Social media is where brands and people alike want to see and be seen. It’s a place where you can establish a community of raving fans, a voice unique to your brand and an identity that is unmistakably yours. 

Maybe you’ve noticed certain brands doing it well, like Wendy’s with their sassy, sharp-tongued tweets that people enjoy so much they’ll even request a roast.

Or perhaps you’re inspired by Casper’s multi-channel marketing “snoozefest” on Youtube, IGTV and even Spotify.

The top brands on social all have something in common: consistency. The foundation for that consistency comes from a strong social media style guide. As you continue to grow online and in your chosen industry, your style guide will determine how you want people to identify you and what you can do to maintain a cohesive presence.

A style guide is also a surefire way to keep your team on the same page. Social team members are only human, so mistakes happen, but a style guide can save you from some slip-ups and iron out any confusion about your brand’s dos and don’ts.

If you’ve been wanting to put together a social media style guide but aren’t sure where to start, keep reading. You’ll learn why a style guide is crucial for your brand, as well as the key components you should include.

What is a social media style guide & why do you need one?

A social media style guide is the go-to source for how your brand appears and acts on social. It informs your approach to multi-channel content, which in turn shapes what people think of when they hear your name, what they tell others about your brand and how you make them feel. 

It’s important to note that a social media style guide is not the same as your social media marketing strategy. Your strategy will consist of more of the tactical information such as what and how often you publish in order to reach you’ll reach your social media goals. Your style guide breaks down how those actions should be represented and conveyed in terms of 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 it’s shared. 

If you’ve ever seen a brand’s social feed and it looks and feels like it’s managed by 10 different people, chances are they don’t have a style guide in place. No matter how many people handle your profiles, the tone and appearance of every Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram caption should align with the brand you’ve worked so hard to create.

For instance, Dove is all about shattering beauty stereotypes and empowering people of all ages, races and ethnicities to feel comfortable in their skin. Their messaging on all of their profiles reflects this belief. From their human-focused visuals to the uplifting tone of their posts and hashtags, all their actions are aligned.

While you probably won’t receive a ton of Tweets from customers praising the cohesiveness of all your social profiles, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. When brands that step outside their style and miss the mark on social, call out culture attacks. When Chase Bank tried to capitalize on #MotivationMonday with a Tweet about people ignoring low bank account balances, it backfired. What the brand thought was a clever, relatable Tweet was perceived as tone-deaf and off-brand. In the end, Chase apologized, deleted the Tweet and learned a valuable lesson.

As a dynamic compass for your brand, your style guide has a lot of benefits to offer, including: 

  • It gives your brand credibility. Out-of-character content sticks out like a sore thumb. The more you approach your target audience with a cohesive brand voice, the more credible you become. 
  • It can prevent fails and awkward moments. When your social team knows how to represent your brand, there’s less room for error. It’s common that brands want to jump on viral trends, and they should as long as it aligns with their brand. A style-guide can help answer the question, to Tweet or not to Tweet?
  • Quickly onboard new employees. New employees on your social team should always read through the style guide to get a better understanding of how to represent your brand on social. Being able to refer back to the guide will empower them to begin contributing quickly and will provide a clear shared rubric for giving feedback on how their contributions are going.

Now that you understand what a social media style guide is and why you need one, the next step is putting one together. Every company’s style guide will be unique to their brand and may have different components. But there are certain elements that are pretty universal. Make sure your social media style guide includes all of the following:

Your social media profiles

Let’s start with the basics. The first thing your social media branding guidelines should spell out is all the profiles you currently own. Make sure you include every profile, not just your primary ones. So, if your brand is on Snapchat, Reddit, TikTok, etc., don’t neglect them in your style guide.

Draft, approve and publish messages with Sprout’s collaborative workflow

Take the confusion out of figuring out what types of acronyms, hashtags and trends suit your brand’s voice.

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A commonly overlooked part of a social media style guide is naming conventions for your profiles. There will always be new platforms to join. As your brand sets its sites on the new and next channels, it’s helpful to set guidelines for how your usernames will be formatted. It will also come in handy if your business begins creating individual profiles for any brand off-shoots. 

