It’s Not Rocket Surgery: Social Media Usability

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Synopsis — On the surface, the purposes of your ecommerce website and your social media mini-sites/pages are different, while in reality, they are related quite closely. You want to sell someone a product on your website, while you want to build relationships via your involvement in social media … and then sell them a product. Underneath it all, your job is the same — your ultimate goal is to fulfill the expectations of your visitors and make it as easy as possible for them to achieve their goals. A key element to this is usability in either environment.

In their article, “It’s Not Rocket Surgery: Social Media Usability,” Nina Vaught and Hallie Janssen discuss eight crucial usability practices that can be applied to social media endeavors just as well as they apply to website usability guidelines. They include:

1. Know Your Audience
2. Communicate Value
3. Maintain Consistent Branding
4. Tell A Story
5. Get Organized
6. Write For Scanning
7. Stay Current And Active
8. Tie In Analytics To See If You Are Doing A Good Job

The authors provide generalized discussion of each of the eight practices, with specifics to apply for social media involvement. For example, maintaining consistent branding is an important part of building credibility and confidence in your website. Carrying this through to your social media presence not only assures visitors that they are dealing with the same people as they think they are dealing with, but reduces confusion overall. The variety of different customizations available on the various social media outlets makes it imperative that you go beyond the basic logo and company name in order to compete and provide your potential customers with the assurance they need and easy access to customer service, ways to provide feedback, etc.

Even though the world of social media may be new and at times intimidating, the basic rules governing usability practices that have been developed for websites in general apply fairly evenly there as well. With so many other new avenues to explore, it can be comforting to know that you can start with the basics you already know and apply on your website and then finetune them to take full advantage of the many novel ways social media can help you in your online efforts.

The full article follows …

It’s Not Rocket Surgery: Social Media Usability

Coauthored by Nina Vaught and Hallie Janssen

The web single-handedly snatched power from corporations and handed it over to the people who buy and consume products and services. No longer are consumers overwhelmingly influenced by TV and push advertising. We check out company websites and Facebook pages. We Google. We read and write reviews. We blog and Twitter. We compare products and prices. We make informed decisions based upon an infinite amount of available information, especially other people’s experiences and opinions.

The fundamental difference between website and social media traffic is the intent and expectation of visitors. People go to your website to accomplish a task, such as finding information or making a purchase. People participate in social media to engage in a relationship and communicate directly with you. Your job on either platform is to fulfill their expectations and make it easy for them to achieve their goals.

Best practices for website usability emerged from extensive research on how people think and behave online. Companies that pay attention to the user experience and apply usability best practices to their websites repeatedly out-perform their competitors. Because social media and websites complement each other, many website usability best practices naturally extend into the realm of social media. In this article, we will review eight website usability best practices and how to apply them to create and maintain a quality social media presence.

1. Know Your Audience — The most important website usability principle is to know your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What do they expect? What do they already know about your service or product? What vocabulary do they use? Knowing your users informs decisions on content organization, navigation naming, content, features, and functions.

When planning your social media strategy, knowing your users is just as important. The first thing you need to know is where your audience interacts with social media. Do they blog? Do they Tweet? Are they on Facebook? Do they look for vendors and consultants on LinkedIn?

Some good ways to find the answers:

  • Ask them — create and implement a survey
  • Plug names from your email and client lists into the “search for people” feature of social media properties
  • Scout competitor blogs, forums, Twitter, and Facebook pages to see what’s working and what’s not

2. Communicate Value — You have 4-8 seconds to communicate your website purpose, scope, and value proposition before a visitor clicks away to a competitor. The most important factors for communicating exactly what your website is all about are:

  • Logo, site name, and tagline in your masthead
  • Relevant images
  • Navigation naming
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Descriptive text links

For social media, your username/ handle should immediately con vey who you are and be easy to remember. When you register, if you find your chosen username is taken, search for the next logical name. Register variations to prevent competitors or squatters from confusing your customers with similar usernames. Although social media sites don’t condone squatting, be proactive to protect your brand.

3. Maintain Consistent Branding — Consistent branding builds credibility and customer confidence. Your website should mirror your brand in every way. This means following your brand style guide and more. Your brand involves the total user experience and includes your attitude toward customers, availability, and quality of customer service — even your privacy policy.

When linking to your social media platforms from your website and vice versa, keep the scent of information strong with consistent branding, so users know they are still dealing with the same company. Abrupt changes in visual design or tone confuse users and undermine your brand. Social media platforms allow more customization than ever before. Beyond your logo and brand colors, go the extra mile to create a ClickableNow background image for Twitter. If you have a presence on YouTube, create a channel. Use FBML to customize your Facebook page with additional information and tabs. You can even use FBML to specify different landing tabs for existing fans and new visitors.

