Social media usability: Content & activities

10 November 2013
Marianne Brierley

Author: Marianne Brierley

Making people happy through listening and observing, or with the occasional slice of cake.

Organisations’ social media must deliver a clear benefit to the audience. Other usability considerations include having: a strong audience-focus, appropriate timing and custom copywriting.

The first rule of social media is: social media is generally used to engage with friends and family, not organisations. The second rule of social media is: this makes social media a very challenging environment for most organisations.

Of course, there are exceptions – it’s relatively easy, for example, to use social media to promote something sexy (such as upcoming film releases, sporting news or celebrity gossip). With topics that people are already interested in, social media is an easy-sell and. It’s altogether more difficult, however, to use social media to keep one’s audience engaged with more prosaic products/services.

There are, however, some powerful usability guidelines which can help support organisations in developing a social media offering that engages their audience. No usability guidelines can ever guarantee success – but within the crowded social media landscape, every competitive advantage counts!

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Deliver benefit – social media’s business challenge

Perhaps the most important factor in the usability of an organisation’s social media activity is that it should deliver something the audience wants. An organisation must put aside any hubris or ego and honestly evaluate whether or not it is able to generate social media content/activity which will prove attractive to its target audience.

This is a good reason why not every organisation should necessarily engage in social media activity. Social media is a very specific channel which should be used in a very specific way. If an organisation uses it poorly or inappropriately, it runs the risk of looking hopelessly out of touch – rather like an embarrassing relative dancing at a wedding.

Some types of message have, however, proven consistently popular and effective within the social media channel. As such, considering these types of content can help identify potential ways an organisation could exploit social media:

  • Special offers – Exclusive special offers can be a great way to incentivise people to stay engaged with your organisation’s social media presence. It also guarantees that your social media channel will have unique content.
  • News & updates – Coverage of any relevant – and interesting – breaking news can be a great use of your social media channel. The delivery of time-critical information can be a real usability strength in social media.
  • Entertainment – Enjoyment is an intrinsic motivator, so it’s always good to try and find ways of providing entertaining social media content. Note: we would recommend focusing on simple ideas rather than large, complicated projects.
  • Useful tools – Providing something that’s useful to your audience can be a great way of staying engaged with them. Note: the content/functionality doesn’t need to be unique – it simply needs to be more usable, better promoted and/or lower cost than existing alternatives.

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We would also recommend that you consider offering a variety of social media content and activities. Many organisations find that this helps to stop social media messages becoming too predictable and keeps audiences engaged.

It can also be useful to split different types of content between different social media platforms, rather than duplicating everything across all platforms. This is not only because certain content may suit a particular platform better (for example: Twitter may be appropriate for time-critical content), but also because it encourages the audience to engage cross different platforms.

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Audience focus – importance to social media usability

It’s critical that an organisation’s social media activity/content delivers value to its audience. To help achieve this, it’s often a good idea to consider whether social media can target different audiences separately. It may not always be feasible (or even desirable) to provide different audiences with their own dedicated social media channel, but it is certainly worth considering.

The main ways in which social media activity/content might be made more targeted are by considering the following issues:

  • Country & language – It’s good usability practice to consider the requirements of different audiences, including specific countries or regions. This also applies to the usability of social media content & activities. It’s always a good usability idea to consider whether different counties and/or languages require their own social media content/activity.
  • Product/Service – Organisations with a wide range of products/services may find that they have very distinct sub-audiences. Indeed, some audiences relate far more strongly to a specific (normally branded) product/service than to the overall organisation. In such cases, it may be advisable to consider providing some products/services with a dedicated social media channel.
  • Stakeholder – Many corporate websites support good usability by serving their different stakeholders’ varying information needs through specific sub-sections (for example: Customers, Suppliers, Investors and Press). A similar demarcation could be considered within an organisation’s social media channels, so that each audience only receives content that’s relevant to them.

