Social Media Best Practices

Introduction

This best practices summary is designed to provide Stanford employees with guidance on planning, content, measurement, and other topics related to the successful execution of a social media initiative. These complement Stanford’s existing Social Media Guidelines, discussed below.

This document is divided into three components:

  • Ten key practices for successfully managing social media initiatives at Stanford
  • Specific guidance on hashtag usage
  • Getting help

Ten key practices for successfully managing social media initiatives at Stanford

  1. Read Stanford’s Social Media Guidelines.That document, which was the product of a broad, cross-campus collaboration, is designed to help Stanford employees make appropriate decisions when managing and/or developing social media initiatives on behalf of the university.
  2. Clarify your communication objectives and define your intended audiences.Establishing a successful social media presence is a sizable task that carries significant resourcing implications. Before you begin the process of new account creation, it’s critical that you carefully define your purpose. A simple written articulation of your primary communication objective—whether it’s to build awareness, drive enrollment, or promote ticket sales—will shape everything from your channel and tool selection to your editorial strategy and measurement practice.

    A corollary to clarifying your communication objectives is defining your intended audiences. The more precisely you can describe your target followers, the more effectively you’ll be able to craft and distribute content. Often, but not always, university accounts are targeting one or more of: the expanded Stanford community (students, faculty and staff, parents, and alumni); influencers in a particular field (e.g. economics); followers of a specific conversation or topic (e.g. social innovation or design); virtual and in-person attendees of special events (e.g. Stanford Medicine X); and the general public.

  3. Answer the question: Is a new social media presence necessary?Could you instead reach your intended audience and achieve the communication objectives you defined in (2) by leveraging existing accounts? There are hundreds of mature social accounts affiliated with Stanford schools, programs, centers, student groups, and faculty members. Before you spend time and money establishing a new account, consider the option of forming content partnerships.

    Account-sharing makes sense, both from a resourcing perspective and through the lens of audience expectations. Our followers are often external to Stanford and even to academia, so we don’t want to get caught up in internal organizational structure.  Rather, we want to make it easy for interested followers to find that content that matters to them.  For the most part, their interest is in efficiently gaining access to thematically-consistent, high-quality news and information – not in expressing any particular allegiance. Sending content generated by related programs/centers/etc. through a single feed often creates a better experience for our followers while making efficient use of university resources.

  4. Conduct an environmental assessment.It’s important to understand the landscape your social property would be part of before you begin to publish. To build familiarity, seek answers to the following questions:
    • Who is already engaging in this space? Think broadly and look at different industries.
    • Who is influential? Why are they effective?
    • What conventions are in use?
    • What language and tone resonates with your desired audiences?
    • What conversations are your target audience having?
    • On which platforms are members of your target audience already engaging?

    Free tools available to help you in this process are: Facebook search; Twitter Advanced Search; TweetReach; Google Trends; and Websta and Picodash (for Instagram).

  5. Develop an editorial strategy and style guide.Maintaining a successful social media property is often more akin to running a newspaper, magazine, or blog than it is to running a marketing campaign or newsletter. You need a thoughtful and comprehensive editorial strategy based on the needs of your potential “readers”—that is, the target audience that aligns with your strategic objectives. A written editorial strategy should outline the type of content you’ll curate and produce, provide general guidelines on tone and voice, and establish rules for emergency response and potential engagement with audience members. Provide these in a few paragraphs or pages and keep the document handy as your constitution. Use your favorite publications for inspiration: What do they post? What don’t they post? What is their voice and tone? Who is their primary audience? How much do their postings vary in content and tone over time? What are they achieving through their use of visual media? For reference, consider the Facebook and Twitter style guides in use by the University Communications digital media team, both of which are available on request from that team.

