My ultimate social media environment.

I’ve had a chance to sit down over coffee three times in the last couple of weeks to talk about social media. In all three chats, the topic quickly turned into How do I (set up|improve|manage) my social media setup?

That got me thinking about my own setup and what I was doing well and where I needed to fix or improve things, because honestly, do what I tell you and not what I do (at least until I fix some stuff).

And that got me thinking about what my ultimate social media setup would be, the ultimate goal if I were going to implement everything. Which, by the way, I’m not.

Two things to understand about Social Media

Here’s why I’m not. There are two key things to understand about Social Media:

  • Social Media seems simple if you’re not doing it or using bits of it casually, but to use it well is complicated and time consuming.
  • Social media will grow to fill up all of your time and resources allocated to it. And then it will want more.

The way I handle this is that I set time and money budgets for social media, and then I prioritize which services I use and how much I use them based on their priority in getting my messaging out and what the engagement response is.

It’s not about the followers

Which leads me to a third key thing to understand about social media:
* it’s not about how many followers you have. It’s about engagement: how many of them react to what you are saying and doing.

When I was at Apple running their mailing list systems, I used to do presentations to various organizations and executives. One common idea I pushed there was if you had a marketing person come to you and tell you how large their subscriber list was, you should fire them. What matters in email is opens and link clicks, not how many emails are sent out. My third key metric was always unsubscribe rate, which when I was there was about 0.5% per email — and if that got above 2% we’d push the big red button on a campaign.

Focus on creating content that gets read, forwarded, and commented on. If you focus on building large lists to send to, you’ll waste a lot of time and energy on building lists and end up with large numbers of accounts that never do anything, if they’re actually there.

Focus more on results and less on growth, and if you create interesting content, the growth will both happen and be of high quality.

My Ultimate Social Media Environment

social media

This is my ultimate social media environment. It’s appropriate for an individual, a small business (including sole proprietor like a photographer), or a small to medium sized organization. If the focus is more B2B, or Enterprise I tend to dump Facebook and bring in LinkedIn as a preferred business area, although to be honest, LinkedIn groups are pretty lame but better than nothing — and give you a place to collect a list of interested folks that you might promote to down the road.

Facebook in a large business environment is another article in itself, and I’ve had multiple discussions about that in the past. My take is this: yes, everyone is on Facebook, but the more “business/work” the messaging is, the less useful it is to stuff it onto Facebook because when people are there, they’re relaxing and not interested in thinking work. It’s critical in a consumer context but I’ve never seen it effective in a corporate/enterprise context. YMMV, but to me, it’s low priority in a business relationship.

Start with your core

The core piece to have (or build) is your home base. This is where most of your content is created and all of it is displayed. It should be under your control — found via domain you own and manage, not hosted under someone else’s domain name.

If you’re not sure what that means, here’s an example: I need to be able to find you as www.yourplace.com, not (for instance) yourplace.wordpress.com. In the first example, you own and control the name. In the second, WordPress does, and they’re great people, but what if they raise prices more than you’re willing to pay? What if they go bankrupt or sell out to an evil company? Or if your needs change in ways you can’t solve on that site?

Whatever vendor you use to host your base camp site, you need to be able to attach a domain you own to it. Why? A big part of your marketing is about teaching people how to find you, and building your brand around that site. If you have to change the URL they find you at if you decide to change vendors, you throw out most, if not all, of that work. So future proof your environment by hosting the core in a way that you can move it to a new service or vendor without changing the URL that you’re promoting out to your followers. (Boris Mann has posted an interesting perspective on this on Medium. I’m fine with hosting your stuff on Medium if you assign access to it via your domain, not theirs. It’s not what vendor or service you use, it’s about how the users find you — that you need to control and own).

I use WordPress for that, and www.chuqui.com is hosted on a Linux server that I manage at a hosting facility. My WordPress site is split into two big pieces, the blog, which has smaller, dated writing and longer-form undated pieces (published as pages) which are things I expect have evergreen lifetimes. The reality is that 95% or more of your blog postings will get 95% of their page views in the ten days after posting and then rarely, if ever be looked at again, and (I think) after a couple of years people see them and think that’s old and discount them for something newer.

The undated pieces can be organized and promoted over time, and can also be updated and refreshed as things change over time, so you can keep them relevant and fresh. You can do that with blog postings as well, but then the content is in conflict with the listed publication date, and I think down that path leads to confusion to the readers.

