I think it is probably true that anyone who starts to engage, or increases their engagement, in social media has a level of uncertainty and insecurity about how to approach this whole area. By social media I include all communication networks, some of the most well known being Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, FourSquare, blogging and websites. This uncertainty is to be expected, given the rapid rise of these media and the relatively little guidance available to users. Furthermore, taking too much advice from seasoned users may not always be the most advisable route when you analyse their approach.
How people engage in social media reflects their attitude to society and to communication in general. It quickly becomes clear on these networks who are the listeners, who are open-minded, who are generous of heart and those who are none of these.
Before engaging in these channels it is worth noting that social media present us with unveiling and highly revealing forms of communication. This is partly because once you start to engage in one form, say you join Twitter, then your information is automatically shared across other sites you may be involved in, so people can have access to all sorts and sources of information about you. You need to assume that everything online about you is available to everyone. Furthermore, the content of your posts and your responses to others will quickly reveal your level of knowledge and understanding of your area.
In terms of your approach to social media, there are no hard and fast rules – although many people are learning the hard way about what not to do. It is certainly worth thinking about your approach and studying that of others. Social media is[i] after all simply another way of communicating with other real people but on a much larger scale in terms of the numbers and diversity of people, and in terms of the amount of information that is shared. The rules of engagement in a virtual society are no different to those in the more tangible society. Always be considerate of your audience as if they are in the room with you.
There are two huge advantages to be gained from understanding social media and using it well. These are: (1) reaching the maximum audience (in all senses – numbers; breadth of experience, backgrounds and opinions; and location); and (2) engaging in a two-way street for communication. For example, traditionally, marketers have relied on putting an advert in a newspaper or magazine to sell their product – telling you about the product in a ‘look at me’ approach. With more and more media at our fingertips, we are bombarded with so much marketing that the challenge now is to get people’s attention (as stressed by Rick Bakas, the social media guru, in his presentation on 5 April 2011). Social media presents a challenge and opportunity to get attention from a larger audience than we otherwise could (be it for a product, research outlet, discussion forum, whatever) so we need to approach it in the best way to capitalise on this opportunity. Sticking to the old model is not the way for most businesses to survive in this new climate.
Introducing the commandments
I have seen a few of these articles by people telling me what they think are the rules for approaching social media, and I have not yet found any that hit the nail on the head for me. I have put a great deal of thought into this based on practical experience and observation. Feedback as always is welcome! These ten commandments may be applied to Twitter posts, blogs, website updates, comments responding to any of these, and any other form of social media. I use the term ‘posts’ to incorporate all of these.
For those who like the quick cut and dried version, this is it – explanations follow:
- Respect and humility
- Check, double check and check again
- Link across the network
1. Interesting – Make sure your posts are topical, current and reflect at least some degree of originality. If you have nothing to say, don’t say it. Banality is annoying on social media (as in society!). Think about adding in photos (not too many) or videos to keep your posts attractive and to retain the reader’s attention.
2. Interested – Be responsive and show interest in the work of others – this is social media and therefore requires interaction. It is vital to treat it as a two-way street for communication, unlike the traditional media of adverts on TV, radio, in magazines, and so on which have the “look at me, look at me” approach.
It is fairly easy to pick up followers, but it is just as easy to lose them. Remember to thank retweets, comments on your posts, answer queries, engage in conversations and read the work of others and comment on it. Being interested will keep you better informed about your area, and in turn enable you to make your contributions interesting.
3. Consistent – It is important to be consistent in terms of frequency of posts/presence on each form of social media, and also in terms of content – stick with a consistent topic/approach. Before engaging in any form of social media, take time to plan your content, style and approach, and how you wish to be perceived.
To be consistent requires discipline and a business plan-style approach. Your audience needs to be able to see what you are about and why and if you are consistent they will continue to be interested. Bear in mind though that while it is important to maintain a presence it is also important not to swamp your audience with too much material. I have unfollowed people on Twitter for this, have hidden people on Facebook, deleted emails and avoided their posts. This links directly with Commandment 8.
4. Correct – Quite simply – check your facts in your posts and ensure that links are correct. Correct spelling and grammar are also extremely important, linking in with the next commandment.
5. Standards – This commandment is extremely important and far too often broken and in my mind reflects a sloppiness in approach and a level of disrespect for the audience. Standards must be maintained in posts in terms of correct use of language, inoffensive use of language (for example, no swearing or offensive terminology), style, grammar, and correction of typos (they are annoying to read).
Some people on Twitter think it is fine to swear and to post offensive material – they are immediately blocked from my feed. I have come across some blogs (and sometimes from people well-known in their area) that are so badly written that I am almost embarrassed for them. These people need to hire writers or have their worked checked by someone before posting. Not everyone is a great writer. Certainly everyone should not write blogs. Quite simply, people will not follow badly written blogs and will not respond to badly written comments, tweets, etc.
6. Positivity – Ensure that your posts are never offensive. If you dislike something don’t post that. Be constructive not destructive. People have long memories for insults and unpleasant experiences. You want people to want to read what you write. Nobody enjoys reading negative posts. Furthermore, assume that anyone will be able to read any unflattering offerings, which leads to Commandment 7.
7. Public – With any posting of any kind, be prepared for it to ‘go viral’, and assume everyone can see it. Do not ever assume anonymity. Once it is out there you cannot take it back (hence Commandments 8 and 9!)
8. Respect and humility – Respect other people and their work – if you reference someone else’s work, reflect it correctly and provide a valid citation. Praise others where appropriate, and respect their views in discussions – if you don’t agree, there are ways of expressing this constructively. Listen to comments and respond to comments – if you put yourself out there be prepared for responses. Remember the two-way street.
Show humility (this is a human strength not a weakness) – do not act like you know everything, do not tell people they are wrong – discuss do not criticise. It is possible to write in an authoritative way without arrogance. Your audience consists of real people so write in a way that you might explain it to them if they were in the room. Do not simply force your point of view. Even if you know your subject area well, everyone always has something to learn.
Narcissism is rife in social media, both in terms of people pushing their views as being correct but not respecting those of others, and in terms of swamping the various media with too much material.
9. Check, double check and check again – Before posting any tweet, blog, comment, website edit or email, read through what you have written. Ensure it does not break any of the first eight commandments. Ensure that you are not inadvertently writing something which could be misconstrued. This a common error that I have observed. This is a simple yet often overlooked commandment.
10. Linking across the network – Decide which forms of social media you want to be involved in and why and once established, link across them to form a network of interlinking media. This will maximise your audience reach and lead them to the point you want them to go – maybe to read your blog, maybe to visit your Facebook page or website. Include this linking strategy in your business approach. Make sure to include the links on your business card, email signature, websites, etc.
I mulled over this list for a couple of weeks and it works for me but please let me know if you think there should be a number 11!
And a final tip – be committed and enjoy it – if you don’t, it will show!
[i] While the term media is in plural form, the term ‘social media’ is repeatedly being used as a singular term. I acknowledge this, and believe it is one of those rules that will start to be accepted as an exception in the English language.