When people ask about how to use social media tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook, I suspect that they are really asking about how they should sound in those tools.
After all, the tools themselves are dead simple. You need a second hand on your watch to track how long it takes to set up a Twitter account, for example.
But developing a social media voice is a more complicated proposition.
A good starting point is to create a social media policy for the organization. But these policies are more like guardrails than signposts. Writing style guides can also help, but who has time to plow through them? Employees and subject matters experts need active support from marketers to develop their social media voices. In ITSMA’s social media survey, 68% said that marketing is the catalyst for social media. It’s worth our time to develop a brief guide to social media voice for employees that takes into account the unique attributes of your target audience.
I humbly offer these guidelines in the spirit of the B2B marketing guild. I’d love to hear your additions, comments, rants.
Here are some of the qualities that social media voices should have:
- Authentic. I’m loath to use this one because it gets trotted out so often, but social media ups the ante for saying what you mean and meaning what you say at the time you’re saying it. In social media, buyers can connect synchronously with you and with their peers, they can react instantly, and they can do so through easily accessible tools like Twitter. Obfuscation used to be a way to buy time in an era when buyers had to write letters to the company president to get their complaints heard (and they had few ways to determine whether others were having the same problems). In social media, obfuscation only brings a swift, often large-scale, backlash.
- Relevant. In social media, it isn’t just what you say; it’s the company you keep. Creating a responsive social media network means focusing on a subject that you know well and sticking to it so that people know what to expect from you. Remember that it’s as easy to disconnect from people in social media as it is to connect with them. Lack of relevance is a ticket to deletionville.
- Empathetic. The best social media voices have a clear understanding of what it feels like to stand in their audiences’ shoes. We need to understand their experiences and offer content that fits their needs.
- Generous. Sharing is the currency of social media. For example, Twitter updates that come with a link to something deeper to read (such as news, opinion, tips, research, and thought leadership) are more likely to be passed on, or retweeted, to others. Rarely do those links lead to paid content. Those who make their content freely available will have many more readers than those who don’t. Besides, it makes us feel good. Acts of generosity, it turns out, light up the same primitive, feel-good areas of the brain as sex and food do.
- Responsive. Just when we think no one is listening to what we’re saying in social media, we’re likely to receive a message—often from someone we’ve never conversed with before. If we ignore these messages, we can hurt the feelings of those involved and lose opportunities to have interesting conversations that could contribute to our social media success. Blog comments, for example, should all receive a response from the blogger, even if it’s just one message thanking everyone for their time and good thoughts.
- Helpful. Our helpful deeds in social media are often seen by many others who spread the help farther and enhance our reputation. Subject matter experts who answer questions on the Answers section of LinkedIn, for example, can grow their connections and build traffic to their blogs.
- Original. It’s okay to link to news items or interesting blog posts, but chances are that many others have already done the same thing. The strongest social media voices are those that regularly contribute original ideas. Blogs are a great hub for creating and sharing original ideas, because readers can contribute to and refine the thinking (as I’m hoping you’ll do here!).
- (More) Informal. Social media are designed to elicit conversation, yet most of that conversation happens in written form. That means we need a new standard for ourselves. We should make our writing sound more like the way we speak (when we’re at work). One way to judge whether you’re being too stiff (or overly casual) is to read your writing aloud before posting it. If it sounds too stuffy, overly long, or overwrought, simplify it. On the other hand, if it sounds like you aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license, put more thought into it.
- Timely. Everybody loves a scoop. Gaining a reputation as the first with the latest news in your chosen subject area increases your relevance among others in your network and helps attract new followers. However, it helps to do a little research before sharing to make sure that the tidbit hasn’t been re-tweeted a million times already, or that there hasn’t been some change in the issue since you discovered it.
- Persistent. Social media voices that appear and then disappear for long intervals create mistrust and apprehension. Was this just a passing fancy? Are you participating just to push messages? Do you have so little say that you needed a month off? The unwritten rule for blogs demands at least a post per week, for example. More than a month and people will begin to delete you from their RSS feeds.
- Inspiring. As my friend Laura Nicholas points out, the best social media voices try to inspire others to action. For example, try looking at a perennial problem from an entirely different angle and asserting new ideas and thinking. You may inspire someone to share what you wrote because they see the value and want to enlighten others.
- Grammatical. Sure, social media are more informal by default, but informal doesn’t mean you should sound like an idiot. Indeed, the more personal nature of the communications makes good skills even more important because all the misdeeds can be easily tracked back to their source. It’s okay to split an infinitive now and then, but the really obvious stuff—misspellings, misunderstood words, crappy punctuation, and internet shorthand (unless you are really short on space)—reflects poorly on the reputations of the communicators and their companies.
- Communal. Just as we communicate differently in conversation than we do in writing, we have a different voice with groups than we do with individuals. In most cases in social media, we are speaking to a group. Depending on your reach and focus, the group can be homogenous or incredibly diverse. In B2B, it’s likely to be diverse, at least in terms of ages and backgrounds. Your voice should sound reasonable to everyone in that group.
- Dialectal. We always hear that it’s wrong to use a lot of jargon, and in general it is, but only because most B2B marketers are usually trying to reach a general audience of both business and technical people. On the other hand, if you’re only trying to reach the techies, jargon may be expected, as marketer Jed Sundwall points out in this excellent presentation, Finding Your Social Media Voice. We need to understand the particular dialects of the audiences we’re trying to reach with social media.
- Contextual. Social media are a lot like party conversations. Much depends on how long the conversation has been going on and what has already been said in your absence. The smartest blog comment sounds dumb if the point has already been debated in the comments section. Conversations in social media have a habit of diverging from their original course. Participants need to stop and assess the waters before plunging in.
What do you think? What are other important qualities to have in a social media voice?