Creating a Social Media Style Guide

Signpost in a field

For social media, a style guide is invaluable

Style guides are essential partners in the creation of effective content. They help ensure consistency of tone, voice, brand, spelling and grammar, giving our content credibility and value. Rick provided a great breakdown of the elements of editorial style for the web last August.

But what about social media? Since we can’t erect an editorial process around every individual tweet, status, comment or response, it is critical to have a style guide shaping our social media communication—particularly when that work is typically distributed across campus. And of course, while social media has unique considerations, both your web and social media style guides should be in alignment with each other and your organizational goals.

We’ve all (hopefully) arrived at the understanding that a successful social media engagement is underpinned by a well-thought out strategy. If the strategy is the why, the style guide is the how. It shapes our execution to ensure our strategy is successful.

Social media moves in real time, which makes it all the more vital to think twice and publish once.

Social media moves in real time, which makes it all the more vital to think twice and publish once. A style guide can be that “second thought” assuring us our content is appropriate and consistent.

If social media has been one person’s responsibility since it became something worth worrying about, how do we separate that person from the institutional brand? What happens when that individual moves to Bora Bora tomorrow? These considerations should never live in one person’s brain or reflect one person’s preferences; they should be put into a living document that can inform (and be informed by) everyone’s efforts on campus.

The Foundation of Social Style

Social media is about connecting with people, which lends itself to a conversational style. But how do you define that? Branding guidelines are a valuable base from which to build. They will inform the voice, tone and substance of your social communications.

If you have gone through a messaging exercise, think through the ways that social media can reflect the brand attributes developed there. Provide guidance and even brief examples of how they might apply. For example, if one of your brand attributes is to be “student-centered,” that might translate to being responsive to student queries and concerns expressed via social media, sharing content related to student interests or speaking less formally.

Also, how does your brand carry through to your social media properties? Beyond the content, is it also done through avatars and profile images? Color customization options? Naming conventions? Boston University provides a great social media branding guide for campus social media managers.

Once you have a sense of your brand and how it can be communicated via social channels, we need to develop more precise guidelines on how to do that. Voice and tone can be tricky to define for social media, but it is important that they are consistent in order to build trust and establish relationships.

Establishing Your Voice and Tone

We always hear this advice for communicating via social media: “Be human! Be authentic! Be conversational!” But what does that mean? That can mean something different for everybody.

Generally speaking, I think these characteristics apply:

  • Be friendly, approachable and responsive.
  • Use inclusive language (us, we, you)
  • Talk like a person, not a machine or a press release
  • Be honest; don’t feign omniscience
  • Be expressive, when appropriate. (“Cool!” “Great news!”)
  • Find opportunities to naturally build engagement hooks into your posts

When I crafted the voice and tone guidelines for our social media style guide at Tufts University, I made sure they were in line with our web content voice and tone guidelines. Though, as Kristina Halvorson notes in Content Strategy for the Web, “voice and tone are the most flexible components of your brand” (p. 70), and that voice and tone will vary from medium to medium depending on your objectives.

In crafting voice and tone guidelines, Halvorson suggests offering contrasting values, such as “Confident, not arrogant” and “Savvy, not hipster.” (p. 85-6) She also recommends accompanying these values with concrete examples—for example, less like “Contact us” and more like “Get in touch!”

With most social channels, of course, we face the challenge of folding voice and tone around our message within a limited space. We can use brevity to our advantage, however, reinforcing the need for clarity and succinctness, as well as encouraging use of the active voice. We must, however, stay vigilant about proper use of abbreviations without veering into text-speak. For instance, “prof.” or “univ.” might be okay, but asking, “Where r u going for spring break?” merits a rap on the knuckles!

Want more guidance?

Social Media Profile Components

Every social media account has a variety of fields, branding options and proprietary quirks to consider, and a style guide is a great way to encourage consistency among social media managers on campus. Here are a few points to consider:

About/Bio

About, bio, info… no matter what it’s called, this space is where you tell your fans. followers and subscribers who you are and what you offer. You can identify account managers, link to policies, post contact information and share descriptive text that helps brand your institution and articulate how this account will be used.

