Designing for Social Media


Social media has come to play an essential role in the way we exchange and consume information. The term encompasses a wide-range of web-based platforms (see Platforms section below for specific examples) designed to allow users to share information efficiently, in real-time, and in a constantly-expanding range of formats (i.e: text, photos, videos etc.) 

While social media is used by individuals to communicate with friends and family, it is also a powerful marketing tool. Whether it be global brands, small businesses, non-profit organizations or politicians, having a strong social media presence is essential in engaging one’s target audience in today’s media landscape.


When building social media content for a business or organization, you should have a strategy in place. Your content should be clear and consistent – thematically, visually and tonally. You should have a clear audience and goals. This plan should be clearly outlined before you start posting content. Here are some tips for embarking on a social media campaign: 

  • Establish your voice: Whether your voice is fun, casual, ironic or formal it should be consistent across all platforms and content type. Think about who your audience is and what language is most appropriate for getting your message across to them. 
  • Quality content: Create content that will engage your audience and stand out from the cascade of posts in their feed. Make it clear, brief, informative, and unique. 
  • Maximize your effort: Be aware of the different social media platforms and post your content on as many as you feel are appropriate (adapting it to the correct format if necessary)
  • Call to action: Include a clear call to action (i.e: “Donate”, “Call your representative”, “Order now” etc.). Even a simple reminder to share your content can help you reach a wider audience and get closer to your goals. 
  • Create a schedule: Plan when you will add new content to your social media accounts (i.e: every Sunday morning, one-month before a big holiday or sale, etc.)
  • Stick to a protocol: Establish a clear workflow for who is responsible for creating, editing, approving and posting new content. 
  • Spelling and grammar: Proofread and test your content (i.e: video, links) before posting.
  • Proper use of hashtags: Whenever you use a hashtag make sure that it does not have a negative connotation or could easily be misinterpreted
  • Feedback: Don’t miss an opportunity to interact with your audience: be ready to respond to relevant comments, concerns and inquiries. You can choose to do so privately or publicly. Keep your response consistent and professional – whether the feedback is positive or negative.
  • Links: Make sure you include links to your social media presence on all your materials – whether print (i.e: brochure, business card) or screen-based (i.e: website, TV ad).

Terms & concepts

Before we look at the different social media networks and their specific attributes, let’s review some basic terms and concepts.

Algorithm: An algorithm is a set of instructions created for a computer to perform a specific action. In social media, developers are constantly creating and editing algorithms to define all the interactions users can have on a platform: what appears on a feed, the type of content that can be added, how interactions between pages and users are managed etc. 

Avatar: An avatar is an image and/or username that represents a person or company.

Bitly: Bitly is a free URL shortening service that is often used to share links on social media.

Crowdsourcing: Crowdsourcing is the act of soliciting ideas or content from a group of people. This technique can be effectively used on social media to engage followers. Here’s an article with examples of successful crowdsourced campaigns

Direct Message: Direct messages – also referred to as “DMs” – are private conversations within a social media platform. Both parties must be following one another to send a DM.

Handle: A handle consists of a username preceded by the @ sign (@beyonce). It is used to call out someone on a social media post.

Hashtag: A hashtag is a keyword preceded by a hash/pound sign (#). It allows your content to appear in user searches. You can refer to existing hashtags or create new ones. Hashtags should generally be brief and easy to remember. They can include numbers but no symbols, spaces or punctuation. They can be placed at the beginning, middle or end of a social media post or comment. Some platforms have limits on how many hashtags you can use per post (i.e: 30 on Instagram). On Facebook and Twitter limiting your hashtags to 2 or 3 per post tends to yield better engagement. It’s not unusual to use a lot more on Instagram posts. 

Influencer: Influencers in social media are people who have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. They make regular posts about that topic on their preferred social media channels and generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people who pay close attention to their views. Brands love social media influencers because they can create trends and encourage their followers to buy products they promote. (from:

Like: A like is a means for social media users to quickly respond positively to a post without having to write a full comment. The ubiquity of likes has recently been the object of much scrutiny and criticism.

Live Streams: Most platforms now include a live stream option which allows users to share videos in real time with their followers. Users are notified if accounts they follow start livestreaming. What happens to the video after the broadcast depends on the platform. For example, on Facebook the video is saved on the creator’s profile (until he/she decides to remove it), while on Instagram the video disappears immediately after the broadcast ends. 

Lurker: A lurker is a person who passively reads discussions on social media but rarely or never participates.

Meme: A meme is an idea (often humorous in nature) that’s widely shared. It is typically an image or GIF with text above and below it, but can also take the form of a video or link. Here is a list of famous memes.

Mention: A mention is an instance in which a user refers to someone else’s handle (see Handle) in their post. 

Native Advertising: Native advertising refers to ads which have been formatted to look like regular posts to make them feel like “authentic” pieces of content. 

News Feed: A news feed (often referred to simply as “feed”) is the stream of latest updates from accounts a user follows. The organization and prioritization of a news feed is dictated by a platform’s algorithm (see Algorithm).

Paid Advertising: A company can pay a social media platform to feature an ad on its users’ feeds. The cost depends on several factors including the breadth of the outreach, the type of content,  and the amount of clicks generated (also referred to as a Pay-Per-Click/PPC model)

Real-Time Search: Real-time search is the method of indexing content being published online into search engine results instantly and continuously. Some companies offering real-time search services help companies keep track of their mentions and marketing goals. 

