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Reclaiming Social: Content Strategy for Social Media

“We want to go viral!” says the chief communications officer. “Can’t help you” used to be our standard answer. But by doing this, we’ve left social media in the hands of marketers and self-appointed “gurus” more concerned with Klout than user needs. It’s about time we reclaimed social media.

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If the web industry had a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, social platforms would be at the very top—the least essential thing. No one ever visited a website and said, “Well, I was not able to register, but they had a really nice blog and quite an impressive Instagram feed!”

But social has its place—and it is tied to so much of the work we already do. Whether you are working to increase conversions, looking for an additional source of user research, or want to enforce a consistent brand, social media should be part of your toolbox.

In most organizations, social content is the messiest content there is, with (even more) distributed ownership and few strategic imperatives besides “get more likes.” Such organizations are in dire need of your governance skills.

Social media groundwork

Take stock

The first step is to take an inventory of your social channels. Most companies have tried to participate in every new channel in search of “the next big thing.” There may not have been much of a strategy beyond uploading your logo to another new service. How many social media accounts does your organization have? (You might even find several accounts on the same service).

Create a spreadsheet and list all your channels. Add a column for who controls each account (the answer might be “no one”). Do you have the passwords to all the accounts? Which email was the account registered to? Add that information. Make sure that all the accounts are registered on a company email like [email protected], not to your intern’s personal gmail. Other useful spreadsheet columns might identify the number of followers on each account and the account’s monthly budget.

Create goals that connect to business goals

Way too often, success in social media is measured in likes, retweets, and reach. But how can you defend spending resources on these channels if you can’t explain how they’re connected to the organization’s bottom line?

You need to ensure that your social media channels will be working in symphony with your other channels, as well as in line with the organization’s overall strategies. To do that, you should create goals that are specific yet channel-agnostic, such as increasing sales, increasing customer satisfaction, reducing costs, and so forth.

Here is an excerpt from Plan International Norway’s goals for their digital channels:

Main goal Subgoal KPIs (quarterly)
2) Increase earnings 2b) Recruit new donors Number of new, regular donors recruited through digital channels
Number of leads collected through digital channels

These are truly channel-agnostic goals, which also means that there’s no need to come up with completely new KPIs with every new social channel that pops up.

Match your channels with your goals and target groups

After you’ve decided on overall goals, subgoals, and KPIs, you need to decide which specific channels should be used for which goals and which audiences.

This will require user research. You need to know which target groups you’ll meet in which channels—and what they need from you. Otherwise, you might be Instagramming away while your customers only use Pinterest. The research techniques you’re already using for your website will work great for social media, too. (If you don’t know where to start, check out Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.)

The users you decide to target on social media might—and probably should—differ across channels, and even differ from your website. It just depends on your business goals and where your target groups are. For instance, Plan International uses Twitter to target journalists, politicians, and opinion leaders to reach their goal of influencing public policy. On their website, however, their biggest target groups are potential donors and existing donors, to reach their goals of increasing earnings.

Allocate responsibilities

Social media has so many different but overlapping use cases that there’s usually an ongoing battle about who should be in charge of it. Marketing? Communications? IT? HR? Customer service? Sales? And what about the lawyers who keep sticking their noses in our business?

Because of this, each social media channel needs to have an owner. This owner has a mandate to control the channel in the way they believe will most effectively reach the goals and KPIs that have been ratified by management. This person is in their absolute right to say “No” when someone says, “We need you to get this on Facebook right now!” if it isn’t clearly connected to the ratified strategy.

Channel ownership is not enough, however, if you want to use your digital channels to their full potential. Someone needs to make sure that the channel owners collaborate and work in line with the strategy. In some organizations, we’ve dubbed this role “channel coordinator.” Whatever the title, the main point is that they’re making sure the digital channel strategy is implemented on a day-to-day basis.

Plan for the future

In practice, much of social media work is trying to write the right tweet at the right time—always in a hurry.

