public life, but I can say for certain that your personal profile and public page serve two very different yet equally important roles.

Your personal page is for sharing things that you care about: the music you like, the books you read, the snacks you eat at 1:00 AM. None of these things belong on a public page, but they’re a huge part of what Facebook’s all about. I said before that Facebook gives you an audience, but that’s not the whole story; Facebook is about people, and thus it delivers audience over nuance, but more importantly it allows you to interact with people more naturally (if also more generally) than any other network. That’s why your personal profile is so important: it makes you a person among people, and unless attain that, you’ll be missing the heart and soul of Facebook.

Your public page is for sharing almost anything related to your brand. This could be videos, photos, links, or even just a sentence or two. One great thing Facebook provides for public pages is insights, and so I can provide some advice on the merits of each type of post, but I’d like to stay at a higher level for now. No matter what type of content you’re sharing here, make sure it’s a final product. Your page isn’t the place for informalities, but for crafted work. Even photos of the team should be shared in a way and at a time that tells in a constructed form the story of your brand. And now into the details: video posts can have great reach, but not necessarily great interaction; photos, especially albums, have great reach and great interaction; links and text posts fall short on both accounts. The reasons for this are innate to Facebook: videos are dynamic and interesting, but there’s no real way to engage with them; photos have a similar appeal, except that they can be tagged—and this is important—they can be tagged, meaning the heart and soul of Facebook, people, can be brought directly into what you share, and therefore people will engage with this content at unbelievable rates; links and text are interesting, but mostly informative, so there’s little to respond to or engage with. Each type has value, but photo posts exploit to the greatest degree the core strength of Facebook. Critically, driving interaction is more important than increasing reach; your audience will grow, but it only matters if you can make them care.

So how should you use Facebook? Make a personal profile, and make a public page for your brand. Use your personal profile to build friendships and to share those things you care about as a person. Use your public page to craft a public image and to engage your audience.

Twitter

Before I get into the best way to use Twitter, I feel an urgent need to dispel an oddly pervasive myth about it. For whatever reason, a common belief among people who don’t use Twitter is that Twitter is made up primarily of self-absorbed people posting short, inane comments about their cats and lunches.

This is not true. This is not true now, and has not been true in the past.

It can’t be denied that people use Twitter for hopelessly stupid purposes, but even the origins of Twitter are not in this imagined inanity. Just the opposite is true: Twitter is and has been a network like none other for high-signal-to-noise-ratio topical publication.

OK, but what does that mean? Primarily, it means that Twitter is not very much like Facebook at all. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes one can make in using Twitter is to try to use it in the same way and to the same end as one would Facebook. More specifically, it means that if Facebook is about people, Twitter is about information. Because Facebook is about people, it’s valuable to share details and posts that may not at first seem relevant. They humanize you and your brand and increase engagement. On Twitter, people follow you because they are interested in your perspective on whatever topic you specialize in, and in order to keep them around it’s important to communicate that perspective often and undiluted. Share your links to the content you produce, of course, but also provide commentary on other content in your field, as well as on current events.

Before I conclude this section, I’d like to comment briefly about comedy. Interestingly, Twitter has proven a perfect platform for comedy; I believe that this is simply because the nature of Twitter is so exquisitely parallel to the nature of comedy. Comedians are topical communicators, and people love them for their unique perspective. Beyond that, however, I do not think Twitter as a format makes people funnier. Good comedians can take advantage of the obvious constraints, but those constraints won’t make you any funnier. The long and short of it is this: if you’re not already comedic in some way, don’t try to be on Twitter any more than you should try to provide commentary on any other field besides your own. Twitter users will follow you for your perspective on your topic, and they’ll expect you to deliver just that and little more.

YouTube

Of all the infamous comments sections on the internet, those that suffix videos on YouTube are among the worst. Notably, YouTube is not a platform on which one can expect valuable interaction (as I noted in the Facebook section, videos don’t lend themselves to engagement). Rather, its greatest strengths are as a hosting solution and discovery method. If videos are a type of content that matter to your brand, then YouTube is probably going to be your best solution to put them on the web. Now, if you have very specific needs, perhaps to have a custom video player or to run ads of your own choice before the videos, then you’ll need to look elsewhere, but almost all individuals and small organizations will not have such needs. Creating a YouTube account is incredibly simple, the upload process is simple, and you won’t be limited in the number of videos you need to put online. None of that is valuable socially however, and since this is a social media guide I only include it as an introduction to the utility of YouTube. The social value of YouTube is twofold: first, YouTube videos can be embedded almost anywhere, and viewed on virtually any device, allowing them to be spread as far necessary; second, YouTube recommends videos related to the current video a user is watching (and in general does a fine job promoting videos throughout its website and in Google search results), meaning that YouTube users may simply stumble upon your content. This is a great way to reach new people. To wrap up this section, I have to say that YouTube is honestly kind of boring. It’s inestimably valuable to be sure, and having a solid lineup of video content is a great way to add credibility to your brand, but there’s very little to using YouTube aside from putting your videos on it.