I will often publish a long piece as a long-form piece as a page, and also publish it to the blog, either as a single piece or in a multi-part form over a few days, with each piece pointing at the final page. And then after a week or ten days, I’ll remove the blog posts and replace them with 302 redirects to the page as the final resting place. That gives you the ability to use the blog distribution to promote the content of the page, but shift anyone who comes in from that promotion seamlessly to the final URL of the piece.

Bullhorns

You need to get your content out where people will find it. The first stage of that is with bullhorns: social media streams primarily aimed at passing the word that you have new content. Classically this was done via RSS, which sent out a listing of available content out to sites like Google Reader. And then Google killed off Google Reader and kicked RSS in the knee. I think it’s still an important tool to have since other sites have replaced Google Reader (I use Newsblur, and read content with Reeder) but most users didn’t take up a new RSS reader, they went and found their content other ways, primarily Facebook and Twitter.

So you need to promote your content out those three channels: Most sites create an RSS feed for you without having to do anything, which is nice, and I always promote the existence of mine to remind people about it, but about 65% of my engagement comes from Twitter, and about 25% comes from Facebook, with the last 10% being RSS driven.

The good news is that most sites you’ll host your home base on make it easy to publish notifications to those services; on WordPress you can do it via their Jetpack plugin and it works well.

You have to answer one question about Facebook: do you post them as you directly into your newsfeed? Or do you create a Facebook page and post them onto the page? My answer: as an individual, I’ve decided to keep it simple and minimize the number of places people need to go to find me and my stuff, so I don’t use a page. If I were promoting my photography as a business I would do that as its own page, and if I were a well-known mini-celebrity I’d do that as well. Since I’m not, I don’t have to, and I’ve chosen to keep it simple.

One final thing you need to make sure is set up properly: your core site should have what’s known as a Sitemap, which is a thing kind of like RSS (but different) designed to let the search engines like Google or Bing know what content exists on your site and when you add new content. If you don’t have a sitemap, you’ll be a lot slower being integrated into the search engines, which is a key place where new people will find you and crucial to your overall growth and engagement over time. with WordPress there are plug-ins that create this for you, but ask your vendor how they support this search engine notification.

Also, one relatively new contact point to think about is Apple News, which is available on all IOS devices. On WordPress the set up to publish your material relatively straightforward; on other services, ask your vendor if they support it. To me, it’s still very much a nice to have but not crucial site. I’m experimenting with it now, not seeing much engagement, but as a small, personal niche site, I don’t expect to. I think it’s worth having, but not if it takes a lot of work to implement.

But wait, this seems complicated!

Yes, and I warned you about that. Also remember that wherever you create a social media presence, you’ll be interacting with people interested in what you say, and if you’re a business, some of them will be customers. And you should expect and plan for the reality that they will contact you to talk, or ask questions, or lodge complaints, or ask for support on their purchase, or…

In other words, you’re creating a place for conversations with your followers and customers. And if you ignore that aspect and simply use the bullhorn to bellow your message and ignore the rest, but people who try to contact you and get ignored go away again unsatisfied and unhappy, and that’s not a way to encourage them to want to read your material or buy your stuff.

This is why I encourage setting up an environment around fewer services that you an do a good job of the entire social media aspect and not just the bullhorn piece, because to a good degree social media is an aspect of your marketing and your customer support and your customer service and if you don’t recognize that you may succeed at promoting your message (the marketing page) but sabotage some other aspects of building your following and business.

I know photographers who blast out content to ten or 15 social services using a service like IFTTT — and you can do that pretty easily — and never actually visit or monitor all but one or two of those, and to be honest, I find those kind of setups very sterile and uninteresting. It works, but think about the message you’re sending to the users of those services: that you don’t value them as people, merely leads to sell at.

Social Media is not an advertising channel to yell into, it’s a conversation. And if you don’t acknowledge that and engage in the conversation the users will notice, and react negatively.

One site I bullhorn my new content to that’s not on my official list is LinkedIn. In my case, I think that makes sense; whether it does for you is a case by case basis. I do it in part because it’s easy and I think it has marginal benefit to me as someone who’s still working for a living.

And finally, one site notably missing here: Google+. I was very involved in G+ at one point, but about a month ago, I disabled posting any content there at all, and now I’m only monitoring a couple of communities I’ve been involved in. Like so many other Google properties, the company was very enthusiastic about the service for a while, then lost interest, and now it’s pretty clear the service is in that long-slow decline. So many of the people I used to interact there have moved on (mostly, it seems, to Facebook) and Goole shows no sign of caring about the place other than keeping the lights on. And frankly, if Google doesn’t care, why should you? I now recommend you don’t bother to invest at all in G+ as a social media outpost.

