How much do you really know about social media? If you thought it was all Facebook and Twitter, with a smattering of LinkedIn, think again. Here is our quick A-to-Z guide to the current world of social media.
Social media platforms generally fall into one of three groups:
- Traditional social media, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Platforms where users can share content on a more or less public scale, depending on settings, and which are widely used either globally or across a particular demographic.
- Collaboration tools such as Slack and Facebook Workplace, generally designed for sharing content within an organisation.
- Messaging services such as WhatsApp, which usually provide voice calling, instant messaging and group messaging.
What is it? A way to create your own personal home page from which to share content and ideas, and therefore ‘take control of your online identity’. You can link it to all your other social media identities, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Best used for: Centralising your content, and creating a coherent online image of yourself, linking together all your online activity. Particularly good for consultants and people who work across multiple organisations.
Don’t use: By itself. You need the other social media platforms to share your content more widely and to get more reach.
Points to note: You can update to the Pro version if you are prepared to pay, and that gives you some extras, such as connecting to a domain, customer support, and better personalisation of your about.me page.
What is it? One of the biggest social networking sites, with over 1 billion active users. Now increasingly used by businesses even for B2B because of its sheer size.
Best used for: Having the potential to reach large numbers of people—but only really through Groups, not via business Pages.
Don’t use for: Organic reach. Businesses need to be prepared to pay to play on Facebook.
Points to note: Facebook Groups are a good way for businesses to engage with customers—far better than pages, because individuals can start conversations in groups. Businesses can expect to pay to use Facebook—that is the site’s main business model.
What is it? A messaging service, originally for Facebook users, but now also a stand-alone app that allows voice calling. Group chats are possible, and there is also a platform that allows bots to participate in these, for example, by providing news updates or receipts.
Best used for: One-to-one or small group conversations where you don’t want the conversation to be public, for example, when dealing with a customer complaint.
Don’t use for: Anything that you want to be public.
Points to note: You can message people even when you are not friends on Facebook, making it useful for customer service interactions. There is no way to log out of the Messenger app. Some sources have criticised the security levels and encryption.
What is it? Facebook’s collaborative platform for teams and businesses. It is, effectively, an internal social network for your business, with the familiar news feed, likes and shares. It allows groups, messaging and chats, and calling between colleagues.
Best used for: Organising work within a team or organisation; to support collaboration and information-sharing across and within teams.
Don’t use: If you want to share content outside your organisation.
Points to note: There is a free version, or you can upgrade to the premium version for additional features such as customer support and access to APIs. Registered non-profits can upgrade for free.
What is it? A social platform for developers, used as a repository of open source code. Developers can host and source code, and also manage projects and build software.
Best used for: Developing and sharing code, or sourcing code for a particular project.
Don’t use for: Any other social interactions!
Points to note: Code on GitHub is open source, but users like to be credited for their code if you use it. If you use someone else’s code substantively to make a commercial application, it is probably reasonable to offer to share some of the royalties or profits as well as giving them some credit.
What is it? A photo-sharing site owned by Facebook. Each post consists of a photo or other picture with a few words attached, and usually four or five hashtags.
Best used for: Building your company and brand profile, employee engagement, and engaging with your potential customers in a fun and interesting way.
Don’t use for: Anything boring. People use Instagram for fun, so your content needs to be interesting, and quite possibly even quirky for maximum impact.
Points to note: Instagram is the social media site where B2B brands see the most engagement, as measured by interactions per post per 1000 followers. Its users are very active. It’s also the fastest growing social media site. Hashtags are very effective in Instagram, so get sharing.
What is it? The top business and professional networking site, but LinkedIn is so much more than a way to connect with former and current colleagues. It is also a publishing platform, jobs and recruitment market, and networking platform for shared professional interests via its groups.
Best used for: Business networking, content sharing, and job advertising or hunting. It is also a good way to keep in touch with business associates who are not personal friends.
Don’t use for: Interacting with friends. It’s a business network.
Points to note: LinkedIn is the biggest B2B social networking site. If you are only using one B2B platform, this should probably be it.
What is it? An online publishing platform: a platform designed for sharing content that anyone can read. The business model is also known as ‘social journalism’. It is commonly used as a blog host.
Best used for: Hosting your blog if you do not have a business domain of your own, or as an additional site for sharing long-form content with a wider audience.
