Advice For Getting Started With Social Media

As a Web designer, I’m naturally asked questions about other online communications tools, such as blogging, Facebook or Twitter. Most of my clients are pretty intimidated by the rough and tumble world of social media communication. “How do I know what to say (or more importantly what not to say)?!”

different smiley facesOne of the main bits of advice I give anyone who is starting a relationship with social media is this:
Always remember that there is no emotion included in the letters you type. There is no humor, there is no irony, there is no sarcasm, there is no body language. Words can convey those things, but we need to remember that most people won’t be able to put our words into context when we type them. Without knowing if the writer is angry, or happy, or saying something jokingly by seeing his/her facial expression and body posture, it is up to us as readers to fill in the blanks. And we will, and we do, often in unexpected and unwanted ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to be paralyzed with fear over written communication. It is still possible to communicate in meaningful ways when we aren’t face to face with each other. It does mean that we need to expect to be taken the wrong way at times and make sure we’re always ready to clarify without becoming defensive. It also means that we need to maintain a careful balance between sincerity and professionalism in what we share. And we do need to realize that there are people who misuse social media and the seeming anonymity it may grant them. We have little to no control over what people who don’t care about maintaining a reputation will do or say, but that doesn’t invalidate the benefits of using these open communications channels, at least not yet.

Business social media done right gives us a tiny glimpse into the people behind products and companies, their passions, their interests, and their desire to share what makes them tick with the rest of the world. It can be dangerous, but amazingly rewarding on a personal as well as professional level. But most of us don’t want to know those business people at a level that makes us angry or uncomfortable. There is such a thing as TMI (too much information).

Because the words we use make up a fraction of what is involved in really meaningful communication, we need to be as clear as possible when using those words. There is so much more context that is required to be a truly effective communicator. You’ll notice I used italics to provide some emphasis in my opening paragraph. We do have tools at our fingertips (I’m going to point out that I smirked at my own pun just now, in case you missed it.). Great authors manage to write in ways that make us laugh, cry, and build pictures in our minds of people and places. We have become adept at infusing our written words with emotional context. But we can never take for granted that we have succeeded in doing so.

I usually recommend a buddy system to someone who is planning to do personal social media content. If you are new to this and not sure how your words will be taken, have at least one other person read them before they go live. Most of us don’t have controversial things to say, but a lot of us do have opinions to share. If you are concerned about how your opinions might be interpreted, hit someone else with them cold. Provide as little context as possible and see how they react. Granted, anyone you trust enough to vet your writing is going to already have a lot of context that the rest of the world is missing. They will know more about you than most people, but it is still a good safety valve.

You don’t need an ad agency or a public relations department to write your content, that isn’t what I mean. Frankly, I believe that most people can tell the difference between personal content and ghost written content and will respond accordingly. If your advertising department posted something on Facebook about the latest and greatest thing your company is making available, I’m probably going to treat it the same way I would treat the ad sitting in my mailbox. If the company president shared her/his excitement about what an amazing job the widgets department did and how grateful she/he is at how hard they worked to produce it, I’m a lot more likely to be curious about the widget a bunch of dedicated people just made.

Sincerity matters and giving people a peek behind the curtain is an amazingly powerful side effect of having a good relationship with social media. Use your words, your own words, use them wisely and well and you may find that this rough and tumble world is also a lot of fun. And you may make some pretty amazing connections with the people who are touched by the words you choose. But always remember that until those people know you, you can never assume that they will take your words in the spirit in which you think you wrote them. And they certainly won’t see the smirk on your face as you laugh at your own jokes.