Organizing all of this stuff

It can be difficult organizing all of this, especially as the number of services you interact with grows and the number of followers and content pieces expands. Fortunately, there are tools that can help. One that I use is Hootsuite, which acts as a central dashboard for all of your social sites and services, allowing you to watch and monitor from a single location. I find it very helpful in managing the complexity of a social media setup, especially as it grows; and if you move beyond being/having a single person dealing with the social environment, this kind of dashboard becomes crucial in helping multiple people coordinate working on the social streams. Another service you can evaluate for this kind of setup would be Buffer.

If you’re a small, single person setup like I am, you don’t really need this. Even then a service like Hootsuite and simplify things and save you time, and that’s a good thing, and for small setups like this, it can even be used free. But if you choose to wait on it, it’s fairly easy to integrate into your setup later with minimal disruption, so even if you choose not to use it from the start, keep it in your back pocket as a tool to help you when you expand enough to need a third hand juggling everything well.

Secondary services

We have the core set up. We have a site where you’re going to create and publish most (or all) of your content, and the social touch points you’ll use to connect with interested parties and interact with them as you promote yourself and your content.

And by the way, we have skipped over a massive amount of time, detail and work about what core set up implies:
* web site design and implementation
* creating and/or publishing content and supplemental materials (bio’s, etc) to the site
* creating profile pages and supplemental material for all the social sites
* and dozens of little details…

If you wanted, you could stop here and be successful, but chances are, you have other things you want to do like create videos or post images and there are literally dozens of social networks out there that would like you to spend your time and post your content to them. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish and what kind of content you’re creating, it may make sense to bring them into your environment.

Photography

If you’re just going to be adding pictures or graphics to your content, then whatever services you use to host that content will have a system to do that.

If imagery is important to what you’re doing, or a primary focus of your business, you probably need more. At that point considering a separate service for hosting your imagery, or an enhanced image gallery tool for your service, will likely make sense. If you’re on WordPress, NextGen Gallery is a good enhanced gallery system that integrates well with your theme and site design. I’ve used it, I like it, it works well.

I decided to go to the separate service for my photography, and my vendor of choice is Smugmug. I use WordPress’ media tools for imagery that supports the blog, and Smugmug for my portfolio and my own imagery. It’s easy to bring those images into the blog to use, and it gives me a level of design control that I wanted. If you are trying to sell images, that capability is built into Smugmug.

If imagery is a strong need in your public content, you might consider sites with a strong focus on images such as Photoshelter or Squarespace; it might alter your decision on which vendors to use, so it’s something to consider in the planning phase.

I like the combination of WordPress+Smugmug for my uses, as it gives me good power and flexibility. I could do the same with a number of vendors, including Squarespace (my second choice) or Photoshelter (my third). I’d build my core site around Smugmug if I could, but they don’t offer the publishing/blog capability, so I have to split my writing piece and my image piece. If you really don’t want to manage multiple services, that tilts the choice towards Squarespace as the better option.

Social photography

Sharing lifestyle photography has become a big thing. everyone has a phone with a camera. There are a number of services that help you do this today, but the one I’ve chosen to use is Instagram. It’s the biggest and most generally used. Pinterest is another option, but it’s slowly fallen out of favor compared to Instagram. A third is Snapchat, which would be my second choice for this kind of service today.

I use my Instagram account sparingly, mostly for Behind the Scenes type photos and pictures of good bottles of wine when I enjoy one. I’m choosing to very consciously make this a very informal and personal channel, an aspect of remind everyone (including myself) that this is a person and not a business or computer talking. Some photographers publish their work out their Instagram as well, I should probably do more of that. I know one photographer that’s created two instagrams: one for his personal/social imagery and one for his professional imagery, and I really like that idea and how he’s using it.

All of which come down to your intent and needs, and it differs from person to person. I, personally, prefer to use Instagram as not just another bullhorn or marketing channel.

Video

Are you considering creating videos as part of your content creation? Here’s some interesting trivia: the world’s most-used search engine is, of course, Google. The second biggest? Youtube.

That is why if you’re going to create video and publish it, you should do it via Youtube. There are a number of good alternatives out there (my favorite is Vimeo) but if you want to be where people go looking, you want to be in the Google search engine database, and you want to have content on Youtube.

But before you go running off to create a Youtube channel, realize that creating good video content is a lot more difficult than written content, and that producing and publishing it is a lot more time consuming. When I was generating video content at Cisco, it typically took me 1-2 hours of editing and processing time to create one hour of published video out of raw sources that were filmed by others for me. Creating that content could take 2-3 hours per hour of video in filming, plus script writing, rehearsals, asset creation etc.

