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Written by Jasmine Williams
Published on December 28, 2023
Reading time 14 minutes
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Social media is where brands and people want to see and be seen. It’s where you establish a community of raving fans, a voice unique to your brand and an identity that’s unmistakably yours.
While you might take a more experimental and casual approach to your social media presence at first, the top brands on social all have something in common: consistency.
The foundation for that consistency comes from a strong social media style guide. A style guide is the workhorse of an effective social media marketing strategy. As you grow online and in your chosen industry, your style guide will determine how you:
Keep reading to learn why a style guide is crucial for your brand and the key components you should include.
Think of a social media style guide as an extension of your brand guidelines.
A style guide keeps your team on the same page with distinct guidance and rules for each active platform, saving you from slip-ups and eliminating confusion about your brand’s dos and don’ts. It outlines how your brand should appear and act on social media and informs your approach to multi-channel content, which is much needed as every social media platform has distinct visual approaches and best practices.
A social style guide also shapes what people think when they hear your name, what they tell others about your brand and how you make them feel. For example, maybe you’ve noticed certain brands have a distinct social style. Like Wendy’s, with their sassy, sharp-tongued posts that people enjoy so much, they’ll even request a roast.
A screenshot of a post from Wendy’s X/Twitter account.
Wendy’s social presence differs from its website and other marketing.
For example, their website features a straightforward 20% offer to promote its new peppermint Frosty, whereas its Twitter account announced the new beverage with a meme.
A screenshot of Wendy’s website.
A screenshot of a Wendy’s X/Twitter account post.
A style guide isn’t the same as your social media marketing strategy.
While your marketing strategy outlines how you’ll reach your social media goals to drive revenue and growth, your style guide breaks down how you will represent and convey those actions through your brand voice. For example, your social media strategy might detail the type of content you plan to publish, whereas your style guide would explain how that content should look when you share it.
In the same vein, your brand style guide establishes your overall look and feel, whereas your social style guide will show you how to adapt that brand identity across different platforms while maintaining consistency.
No matter how many people handle your profiles, the tone and appearance of every post, caption or reply should be consistent.
For instance, Dove’s brand identity is about breaking stereotypes and inspiring people to feel comfortable in their skin. From their human-focused visuals to the uplifting tone of their posts and hashtags, the messaging on all their social profiles reflects this belief. Whether its their Facebook banner or Instagram posts, their messaging is consistent.
Dove's Facebook banner showing women from all hues of life smiling and happy being themselves.
Dove's Instagram post that says "Anybody can be an athlete."
You probably won’t receive many customer comments praising the cohesiveness of all your social profiles. But brands that step miss the mark on social often experience quick and severe consequences.
For example, Burger King Austria’s “Pride Whopper” campaign received so much backlash on social media that the agency behind the promotion issued a public apology on LinkedIn.
As a dynamic compass for your brand, your style guide has a lot of benefits to offer. Here are a few of the most important ones.
Even though more brands are using AI-powered tools to speed up content production, The Sprout Social Index shows that audiences want to see more authentic posts from brands on social than any other type of content.
In the age of AI, having a distinct voice and style will set your brand apart, make your content more recognizable and help you connect with your audience on a deeper level. The more you approach your target audience with a cohesive brand voice, the more credible you become.
When your social team knows how to represent your brand, there’s less room for error. Many brands want to jump on viral trends, as they’re a great way to boost reach and engagement. However, not all trends work for every brand. A style guide can help answer the question of ‘to post or not to post.’
Showing up consistently on social media and across platforms also builds trust with your audience. When you see a brand consistent in its messaging, tone and imagery, you start to feel like you know them, and that sense of familiarity builds trust.
On the other hand, when a brand’s social presence is all over the place, it leads to confusion and looks unprofessional.
An intelligent social media management tool like Sprout can smoothen the process, making it easy for teams of all sizes to collaborate in one intuitive platform. Empower your team to be creative and draft in Sprout’s compose window while setting up an approval flow so every message gets a final review.