I appreciated seeing this tweet the other day coming out of the CASE Division I and II conference, imploring social media managers to audit their channels regularly. We often create this content when we create our account, and once we get whipped up in the fervor of status updates and community building, we may forget about it. But just like with our websites, it’s important to have a process for ensuring this content remains on-brand and up-to-date.

Naming Conventions

A consistent naming convention for your social media usernames (e.g. youtube.com/xyzalumni, facebook.com/xyzalumni, twitter.com/xyzalumni) will reinforce the connection between them. A style guide should inform people of the character limits for these fields across the various social platforms and suggest uniform naming conventions.

It can be tricky to figure out how to represent something like “Department of Widgets in the School of Liberal Arts at XYZ University” in the name (note: not the username) of your social media account. Organizationally, it may hit all the right notes, but imagine that name being referenced in a Facebook status. And it certainly won’t fit in the 20-character name limit on Twitter. Creating guidelines that take into account branding, user comprehension and the context of the medium is challenging, but essential.

Profile Images and Avatar

Your avatar and profile images are not to be overlooked as important pieces of content. No matter which feed you end up in, your profile image identifies who you are at a glance. The usual best practices for imagery applies—avoid stock, use images with meaning, don’t use images you don’t own the rights to—but there are also dimensions, display contexts and auto-cropping to consider.

A popular refrain in higher ed is that “logo tweets must die,” meaning that no one wants to converse on the social web with your wordmark or seal. I’m of two minds on the issue, but I’ve always been impressed with how University of Rochester’s Lori Packer has addressed it: the @UofR avatar is Packer herself, wearing a Rochester ballcap, and she is identified in the account bio as the manager of the account. Personality and brand, neatly resolved in one spiffy avatar! Read more from Packer about the shift.

Tagging Protocol

Hashtags are another consideration for Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and blogs, to name a few. If you have popular or established hashtags around events, campaigns or trends on campus, does everyone know what they are? If your mascot is the bear, does everyone know to use “gobears” for sports games (hashtagged #gobears on Twitter, of course) rather than “gobearsgo” or “bearsrule”? (They do rule, you know.) Tag consistency not only knits together content across disparate channels, but it aids in content organization and discovery for both the user and the creator.

No Social Media Style Guide is an Island

You could have the best social media style guide document in the world, but if you have no other structures in place to support it, it will fail. Is there a corresponding web content style guide? How about web branding guidelines? Have you set up training opportunities for social media content creators? How about other relevant campus policies and guidelines (e.g. a name use policy)—how do those complement your social media style guide?

Do you have a social media style guide? How do you encourage consistency among social media platforms on campus?

Homepage photo by londonmatt and top photo by neilsharp, Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is director of online content at Suffolk University and principal of Crosstown Digital Communications LLC, a consultancy focused on helping institutions of higher education tell their stories on the web. From 2004 to 2011, she worked at Tufts University, where she led the university’s forays into multimedia, social media and online news. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Thanks for the UofR avatar shout-out, Georgy! I still believe that being as upfront as possible about the “person behind the curtain” on Twitter especially makes it a much more useful tool. But I have also been struggling with the other side of the coin. As you say, “If social media has been one person’s responsibility since it became something worth worrying about, how do we separate that person from the institutional brand? What happens when that individual moves to Bora Bora tomorrow? These considerations should never live in one person’s brain or reflect one person’s preferences; they should be put into a living document that can inform (and be informed by) everyone’s efforts on campus.”

    That is the boat I’m in now, and a style guide would certainly help right that ship.

    PS — I just posted our new social media guidelines here: http://www.rochester.edu/social/guide/index.html. In light of this post, I think it’s worth revisiting them with more specific style/branding considerations included, a la Boston University’s. Thanks for sharing!

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