Every brand, publication, and website needs a good style guide. And every good social marketer needs a great social media style guide.

Let’s look at why you need clearly defined social media brand guidelines, along with some great style guide examples for you to model.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media style guide template to easily ensure a consistent look, feel, voice, and tone across all your social channels.

Why you need a social media style guide (aka brand guidelines)

Do you use serial (aka Oxford) commas? That’s the comma before “and” in a list like milk, butter, and eggs. I’m a fan. Fortunately, so is Hootsuite. But using them is neither right or wrong, simply a matter of style. What’s wrong is being inconsistent.

Do you use British spellings or American? If you use British spellings, you obviously spell analyse with an “s.” But what about realise? Maybe that gets a “z.” British style guides are split on this point.

On that note, do you say zee or zed?

Language can be messy, with loads of inconsistencies and variations. For your brand to be consistent, you need to make some decisions and set them down in writing.

And small issues like spelling, grammar, and punctuation are just the start. You also need to define your brand voice, how it might vary across social channels, and what kinds of images you use to define your brand.

A style guide for social media ensures all the team members who talk and write about your brand do so in a consistent way that supports your brand image and goals.

What your social media style guide should include

A list of all your social media accounts

This isn’t a social media audit, but you still need to make a list of every social account you use for your brand.

For one thing, this will help you get a clear picture of the naming conventions you’ve used for your accounts. Are the names consistent across channels? If not, now’s the time to choose a style and note it in your style guide. This way you can ensure new accounts on new channels are easily discoverable for your existing fans.

All of the following sections of your style guide will likely vary by channel, and may even vary for different accounts on the same platform. Your customer service accounts may use a slightly different vocabulary from your marketing channels, for example.

Listing all your accounts right up front will make sure you consider the needs of each account as you build your style guide.

Customer/audience personas

If you haven’t yet defined your target market and developed your audience personas, now is the time to do so. Before you can develop an effective brand voice, you need to know who you’re speaking to.

Include brief descriptions of your audience personas right upfront, as these will guide all of your other decisions as you build your social media brand guidelines.

Voice and tone

To really connect with your audience, you need to have a clearly defined brand voice. Some brands are super-cheeky on social media. Others maintain a pretty formal tone. You can take either approach, or some variation, but it will be jarring if it’s not consistent.

Social media style guide example: Brand voice—Celebrity Cruises

Social media style guide brand voice
Source: Celebrity Cruises Brand Identity Guidelines

Here are some questions to consider as you define your brand voice and tone.

Jargon

Will you use it? Unless you’re in a highly technical industry with a very niche audience, your best bet is probably not.

Stick to plain language that’s easy for your audience to understand, and make a list of jargon-y words to avoid.

Social media style guide example: Jargon—Skype

Social media style guide jargon Skype
Source: The World According to Skype

Inclusive language

What guidelines will you follow on social media to make sure your language is inclusive and fair?

Involve team members in the discussion as you develop your inclusive language guidelines. If your team is too large for everyone to join in the discussion, make sure you have diverse viewpoints represented. Circulate the preliminary guidelines to seek feedback.

Accessibility is a key component of inclusivity.

Sentence, paragraph, and caption length

In general, short is best. But how short? Will you take the same approach on Facebook as you do on Instagram? Will you use threaded Tweets to go beyond 280 characters?

Social media style guide example: Caption length—Mailchimp

Caption length Mailchimp
Source: Mailchimp Content Style Guide

Emojis

Will you use emojis? Which ones? How many? On what channels? How often? Have the same discussion about GIFs and stickers.

How and where to use CTAs

How often will you ask your readers to take a specific action, like click a link or make a purchase? What kinds of action words will you use in your calls to action?

Post authorship

Do you post as a brand? Or do you attribute your social posts to individual team members? For example, it’s common for customer service social accounts to use initials to indicate which team member is replying to a public message.

Brand language rules

This could be viewed as a subset of brand voice, but it’s a big enough deal that it’s worth considering independently. There are likely several words, phrases, acronyms, and names that are specific to your brand. You need to define precisely how you use them.

Trademarks

Your style guide for social media should include a list of all your brand trademarks. Don’t put your list in all-caps, because this makes it impossible to tell the difference between, say HootSuite (wrong) and Hootsuite (right).

Provide guidelines for how your trademarks can be used. Do you use your product names as verbs?

Social media style guide example: Trademarks—Google

Brand language rules trademarks Google
Source: Google Trends Brand Guidelines

What about as plurals? Or possessives?

Acronyms

You likely use acronyms all the time without even thinking about it. But will your audience know what they all mean? Will new employees even know what they all mean?

Make a list of the acronyms your company commonly uses internally, along with the full spelled-out versions of what they stand for. Indicate whether it’s appropriate to use the acronyms on each social channel, or if the full terms should be used.

Other language specific to your brand

Hootsuite employees are affectionately known as “owls,” both internally and on social media.

Starbucks, on the other hand, refers to their employees as “partners.”

If you use specific terms like this, write them down. Not just how you refer to your employees, but any non-trademarked language you use to refer to any aspect of your company. For example, do you have customers or clients or guests?

Language specific to your industry

The first time I was getting ready to go on a cruise, I mentioned to my travel agent that I was looking forward to getting on the boat. “The ship,” she corrected me.

As a passenger, my use of the wrong term didn’t really matter. But as a writer, that would have been a big deal. To you, these terms are obvious. Make sure they’re listed in your style guide so everyone posting to your social channels uses the right term every time.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media style guide template to easily ensure a consistent look, feel, voice, and tone across all your social channels.

Get the template now!

Consistency guidelines

These are the linguistic issues we touched on right at the start.

Your first step is to pick a dictionary. (They’re all a little different.) List it in your style guide and make sure all relevant team members have access to an online subscription or a paper copy.