    A few practices you might consider incorporating:

    • Tailor content for specific channels, so you can leverage the strengths of each.
    • Treat your writing on social media with journalistic integrity. Fact check. Spell check. Grammar check. Edit. Rewrite.
    • Let your judgment and writing earn you a critical, discerning following.
    • Adhere to AP (Associated Press) style. Many schools and units have their own specific brand or communications style guides as well. Check with your local communications leader to ensure you are up to speed.
    • Write as your department, not as yourself. (Don’t anthropomorphize your center/organization.)
    • Be careful who you link to and reference in your posts.
    • Don’t promote the results of rankings, regardless of how good they might be. Stanford does not endorse rankings publications nor their widely varying measurement criteria. Exceptions might be made for “fun” or more trivial rankings (e.g. “Best fountain-hopping universities”), but check with University Communications or your local communications leader before posting any rankings story.
    • Avoid eating up characters with excessive formality or technical jargon.
    • Avoid resorting to cheap ploys in an effort to bump your audience numbers or engagement.
    • Avoid the use of puns and clichés, cheesiness, abbreviations (a session is not a “sesh”), hyperbole and exclamation points.On the flip side, be conversational, distinctive, and funny (where appropriate).
    • Write knowing that any post could reach the entire world. The pervasiveness of social media—and ease with which messages can be replicated—means your posts can reach unintended audiences. Individual posts can affect the University’s reputation as a whole. In all of your activities online, embody the professionalism and commitment to excellence that are such important components of Stanford’s values. Note that Stanford actually archives all of our outbound social media posts.

    While not necessary, a content calendar can serve as a backbone of an editorial strategy. Some teams use Asana or Slack for this task, others simply use a collaborative document like Google Sheets, and track posts based on key messages or audiences of strategic importance. Keep in mind, though, that social media rewards experimentation and iteration. Avoid building a system that imposes too much logistical overhead. Keep your reference documents light and muscular, and periodically audit your content to make sure you’re on track toward your communication objectives.

  6. Establish a system for sourcing high-quality visual material.Visual assets—photos, videos, illustrations, etc.—play an important role in social posts. For example, on Twitter alone, a Feb. 2016 University Communications study found that tweets with photographs had 113% more retweets than those that did not.

    To add your own visuals, consider leveraging on-campus or other professional resources. To source pre-existing material, a good starting place is SALLIE, the university image database.  After logging into SALLIE with your SUNet ID, on the left column, you will see the database organized into categories. Scroll down to find one (we recommend News Service) and click on the + to expand the sub-sections.

    As you evaluate campus photos for potential inclusion, keep in mind the following:

    • Do not show students breaking any laws or violating the university code of conduct.
    • Where possible, avoid showing people on campus riding bikes without helmets.
    • Remember that photos of patients or participants in medical research studies cannot be used unless they have signed consent forms.

    For other free art, try using Google image search, Flickr or 500px. For stock photos, try Shutterstock or Getty Images. Keep in mind, though, it’s important to use only images that you have the rights to use, and to provide proper attribution to the original photographer, illustrator, or source unit/organization. Familiarize yourself with Creative Commons licensing, and follow a general practice of always attributing photos to their original creator, and never altering a photo or using it for directly commercial purposes without obtaining permission from the original creator.

    Social media image and quote templates, which include lines for attribution, are available for Twitter and Facebook at the bottom of this Identity Toolkit Downloads page (SUNet ID required). Stanford’s policy on photo and film can be found here.

  7. Develop a measurement and reporting plan.Social media metrics in isolation can be challenging to act upon. Try to tie your social media efforts to existing strategies and measurement practices for your unit/organization while keeping in mind your primary reasons for publishing. Is your activity on social media intended to drive a specific behavior, like a ticket purchase or a course enrollment? Are you intending to collect data or constituent feedback? Or, are you simply building awareness or community, in which case audience engagement (e.g., likes, comments and shares) could be considered a valid outcome in its own right? Tie your activity to core existing goals in your team or organization, and then pay attention to the metrics that actually help you measure your progress. Some of these may include:
    • Reach
    • General engagement (likes, shares, comments, etc.)
    • Influencer engagement
    • URL clicks
    • Video views and retention
    • Audience growth
    • Referral traffic to website
    • Cohesive voice and brand via multiple touch points
    • Share of voice
    • Direct conversions for an existing business activity (e.g., sales, attendance, sign-ups, applications)

    When reporting metrics to others on your team or in your organization, first consider your audience. Knowing their roles and their baseline familiarity with social media can help you decide what to report and how to present it. The best presentation might be an informal weekly email or a polished quarterly PowerPoint presentation.