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For brands that have more common brand names, prepare for scenarios where your exact company name isn’t available. For instance, if your company’s name is Chipmunk, it’s likely that the username will be taken on every platform. So you should outline what your acceptable backups will be. That might mean adding “US” to indicate the global region, or “HQ” to indicate that it’s your brand’s main account. 

Brand voice

Your social media brand voice is one of the brand elements that is most effective in distinguishing your brand from your competitors and building familiarity with customers. Just 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 of your YouTube videos are serious and straight-laced, it sends mixed messages. 

There is however some room for tailoring your language between social channels. Just as you might be a bit more reserved in the way you present yourself at work than among your closest friends, it’s similar on social. For example, your LinkedIn audience will be on the lookout for a more professional tone but 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 they want to be perceived? Some of those descriptors might be a combination of some of the following:

  • Friendly
  • Smart
  • Compassionate
  • Confident
  • Helpful
  • Casual
  • Sarcastic
  • Bold
  • Energetic
  • Cheerful and upbeat
  • Formal
  • Young and trendy
  • Deadpan or dry humor

In order to help find your social media voice, it might be helpful to look back at your past content. Whether it’s a blog post, ad copy or other messaging, pay attention to the tone and emotion conveyed. What resonated with your audience? You can also look at what other brands are doing on social media for a bit of inspiration, but focus on how you can also be distinct, rather than an exact copy.

Once you’ve settled on your brand voice, write it down in your social media style guide. The key is to be as descriptive as possible. Don’t simply write:

Voice: Funny

Instead, you might have something along the lines of this:

Voice: Clean, playful, approachable humor. Responses should be upbeat, optimistic and positive. Puns are encouraged. Avoid being sarcastic or mocking customers, followers or other brands.

At Sprout, we use the “Goldilocks” formula. For example, our voice is confident, not cocky. To take an example from our own style guide:

Too arrogant: “We did it again. Yet another world-class tool for our customers.”
Too timid/unsure: “We hope you’ll find our latest new feature helpful.”
Just right: “We heard your requests and are happy to announce our latest feature release.”

Another helpful tip is to include screenshots with examples of posts from your brand or others that showcase the tone you want to establish. Whoever is reading your social media style guide should be able to pick up on your brand’s voice with ease.

Grammar & terminology

Grammar style guides aren’t just for your website. Your social media posts should follow certain grammatical standards as well. This goes beyond whether or not you use AP Style. It extends to any terminology you use in-house, how you use abbreviations, when to use exclamation points and other things that help create cohesiveness in your content.

You can 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 over a lot of the same rules to your social media style guide. Social, however, is a great place to loosen the proverbial necktie a bit. For instance, your brand may not use contractions in press releases or long-form content, but that doesn’t always flow like a normal conversation. Since you’re trying to build more human connections on social and may have a limited character count, you can embrace contractions. 

Post formatting

Some brands like to use a specific format for sharing links, status updates or other types of posts. For instance, Tweets might follow a format of headline, link and hashtag. Or your brand might choose to list all your hashtags within the first comment of an Instagram post rather than the caption.

Spotify takes a very quick and brief approach with their Instagram posts, keeping most of them to just two to three sentences, a few hashtags, an emoji and an artist-focused visual.

All of these small nuances make it easier for your team to share content and streamline your process.

Another thing to consider is attribution for your content. Some brands send every Tweet and Facebook post as the company. Others prefer to leave a signature of some kind to let people know who they’re chatting with. For instance, the social support team at Delta Airlines initials Tweets that are responses to customers. This makes it easier to identify who responded to each Tweet.

Hashtag usage

Not everyone uses hashtags the same way. Some people will cram as many into a Tweet as Twitter will allow. Some leverage the hashtag free-for-all allowed on Instagram to expand their reach. Others use them once in a blue moon. Keep things organized by outlining any campaign- or brand-specific hashtags and how your team should use them in your social media posts.

When creating branded hashtags, think about the intent behind them and the channels you’re using them on. Your basic branded hashtag should be used on an ongoing basis to build familiarity with your audience. Serena and Lily’s branded hashtag #SerenaAndLily is used in practically every post the brand puts on Instagram. It also operates as a community hashtag, adding up to over 36k tagged posts.

