Chapter 14: Social Media Style Guides

What does the voice of a construction company sound like in social media? What about a non-profit that gets used sports equipment to impoverished kids? What vocabulary should a vaccination campaign use? What colours work for a political candidate?

These are the questions that need to be answered through the branding process and articulated through a style guide and/or visual identity standards.

Some organizations have one and lump everything applicable into the one document; some organizations have both, letting one speak to the writing of the organization and the other to the image of the organization. Unfortunately, many organizations have neither a style guide nor any visual identity standards.

Without such documents, how can various employees—social media managers, HR recruiters, executive assistants, marketing interns—maintain a consistent voice and image for their organization? The answer is that they can’t—a shame for the organization and for them.

Social Media Style Guides

This chapter specifically deals with social media style guides, which necessarily means it focuses on digital voice and style, rather than style and visual identity concerns that exist in the material world, such as how a logo should be presented on a billboard or how it should be placed under another organization’s logo when sponsoring an event. Those aren’t issues in social media, but they would be part of a convention set of visual identity standards.

On the other hand, a conventional style guide doesn’t need to deal with hashtags, emojis, avatars, or how often to post content, which are all features of a social media style guide.

A social media style guide needs to cover all such points—and much more—so that everybody in the organization who is posting anything or interacting in any way with the organization’s social media accounts does so in the same voice as everybody else in the organization, creating a consistent experience for the audience. (How weird would your social media account seem if it was formal from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, but then was funny and full of emojis from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm, all because the people operating the account switched to the night shift?)

An organization’s social media style guide needs to give employees clear guidance on such points. For example when discussing vocabulary, do you write at a fourth-grade vocabulary, as would be seen with sports organizations, eager to appeal to their young fans, or do you write at a university level, as a college would when trying to impress parents and students with the educational value that a college education represents?

The guidance provided should be clear, instructional, and comprehensive, ideally in all of the following areas.

Target Audience

The audience your organization targets through social media is likely different than the audience it may target through radio ads, news interviews, or direct mail sent to their homes. Define the target audience group(s) you’re trying to engage with through social media, providing demographic, behavioural, contextual, and psychographic descriptions (see Chapter 7). Also, create audience archetypes (see Chapter 8) to help visualize the audience you’re writing for.

Brand Voice and Tone

Give your social media accounts a personality. Are they glib, aggressive, and funny, like Wendy’s? Are they formal and informative, such as the British Columbia Wildfire Service account? What kind of person is your account? This isn’t a question about the people operating the account; they need to play into the persona that your organization presents for itself online and that persona needs to be defined in the style guide. Give your persona traits and project those traits into all social media posts.

Whatever you come up with, make sure it fits with the organization’s overall brand identity (previously discussed in Chapter 9).

Language Guidelines

Flowing from the discussions about your target audience and brand persona, questions about language choices need to be addressed.

If your organization operates in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, and Australia, whose versions of English are you going to use?  Is that “colour” or “color”? What about punctuation marks? Are you using the North American conventions or the British conventions? Are there rules you’re going to deliberately break, such as having spaces on either side of a dash (which don’t belong there, but are often placed there)? These might seem like pedantic questions, but you need to present your voice the same way consistently, right down to the Oxford comma.

You’ll also want to plan our the level of sophistication in word choices; think about who your audience is and why you’re writing to them. For some audiences, you may want to flex the vocabulary; for others, you may want to be as simplistic as possible. You also need to be clear about whether you can use industry-specific terms or if you need to either explain those terms or use more accessible vocabulary.

Visual Guidelines

An organization needs an attractive logo and clear rules about how to treat that logo.

For example, what colours can it be presented in? Can you invert the colours, such as by clipping the image from black background with green text to a green background with black text? What about a green background with white text? What about just black and white? Also, what shade of green and is that black totally black? Those need to be defined in hexadecimal codes for a social media style guide (and often CMYK for conventional style guides, as that’s what printers ask for).

Other rules also need to be created, such as how close can text or other images can get to the logo (the necessary blank space around a logo is known as “protected” space).