Start your free trial today to try out these features and more.
New employees on your social team should read through your style guide to understand how to represent your brand on social. The guide will empower them to contribute quickly and work as a clear shared rubric for success.
It can even be helpful for employees outside of your social team. If you have an employee advocacy program, a social media style guide will outline the do’s and don’ts for engaging with brand content and sharing it with their network.
Every company’s style guide is unique to its brand and has different components. But certain elements are pretty universal. Make sure your social media style guide covers the following areas:
Let’s start with the basics. Your social media branding guidelines should first note all your profiles. Make sure you include every profile, not just your primary ones. So, if your brand is also on Snapchat, Reddit or TikTok, don’t neglect them in your style guide.
Also, don’t forget about profile naming conventions. There will always be new platforms to join, and as your brand sets its sites on the latest popular channels, these guidelines will come in handy.
Brands with more common names must prepare for scenarios where your company name isn’t available. For instance, if your company’s name is Chipmunk, that username will likely won’t be available on every platform, so outline acceptable backups. That might mean adding “US” to indicate the global region or “HQ” to indicate that it’s your brand’s main account.
Your social media brand voice distinguishes your brand from your competitors and builds familiarity. Like any other part of your brand, consistency is important across all mediums. For instance, if you’re funny and humorous on Facebook but all your YouTube videos are serious and straight-laced, it sends a mixed message.
However, there is some room for tailoring your language between social channels.
Just as you might be a bit more reserved in how you present yourself at work than among your closest friends, the same goes for your social media. For example, LinkedIn is more professional and polished, while TikTok is more lo-fi and casual. However, regardless of the platform, your social content should still look and feel like you. The key is finding a balance.
How do you define your voice? Think of it this way. If your brand were a real person, what would they sound like? And how would you want people to perceive you? Some of those descriptors might be a combination of the following:
To find your social media voice, look back at your past content. Pay attention to the tone and emotion, whether it’s a blog post, ad copy or other messaging. What resonated with your audience? Look at what other brands are doing on social media for inspiration, but think about how you’ll put your spin on it.
Once you’ve settled on your brand voice, write it down in your social media style guide and be as descriptive as possible. Don’t simply write:
Instead, you might have something like this:
At Sprout, we use the “Goldilocks” formula. For example, our voice is confident, not cocky. Take an example from our style guide:
Including screenshots with post examples from your brand or others will help clarify the tone you want to establish. Remember: Whoever is reading your social media style guide should be able to pick up on your brand’s voice right away.
Language and grammar style guides aren’t just for your website. Your social media posts should follow the same standards. These expectations go beyond whether or not you use AP Style. It should cover areas like brand terminology, abbreviations, use of exclamation points and other things that help create cohesiveness in your content.
Are there any words, acronyms, abbreviations or industry jargon you use in-house but shouldn’t in social posts? Are there any words you always capitalize or avoid altogether? Record these in your guide. The language and grammar section should also cover regional nuances and inclusive language. For example, Sprout uses people-first language and universal phrases to promote inclusivity. We also avoid “common” idioms that don’t translate to a global audience.
Be as detailed as you’d like here, depending on your brand’s preferences. If you already have a grammar handbook for your website or blog, you could carry many of the same rules to your social media style guide.
However, social is a great place to loosen the proverbial necktie. For instance, let’s say your brand doesn’t use contractions in press releases or long-form content, you might allow them in your social posts so your brand feels more human.
These rules apply to your social media post captions and any comments or replies from your brand account.
Some brands use a specific format for sharing links, status updates or other types of posts. For instance, X posts might follow a headline, link and hashtag format. Or your brand might list all your hashtags within the first comment of an Instagram post rather than the caption.
Post formatting should also cover emoji use. Do you use them sparingly (e.g., 1-2 max) or prefer to pepper them throughout?
