The Right Way to Be Online

The world of social media is packed to the gills with places you can hang your shingle. You can probably think of a dozen different platforms right now off the top of your head and another half-dozen with just a couple Google searches. Each of those platforms has its strengths and weaknesses and a small horde of people who want you to use them. Indeed, you can read over the agendas of the various social media conferences and find panels on Twitter; Facebook; blogs; podcasts; YouTube, Vimeo, and Vine; picture-based platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat; and a few you’d probably never heard of until you read about them on the agenda.

Of course, these conference panels say, you need to be on all of them. How else will you grow your organization? How will you spread your message to the millions who are eager to hear if you’re not plugged in online? Some answers are coming, in bullet-point form (because BuzzFeed told me bullet points are TEH HAWTNESS and goodness knows, we all want to be on the cutting edge, don’t we?) but first let’s tackle one big point. I like to be as positive as I can, but I need to start with one very large negative.

You don’t have to be everywhere.

Some social media experts, like Gary Vaynerchuk, teach that you need to have a presence on as many platforms as you can. As much as I love what Gary V. does, and how he does it, this isn’t a great idea for most of us. Too many people (and organizations) stretch themselves too thin because they believe they have to have a blog, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, a Pinterest account, an Instagram account, hang out on Reddit, a podcast, a videocast, and a newsletter all at the same time. Do you have the time to keep up on all of those accounts in a way that’s anything but cursory and fake? I sure don’t, and unless an organization is willing to invest heavily in the staff and resources to properly manage these platforms, they won’t be able to keep up either. 

If you spread yourself too thin, you trade authenticity for visibility, which is a bad deal. If links are the currency of social media, authenticity is the vault full of gold that underpins their worth. (tweetable) It is far better to have a real presence on just a couple or three platforms than an automated, broadcast-only, talk to people every few weeks presence on five or six.

So how do you pick those platforms? Here are three guidelines you can use to establish where you ought to be in social media to get your message out the best way possible.

1) Go where your people are. Who are “your people”? They are the folks to whom you want to converse with the most. Depending on what you want to do, you may want to go where you can find fellow-travelers or you may want to introduce yourself to strangers. Your message may be best-suited for a younger audience or an older one, which will help determine where you want to be. Did you know that older users are swarming to Facebook and Twitter and younger users are discovering Tumblr? Regardless, you need to identify who those folks are and where they are, then get there.

2) Give them what they want. Everyone has expectations for what they want from the people they follow on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or what have you. Often times those expectations are built by the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms themselves. Very few people follow a Tumblr account to get long posts, like you’d find on a more conventional blog. Pinterest users are there for the photos that link to cool and useful things while Instagrammers are there for the pictures themselves. Tweeters dig short and pithy. Get my point? You can get clues about what people want by where they are and who they follow. Once you know that, give them what they want. Simple, right? You’d be surprised. Read through the Twitter timelines of a few political organizations and see how many folks truly don’t get what people want.

3) Listen, listen, listen, talk, listen. Connections forged from conversation are the key to every successful social media account. (tweetable) Even if you’re just posting pictures to Pinterest or Instagram, listen to what people there are saying and talk back to them. Let them know you value their time and attention by sharing some of yours with them directly. Conversations don’t take up much time, at least not compared to a blizzard of broadcast posts, and they carry a lot of weight later. Listen a lot to what your audience tells you, then talk back with them. Share some of their content to draw them into conversations with others. Feature some of the best conversations on your platform (Look! Free content for you!). Listen a lot and talk “strategically”.

We live in an age of wonders, when one person with an internet connection and hustle can reach more people than a giant newspaper company. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to use every tool in the online arsenal. Do online outreach the right way, on the the platforms that are right for you, and you’ll get the audience you want without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity. That’s a win.