Video production also takes a higher end computer and some specialized software, plus cameras, lights, microphones, etc, so there’s a cost to setting up so you can do it well.

It’s the kind of thing that can look very attractive, but can quickly turn into a resource and budget sink. But if you do it well, it can be an exceptionally effective piece of content and open you up to a new group of potential followers.

I have a plan for a video series to be hosted on Youtube. What I haven’t had is the time to launch it and give it enough resources to contribute new videos on a regular basis. But… someday, I think this makes a lot of sense to do. But.. Priorities and budgets (especially time).

Having scared you with all of the talk of budget and time and expensive and scary, there’s an emerging aspect of video that ignores all of that. An emerging form of video is the social stream, which similar to Instagram, has its roots in “I have a phone, and it has a camera”. These are very low-production-value, informal, “point the camera and push the button, then post” things and when done well can be quite effective.

For me the primary use would be behind the scenes, but for some organizations it’s a great way to humanize the organization and show the people behind the name and what they do. Lots of opportunity for the right situations here.

You can do this via Youtube, but there are sites set up for this kind of social-stream video like Periscope. It looks to me like the new Facebook Live capabilities are going to take over this space, and if I were setting something up for myself, that’s where I’d land for this.

Medium

Medium is an interesting newcomer in the written-content blogging space. It’s oriented towards longer-form pieces and it has an interesting ability to amplify your distribution if you use it well. You could potentially host your content/blog on it, and even put a domain in front of it to control the naming — but I’m not sure I want to go to that level of dependence on them yet.

What you can do, though, is take key pieces of content and republish it on Medium, linking back to your site. I’ve tried that once and was very happy with the engagement and reaction. I’m going to do that in the future with significant pieces (like this one) and monitor my engagement. I think it deserves some consideration as a secondary publishing point that helps people find your primary site indirectly, but I wouldn’t publish a day to day blog there, nor would I look at moving my site to it today. but I wouldn’t rule out changing my mind down the road, either.

Email

Every so often someone declares their product to be an email killer (the most recent is slack) or some pundit gets bored and declares that email is dead. Neither is true, in fact, email continues to be one of the most effective ways to over time build an audience and get your content in front of them. Email, for all its flaws, works.

don’t believe me? M+R has a study out showing how effective it’s been in the non-profit sector and those effectiveness numbers are going up. Email is a way to — with the people who have decided to connect with you — focus your content and get it to them through the noise that’s inherent in other social media channels.

So I believe having a way to connect with users via email is crucial, but I also believe it’s something that is best left to a later phase in building out your social environment. Doing email well takes some time, and it requires a good reliable flow of content so I like to add it to the mix once the core pieces are up and running smoothly. Otherwise you risk overcomplicating your life as you get all of this stuff set up and working well.

The technical aspects of this are fairly straightforward: there are a number of good services that will host your mailing list for you. I prefer Mailchimp but it’s not the only good one: aWeber, Constant Contact are two others. For Mailchimp there are plug-ins that help integrate the list into WordPress to make subscription recruitment easier, and these tools exist for many other vendors. There are Mac and Windows-based tools to help create and format the newsletter, I use Mail Designer Pro.

Email newsletters are best on a fairly rigid schedule, whether that’s weekly, every two weeks, or monthly. Which to choose depends on how much content you have to put in the newsletter, but monthly is usually a good cadence to start with, especially since most people think they’ll be able to generate more content reliably than they do.

I like to keep my newsletters short: 2-3 screens, or the user will tend to drop off. I use shorter pieces with links pushing users to the site for the full article. Typically my lead/first is the longest, and they get shorter as we go further down the page.

The goal here: aim the newsletter at existing customers and/or committed followers. It’s there to get them the most important content in a way that cuts through the noise rather than adds to it. Short and simple in wordage and formatting, clean and simple. I use it to generate interest and not for hard sell or follower recruitment (except indirectly).

I’m currently not doing one; I’ve experimented with them recently and love the response, but they simply don’t make sense for my site and content at this time. I expect that to change some day. But if you do a newsletter, it’ll probably be your #2 time sink after creating content for your core site — unless you do video, and then it’ll be #3 behind your video production.