    Whichever format you use, keep in mind that the best measurement reports go beyond numbers to actual insights. When considering your analytics, look at qualitative as well as quantitative feedback. Have audience comments coalesced around any common sentiments? Have engagement levels pointed toward any particular content type or theme as being most effective in communicating your strategic messages? Have you identified new trends? Can you put your numbers in a larger context? Have you learned something that can benefit other parts of your organization? Consider creating a knowledge base of insights that others on your team and in your organization can harvest to make business decisions of all kinds.

    A few examples of reporting templates:

    • “Weekly Bests” that provide a snapshot to a broad team with a wide range of social media experience. The goal of a “weekly bests” report is to share what resonated most across social channels for the week with some action items or lessons learned that can be incorporated into future posts or impact/inspire the work of the colleagues receiving the report.
    • Monthly Dashboard that provides a high-level overview of top reach and engagement metrics, including a deeper dive into the two most active social channels with lessons learned.
    • TweetReach Reports provide data to analyze any Twitter hashtag, account or keyword/s. TweetReach reports are particularly useful for reporting back the impact of an event hashtag.

    Other ways to report metrics:

    • Hold a monthly or quarterly social media meeting in which you share key updates to platforms, answer questions that colleagues have about trends in social media, recap campaigns you ran, experiments you tried, and more. A meeting can help demonstrate how insights from social media activity can be used across your department to encourage dialogue and idea-sharing among colleagues.
    • Notify your colleagues when something relevant happens on social media that could impact them. For example, if a journalist follows your handle, you may want to send a quick email to your communications team in case they want to add the person to their database.
  8. If necessary, create a new social media position on your team.Stanford now has a series of job classifications dedicated to social media professionals. When considering adding or reclassifying such a role on your team, please see the “Digital Community & Social Media” series within the “Marketing” family in Stanford’s online job description library. This series contains four levels (4911-4914) of increasing seniority and impact, and all are mapped to industry compensation data in the new compensation range hierarchy. This will help you set the appropriate budget and attract talent at market rates.

    When recruiting for a social media role, consider not only social/digital natives, but also candidates who have shown an ability to deliver direct business impact through leveraging social media and emerging technologies. Considering your objectives, you may emphasize certain skill sets in your hiring, e.g. humor writing, scientific writing, customer service, data analysis or proficiency in producing photo, or video content.

    For social media roles, consider non-traditional work schedules. The 24/7 demands of the role require frequent evening and weekend time, and in many cases, coverage of special events that fall outside normal work hours (such as football games, conferences, reunions). Flexplace arrangements, or arrangements that spread some part of the weekly work schedule across evenings and weekends (e.g., 10 hours on evenings and weekends) might be the best fit.

    In addition to human capital costs, there are direct costs associated with social media efforts to consider. On Facebook, most of us (even with substantial organic audiences) promote our posts so that they will rise above the noise. Specific investment in photography, data analysis, or a suite of social media tools are other potential costs to consider.

  9. Assign account ownership.Before you establish a new social presence, it’s helpful to map out roles and responsibilities for all contributors, and to reflect these in account ownership and access. A few best practices to keep in mind:
    • Social accounts should be linked to program (not individual) email addresses.
    • Content should be routed through one or two editors who hold responsibility for fact checking and publishing.
    • Direct publishing privileges should be granted only to a small group of salaried staff.
    • Change passwords often, and immediately in the case of a staff transition.
    • Make use of two-factor authentication, wherever it is offered, as well as password management tools such as LastPass

    Turnover is a reality at Stanford. Staff members come and go, including internal moves from one of our units to another. The owner of any Stanford social property should always work to ensure smooth transitions between staff (up to including transition of the main owner of the property), and take specific steps upon the exit of staff members who have access to the property. Follow the general rule of SUNet access including email: Account access should be removed from departing staff as soon as possible following their last day of employment. In Facebook, there is a robust account access management system. Plan in advance to remove the relevant access at the end of the employee’s last day.

    We also recommend transferring ownership of the departing staff member’s Box folders to a temporary owner or the incoming staff member before the departing staff member exits (and thus loses SUNet access).  Often media (image libraries, etc.) and social documentation live on Box and access by others could be lost if the departing staff member is the sole owner of the folder.