The above suggestions are not exhaustive, but they provide some ideas on how to improve the usability of social media by ensuring its targeting at specific audiences. We would recommend that any organisation seriously consider this issue, as targeted social media content/activity is more likely to deliver value.

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Timing – social media usability factor

As previously discussed, most people use social media to keep in touch with friends and family. This means that their tolerance of an organisation’s social media activity is likely to be low. In this usability context, it’s important that an organisation’s social media messaging is sensitive to the degree of engagement its audience consider appropriate. Some of the relevant usability issues to consider include:

  • Frequency – Posting social media content too regularly has been found to annoy most audiences. In general, we would recommend posting no more than once a week (if you can deliver content that often which your audience will find valuable). The main exceptions to this tend to occur with inherently sexy content, such as: upcoming film releases, sporting news or celebrity gossip.
  • Regularity – Setting and meeting user expectations is a fundamental principle of usability. Unsurprisingly, most people like to know when to expect social media content, so we would recommend that organisations plan a regular posting timetable.
  • Scheduling – Our experience suggests that most people access social media before or after work (during weekdays). This would indicate that social media messaging should be posted around these times (in order to avoid the usability issue of its being pushed out of view by other messages). Note: some organisations have also experienced good results posting social media content at weekends.
  • Responding – It is important to consider how your audience’s reactions to your social media content will be monitored and responded to. For example: are there guidelines for when – and how – audience feedback will be responded to? In general, we would recommend that a response (if needed) is provided within 24 hours.

These general usability guidelines for social media activity are a good start, but their application should always be informed by an understanding of the audience’s preferences and behaviours.

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Content & copywriting – usability of social media

High quality copywriting is essential to the success of an organisation’s social media messaging. After all, it is the words which will determine how effectively your social media message attracts attention and communicates your message!

Here are some good usability guidelines to bear in mind when composing your social media content:

  • Bespoke – Perhaps the most important usability guideline for social media content is that it should be written specifically for the medium. It’s not enough to simply ‘cut and paste’ existing content – social media is its own channel with its own specific characteristics.
  • Tone of Voice – Social media messages should generally have a less formal tone than other modes of communication. They should, however, make it clear that they are written on the organisation’s behalf (for example: using ‘we’ instead of ‘they’).
  • Single topic – As with all good web copywriting, social media messages benefit from focusing on a single topic. We would recommend this usability guideline for all social media messaging.
  • Start strong – Powerful and informative words should be used at the start of social media content. This will help your social media content communicate its core message as soon as possible to its audience. Following this usability guideline is a particularly important factor when one considers than many people quickly scan – rather than read – their social media messages.
  • Avoid abbreviations or ‘SMS/text speak’ – You can’t assume everyone will understand (or like) these terms, so it is generally best to avoid them.
  • Concise – Keep your messages as short as you can. Remember: people use social media to stay in touch with friends and family, not to engage with organisations. Here are a few tips:
  • Name checks – don’t ‘sign’ messages or include the organisation’s name in the message (your details will be shown next to the message).
  • Links – provide links to more detailed content (using short and informative link text where possible).
  • Note – due to Twitter’s current 140 character limit, it’s a good idea to keep tweets below 120 characters. This will allow 20 characters for people to retweet (RT) the message.

Most of these social media usability guidelines also apply to all online copywriting. They do, however, become even more important within social media because we have less content – and user attention – at our disposal!

As always, however, these usability guidelines should be applied in a way that is appropriate to, and relevant for, one’s audience.

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Usability of social media messages

Social media is generally used by people for interacting with friends and family, not organisations. This means that organisations need to be very careful (and considered) in how they use social media. A key usability concern is ensuring that your organisation’s social media messages deliver the audience some benefit and are not simply ‘fluff’.

Ways to help deliver this benefit include: focusing on your target audience(s), making sure the timing of your social media messages is appropriate and creating social media messages which are well-written for the medium.

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