The Unwritten Rules of Social Media

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When you sign in to any social media site, you agree to their terms and conditions, but you should keep two important things in mind: one, you should do your best to adhere to these rules, and two, you should never expect that others will do so. 

As a member of any online community, and a representative of your brand (either your business or your personal brand) your primary responsibility is to make sure that you are always cognizant of the rules, both written and unwritten.

#1 – Know the Limits of Self-Promotion

In some environments, self-promotion is expressly forbidden, and you should always rely on someone else, preferably with an established social media presence, to introduce your content to the community. In settings where it is permissible to promote yourself, always do so in moderation. Pay careful attention to the balance between self-serving contributions, and contributing to the community as a whole.

Always remember you are working with both social media professionals and hobbyists, and it is the hobbyists who will hold you to the highest standards. They put a lot of effort into contributing quality content and they can become very adversarial towards you if they perceive you as a shameless self-promoter.  Even worse, if your contributions are regularly marked as spam, you risk being permanently blacklisted.

If there is a mantra that will best guide you through the highly-charged area of social media self-promotion, it is the simple word “share.” Remember that everyone participating is submitting content to share with others, and if you keep that in mind and behave accordingly, you will earn and maintain your standing as a valued member of the community.

#2 – Take the High Road

Taking the high road means always keeping yourself above the fray. Never let yourself get dragged down into any conflicts that will reflect negatively on your brand.

This may sound easy, but it’s one of the most difficult parts of maintaining your digital brand. You want to be authentic, you need to be authentic, but you cannot let your personal feelings lead you into interactions that you will regret. This can be summed up in a simple directive:


From time to time you will happen upon this very unpleasant species of web-dweller, and it is important not to engage them in debate, as there is no such thing as winning a flame war. The trick is, how do you tell a legitimate disagreement from flame-bait? Not every unhappy response is a true troll, sometimes you are dealing with a real reputation management issue. When in doubt, respond in a civil and helpful fashion, and direct them to a more productive means of resolving their problems with you, your content, or your brand. If they continue to post abusive and negative comments in response, just let the subject drop.

The good news is, you’re not alone. Most social media site members will recognize this type of bad behavior, and downvote it (if they have that option). This is your best defense against internet trolls, and if your contributions always take the high road, the wisdom of the crowd will be on your side.

#3 –It’s What You Know and Who You Know

Most social media platforms have a friending or following feature built in. You may be tempted to make as many connections as you can, in the hopes this will get your content promoted, but this is not always the best strategy. You want to build a strong network, but you should be selective in your alliances. Each platform is different, so one of your best strategies as a new member is to look to the site’s power users to see how they handle the social functionality.

The most important aspect of a social media alliance is reciprocity. There are many members who will make connections with everyone they possibly can, and then inundate them with requests to vote for their content. This is all well and good, but many of these indiscriminate networkers are so overloaded with their own efforts that they spend all their energy aggressively campaigning for votes on their stories, and have little time left to respond to everyone else.

In addition, you may find yourself fielding frequent in-site messages, IMs, emails, and other requests for assistance, and to put it bluntly, many of these quantity-over-quality social media marketers will be asking you to vote on things that might not reflect well on your personal brand (if your voting record is public on the site), or which might actually hurt your standing on the site. Voting patterns are often tracked and analyzed, and it is best to avoid activity which may be identified as part of an effort to manipulate results.

Once you make solid connections, it is vital that you put the effort into maintaining these alliances. This is another good reason to keep your network at a reasonable size, since you should proactively look through your contacts’ submissions on a regular basis, voting and commenting generously. Serious social media enthusiasts are very aware of who supports them, and they will respond in kind.  Strengthen these relationships by connecting on other networks – in other words, be social. The Golden Rule, as always, applies in these interactions.

#4 – Crafting a Clickable Submission

Just like the three most important things about real estate are location, location, and location, social media has a similar focus on content, content, and yes, content. Even with your entire, reasonably-sized network providing seed votes, bad content will not last on the front page; you must be able to compete with breaking news stories and links from some of the most popular sites on the internet. You need to be able to compete with the best of them, and your best chance is to make an excellent first impression.

To do this, you must put some time and effort into writing a catchy title and a good description, and having a thumbnail image that is accessible to the social media platform. Most sites now offer you the ability to select your thumbnail from a variety of images on the page you’re linking to, so make sure at least one of them will work well with social media submissions.  SEOMoz has a great case study of how a title and description can make or break your submission, with examples showing the detailed do’s and don’ts of crafting an eye-catching, clickable social media story.

As the tongue-in-cheek “Reddit Algorithm” chart on the right illustrates, there are certain titles that seem to have a kind of magical ability to become popular. The chart is probably intended as a complaint about a lack of variety on the front page, but it can definitely help your chances if you keep on top of what’s hot and try to leverage current popular topics.

Some basic rules to keep in mind:

  • Don’t assume the reader will recognize your site or your brand, or understand what you do – keep the information relevant to the widest possible audience.
  • Use provocative phrasing. As SEOMoz suggests, have a look at the site’s front page to see what works, and pay attention to how newspapers and magazines craft their headlines.
  • If you can, make a connection to a popular current event.
  • Choose the category carefully, and adjust your headline accordingly.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try a different approach – most social media sites will try to discourage you from reposting, but if your prior submissions went nowhere, there’s no harm in giving it another try.  It’s an art, and you can get better with practice.

#5 – Do Your Homework and Understand the Algorithms

You don’t need a degree in computer science to understand the basics of popularity algorithms, but you will need to put some effort into studying them. Though the exact formula each site uses is a closely guarded secret, you should at least understand what it takes to get your content to the front page, and conversely, what type of activity may cause it to be summarily dropped from the up-and-coming lists.

In general, the age of the submission and the number of net positive votes are the major factors, but from there on out it starts getting pretty complicated. Sites have two primary objectives: to make sure that only high quality content makes it to the front page, and to prevent unscrupulous users from gaming the system.

Each platform is different, but most sophisticated calculations of link popularity rely on the following three factors:

  • Reputation of the submitter: Whether the site gives preference to new users (to promote diversity) or to power users (because they have earned trust), most popularity algorithms consider the source of the submitted content.
  • History of submissions from the website being submitted: heavy penalties are assessed against sites with a history of being marked as spam, ranging from warning icons to outright banning. Even worse, some sites (Digg in particular) seem to have blacklisted certain sites, allowing links to be submitted but blocking them from ever being promoted to the front page.
  • Source of the votes and voter behavior: many sites track how the voter arrives at the page, how long they spend there, and whether they click on the content or just vote blindly. Vote velocity and number of comments are compared against site averages, and against other stories at a similar level of popularity. As a rising story gains visibility, voting should increase accordingly; if not, it may drop off the lists quickly.

Speculation about voting algorithms abounds, and social media enthusiasts often have long and spirited discussions on blogs, forums, and during interactive video podcasts. Find some good discussions and join in, there is much to learn, and things often change – it can be challenging to keep up. This is a vast and very complex subject, but well worth the time and effort to do your homework.

Advantage: Authenticity

Social media experts are always debating various strategies for marketing content to reach the widest possible audience, but no matter how skillfully you navigate the social and technical landscape, there is no substitute for authenticity and substance. This takes time, and work, but it is ultimately the most practical approach.

Beware of self-proclaimed social media gurus who promise instant, unrealistic results based on questionable methods, as these can do long-term damage in the form of heavy penalties or outright bans.  Successful outreach starts with quality content, spreads through a network of genuine connections, and holds its own once it has achieved visibility on high-traffic platforms.

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