Don’t use for: Short-form content. That’s what Twitter or Tumblr are for.
Points to note: Medium’s focus is quality, not quantity. Its standard metric is the time that users spend reading content on the site, not clicks, unique visitors, or any of the other usual metrics for social media. It also offers paid membership options, with access to unique content.
What is it? A way to collect ideas in the form of images. Users can ‘pin’ images to a pinboard, and others can look at these pinboards, and ‘repin’ individual images. It is therefore a way of curating and collecting ideas.
Best used for: Creating a ‘virtual storefront’ for your business. Users often browse from pinboards, rather than via company websites.
Don’t use for: Anything that looks like shameless advertising. You need to add value for your customers.
Points to note: Users have to register before they can explore any content, but registration is free. Pinterest users are generally among the most engaged of social media users, spending longer browsing from pinboards than on most other social networking sites. Businesses can access user data to see how well their boards and images are performing, using pins and repins as measures.
What is it? A question-and-answer site. Users post questions, and others offer answers. Individuals can be asked to answer particular questions, and answers can be upvoted when they are particularly helpful or interesting. You can choose your topics of interest, and also search and explore the whole site for particular questions. Users can also follow particular contributors.
Best used for: Showcasing your subject matter expertise on particular topics by answering questions.
Don’t use for: Blatant advertising or answering questions as a business. Quora is an individual platform.
Points to note: Quora is full of high-level people, particularly in the tech world. If you ask about (say) interviews at Google, you will get an answer from someone who interviews for Google. CEOs have been known to reply to questions about their company. Quora values expertise—but you also need to remember that it is a fairly small-scale platform in the overall scheme of social media.
What is it? Also known as ‘the front page of the internet’, Reddit is a forum where users post news and other items, and discuss posts in threads called subreddits.
Best used for: Good content that will appeal to Reddit’s users, including good stories, and posts about politics, religion, science and technology. Also best used regularly, to build up ‘karma’.
Don’t use for: Corporate content. You will be punished, and it won’t be pretty. You have been warned.
Points to note: Reddit is a bit anarchic in social media terms. Its users are generally young and tech-savvy, and don’t take kindly to being ‘expected’ to do things. You need to get the content right, or you will be spotted and outed very fast, and you also need to be clear that Reddit’s demographic is your target market, otherwise it’s probably not worth the effort.
What is it? Known for being a way to phone internationally for free, using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), Skype is also a way to chat, send instant messages, share content and collaborate. It is owned by Microsoft and runs on its Azure Cloud platform.
Best used for: Free video and voice calls, including group calls, and content sharing with people you know.
Don’t use for: Anything confidential.
Points to note: Several analyses have found issues with Skype’s security and encryption. It would be best not to use it for anything confidential.
What is it? A collaboration tool, straplined as ‘Where Work Happens’. It describes itself as a single place for messaging, tools and files, making it easier to organise projects within teams, and share content, code, and ideas.
Best used for: Organising collaborative projects within teams and organisations.
Don’t use for: Trying to share content externally.
Points to note: You can organise work and ideas into ‘channels’, and users can leave or enter channels as they please. Use of ‘threads’ mean that the main idea can be preserved despite the addition of detours. Slack also links to Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file-sharing and similar work-related apps and functions.
What is it? A multimedia messaging service where the message disappears after a short time. The idea behind Snapchat was to make communicating fun, by ensuring that images and messages could no longer be ‘held against you’ years later.
Best used for: For businesses, Discover allows businesses to post short-form, ad-supported content. The Stories function allows users to curate their images into chronological storylines that can be seen more widely and will last for 24 hours rather than the usual few seconds.
Don’t use for: Long-form, serious content. Just no.
Points to note: You need to add to your Snapchat story regularly, probably about three times each day. Posts disappear after 24 hours, so you need to keep the content fresh. Creating a sponsored filter or lens can be a good way to raise your business profile.
What is it? A cloud-based instant messaging and VOIP service.
Best used for: Sharing messages individually or with groups.
Don’t use for: Anything else.
Points to note: Telegram is not exactly the most open and transparent company. Its security system has been criticised by experts for the encryption choices, but its own team of developers is rumoured to be moving from country to country, with no information about where it is headquartered. It is not entirely clear why this is necessary.
What is it? A blog-hosting site focused on short-form content. It is designed to be easy to use, both to create content, and to share other people’s content and interact with them.