Beyond your brand (or brands) logo, visual guidelines may need to account for what types of images are used in your social media accounts. For example, does your organization use stock photos (hopefully not, but your call)? Does it have a blanked “no children” policy about photos? What does it want to achieve with photos? What about short video clips?

There are other style rules that may need to be accounted for, such as what typeface you use, when to use boldface text, italics, and underlining (though many social media accounts give you no control over typeface, only the latter font points of bolding, italics, and underlining).

You should also clearly indicate what your rules are on emojis, icons, and avatars, too.

Every part of the organization’s visual projection to social media audiences should have either rules or guidance in the style guide.

Hashtags and Links

Similar to language rules and visual presentation rules, the organization needs some guidance about its use of hashtags and links. What is the maximum number of hashtags included in a single social media post? What is the preferred number? What about external links? Do you ever “@” another account? If so, how many? Do you ever post in social media without any form of hashtag, link, or tag?

When using hashtags, surveil the social media environment to see what hashtags are popular in your industry, especially with target audiences and competitors. Also keep an eye on trending hashtags, but never use a trending hashtag without understanding what it is and why it’s trending.

Content Types and Posting Schedule

Provide your social media communicators with guidance about the types of content you’ll share, including text posts, images, videos, and articles, plus how often and at what times of day you’ll post them.

Provide guidelines for each type of content and note the optimal times for different platforms and audiences.

Rules of Engagement

This is where you remind your team: “never feed the trolls.” If somebody is trolling your account, engaging with them makes the matter worse, not better. At the same time, you need to encourage authentic engagement with authentic concerns and complaints. Even a hostile audience needs attention and deserves two-way communication, so long as they aren’t simply trying to bait you into embarrassing your organization by being drawn into an unwinnable conversation (if you can call it that with a troll).

Explain how to interact with followers, respond to comments, and handle customer inquiries or feedback. This may also link back to the discussion of brand voice and tone.

This section is also a good place to note whether your posts will include any acknowledgement of the authorship of each post (because a brand can’t actually post on its own; it needs people to make that happen). As an example, some organizations have their staff note the authorship in short form, such as by adding a circumflex (the “^” symbol), followed by the real author’s initials. This allows readers to track who is responding to their comments and gives a sense of personal connection to the person on the other side of what might otherwise seem like a faceless organization or brand.

This section is also a good place to give guidance about sensitive topics. What do you do if somebody starts engaging your brand about a political or religious subject that isn’t really a part of your organization’s mission? If a politician, religious leader, union leader, or other such figure comments on one of your posts with some challenging commentary, does that merit standard engagement or do you need to bring in management to consider the broader public relations implications? If one such leader makes a post relevant to your mission, do you engage there pro-actively? Give your team guidance on these matters.

Content Approval

The discussion of sensitive topics segues well into a discussion about content approval processes. Who has the authority to post? Does anybody else need to sign-off before a post is made? Who has the authority to delete a post?

Have clear guidelines for your organization so that nobody makes a mistake.

Platform-Specific Guidelines

Not all social media platforms are created equally. If your content varies by platform, such as the number of characters, use of hashtags, or inclusion of images or video, then you need to provide clear guidelines to your team.

Beyond simple rules, also provide guidance about best practices for each unique platform your organization uses.

User-Generated Content

Describe how UGC will be used, credited, and monitored. Encourage interactions by outlining guidelines for reposting user content.

Legal Issues

Include legal requirements, such as disclosure of sponsored content, copyright considerations, and adherence to platform terms of service. A word to the wise: if you’re paying a celebrity or influencer to do something, but forthright about that. You’ll enter a world of trouble if you try to hide that and it is later revealed.


Almost every rule has an exception. What are yours? Give guidance to your team when they can bend the rules and when they don’t need to enforce a rule that somebody else (such as an audience member) is bending—or breaking.


Establish a process for updating the social media style guide as needed; you need to keep up with changing trends and platforms.


A well-crafted social media style guide serves as a valuable resource for maintaining brand consistency, fostering engagement, and effectively conveying your brand’s message across various social media platforms. Your social media guide should ensure that your team knows how to communicate on behalf of your organization through all social media channels used by the organization.


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Social Media & Reputation Management Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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