You can avoid the last-minute panic by planning your posts ahead of time. Some weeks, you may get bombarded with requests for posts; other weeks, you may roam the web for interesting tidbits simply to post something. An editorial calendar can help keep your content in balance.

The yearly plan

To identify important dates throughout the year, talk to your colleagues in other departments. What are the biggest events, milestones, and campaigns for marketing, customer service, communications, and so on? What holidays and external events might impact social media involvement? Organize these dates and events in a spreadsheet.

When you have identified all the important dates, you will be one step closer to determining what your most important social content will be. If there will be a big summer campaign, what will you tweet when you launch it? Do you need to order some special content in advance, like videos or infographics?

Here’s a simplified example of a yearly plan from the University of Oslo:

Month First week Second week Third week Fourth week
January Abel prize Students return Grades
February
March High school students visiting campus Easter
April New students apply
May Exams Exams Exams
June Exams Grades
July Summer course students
August New students arrive Students return
September
October
November Exams Exams
December Exams Exams

As you can see, their yearly plan includes events that matter to the university—like the Abel prize—and events that revolve around user needs—taking exams and getting grades.

Remember, social media is a push medium. You cannot push content when your audience is not ready to receive it, like interesting science news when everyone is gone skiing during the holidays. An editorial calendar that takes all these different dates into account can help you determine when your audience might be most receptive to your messages.

The weekly plan

The yearly plan lets you prepare for the bigger milestones, but a weekly plan helps you manage day-to-day details: which channels should we use, what do we want to achieve, and how should we measure success?

Here’s an example of a weekly plan of Facebook posts for the University of Oslo:

Date Day Timing Content Type KPI Result
Aug 10th Mo Morning Apply for student housing Link Link clicks and conversions 123 clicks, 14% conversion
Aug 11th Tu Noon Former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg says how much he misses his time as a student at UiO Video Views and shares
Aug 12th We Noon Join the opening party of the student festival Link with RSVP RSVPs 499 attending, 240 maybe

A plan like this makes it easier to craft your posts. You don’t have to scramble at the last minute to come up with ideas. You can make sure you have the pictures you need in advance. By keeping an eye on KPIs, you can track what kind of content your audience responds best to.

Improve your social media copy

Okay, you’ve cleared the clutter. You’ve made a plan. You know what to write about when and where. But how do you create great social content?

Don’t write alone

Yes, you can improve your writing in five minutes. The secret is writing with a partner, which does wonders for all kinds of copy. (This article was pair-written!) Writing with a partner helps give your copy a more consistent tone of voice. It’s also the quickest way to spot weak copy and avoid writer’s block. Pair writing is an opportunity to teach and learn better copywriting without sending a draft back and forth.

The seven questions

For each post, ask yourself, or your writing partner, seven questions designed to make your posts more purposeful and appealing:

  1. What’s the one thing you want people to do?
  2. Could it be shorter?
  3. Could it be clearer?
  4. Could you appeal to emotions?
  5. If not, can you make it useful, funny, or identity-enhancing?
  6. Is it in line with our tone of voice?
  7. Is the timing right?

(Credit for this checklist goes to digital fundraiser Beate Sørum; for more on the principles of crafting good content, see Erin Kissane’s great content checklist.)

Let’s dive a bit deeper into each question:

1. What’s the one thing you want people to do?

Don’t post just to “inform” or “share” something. You should never start composing a post if you don’t really know why you’re doing it or how it will meet your users’ needs.

This is where our approach to social media connects to the core model approach. A core is a piece of information or functionality where your users solve their task, and you reach a business objective. With a social media post, the key question is: is this post a forward path to something else or a core itself?

  • For example, if you want people to buy tickets for your conference, you’ll likely create a post that is a forward path to other content. You want people to click that link so they can purchase tickets, not just read or like the post. Adding a photo of a cute kitten might get you more likes, but it might be counterproductive as a forward path.
    Screenshot of a tweet from Confab Events advertising ticket prices with a link to purchase tickets.
    This tweet from Confab Events is a good example of a forward path to their core content.