Best used for: Creative, funny, artistic content that is interesting enough for users to want to ‘reblog’ (share) it.
Don’t use for: Paid content. It generally doesn’t get enough engagement to make it worthwhile.
Points to note: Quite a large number of Tumblr blogs, and certainly a fair proportion of its traffic, is pornographic. This has, not unreasonably, affected Tumblr’s reputation to a certain extent. That said, Tumblr has a lot of active users, and most of them are more interested in sharing content than creating it, meaning that your posts have a good chance of going viral, and some businesses have reported great things from Tumblr use. There have been some concerns about copyright violations through the site, because of its encouragement to ‘reblog’.
What is it? Short-form content-sharing platform, with tweets limited to 280 characters (although you can include links to longer-form content). Users choose which accounts to follow, and their newsfeed contains all tweets from the accounts they follow. As a general rule, anyone can follow anyone else, and content is fully public.
Best used for: Ideas with a short shelf-life, and finding out and commenting on what’s happening now, because the sheer volume of traffic means that tweets are out of date quite quickly. Also good for getting in touch with people you don’t know, because you can tweet to anyone.
Don’t use for: Anything you want to keep private, or anything over 280 characters.
Points to note: Twitter is most effective if you take time to build a diverse network, with lots of different people, most of whom do not follow each other. This will expose you to more ideas, and ensure that your content gets to a wider group. Tweetchats are a useful way of discussing and sharing ideas about a particular topic, and hashtags can help you find particular discussions. One word of warning: anyone can follow you and tweet to you, so things have been known to get nasty on Twitter, and a number of users are reported to have left as a result of abuse.
What is it? An instant messaging and VOIP platform, owned by a Japanese multinational. It was originally designed as a direct competitor for Skype, and also competes with WhatsApp and Telegram. Useful features for businesses include Viber Communities, where you can create groups of unlimited numbers of members who can interact with each other.
Best used for: Creating communities, and also instant messaging for customer care purposes.
Don’t use for: Long-form content.
Points to note: Viber offers opportunities to advertise and you can create and share promotional stickers. You can also message your customers directly, for example, with coupon codes.
What is it? The biggest and most influential social media platform in China. It has three types of business accounts, subscription, service and enterprise accounts. Subscription accounts work like a news feed, and are most suitable for content-based brands. Service accounts focus on customer service. Enterprise (or business) accounts are largely for internal communication and collaboration within an organisation.
Best used for: A way to enter the Chinese market, by sharing a wide range of appealing, interesting content, especially images and text.
Don’t use: Without doing your research thoroughly into the Chinese market.
Points to note: To register as a business on WeChat, you need to fulfil certain requirements, such as having a Chinese business licence, and the Chinese ID of a Chinese national with a WeChat account. There are alternatives, such as paying a third-party Chinese-registered company to set you up a WeChat account.
What is it? An instant messaging service, this time with full end-to-end encryption. Like most of the other instant messaging service, WhatsApp offers group and individual chats, and you can also share photos, videos, and documents. Voice calls and messages are also possible.
Best used for: Sharing information and content to support cooperation. Building communities around particular interests. Customer care.
Don’t use for: Broadcasting long-form content.
Points to note: There is a specific app for businesses, designed with SMEs in mind. It allows businesses to create a business page, and interact with specific customers on particular issues, such as customer support or service questions.
What is it? Originally the German equivalent of LinkedIn, but now trying to compete across a much wider geographical area, Xing is a business networking service or platform, bringing together information about companies, events, jobs and news.
Best used: By businesses who are active in the DACH area, for business networking.
Don’t use: If you do not operate in Germany or the wider DACH area.
Points to note: Over 90% of Xing page views are still from the DACH area, and around three-quarters from Germany.
What is it? The quintessential video-sharing website, also used for music. It is owned by Google, and a Google account is required to log in. Users do not need to log in to view content, but they must do so to share content or comment.
Best used for: Short videos including extracts from conference presentations, interviews with influencers, and visual how-to guides.
Don’t use for: Very long videos (most people have a short attention span) or to share content that would be best as a blog post.
Points to note: There are a number of different features of YouTube that can be helpful for businesses, including livestreaming, advertising, and fandoms, as well as the standard content-sharing. Probably the most useful is encouraging your viewers to subscribe, so that they will always see new content.