The differences between the main social media platforms – explained the old-school way

When you first venture into the world of online social networking, the differences between the main social media platforms can seem hard to understand. So here’s a beginner’s guide – using analogies from the pre-digital age

Black and white photo of traditional English pub

Photograph by Ales Krivec

These days, every business needs to embrace digital marketing – but getting on board with social media can be a daunting prospect if you’re new to the game. When I started my blog a few months ago, I found myself on such a dizzyingly steep learning curve that I wondered if I would ever get the hang of things. There are so many different social media platforms and there is so much to learn about each one – not to mention the various bits of software available as ‘add ons’ and the sheer volume of articles, blog posts and infographics explaining that you’re probably doing it all wrong, anyway.

The good news is that, once you get going, social media is fairly straightforward. Yes, it takes a lot of getting used to and, yes, there is always more to learn. But the great thing is that you can start slowly, taking things one step at a time, gradually developing your knowledge and skills as you go along. Your ability and proficiency will evolve organically and mistakes don’t matter that much – the flow of information on social media is so fast that a slightly ropey bit of content will be gone and forgotten within days, if not hours.

The main social media platforms
So, how do you get started on social media? Which platforms should you choose? To some extent, this depends on what you are promoting and who your target audience is. I don’t use Instagram, for instance, because my business is not really visual and I’m not sure what content I would post (I should probably try harder!). That said, the other main social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+ – are really unavoidable and customers, clients and colleagues will probably expect to be able to find you on those. So, what are they for and how do they differ? It’s taken me several months to get used to them and I’m still very much a novice but I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt so far – using old-school analogies that social media beginners will recognise and understand. I won’t go into any detail about how to use them here because otherwise this post would end up the length of a doctoral dissertation – it’s more a question of what each one is for and the level of formality involved. Here goes!

Twitter
I think of Twitter as a communal noticeboard in the office corridor. If your office was a really awesome huge shiny glass building full of internationally renowned experts, business authorities, thought leaders, wise managers, witty freelancers, enthusiastic office juniors, sparky students and everyone else in between – all keen to share their knowledge and learn something new. They each have their own little section of this (really massive) office noticeboard, where they write comments or pin links to all kinds of information that they think other people will find interesting – some of which they have written themselves and some of which they have found elsewhere. They usually spend a lot of time hanging around, seeing who else might turn up, making friends, having chats, promoting each other’s work, copying and sharing each other’s notices or just making random observations about their day or the talking point of the hour. It’s a bright, sociable and buzzy place, and some people spend so much time there it’s frankly a wonder they get any work done – but it’s amazing what you can find out, and who you can meet.

When you first arrive you’re bound to feel a little overwhelmed. It’s fine to take some time to look around, search for interesting people to follow and find your niche. But just remember – it’s informal but it’s public; anyone can see your section of the board and pass your notices around. So while showing a bit of personality is never a bad thing, you should stay professional, polite and positive. And yes, there are weirdos. There are always weirdos.

LinkedIn
Dust off your jacket and polish your shoes, my friend – today you are going to a work conference. You’ll be attending with several people you know, some personally but most professionally, and you’re certain to bump into many other work acquaintances, past and present, senior and junior, when you arrive.

Your first step is to fill in a form detailing what you do, your previous employment and your qualifications – this will be made available to other attendees. Once inside, you’ll find that there are several options available to you. To start with, you are likely to stick with the people you know, standing around and listening as those who arrived at the venue earlier hold court. You feel relieved when you see a face you recognise and so you strike up a private conversation and catch up with their news. After a while, you might start to join in a few discussions, introduce yourself to some new faces and perhaps offer a more detailed update on why you’re there and what you’re up to. As time goes on and you gather confidence and get to know people a little better, you’ll share more and more stories, ideas and information relating to your area of expertise, talk about your own business, and initiate and join in discussion and debates.

Now you’re really into the swing of things, you decide to visit one of the group seminars that’s of particular interest to you. It’s held in a large space because there are so many people – but quite honestly not all of them are listening and more than a few are asleep at the back. However, the movers and shakers are, naturally, paying attention and several of them – from the interns up to the CEOs – come up to the front to give a presentation or start a discussion. At first you sit back, watch, and listen, before slipping out quietly. But you keep coming back and, eventually, you realise you’ve got something to add to the conversation. You start to put up your hand to make comments, ask and answer questions, and share your experiences. One day, you take the plunge and go up to the front to deliver a presentation of your own. As an active member of the group you are soon noticed by others, which leads to all kinds of interesting career and business developments.