But for most organizations and small businesses, it’s a very good investment in time to produce and manage. (and don’t forget to publish archives of old newsletters onto your site somewhere, so they end up in the search engines and findable…)

Other Stuff

E-commerce: Do you need to sell stuff? Then you need some kind of E-commerce site. Some vendors (like Squarespace) have support for this built in. If you’re trying to sell images, sites like Smugmug are set up for you already. If you’re using WordPress, there are plug-ins that add the capability, but I prefer tying into a service like Shopify. Depending on what you’re selling, you may be able to do it on a site like Dazzle where you upload graphics and they do the production and shipping.

Beyond this bare introduction is beyond the scope of this piece, but if you need to do this, be very wary of doing it yourself unless you are experienced. A site like Shopify isn’t free, but it’ll save you a lot of pain and complication.

Podcasts: Podcasting is a content type that’s gotten some notice recently. It’s audio-only so it doesn’t have the production requirements of video but it can bring a different feel and conversations around topics than you can get with the written word.

They are outside of the scope of this article, but an interesting option to consider if you are or your organization has someone willing and interested to act as host and a set of topics or people to be interviewed to bring onto it. Think of it as an internet-based radio show and you see what the expectations will be.

Podcasts are a lot less labor intensive to produce and publish than video, but still take some time, both for recording the conversation and then editing it into useful form. On the other hand, the podcast audience is one that hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by too many options and choices, so there’s a chance to create an audience there that might be attractive. And yes, I have a podcast in planning, and no, I haven’t launched it because of that time/budget aspect.

Community Discussion

The last thing talk about today are discussion areas. Do you want a place where your users can get together and talk to you and each other? Do you need that place? Are you willing to manage and police it?

For a long time it was common for blogs to have comment areas on each article. Over the last couple of years, more and more blogs (including mine) have disabled that capability, because they are too often a place where trolls come to attack and spammers come to push their wares, and too seldom are they places where actual conversation goes on.

There are places where that happens and it’s done well; invariably it’s a place where the host takes an active role in monitoring and policing the content to keep it on topic, civil and spam free. If you don’t do that, you can expect it to either turn into an empty ghost town nobody uses, or a biker bar full of the types of people you probably don’t want to be around. Either way — it’s not a good experience for you or your followers. So if you want to go down the path of a community discussion area, you need to commit the time and energy into watching and managing it.

Does it make sense to do this? In my personal situation, I decided no.

For a lot of organizations, I think the answer is yes, but I wouldn’t use blog comments — the only commenting system I like these days is Civil Comments, but I don’t think the cost is worth it for small groups.

Instead, I recommend Facebook Groups. They can be created along side your Facebook page, being on Facebook reduces the administrative load and removes the technical load from your time budgets, and it puts your conversation where your users are likely to be. It also works to increase your engagement and reach on Facebook, which is almost always a good thing.

It allows you to create engagement among your followers and it opens up a conversation change between you and them. One thing to be aware of is you really need to commit to be part of that community; you don’t want to be an absent landlord. If you want a good practical example, take a look at the community for the Incomparable Podcast Network.

So it takes some time, some energy and some care, but a Facebook group can work well with a Facebook page to create a vibrant environment for you on the service that you can leverage to build your follower base and lead them back to your core content and site, and I think for most small organizations, that’s the best way to try to integrate a conversational aspect into your social media presence.

In Summary

This is long, for which I sort of apologize, but there’s a lot of territory to cover and resources to point to. But for the short version:

Focus on your core: where your content and organization lives online, and how you promote new content out to your followers: for most people or organizations, that’s a website with a blog, and using Twitter, Facebook and RSS to connect out to the world.

Video can be a very effective tool in reaching out and communicating, but is expensive in terms of time and resources to produce. Audio Podcasts are less so, but the audience isn’t as mature — but isn’t as overloaded.

Imagery is your friend and can help drive your message forward either though photographs or created graphics and infographics. Depending on your needs, there are many ways to host and display those images.

None of this is free, none of this is easy, and most especially, none of this is magic: you need to invest time and energy and resources into your social media to get results out, and the most critical one is time. So you need to understand how many hours you can budget to these initiatives and then only do those pieces you can do within that budget well.

Community discussion can be very rewarding but also time consuming and if it’s not done well, risky in terms of upsetting or discouraging your followers. Facebook Groups may be user community with training wheels but honestly,when we’re starting out, training wheels aren’t a bad thing, and they’re easy to set up and free to use. All you need to understand and commit to is the time to watch and be part of them.

If all of this scares or confuses you, don’t worry: it’s not that hard (just harder than most think going in) and if you take it a piece at a time whole you learn and get comfortable, it won’t be overwhelming. Or you can find someone who does this stuff and talk to them or have them help, to try to get you over the hump.

If you have questions, feel free to ask away; if I have the time, I’ll happily respond and help how I can.