     

  •  

  • If the post itself will solve user needs and help you reach your objectives simply by being perceived by your audience, then the post is the core. For example, one of the University of Oslo’s objectives is to help international students feel at home, so they post their event info directly to Facebook, where international students are more likely to see it, instead of on their website.

    Screenshot of a Facebook post from the University of Oslo advertising a student event with no link to additional content.
    This post from the University of Oslo is core content by itself: the user gets all the information they need. There is no need for further interaction.

     

2. Could it be shorter?

Twitter has already forced you down to 140 characters or less, but you should strive for brevity in all channels. You might think you have almost limitless characters on Facebook, but remember that Facebook cuts you short with the so-called blue link of death if your post is too wordy.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by writer Gretchen Rubin, showing that the post is cut off with a 'see more' link.
Don’t lose your content behind a “See More” link.

3. Could it be clearer?

Clarity is especially important if you are sharing a link. Users will read your post squeezed in between other posts that might be a lot more interesting than what you’re offering—clarity helps your link stand out in the feed.

The title, the description, and the thumbnail photo should be as clear as possible. Can you tell what the content is about just by reading the excerpt? (Remember that people who share your link will often not bother to add their own commentary).

4. Could you appeal to emotions?

Sharing is not a question of positive or negative emotions. Intensity and effect are more important. If you want to entice people to share or comment, try to evoke emotions that speed up pulses and make people lean closer to the screen: amazement rather than amusement, surprise rather than mere interest, and so on (as demonstrated by academic research).

5. If not, can you make it useful, funny, or identity-enhancing?

To share your content, users have to feel comfortable interacting with your content in front of their own channel audience.

Appealing to emotions can be useful, but it’s not always appropriate for the context or your brand. Instead, it may be more helpful to share content that allows people to demonstrate their knowledge—for instance, content that lets them debate a topic they are publicly engaged in. Humorous content might also appeal to sharing behaviors; humor can make people feel less nervous about sharing more sensitive topics.

Study your copy and ask: Would my users feel comfortable sharing this?

6. Is it in line with our tone of voice?

Content must always align with your brand. Emotional or humorous posts attract attention, but may be at odds with your organization’s tone of voice. You can help content creators by creating short guidelines for brand, voice and tone, and editorial style for crafting social media copy. (For further reading, check out these articles on personality in design and how to craft a design persona.)

7. Is this the right time?

One of the benefits of writing posts in advance is being able to plan the timing. Use analytics to see when your audience is most active, check your editorial calendar, and choose topics that will resonate for maximum impact. If your target audience has regular jobs, posting during lunch hour might be perfect. But if you are writing for students, posting late at night might not be such a bad idea.

Social needs to be part of your content strategy

Content strategy and governance didn’t emerge as a field overnight. It took years of baby steps. One of those important baby steps was simple writing guidelines, like using bulleted lists, headings, and links that don’t read “click here.” (Now’s the time to reread Kristina Halvorson’s article on content strategy from 2008.)

Many people still treat their company’s social media channels like we treated our own private accounts in 2009: they get an idea, they post it, they refresh and look for likes, end of strategy. Others are slaves to the ever-changing algorithms of Facebook and lose sight of the long-term goals.

If you take stock of your social channels, assign them key target groups, and establish channel-agnostic goals, you’ll have a head start on the competition. By allocating responsibility, creating a yearly plan, and drafting your posts in advance, your content will be more aligned with both your business goals and user needs. And, if nothing else, you can use pair writing and the seven questions to improve your next tweet straightaway.

In the words of Kristina Halvorson: “The web is content. Content is the web. It deserves our time and attention.” That is true for social content as well. We hope you are ready to reclaim social from marketing. We know we are.

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