Facebook
Facebook is the digital equivalent of going to the pub with friends. There is no dress code and you can turn up with bad hair and holes in your jeans – no one minds. You share your news, show photos of your family or holiday, swap funny anecdotes, ask for the name of a good local plumber or a book recommendation, put the world to rights, and organise your Christmas get-together. It’s mostly fun and light-hearted, with the occasional serious moment, and it’s not really the time for intellectual debate or shop talk – although if something particularly exciting is happening with your work then your friends would probably love to know.

As with any public place, your conversation might be overheard. So, even though you’re among friends, you’re always careful not to be rude, insulting or offensive.

Facebook Pages
This is a trip to the pub that you’ve organised and are hosting but it’s a little more formal – you’ve invited a group of acquaintances and potential clients who you think might be interested in your specialist area (most likely your business), and several of them have decided to join you. Other people have heard about the event and have come along too. It’s relaxed and informal – you’re in your smartest jeans – but it’s definitely not the time to get too personal. You’ll be chatting about subjects related to your work, hobby or specific interest but you might go off on a tangent now and again and you’re free to let your personality shine.

The information you share will be interesting and meaningful but easy to digest – people will come and go and, while they are genuinely interested in what you have to say, they’re not going to hang around to listen to a lecture or a sales pitch.

Google+
If Facebook is your favourite pub, then Google+ is the slick new wine bar that’s opened up in the centre of town. It looks amazing – all polished wood floors, marble counters and mid-century velvet sofas – but you’re not quite sure if you really fit in there. One day you venture inside and have a look around. You can’t see anyone you know and, to be honest, the place seems a bit quiet. There are a few people milling about but you can’t quite work out whether you’ve got anything in common with them or how to strike up a conversation – it definitely doesn’t seem like the place for cat memes, hen night photos or clips of crazy stunts. Still, it does look really lovely, and maybe if you can convince a few of your smarter friends to join you for a civilised drink there, it might just turn into your favourite new hangout.

NB: I have to admit, I’ve only just filled in my profile on Google+ and I’m still trying to get my head around it. The big question is, will it ever take off? Theoretically, it should, at least among your artier friends and colleagues. While Facebook is a bit visually scrappy and witness to some heinous crimes against grammar and punctuation, Google+ is slick, glossy and professional. It just looks so much prettier than Facebook. Its layout and design is far more elegant and uploading and sharing content seems to be an easier and smoother process. The image quality is fantastic and the layout is clean, tidy – almost verging on the minimalist. The colours are softer, the typeface is gentler and overall it’s a far more soothing viewing experience.

The other HUGE factor to consider is that Google+ is part of… Google. And, let’s not beat about the bush, you really need Google to like you. If Google notices (and it will notice) that you are frequenting its new bar regularly, bringing your friends with you, and making it look like a fun place to hang out in, then it’s going to pay a lot more attention to you and reward you accordingly (I’m talking rankings of course). So although it might seem a bit quiet at the moment, it’s probably worth persevering. If it does take off, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Pinterest
Pinterest is your (very spacious, very modern) sixth-form common room and your boards are your allocated section of the wall. This is where you can collect and display your favourite images, divided into categories on any subject that interests or inspires you, from architecture to celebration cakes to fashion to book nooks. Your boards are completely personal to you – you can allow them to be seen by other people or choose to keep them secret. You can also start a communal board and invite other people to add to it. If you see something you like on someone else’s board you can copy it and pin it to your own and vice versa.

Pinterest is a place for play rather than work. But if you have a creative business and want other people to see and share what you have made or produced then it can be highly effective – pictures get pinned and repinned at lightning speed! Photos that you share from your website will link back to it, so if your product catches someone’s eye they will be able to find you with one click. For that reason, it’s also very useful for bookmarking posts or pages that you want to refer back to – if the page contains a photo you simply pin it to save the entire link.

Join the main social media platforms now!
So, these are your new networking spaces. The buzzy communal corridor, the serious work conference, the pub, the wine bar, and the sixth form common room. Each of them has their own uses and each is invaluable in its own way – and the best bit is that everyone’s invited. None of these is an exclusive members’ club – none requires an entrance ticket or a membership fee or a place on the guestlist or a book full of contacts. Anyone can join in, look around, learn, introduce themselves, engage in conversation – and everyone has the chance to show what they do, what they know, what they make or what they can offer.

Don’t be shy – come on in and have some fun.

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