You may also want to choose an existing style guide, like the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, so you don’t have to decide on every grammar and punctuation choice yourself.

Here are some consistency issues to consider:

US or UK English

Or maybe Canadian English? Or Australian? Maybe you’re not writing in English at all? Choosing a dictionary will help make sure you stick to the right spelling for your geography.

Serial commas

There’s no right answer on whether to use them. The Associated Press is mostly against them, but the Chicago Manual of Style says they should always be used.

Make your own choice on this issue and use it consistently.

Headline capitalization

Do you capitalize every word, or only the first? Again, there’s no right or wrong answer until you define your brand style in your style guide.

Dash style

True story: I once won a Dale Carnegie Pen for a speech about the differences between a hyphen (-), an en-dash (–), and an em-dash (—).

You might not be as into punctuation as I am, but you still need to define your dash style to ensure consistency.

Social media style guide example: Dash style—Disney

Dash style Disney
Source: DisneyCopyright.com Marketing Guidelines

Dates and times

Do you write out days of the week or abbreviate them? What date format do you use?

Do you say 4pm or 4 p.m. or 16:00?

Links

How often will you include links in your posts?

Will you use UTM parameters?

Will you use a URL shortener?

Curation guidelines

Not every idea you share on social media will be uniquely your own. Curated content can be a great way to add value to your social feed without creating new content of your own.

But which sources will you share from? More important, which sources will you not share from? You likely want to avoid sharing posts from your competitors, for example.

Also define your guidelines for how to source and cite third-party images.

Hashtag use

We cover how to use hashtags effectively in a different blog post. In your social media style guide, your goal is to define a hashtag strategy that keeps your social channels consistent and on-brand.

Branded hashtags

Do you use branded hashtags to encourage fans and followers to tag you in their posts, or to collect user-generated content? List any branded hashtags in your style guide, along with guidelines about when to use them.

Also provide guidelines for how to respond when people use your branded hashtags. WIll you like their posts? Retweet? Comment?

Social media style guide example: Branded hashtag guidelines—Austin Community College

Branded hashtag guidelines Austin Community College
Source: Austin Community College Social Media Style Guide

Campaign hashtags

Create a list of hashtags specific to any one-off or ongoing campaigns.

When a campaign is over, don’t delete the hashtag from this list. Instead, make notes about the dates the hashtag was in use. This way, you have a permanent record of the hashtags you’ve used. This can help spark ideas for new tags for future campaigns.

For example, as travel shut down in March, Destination BC launched a campaign with the hashtag #explorebclater. As local travel began to open up in early summer, they transitioned to #explorebclocal.

How many hashtags?

The ideal number of hashtags to use is a matter of ongoing debate. You’ll need to do some testing to learn how many is right for your business.

You don’t need to settle on a specific number of hashtags, but aim for a clear range.

What case?

This is a simple one. Choose your case:

  • Lowercase: #hootsuitelife
  • Uppercase: #HOOTSUITELIFE (best for very short hashtags only)
  • Camel case: #HootsuiteLife

User-generated content

Guidelines for use

Not sure where to start with your guidelines for UGC? We suggest some basics in our post on how to use user-generated content:

  • Always request permission
  • Credit the original creator
  • Offer something of value in return
  • Use search streams to find UGC you might have missed

How to credit

Specify how you will credit the users whose posts you share. You should always tag them, of course, but what format will you use for that credit?

For example, camera icons are a common way of attributing photographs on Instagram.

Design guidelines

We’ve talked a lot about words, but you also need to define your brand’s visual look and feel for social media.

Colors

If you’ve already defined your brand colors, these will likely be the colors you use in your social media accounts. You may wish to define which colors should be used in different contexts.

Social media style guide example: Brand colors—WhatsApp

Brand colors WhatsApp
Source: WhatsApp Brand Guidelines

Fonts

You can’t control the fonts when writing social posts, but you can control the fonts you use in images, cover photos, and even Instagram Stories.

Larger brands might invest in a custom font. But for most brands, it’s sufficient to choose one font, or a few fonts for various applications, and use them consistently.

Social media style guide example: Font—Cisco

Cisco font social media style guide
Source: Cisco Interactive Brand Book

Logo use

Where and when will you use your logo on social media? It’s often a good idea to use your logo as your social media profile picture.

If your logo doesn’t work well as a square or circle image, you may need to create a modified version specifically for social media use.

Social media style guide example: Logo as profile picture—Uber

Uber logo as profile picture
Source: Uber Brand System

Filters and effects

It’s important to create a visual look and feel for your brand. Whether you go #nofilter or you use the latest design tools to edit your images, consistency is key.

Social media style guide example: Filters—New York University

New York University filters
Source: New York University Social Media Style Guide

Social media policy

While your social media style guide clarifies the small details of how your brand uses social media, your social media policy clarifies the bigger picture.

If you don’t have one yet, we’ve got a whole blog post to help you write a social media policy. Here are some key points to include:

  • Team roles: Who does what, when.
  • Security protocols: How to manage passwords and security risks.
  • Crisis plan: How should your team handle a crisis?
  • Compliance: How to stay on the right side of the law, especially in regulated industries.
  • Employee guidelines: For personal and professional social media use.

Social media style guide template

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? It’s true, we’ve covered a lot of material in this guide. But don’t worry—we’ve created a free social media style guide template you can use to build your own social media brand guidelines from scratch.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media style guide template to easily ensure a consistent look, feel, voice, and tone across all your social channels.


To use the template, click the File tab in the top left corner of your browser, then select Make a copy from the drop-down menu. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have your own version to edit and share. Feel free to delete any sections that aren’t relevant to your business, or that you’re not ready to tackle at this time.

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