How to Create a Social Media Style Guide for Your Business

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Want to document how your business should market and communicate on social media? Wondering what you should cover?

In this article, you’ll find seven critical elements to include when you create a social media marketing style guide.

#1: Define Your Brand Identity

Before diving into the details of creating a social media style guide, you need to get the essentials straight. You need to define:

  • Your brand identity
  • Your objectives for social media

Hopefully, you already have a brand identity. Check your general marketing plan for a mission statement or positioning statement. If you haven’t written one yet, have a go at filling in the gaps on this basic statement:

graphic of marketing positioning statement

The formula is deceptively simple. If you haven’t thought about your brand identity before, be prepared to invest some serious time in completing the sentence above.

#2: Declare Your Social Media Marketing Objectives

Once you know who you are, start thinking about what you want to achieve. When it comes to social media planning, you basically have three objectives available to you: reach new audiences, convert to customers, and retain customers.

graphic of social media objectives

I borrowed this set of objectives from Kirstie Smith, and I think it’s a helpful way to break down your approach to social media. Some brands will choose to focus on just one objective. Other brands will need the full list. You might even tailor your strategy so you’re pursuing objectives 1 and 2 on Twitter but going for objective 3 on Facebook.

Bear in mind that your objectives can change over time. You’ll have different goals, strategies, and social channels for different markets. You’ll try new things and learn lessons over time. So whenever I create a social media style guide, I add a date above the table of contents, nice and large, as shown in the image below.

screenshot of social media style guide table of contents

#3: Choose Your Social Networks

The next step is to make a list of all of the social networks your business currently uses. Don’t leave anything off the list, even if it’s a network you’ve neglected recently. If you have an account, put it on the list.

Now examine the list critically. Is anything missing? How does each network fit your aims for social media? If you have multiple objectives, as discussed above, you could try sorting your list of social networks into different buckets like reach, convert, and retain.

ALT

However, you also need to be realistic at this point. Think about the size and skill set of your team, and ask how many social networks they can reasonably support.

Most content can be repurposed. To visualize this, the same images could be resized and used across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. But all of that takes time. If your resources are limited, choose just a few networks to prioritize. In your social media style guide, set clear expectations for how often you’ll post on each social network and what kind of content to use.

#4: Determine Your Brand Voice

Every social network has its own style, from influencer-heavy Instagram to Twitter snark. Some have even tried to portray social networks as different Disney princesses or superheroes.

screenshot of article with infographic depicting social networks as superheroes

But, while bearing these different styles in mind, it’s more important to find your own brand voice. This voice should be consistent with your brand values and resonate with your target audience.

Finding your voice is something that benefits from a team effort. Try setting up a board full of sticky notes (virtual or analog) and encouraging everyone on your team to share a few keywords. Look out for words that are repeated or get a strong reaction from the group. And if everyone chooses totally different words, well… you might have some work to do on projecting a coherent brand image.

Try to condense those insights into a single sentence. To illustrate, the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Twitter might describe its voice as “informative, inclusive, friendly, whimsical, pun-filled.” Its mix of cute animal updates and corny dad-jokes is perfectly designed to appeal to an audience of families, school groups, and ocean-lovers.

tweet from Monterey Bay Aquarium as an example of a brand's social media voice

Meanwhile, the notorious Steak-Umm Twitter account is more “surrealist, sarcastic, self-conscious, chaotic neutral.” That’s a pretty good pitch for reaching disenchanted Millennials in search of comfort food.

tweet from Steak-Umm as an example of a brand's social media voice

Of course, that particular brand voice is not for everyone. But whatever style you settle on, you have to be consistent. As we all know, consistency is a vital element of brand trust. This means that if you decide to change your style, you need to introduce the changes in the right way.

There are two options here: You can gradually introduce the new voice or go for a radical restart. One of the famous examples of this was Coca-Cola, which deleted all of their Instagram posts last year so they could start fresh with a campaign for kindness on social media.

Instagram profile for Coca-Cola

You also need to specify practical details about your brand voice. Do you use emojis? GIFs? Does your brand engage with memes or steer clear? How do you interact with your competitors on social media (if at all)?

These might seem like minor points but you’d be surprised by how many people hold different views—and often hold them very strongly. It’s better to map out the details now so your team can freely create within the boundaries you set, rather than micromanaging every post later on.

#5: Outline the Rules of Engagement on Social Media

We’ve talked about your aims, we’ve talked about your voice. This is where those elements start to come together.

Your goals on social media include reach, convert, and retain. Your tone and content should fulfill those objectives. I like to think of it in this format:

graphic of social media objectives and methods

I’m going beyond the standard inbound marketing funnel here because social media isn’t just about getting customers; it’s also a way of maintaining customer relationships.