A lot of businesses feature branded hashtags in their social bios, which can really come in handy if user-generated content is part of your strategy.

Visual guidelines

Since most social networks are highly visual, your social media style guide should set parameters and standards for any images you share. 

There are two major types of visuals to cover inside your guide:

  • Photos, GIFs, graphics or videos shared within posts
  • Profile images, cover photos and header graphics

If you’ve ever looked at a company’s Instagram feed and noticed that it seems themed or really well put together, it’s usually because it was 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, Twitter, etc.

Within your style guide, you can outline:

  • Brand colors
  • Fonts for graphics
  • Acceptable color combinations, per network
  • Photos of your office and team members
  • Logos

Your business’s design and creative team, or your agency if you work with one, may already have outlined most of this in your overall brand style, but certain campaigns will require customization for social. 

A convenient way to ensure the images your team shares align with your social media style guide is to use Sprout’s Asset Library. The Asset Library is a built-in feature in Sprout’s enterprise plan that catalogs your brand’s inventory of visuals.

This kind of remote storage is particularly helpful for companies with employees spread across several cities or countries. Rather than go through the hassle of storing your visual assets separately, team members can go straight to the asset library within Sprout and publish directly from there. It also cuts down on the time needed to get approval for visuals to share, since all the images have already been approved.

Handling competitor interactions

How does your brand treat interactions with competitors on social media? Is there a friendly competition or do you 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. If you have a witty, cheeky or sarcastic voice, you might respond like Wendy’s. 

If your competitor runs into a crisis, it could be an opportunity to attract new attention. Freeform TV, previously known as ABC Family, has shed its former “family channel” identity to become a more progressive, inclusive and forward-thinking brand. When one of their competitors pulled a commercial featuring a kiss between a same-sex couple, Freeform TV weighed in to make that clear. 

Again, it’s all about creating consistency and establishing your company’s personality and social media style.

Responding to questions

When customers ask questions, share your content or engage with you, how should your team respond? Formalizing this in a style guide will keep everyone on the same page and create cohesion.

It’s similar to if you were to call your cable company with a question about your bill. You’d probably be upset and confused if two different reps gave you completely different responses. The same thing applies to social media. Even if there are different people managing your profiles, responses need to be consistent.

Consider creating a catalog of custom, on-brand replies, or storing them in Sprout’s asset library for accuracy and you guessed it, consistency. Sprout users can save replies in their 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. Keep in mind that people crave human connection on social. If you’re responding to every user the same exact way, it sets off robot red flags.

Legal concerns

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 important information on staying compliant in your social media 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 keep in mind like copyright violations or even regramming someone else’s image without permission. It’s always better to be safe and cover all your bases.

Social media style guide examples

No two style guides look the same or are even published the same way. Some companies might have a printed manual while others choose to let theirs live online. No matter where your style guide lives, make sure it’s easily accessible to your social team.  

Since these guides can 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 Social

Sprout’s overall brand style guide lives in a creative hub known as Seeds. It’s “home to all the resources needed to understand the Sprout brand, express it creatively and inspire meaningful customer experiences.” It’s incredibly detailed and robust, while still being easy to navigate and digest. Seeds even has an “updates” section so Sprout employees can track how the brand and style guide evolves over time. 

The State of North Dakota

North Dakota is not only a state, it’s also a brand. Their social media style guide includes visual guidelines, tone, regulations and other aspects that help “provide a cohesive yet complementary experience to the diverse areas of the state.”

See the full guide

Virginia Commonwealth University Arts 

VCU Arts has an in-depth social media style guide that covers everything from what type of tone to use in posts to how they approach Instagram takeovers.

See the full guide

Instagram

While it’s not a traditional social media style guide, Instagram created a site for brands interested in mentioning the company on social media and other outlets. If your brand is widely referenced in media or by journalists, creating something similar could be a good idea to make sure you’re being mentioned in your best light.

See the full guide

Get your social style in order

Use the tips and examples in this guide to give you some ideas for your own social media style guide. Keep in mind that your guide should be a living document that’s constantly growing and evolving. Develop the sections we described as your base and customize your guide to fit your needs. 

Want to know more about branding opportunities for your business? Check out some examples of strategies for social media branding.