Spotify takes a concise approach with their Instagram posts, keeping most of them to just a short sentence and a hashtag.
A screenshot of a Spotify Instagram post
These small nuances help your team share content faster and streamline your process.
You should also define your call-to-action (CTA) placement in captions. For example, some brands opt to put links in the comments on LinkedIn rather than the post itself. Whatever you decide, note it down in your style guide.
Lastly, don’t forget about content attribution. Some brands send every social media post as the company. Others prefer to leave a signature to let people know who they’re chatting with.
For instance, Delta Airlines’s social support team introduces themselves by name when replying to complaints. This practice makes it easier to identify who responded to each post.
A screenshot of a tweet from Delta Airlines X/Twitter account and a reply
Keep things organized by outlining any campaign or brand-specific hashtags and how your team should use them in social media posts.
When creating branded hashtags, think about the intent and the channel. Use your basic branded hashtag on an ongoing basis to build familiarity with your audience. Home goods brand Serena and Lily use their branded hashtag (#SerenaAndLily) in practically every Instagram post. It also operates as a community hashtag, adding up to over 95,000 tagged posts.
A screenshot of a post from Serena and Lily’s Instagram account
Many businesses feature branded hashtags in their social bios, which is helpful if you leverage user-generated content in your social strategy.
A screenshot of Anastasia Beverly Hills X/Twitter bio and profile photo
A screenshot of Anastasia Beverly Hills’ Instagram bio and profile photo.
Since most social networks are highly visual, your social media style guide should set parameters and standards for any images or videos you share.
There are two major types of visuals to cover in your guide:
If you’ve ever looked at a company’s Instagram feed and noticed that it seems themed or well put together, it was usually planned out. For instance, take a look at Square Sayings on Instagram. Their feed is colorful, simple and uniform. That style carries over to their Pinterest, X, etc.
A screenshot from Square Sayings Instagram account.
A screenshot of Square Sayings Pinterest bio.
Within your style guide, outline:
Your brand’s design and creative team, or your agency, may have already outlined these points in your overall brand style. But you may need to bend the rules a bit for specific social campaigns or platforms.
For example, on Instagram, McDonald’s uses professional imagery and more lo-fi content that feels native to the platform.
A screenshot of a Reel from McDonald’s Instagram account
A screenshot of a post from McDonald’s Instagram account
Storing your social media images and videos in a central location, like an asset library, can help ensure your visuals are cohesive and brand-aligned. Sprout’s Asset Library is a built-in feature catalogs your brand’s inventory of visuals.
Screenshot of Sprout Social’s Asset Library
This remote storage is excellent for companies with distributed teams. Team members can go straight to the asset library within Sprout and publish directly from there. It also reduces approval time since the images are already vetted.
How does your brand interact with competitors on social media? Do you have a friendly rivalry or ignore them altogether? If your company is in a competitive industry, there’s a chance that your audience will mention them to you, or they might even engage directly with your brand.
Use your social media style guide to detail how your company handles these situations. A lot of it will have to do with your brand voice. You might respond like Duolingo if you have a witty, cheeky or sarcastic voice, who parodied Spotify’s Wrapped campaign to promote their similar Year in Review.
A screenshot from Duolingo’s X/Twitter account.
Again, it’s all about creating consistency and establishing your company’s personality and social media style. Whether it’s a cheeky shot at a rival brand or a response to a more serious situation, a style guide helps your team engage and respond in an on-brand way.
How should your team respond when customers ask questions, share your content or engage with you? How do you address negative or positive feedback? And how quickly? Formalizing this in a style guide will keep everyone on the same page and create cohesion.
Even if different team members manage your profiles, responses must be consistent. Consider creating a catalog of custom, on-brand replies for accuracy and, you guessed it, consistency.
With Sprout, you can save replies in your Asset Library. You don’t have to have a predetermined response for every question or comment, but having a few saved replies for different categories can serve as a template for your social team.