The first two points—attract and inform—are mostly outward-looking. By that I mean you’re creating posts and pushing ads that draw more people toward your brand. The inform stage also involves some one-to-one responses as you answer questions from people who are considering a purchase.

The final point—serve—includes both customer service and social listening. Increasingly, people use social media as a customer service channel. In addition to direct customer queries and complaints, you should also be using social listening to find more potential customers.

Unlike other forms of planned content, this kind of responsive, service-oriented social media is very fast-moving, and it can take up a lot of time unless you use social listening automation tools. In your social media style guide, lay out your processes for handling customer queries and complaints. I also find it helpful to make a list of key social listening terms for your team to track.

Content Creation and Curation

You might think of content as something that happens after you write your social media style guide. You pick a network, choose a goal, define your voice, and then… content just sort of happens, right?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. In your social media style guide, I recommend making a few key decisions about content such as:

  • Do we only share in-house content or also content from other sources?
  • If we share both in-house and external content, what’s the ratio between the two content types?
  • How do we source and approve external content? (I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of interesting articles and industry news, but some scheduling tools like ContentCal [free and paid plans, starting at $13/month] will do this job for you.)
  • How much do we schedule and how much do we post spontaneously?
  • What scheduling tools do we prefer? (There’s a huge range out there, from free tools like TweetDeck [shown below] or Creator Studio, to premium services with extra features.)
  • Which content formats do we use for which social networks?
  • Do we record what we’ve posted? Where? How?

screenshot of TweetDeck showing scheduling and social listening tools

You want to set expectations for the content you post and design workflows so your team can work as efficiently as possible.

Some teams will also have a system for approving social media posts before they go out. However, I’m kind of anti-approval; if you’ve hired a good team and written a good social media guide, you should trust your people to do their jobs. Approval systems slow down your social media and can cause “death by committee.”

Crisis Management

Nobody wants to deal with a social media crisis but your social media style guide isn’t complete without some disaster planning. Because social networks are so immediate, a scandal or disagreement can blow up very quickly. You’ll need a crisis management plan just in case.

Be clear about who takes charge in a crisis; you don’t want multiple people posting contradictory messages. Write a list of “instant response” actions such as pausing or canceling any scheduled posts. (This can also be a good move in moments of wider crisis. If an international tragedy takes place, you probably don’t want to be posting status updates about your latest discounts.)

With both individual complaints and general crises, you want to move things off the public platform as soon as possible. Encourage your team to contact disgruntled followers via direct message. Even in a crisis, they should maintain your normal brand voice, without being flippant or dismissive.

Finally: never, ever respond to insults or abuse. If there’s a legitimate grievance in the message, your team should respond to that alone. Remind them to step away, take a breath, and never lose their temper online.

#6: Detail Your Measurement and Attribution

Most marketers are now convinced of the value of social media. The only difficulty is proving it. That’s where attribution comes in: being able to show where your clicks are coming from. And just like your brand voice, an attribution strategy only works if you use it consistently. So it’s worth setting out the details in your social media style guide.

I recommend including a brief explanation of UTMs because it’s surprising how few people actually understand them. You can also list your preferred tools such as the free Campaign URL Builder by Google Analytics.

Google Analytics Campaign URL Builder tool setup screen

This is also a good moment to cover other link-related tools such as link shorteners, link services, and quick-fix tools like the Facebook Debugger. If you have specific strategies for sharing links (for instance, on tricky networks like Instagram or LinkedIn), then explain them in detail.

#7: Assign Staff Roles

In its most basic form, social media is about people, so the people on your team are your greatest asset. And I don’t just mean your social media specialists. Everyone who works for you has something to contribute online.

That can be behind the scenes: suggesting content to share, spotting influencers, or suggesting accounts to follow. Or it can be more public: sharing profiles of your team, getting different departments to do social media takeovers, or filming video tutorials with your in-house experts.

How much of this work you do depends on what you and your team feel comfortable doing. Some people take to the limelight, others can’t imagine anything worse.

example of Instagram story showcasing employees

You can also encourage your team to be active on social media with their own accounts. For example, you could use LinkedIn profiles to build your industry reputation and thought leadership or Instagram profiles to create an aspirational image around your brand.

However, if you go down this route, you have to let people be themselves. You don’t want a repeat of the Amazon FC Ambassador story. If employees plan to tweet about their work, give them a clear set of guidelines to follow. If you don’t want employees to post publicly about their work, make that clear too. Once again, the idea is to set clear expectations so you can trust people to act independently.

Conclusion

This article covers a lot of ground and it might seem a little bit overwhelming. However, once you’ve taken the time to write a comprehensive social media style guide, you and your team will have a much easier time online. With clear objectives, expectations, and processes, your business can be more efficient, responsive, and successful on social media.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions about what to include in a social media style guide? Tell us in the comments!

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