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Winning social media style guide: 5-step process to implement

Your business’s social media marketing strategy has a lot of moving parts. As the owner, you dictate the overall direction of the company, including the products you introduce to the market. Then you have your marketing team, who create ways to promote your brand online and offline, and finally, there’s your social media team, which specializes in using social networking sites to generate interest in your brand. It’s the latter that we will focus on today. 

Sometimes, management’s intentions don’t align with what the social media team puts out, and as a result, the organization has to answer questions from confused customers. Creating a social media style guide will keep everyone aligned and help you create social posts that resonate and engage with your audience.

What you should include in your social media style guide 

Now that you know why your business needs a social media style guide, let’s take a look at the things that should be present in it. 

Brand language rules

Your text content must be consistent across platforms, whether they’re tweets, Instagram captions, or follow-up emails sent to leads you’ve gathered from Facebook or Instagram ads. Here are some brand language rules you may incorporate into your style guide:

  • Linguistics: The variety or dialect of English should match the primary market where you operate. If your business operates across different geographies, you’re safe with either American or British English, as both varieties are recognized worldwide. 

  • Grammar and vocabulary: Your choice of English variety will directly influence this element. Choose one of the better-known dictionaries in your chosen language, then make it available to everyone who’s involved in producing content for your brand. This also applies to the tools you use for checking your work before posting it, such as a grammar checker like one of these Grammarly alternatives.

  • Serial commas: The debate on serial (Oxford) commas isn’t going to end soon, but you should decide whether to use it or not and stick to that decision.

  • Date conventions: Date formatting is not just for Excel geeks; it also makes the difference between attending an event on December 4 and April 12! We suggest you spell out the month when you write dates.

  • Time conventions: While writing time using the 24-hour convention (for example, 16:00 instead of 4:00 p.m.) might seem more precise, it’s also difficult for some people to translate it into the 12-hour style. You also need to specify the time zone for events, such as webinars or sales meetings. Most US-based businesses use either EST or CST, while many Silicon Valley companies use PST.

There are other spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules you can specify, such as using either an em dash or an en dash and whether headlines are capitalized. Always remember that these guidelines should help your content producers share the message more clearly, not constrain them.

Customer personas

Before your business started operating, you probably defined your target market and created customer personas. But if you haven’t done this yet, this is a very good time to do so. You need to know who you’re trying to reach, and creating customer personas will help you come up with a brand voice and content that speaks to your market. 

What is a customer (or buyer) persona? In its loosest sense, it’s a collection of data about your ideal customers. It might include the following data points:

  • Location

  • Occupation

  • Language

  • Interests

  • Challenges or pain points

  • Business goals

  • Number of employees (for B2B)

  • Who makes purchasing decisions 

  • Social channels they’re active in

What a buyer persona does is tie up all these data points and present them as if it was describing a real-life person. 

We can start creating social media content that speaks to the target market. For example, the promotional material can emphasize how easy it is to use the new printer model and how much time it will save. Since Peter works with numbers, we can also include some comparative figures, such as pages per minute, in the material.

Trademarks, acronyms, and frequently-used terminology

You should include a list of all your brand trademarks, both in written and image form. The trademarks should be in their correct case.

Your branding guidelines might also include how you refer to your employees. For example, IBM calls its employees “IBMers” and Google refers to its new hires as “Nooglers”. Starbucks refers to its baristas and other crew members as “partners”. Your employees can be your best brand ambassadors on social media, and what you call them will reflect your company culture.

When you post on social platforms with character limits (such as Twitter), you’ll likely use acronyms and abbreviations in place of commonly used terms. You can shorten “search engine optimization” to SEO, for instance, and expect most of your readers to know what it means. In your guidelines, list the acronyms or abbreviations your team members might need, then specify when each form of the term may be used.

5 steps for implementing a social media style guide

Your social media style guide will serve as the cornerstone of your entire social media content strategy, so you need to be detail-focused and process-oriented in creating it. Follow the steps below to build and implement style guides that get results:

1. Define your brand voice and tone

You need a well-defined brand voice and tone to connect with your audience effectively. It serves as your brand’s public personality. Your social media team has a vital role to play in building your organization’s image (and setting the tone), and they will only become more effective if you define your brand voice and tone before they start posting.

A lot of people interchange “voice” and “tone”, but these two are actually quite different from each other. The company voice is how your brand talks, and is broadly consistent (for example, you might say you always want your voice to be “friendly”). Tone refers to the different ways your business uses the voice to convey different meanings. You can think of it as the additional layers of context behind the words. 

