The sharp and spiraling decline of writing ability has been well-documented, blamed all too frequently on the rise of text messaging, emoji, SnapChat, and spellcheck. In a world in which social media platforms prize updates that are pithy and to-the-point, it’s no wonder we’ve come to communicate in visual, hashtagged, and often grammatically-incorrect ways. Still, the proliferation of social media has also created a new breed of writers. These artists are (at their best) masters of brevity and cultural connoisseurs. But what does it take to really write effectively in social media?
Unsurprisingly, the best social media writers are natural communicators. Embracing Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is not a prerequisite, but it’s certainly helpful to those looking to learn the tried-and-true tips to writing well. After all, as every English teacher on earth has said, we need to understand the rules before we break them. (#protip: For a more modern and enjoyable take on writing style, skip Strunk and White and pick up Spunk and Bite and maybe listen to Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.”) But regardless of whether or not great social media writers are fanatical about the grammatical, they’re individuals who embrace three critical elements of effective communication.
- Understanding the Platform. It’s no secret: it’s impossible to write well without understanding the channel, its challenges and opportunities, the rules of the road and how they’ve changed. In the era BT (Before Twitter), the # symbol had merely designated numbers. Thanks to social media, that tiny number sign has been completely redefined. Now, this little guy’s corralling conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and more. But it’s not just having a handle on hashtags and how to use them; it’s also understanding the necessities for keeping posts relevant and interesting for users. Context counts, especially when social media streams clutter conversations. Simpler posts that focus on essential information are best for ensuring that content resonates with users – no matter what kind of content surrounds it. Whether it’s Facebook’s EdgeRank (the algorithm that determines what pieces of content a user sees and when), Twitter’s 140-character limit, or reddit’s casual and quirky community-centric style, social platforms parameters require education, experimentation, and enthusiasm for their constant evolution.
- Understanding the Audience. What kind of people comprise the audiences for each brand, campaign, channel, and experience? What do they care about, want, and need? Whether they’re male or female, affluent or aspiring, old or young, active or passive, understanding the groups of people who make up the audience for a brand is crucial to writing effectively. But more important than just having demographic and psychographic information is understanding where the sweet spot, in which brand audiences and platform audiences intersect, lies. At PR News’ 2013 Digital PR Summit, reddit’s Marta Gossage (community operations manager) and Victoria Taylor (director of communications) divided social media audiences into two groups: those looking to show off “frontstage behavior” (the way users want to portray themselves to the world, which is possible on platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn), and those looking to embrace “backstage behavior” (the way people think and feel when they’re being their true selves, which is more possible on platforms like reddit and Whisper). Which audience is more closely aligned with a particular brand? Keep in mind that understanding that the audiences for a brand and a social media platform do not overlap is as important as identifying the fact that they do.
- Understanding the Brand. Corporate and individual social media participants have one thing in common, no matter their follower:following ratio – each is at a unique stage in its lifecycle. Understanding whether a brand is aiming to attract potential clients, convert leads to customers, or build a loyal community of brand advocates is essential to determining brand and platform goals, optimizing content, and (of course) writing well.
There are a lot of naysayers out there, but sometimes it’s important to go the Candy Mountain route circa ‘07 and shun the non-believers, you know? Social media is, in a lot of ways, making us better, more thoughtful writers and more interested, more interesting consumers of content. And in a social landscape that’s constantly being recreated and reevaluated, that’s those are the best things we can be.
This post originally appeared on the Advertising Week Social Club here and is based on a guest lecture I gave at the University of the Arts.