4. Tell A Story — Given a similar product with similar pricing, people prefer to do business with people they like and who they think care about them. Show the human side of your company on your About Us page. Avoid the usual market fluff and stuffy content. Include why you do what you do — do you have an interesting “how you got started” story? Do you support a local or global cause? Reveal the people behind your company.

On the social media side, many companies do a sloppy job of completing the forms to set up social media pages. Take the time to complete your bio and About sections on Twitter and Facebook thoughtfully. Include keywords that users understand and connect with your brand. Remember that your bio will appear in Twitter search engines like Twellow, so be descriptive and interesting so people will want to follow you.

Go beyond the completion of information sections. Pay attention to media file information like video and image titles, descriptions and tags, and use custom thumbnails on YouTube. Don’t forget to connect everything together. Connect your profiles and employees. Put social media badges on your site. If you have more than one fan page, connect them. On sites like LinkedIn, make sure all your employees are connected to your company page.

5. Get Organized — Page layout can engage people or turn them off. A cluttered page is visually overwhelming and often causes site abandonment. Prioritize information with visual cues to create a hierarchy. Apply emphasis purposefully to ensure you are not unintentionally drawing attention away from important page elements. Make important content more prominent with design elements like:

  • Large and/or bold text
  • Descriptive text links with keywords
  • Images
  • Bright, saturated colors
  • Borders
  • White space

With social media, chatter-heavy sites can put off new visitors and prevent people from engaging in the conversation. On Facebook, it’s common to find excessive status updates, resulting in a noisy, cluttered wall. Be strategic about what you say and how often. Ask yourself if an entry might win a new fan, get a fan engaged in the conversation, or be useful to someone. On Twitter, avoid one-way communication (i.e., tweeting out 99% of the time). Balance outgoing communication with replies and RTs (retweets). Be careful not to exclude people by carrying on a conversation predominantly with one person.

6. Write For Scanning — People scan at lightning speed, looking for keywords and phrases to validate relevancy of the information to their purpose, before reading anything at all.

For websites and social media, avoid a wall of words. Use short, focused sentences and paragraphs (3-4 sentences per paragraph). Add texture to the page with headings, subheadings, bullets, and descriptive text links, including meaningful keywords.

Write in simple, straightforward language:

  • Use customer vocabulary
  • Avoid jargon and abbreviations
  • Eliminate non-information words like “announcing,” “welcome,” and superfluous adjectives
  • Write so the lowest denominator of your target audience understands
  • Use objective language. People want to buy. They don’t want to be sold. Over-selling undermines authenticity.

Put the most important information first and highlight key information. According to a recent study by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, people read only the first 11 characters of a sentence to determine relevancy. So, don’t bury important information in paragraphs. For example, when announcing an event, make sure the city, date, time, and cost stand out.

7. Stay Current And Active — Current, fresh information keeps people and search engines coming back to your website. Whether your site is for content, e-commerce, lead-generation, or customer support, you can provide fresh and useful content. Delete out-dated, time-sensitive information quickly. Lingering announcements for past events make people question the currency of all the information on your site.

For social media, being current and active is what keeps the relational aspect alive. Keep status updates and information current and your engagement high. For instance, if you engage in a discussion on Facebook, don’t abandon it — that’s like hanging up the phone in the middle of a conversation.

8. Tie In Analytics To See If You Are Doing A Good Job — Many usability professionals discount website analytics because they show what people are doing, but not why they are doing it. However, programs like Google Analytics reveal pages with high bounce rates, and task sequences with high abandonment. Site search logs reveal user vocabulary as well as key words and phrases entered with no results, or results that are obviously not in line with user intentions. Hypothesizing causes and making modifications can significantly increase conversion rates on your site.

For social media, many statistics are available to discover if you are meeting your objectives. Use Ow.ly or Bit.ly to track views and clicks, and Google Analytics to track clicks to your site. Within platforms, track followers, retweets, backtweets, likes, comments, wall posts, fans, unsubscribed fans, and page views to determine the effectiveness of your content.

Conclusion

Heeding the lessons learned from years of experience and usability research on websites, and applying the resulting usability best practices to your social media efforts, just makes sense. There are plenty of other mistakes to make and lessons to learn as we perfect our social media strategies, without reinventing the usability wheel. Meanwhile, go forth and be social.

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Hallie Janssen is Vice President at Anvil Media, Inc., a search and social media marketing agency. Contact Hallie at 503.595.6050 x221 or Twitter.com/Hallie_Janssen. Nina Vaught is founder and usability consultant at Vaught Usability Group. Contact Nina at 503.954.3732 or nina@vaughtusability.com.

About the Author

Hallie Janssen is Vice President at Anvil Media, Inc., a search and social media marketing agency. Janssen also teaches a social media class with the Online Marketing Institute in conjunction with Wharton Interactive. Contact Hallie at 503.595.6050 x221 or Twitter.com/Hallie_Janssen.

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