    Finally, we recommend periodic (generally quarterly) audits of access to your social media accounts. It’s important to know who has access, and that only those who need access have it at any given time. In a world where student interns may have access and come and go with frequency, it’s easy to fall behind. Make a note on your calendar to perform access reviews regularly, as part of your standard operating procedure.

  10. As you set up your account, review Stanford’s name-use and logo policies.The basic elements of your profile page convey a great deal about the quality of your “brand.” Be sure to use high-resolution images and text that succinctly and accurately capture your mission and/or identity. When choosing a handle, try to avoid unwieldy acronyms, and think about making use of various image and text slots (profile, header, user name, bio, etc.) in complementary – rather than duplicative – ways. See the main university and school-level accounts as examples, or request a consultation with University Communications.

    Additionally, the digital media  team offers:

    • Consulting on strategy, measurement, and content
    • Promotional/coverage support, through a defined editorial process allowing potential content to be “pitched,” through university social channels
    • On approval, sponsored campaigns on behalf of units
    • Media publishing to YouTube and iTunes U
    • Bi-monthly “Social Pros” meeting (list is su-social-media@lists.stanford.edu)
    • Enterprise contract arrangements for essential tools and platforms

Specific guidance on hashtag usage

Hashtags, which are used primarily on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, can be a powerful tool. They allow you to put your content in a larger context, and to make it discoverable to followers interested in a particular topic or event. Used inappropriately or excessively, hashtags can also become useless and annoying. Consider the following guidelines as you incorporate hashtags in your social posts:

  • Before creating a hashtag, do a search to see if it’s already in use. If it is, carefully evaluate the content already associated with it.
  • Don’t use a hashtag if it’s largely associated with off-topic or problematic content.
  • If you’re creating a new hashtag that combines two or more words, double check to make sure the letters don’t come together in problematic ways, creating unintended words or phrases.
  • If you’re creating a hashtag for a particular event or campaign, make it specific and consider adding branding + acronym to ensure you won’t get random tweets tagged with it during the event.
  • Consider how followers might use your hashtag, and if possible, make it easy to use in-line as part of a sentence. “Can’t wait for my #StanfordReunion!” is a better post than “I’m going to my reunion! #RH16”
  • If you’re creating a hashtag for the purpose of live-tweeting an event, keep it as concise as possible to save characters for text.

Sample hashtags:

  • Event Name: #FutureFest
  • Event name (acronym): #SxSW16
  • Topic: #CyberSecurity
  • Place or Affiliation: #Stanford
  • Campaign: #MadeAtStanford

Using hashtags at events:

  • Encourage participants and attendees to use the hashtag in their tweets, and build early momentum before the event starts.
  • Promote the hashtag by asking your introductory speaker to plug it; include it in presentation materials, participant packets, and signage.
  • Use the hashtag consistently in your tweets.
  • Retweet relevant tweets from credible handles that include your hashtag.
  • Consider creating a tweet wall at your event on a large monitor using a service such as Tint (tintup.com) or Tweetwall (tweetwall.com).  (Include other hashtag-based media too, including Instagram posts.)
  • Be sure to plan staff to monitor the conversation before, during, and after the event to both remove inappropriate or off-topic comments, and to provide real-time customer service.

Getting help

For questions related to this document, please contact the Social Media Governance Committee. That team is also composed of colleagues across campus who work on social media on a daily basis. As of September 2016, the Social Media Governance Committee currently consists of:

  • Michelle Brandt, Director of Digital Media, School of Medicine
  • Sarah Bielecki, Digital Engagement Manager, School of Engineering
  • Dylan Conn, Digital Media Associate, University Communications
  • Biniam Debrezion, Senior IT Auditor, Office of Audit, Compliance, Risk and Privacy
  • John Holleman, Lead Designer, University Communications
  • Karen Lee, Associate Director, Digital and Social, Graduate School of Business
  • Adam Miller, Director, Digital & Data, Stanford Alumni Association
  • John Stafford, Senior Director for Digital Media Strategy, University Communications
  • Natalie White, Social Media Manager, Graduate School of Business

Finally, another important resource is the social media subgroup of the Communications Working group (informally known as “Social Pros”). That meeting is convened by University Communications on a bimonthly basis and it provides an informal forum for discussing best practices as they relate to social media. The mailing list for that group is .

Last updated: June 19, 2018