SoundCloud

SoundCloud is like YouTube for audio, so much of what I said in that section applies here. What I hope to offer in this section is an explanation of why you might want to share audio content. If audio is an essential part of your brand (if you’re a musician or radio station, for example), then SoundCloud can be an excellent way to provide samples of your work. You might, say, share clips of songs, or even the occasional full track. Unless you find SoundCloud incredibly valuable as the primary way to put your audio content online, I’d recommend using it as an auxiliary. If you’re a musician, you’ll have content in iTunes and Spotify, and should use SoundCloud to create interest in your music and drive people to seek you out on whatever your primary platform is for music sales. If you’re a radio show, you’ll want to share clips from episodes, condensed interviews, or highlight reels—maybe even the occasional full episode—to drive people to listen regularly on the radio or to your podcast. The key in most cases with SoundCloud is to leave listeners wanting more.

Websites & Blogging

This can go in a lot of different directions. First, do you need a website at all? For some brands, social media platforms may be enough. Take a moment to sit back and think about what your website would actually be for. The common uses are as a digital business card, linking to your various social media accounts and contact methods, as a blog, sharing your insights, and as a digital portfolio, featuring your work.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your website needs to be a complete picture of everything your organization is. Sometimes all you need is a digital business card, something that, even if it’s simple and small, is completely your own (not a part of any social platform). Keep in mind that social networks can come and go, and that even if Facebook isn’t going to die off anytime soon, you might at some point have to leave it behind. Don’t make your “home page” on the internet completely dependent on another company. Again, your home page doesn’t need to be an exhaustive compendium of your brand, but it should be something that can exist as a standalone entity and at the very least direct people to your other, more engaging platforms.

So how do you decide what your website should be? Especially if you’re trying to run a personal brand, a digital business card may be all you need. However, a digital portfolio can also be highly valuable, given that aside from platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud, social platforms are not ideal for preserving and displaying content of lasting value. If you have work that you want to be featured long term, you should do that on your website. Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll probably want to maintain a blog, but this doesn’t have to be included in your website. Platforms like Tumblr (which I’ll discuss in detail next), Medium, and other blogging networks offer features and communities that can make not only for a better blog, but also connect you more immediately to readers. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide where to host your blog; however, I would not recommend trying to build your website on a blogging platform. First off, you lose a certain degree of ownership that was the whole purpose of making a website, and second, they’re really just not very good at being anything other than a blog. Either have your website include a blog, or have the blog on a blogging platform. What if your brand isn’t about writing? Should you have a blog at all in that case? I would argue that maintaining a blog can be very valuable to almost any brand; a blog is often one of the best ways to share stories from within your organization (or about your work if you’re an individual) and to communicate your core values. As long as it remains the best way to express those ideas, you should maintain a blog.

Almost every brand should have a website, even if it’s just a digital business card, and if you have work that needs to be featured, that should be done on the website. Finally, you should probably have a blog, but that can be separate from the main website.

As an end note to this section, don’t be intimidated when going to make a website. Squarespace is a great way to make beautiful websites easily, and you can even get a custom URL as part of your service fee.

Tumblr

Tumblr can be a highly effective blogging platform, as I mentioned earlier, but its features extend beyond the publication of original work. Don’t just post your own work; make sure to follow other brands in your field and to share what they post. Tumblr readers aren’t just looking for what you want to post, but for what you find interesting. Because of this, there’s a lot of built in camaraderie on the network, which can work well to your advantage.

Instagram & Vine

These two ephemeral networks form a perfect counterpart to the constructed formalism of Facebook. First of all, both platforms are mobile exclusives, so if you’re going to use them, it has to be on your phone. Both fully take advantage of this fact to provide immediate capture and sharing of pictures or short videos. Because they’re mobile only, they’re fundamentally of-the-moment social networks, and therefore are best used for behind the scenes glimpses of how you do what you do.

One of the greatest downsides to Instagram and Vine is that even though they both have the capability to post to public pages or brand Twitter accounts, they are single user apps. With platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, you can post to your personal account and brand account without having to log out of one and into the other, but this is (for now) impossible with Instagram and Vine.

Other

I have neglected certain platforms in this social media guide for the rather simple reason that I do not use them. The most obvious absences are Pinterest, Google Plus, and Flickr. As best as I can tell, Pinterest is like Tumblr without the blogging component, Google Plus is like Facebook, and Flickr is like YouTube for images. With that in mind, try these networks if you are interested in them, and consult the analogous sections of this guide for whatever help they might give. I have also entirely left out location networks such as FourSquare because they lend themselves much less obviously to brand development.