Also, remember that people crave human connections on social. If you respond to every user the same way, it can feel robotic and impersonal, so try using Sprout’s AI-enhanced agent replies to respond faster without sacrificing personalization.
Encouraging your employees to engage with your company’s social media content is a cost-effective way to boost its reach. It can also help humanize your brand, giving your audience a face to connect with and trust.
Some team members may have a knack for social media, but others might need more guidance. Including a social media policy in your style guide with specific dos and don’ts for employees will help everybody on your team be on their social A-game.
Your policy should provide guidelines on how to represent the company on social media, promote it and interact with its social profiles directly. These directions will help employees amplify your brand while building their own personal brand and protecting your company from privacy, security or PR risks.
The last thing your company needs is to run into legal issues over a social post. If you’re in an industry with regulations and restrictions, add social media compliance guidance in your style guide. For instance, many government agencies have rules for what they can and cannot publish on social.
There are also some general legal considerations to remember, like copyright violations, reposting someone else’s image without permission or using AI. For example, inputting data into AI tools could endanger your company’s intellectual property rights. So consider adding an AI use policy to your style guide.
Every style guide looks and is published differently. No matter where your style guide lives, make sure it’s easily accessible to employees.
Since these guides contain somewhat sensitive information, they’re rarely made public. However, we’ve compiled a list of some examples we’ve found to give you some ideas.
Sprout’s brand style guide lives in a creative hub called Seeds. It’s “home to all the resources needed to understand the Sprout brand, express it creatively and inspire meaningful customer experiences.” It’s detailed and robust while still easy to navigate and digest.
New York University’s social media style guide outlines their active accounts and rules for post attribution, preferred words (e.g., residence halls, not “dorms”), punctuation use, imagery, publishing cadence, platform-specific content and engagement styles for their different active platforms.
The Society of Women Engineers’ social media style guide covers how they use various social media platforms, overall best practices, proper use of content, graphics and photographs, how to refer to the organization’s leadership, leveraging personal accounts and more.
The City of Waterloo has a relatively robust social media style guide. It includes why the city uses social media, roles and responsibilities, a social media policy and code of conduct for using personal social media accounts, best practices for creating social media content, legal and accessibility requirements and overall guidelines for presenting content from a language and graphic perspective.
Putting a social media style guide together can be time-consuming, so how do you ensure your team uses it? You didn’t invest all that time and effort to produce your guide just for it to gather virtual dust in your company’s server. Here are a few tips to make the most of it.
Whether you host quarterly live workshops or offer on-demand learning options like video recordings or a course portal, use social media employee training to present the information in your guide in an engaging, interactive way. Plus, if you offer live trainings, you can quickly answer questions your team might have about the material.
Every department can (and should) have a hand in shaping your social media style guide. Work with your product team to ensure you’re accurately describing your products. Partner with your PR communications team to define how you handle crises on social. Similarly, the HR department can offer tips on employer branding or employee engagement initiatives.
Social media is constantly changing; your style guide should go with it.
To keep pace with social media platform feature updates and best practices, set a regular cadence for reviewing and updating your style that works for your team’s capacity, such as quarterly or annually.
Use the tips and examples in this guide to inspire your social media style guide so it’s a living document, constantly growing and evolving. Develop the sections described as your base and customize your guide to fit your needs. And since social media networks increasingly prioritize video and photo content, establish a consistent visual language to create a more cohesive visual identity.
Check out our visual content strategy guide to define your visual aesthetic on social to boost growth and engagement.
Jasmine Williams
Jasmine Williams is an award-winning writer and the founder of Jasmine Williams Media, a boutique content marketing consultancy supporting industry-leading companies and visionaries. She’s also the creator behind Freelance Curious, a weekly newsletter for freelance creatives, and Click-worthy Creative Academy, an online freelance mentorship program.
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