The guide to social media etiquette for businesses

16th Aug 2010

A comprehensive list of how businesses should - and shouldn't - conduct themselves on different social media platforms.  

With the advent of consumer websites, watchdog organisations and the ongoing proliferation of new social media using more and more mobile and connected technology, customers are beginning to recognise that they wield more power over brands and organisations than ever before. They increasingly have the power to make their voice heard; they can make waves and, most importantly, they can play their part in making or breaking a brand through word of mouth.
With their reputations at stake, businesses need to raise their game in terms of how they interact with consumers. If companies don't take control or engage with their audiences to discuss how their brand is perceived and talked about, the conversations will continue to go on without them and they will be powerless to try and change opinion or resolve customer service issues. Entering the dialogue may not let brands control people's feelings (nor should it), but it does mean they can respond quickly and with credibility to any issues or queries.
Businesses who succeed in social media are those who maximise their customer service levels through listening and responding to what people are saying about their brand. However, it's vital that businesses get it right in terms of how they engage with their audiences. Tone, content and language should all be tailored according to whether the recipient is a customer, a prospect, a fan or a detractor – using a universal approach will only alienate people further. The key is to listen to what is being said, and by whom, and then ensure that the response acknowledges their position and their view, even if the response contradicts this position.  Brands should think of such exchanges as mini business meetings – they would never go into a meeting with a 'one fits all' solution or without preparing their material to suit their audience, so why should the approach to social media conversations be any different?
The backlash from failing to follow social media etiquette can be disastrous; the list of brands who have got it wrong (Dell, Habitat, Dr Pepper) is both long and achingly familiar. The difference between a customer service problem offline and one which occurs in a social media environment is the sheer scale; there is nowhere to hide online and the viral nature of the channels mean that bad news not only spreads like wildfire but also lasts forever. There is no use in trying to cover up negativity either; any attempts to quash, hide or delete unflattering comments will be spotted by eagle-eyed users and will only add insult to injury. The only way that brands can recover from such a disaster is by their response; Dell and Dominos Pizzas are good examples of how a bad reputation can be turned around through investing heavily in a focused social media strategy.
It's not just bad reactions to negative comments that get companies in trouble - brands can also get it badly wrong when proactively promoting their products and services. Approaching bloggers and those who are very active in the social media space can be very damaging; if the contact is unsolicited it must be relevant and properly targeted, otherwise it will be perceived as spam, a view that can quickly be spread throughout their online network. Similarly, even if the audience for your promotion is right, it can still all go wrong unless the tone is right. Failure to humanise contact through personalisation and targeting can result in very low or no engagement around a campaign – or worse, a significant negative impact. Blacklists for PRs and brands still exist amongst bloggers and they are not afraid to name and shame the worst offenders.

General dos and don'ts for those using social media

Do put a comms strategy in place. Having an engagement framework in place will make it much easier to keep control of the who, where, what and why of the conversations you're prepared to have with consumers.
Do develop a style. Tone of voice will need to be different for each audience and situation, but make sure that your brand personality comes through in everything you do. If relevant, incorporate your brand values and where appropriate, use first person language to humanise the conversation.
Don't use social media for corporate comms. Updates on your business development and financial status belong on your official website and your 'information for investors' page. Even if you are operating in a B2B environment, sending this information out via social channels will only make you seem detached from your customers.
Do strike the right balance between conversation and sales. Nobody wants to receive an overt sales pitch via social media, but be honest about why you are talking to consumers. Ignoring the fact that you have something to offer will make you seem disingenuous and untrustworthy.
Do set limits for what you will and won't tolerate in any channel. Just because you want to seem approachable and conversational doesn't mean you have to put up with abusive comments from consumers. Consider the following:
  • Foul, abusive, defamatory etc. get deleted
  • Difficult questions get escalated/answered
  • Be sure limits align with Ts & Cs for each channel
Don't be afraid to vary your strategy per channel. Don't just assume all social media channels work in the same way. Different networks have different user profiles, so the tone and content used for one will not necessarily work for another.
However, do be consistent. Make sure you use the same URL naming convention across all channels, to avoid confusion. For example:, etc.
Don't forget to update your content. There is nothing worse than starting a twitter feed which is active and updated for the first three weeks but then goes silent, or a Facebook page which still has reference to an event which occurred three months ago on a landing page tab. Social media needs to be a constant consistent investment and can be a full-time job, so make sure you have the resources to keep your channels manned and your information up to date.

Facebook-specific etiquette

  • Abide by terms of service and follow your engagement framework.
  • Brand your profile – but don't cover it in sales messages.
  • Take sensitive customer queries into a private sphere – on or offline.
  • Remember all wall posts are public – don't write anything you don't want others to see.
  • Make all updates frequent and relevant.
  • Don't swamp your users. Too many updates will impact 'People who like' numbers. Sometimes too much information can be as bad as no information at all.
  • Use language relevant to the channel and your target demographic.
  • Show your appreciation. Don't forget to acknowledge positive comments and ensure that you are conversing with consumers rather than talking at them.
  • Do ask questions on wall posts – but follow up and respond to any feedback you receive.

Twitter-specific etiquette

  • Abide by terms of service and follow your engagement framework.
  • If using for outreach or active engagement – introduce yourself first.
  • Develop a tone of voice and personality – tweets are effectively short blogs so you'll need to be creative.
  • Don't consistently ask for re-tweets. Your content and tone of voice should earn you these through quality.
  • Brevity is important – keep it as short and sweet as possible (far less than 140 if you can).
  • Use link shorteners like for links.
  • Don't automate updates - RSS feeds don't make good Twitter content.
  • Don't automatically follow someone who complains about you – it could be seen as stalking and make things worse.
  • Don't just self promote. Recognise that successful business profiles don't sell directly on Twitter – it's a knowledge sharing and conversation channel, and conversation-based customer service will sell your business/brand much better than sales pitches will.
  • Answer all questions directed at you (using @username or Direct message). Be speedy and relevant. Twitter is fast moving and it's easy to be left behind.
  • Follow back wherever relevant; everyone from customers to competitors will be an interesting source of information for you.
  • Report spammers: it helps to maintain the health of the network.
  • Don't spam or sell through Direct Message: it will get you un followed.

YouTube-specific etiquette

  • Abide by terms of service and follow your engagement framework.
  • Have a thick skin. YouTube commentators can be notoriously vicious, and many comments are not constructive. Don't take it to heart, and don't argue – you'll only fan the flames.
  • Use video replies. YouTube is more than a broadcast platform. As with the hugely successful Old Spice campaign, video replies to feedback can be powerful and are a good way of spreading a message. British Airways also showed during the recent strike period that such replies can do a lot to reassure and inform customers in times of crisis.
  • Acknowledge comments, and thank those who are being positive about your brand.

LinkedIn-specific etiquette

  • Abide by terms of service and follow your engagement framework.
  • Join groups and contribute your relevant experience.
  • Answer questions and contribute to shared pages and communities.
  • Don't harvest contacts for external use; build contacts within the network.
  • Obvious – but don't ask for references unless you know the person or have genuinely delivered great service.
  • Always explain who you are in an unsolicited contact. Don't assume they will look at your profile.
  • Consider developing a corporate presence. It can be costly but value can be gained through sponsoring events etc. which will raise your profile to the LinkedIn community.
  • Don't try to directly sell to people unless you know them well.
  • Don't be self promoting - let your reputation and profile speak for itself.

Simon Quance is head of social media strategy at 20:20.

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