When you define your brand voice and tone, it’s a good idea to keep it simple. The Content Marketing Institute suggests you try to describe your brand in just three(ish) words (see below):

It might seem easy to come up with three words that describe your brand, but it’s harder than it looks. There are thousands of adjectives in the dictionary, and while some are synonymous to others, there are certain nuances you’ll have to consider. In the example above, you cannot exchange “quirky” for “strange”, “weird”, or “unique”. It needs to be “quirky”, which the brand voice defines as “playful, unconventional, whimsical”. When you choose your three(ish) words, be as specific as you can and interrogate why you chose each word. 

2. Align your social media profiles

Next, you need to do an audit of all your company’s social media profiles. You might be surprised how many social media profiles your brand has! Many larger companies now use different social media channels for different purposes. 

When you audit your social media accounts, make sure you include all of them. A social media profile audit will let you know which ones are active and who’s running the show for each. You might find that some need a makeover, while others are no longer necessary at all. 

Your social media style guide should account for differences in messaging between different accounts. For example, your customer service Twitter account will understandably use slightly different language from your PR or marketing accounts. The best time to post status updates or content will also depend on the platforms you use and the purpose of each channel, so you need to include that, too. 

3. Set your formatting guidelines

Different social networks have slightly different formatting conventions, so your social media style guide should account for these. For instance, Twitter has a 280-character limit, but will allow you to add tweets to a thread. On the other hand, Instagram does not let users click on links in posts, but allows brands with 10,000 followers or more to add “swipe up” external links in IG Stories. 

Regardless of these differences, there are some guidelines all your accounts should follow:

  • Get to the point within the first sentence.

  • Keep your text content to three sentences at most.

  • Shorten all links using a tool such as bit.ly.

  • Use hashtags and mentions wisely. For LinkedIn, two to three hashtags is enough. For Instagram, you can add more. They should be contextually relevant. 

  • Use an image that adds value to the post.

Some brands even specify if and how emojis should be used. For example, Rainbows - a children’s charity - always uses a rainbow emoji at the end of its social media captions before the hashtags:

Pizza Hut is a good example of a business Twitter account that follows cohesive formatting guidelines:

It delivers its message in three sentences or less, uses appropriate emojis and branded hashtags such as #PizzaPower, shortens its external links, and includes an enticing product image. 

4. Create your media guidelines

Your social media style guide should also include what types of media (images, infographics, video, audio, links) you’ll post on each platform. If you’re planning what to post on Instagram, for example, you’ll need to decide which content belongs on IG Stories and what makes it to your feed posts. 

Use the following guidelines to help you make decisions on the media you’ll post:

  • Consider the media size requirements for each network. Is the content resizable, or do you need to create new versions of the content for each platform?

  • Will you use your logo or wordmark in your content?

  • Keep your color scheme and choice of font consistent.

  • If you use photographs of real people, make the images as natural-looking as you can and consider inclusion and diversity. 

  • Whenever possible, avoid stock photos.

  • Always consider your brand voice. Do you hear the people in your content speaking in your brand voice and tone?

IBM Watson uses different kinds of content effectively to convey its message while staying within its brand voice. Aside from using a unifying brand voice, whether the media is a static image or a GIF, it’s also consistent with the “Big Blue” color scheme that has been associated with the company since the 1980s. 

5. Develop your situation response playbook

How does your brand use social media to interact with customers and competitors? Do you ignore them, or do you use it as an opportunity to boost your engagement? If your business operates in a competitive niche, your audience might even tag your account and your competitors’ accounts in the same post, “forcing” you to interact. 

Your social media guide book should have a section on dealing with these situations. Your brand voice will influence your responses heavily. If your brand voice is “sassy”, like Wendy’s, you might respond to tweets like this:

Wendy’s is known for its short, witty answers to user tweets, and when the official Twitter account for the game Among Us responded to a tweet that mentioned both of them, Wendy’s replied with just three letters – enough to garner 1,300 likes and another satisfied fan of both brands.

Your brand will have to respond to private messages too. Even if you’ve deployed a chatbot to respond to customer inquiries, its responses should also follow your brand voice. 

The chatbot for the travel booking app SnapTravel (above) uses a friendly, informative tone throughout the conversation, leading to a successful transaction.

Finally, don’t forget to include a response plan for negative comments on social media. Even the best brands receive them from time to time. Here’s a recent example from Starbucks: 

The company’s response to a negative customer comment is sympathetic, validates their feelings of frustration, and focuses on finding a solution to the problem. You could do much worse than emulate Starbucks in your response guide for negative social media comments.  

The takeaway

The tips and steps above will help you make a start on creating your brand’s own social media style guide. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the answers right now. You won’t build your style guide overnight. Instead, it’s the product of a long process of defining a brand voice and tone, studying your customers, and trying things out to see what works. 

While your social media team should follow the guide to ensure consistency across platforms, you need to remember that the style guide is a living document. It should adapt to your audience’s changing preferences and account for any changes that the social platforms may roll out in the future. 

Best of luck with creating your next awesome social campaign! 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on socialbakers.com. Any statistics or statements included in this article were current at the time of original publication.

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