Retargeting: Retargeting is an online marketing and advertising technique that allows companies to display ads to people who have visited their website, social network page or who are part of their contacts database. 

Selfie: A selfie is a self-portrait that is typically taken using the reverse camera screen on a smartphone or by using a selfie stick (a pole that attaches to your camera). Selfies are commonly shared on social media networks with the hashtag #selfie. 

Social Proof: Social proof refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people base their decision making on the behavior and opinions of others. In social media, social proof could be gathered by the popularity of a piece of content, or the number of followers you have. Of course, popularity on social media is unreliable, as this article exposed.

Stories: Stories consist of a series of visual vignettes. They are usually less polished than other content. If used effectively, they can help a brand, company or organization feel more “authentic”. New stories are generally highlighted at the top of users’ feed and signaled by a colorful ring around the profile picture of the account with new content. Stories have a few unique attributes: Unlike regular posts, there are no likes or public comments. They disappear after 24hrs. They are read by flipping left-to-right (vs. scrolling down). The photos and videos used in stories are primarily vertical (the intuitive shooting mode on mobile phones). Stories are displayed full screen and thus do not have captions. However, you can still overlay text, locations, hashtags, emojis, filters, and even polls over your story’s videos and images. Chronological narration (with a clear beginning, middle and end) is essential to telling a successful story. This article features  5 examples of brands successfully using stories

Tag: Tagging is a social media functionality that allows users to create a link back to the profile of the person shown in the picture or targeted by the update. Handles and hashtags (see Hashtags) can be used in tagging. 

Trending Topic: Trending topics refer to the most talked about topics and/or hashtags on a social media network. They are often featured on a platform’s home page. 

Troll: A troll refers to a person who is known for creating controversy in an online setting. Their primary goal is to disrupt the conversation by expressing and provoking outrage.

User-Generated Content: User-generated content is media — blogs, videos, photos, quotes, etc. — that is created by consumers. This content can be crowdsourced by companies to support a campaign (see Crowdsourcing).

Viral: A piece of viral content is one that spreads rapidly online. Spreading information is at the core of social media. Almost all social media platforms are designed to facilitate virality (i.e: Facebook’s like button,  Twitter’s retweet button, Pinterest’s pin or Tumblr’s reblog option). 

Vlogging : Vlogging or a vlog is a piece of content that employs video to tell a story or report on information.


The social media landscape is in constant flux: new platforms are created, some are acquired, others are shut down etc. You should stay abreast of changes in popularity and usage. This information is readily available online (i.e: Always make sure you are looking at current data by checking the date of the article/page you are viewing. 

This section focuses on the platforms that seem the most relevant to this course, but there are many more (i.e: Pinterest, Reddit, Viber, Medium etc.). Feel free to explore them and use them in your project if you find that they are a good fit. 


  • Facebook is currently the most popular social media network (over 2 billion users worldwide in 2019).
  • You can post almost any type of content on Facebook: text, images, videos, stories and live videos. 
  • The Facebook algorithm (see Terms & Concepts section above) has changed a lot overtime. It currently (2018) favors “meaningful interaction”: posts that show “active” (commenting, sharing, reacting) rather than “passive” (clicking, watching, viewing) interactions.
  • Videos (and particularly live videos) tend to outperform other types of content. 


  • YouTube is a video sharing platform owned by Google. It is by far the most popular video sharing platform (and the second most popular social media network overall). 
  • You can create a channel to organize your content. Your channel should include some basic information about you and/or your organization on the Home page. 
  • Stories (see Terms & Concepts section above) were added to YouTube in 2018.
  • You can further organize your videos into playlists. When one video in the playlist ends, the next one will automatically play. 


  • Instagram is a photo and video sharing social media app owned by Facebook. 
  • You can post photos, videos, stories and live videos. 
  • While you should keep text content brief, good captions (and hashtags) can really help contextualize your posts. 


  • Tumblr is a microblogging site. 
  • You can post text (including long-form), photos, videos, and audio files. 
  • You can customize your blog theme and options.
  • Use tags to increase the visibility of your posts in searches. 


  • Twitter is a social media site with a strong focus on real-time news – whether it be politics, entertainment or sports. 
  • A Twitter post is limited to 280 characters. It can also feature a photo or video (2:20 minutes max). 
  • Twitter popularized the use of hashtags which is now widely used across social media platforms (see Terms & Concepts section above).
  • When “replying” to a Twitter user, your message will only appear on the feed of followers of both parties (unlike a regular Mention – see Terms and Concepts section). 


  • LinkedIn is a professional networking site owned by Microsoft.
  • It allows prospective employees and employers to connect (an individual’s LinkedIn profile will typically include a resume, bio and photo). 
  • Industry leaders also use the site to share content, network with each other and to recruit talent. 


  • Snapchat is a social media app that focuses on visual content: photos and short videos (60 seconds). 
  • Snapchat popularized the concept of stories which has now been implemented in other apps (see Terms & Concepts section above).
  • The popularity of Instagram has hindered its growth (especially since Instagram added its own stories feature). 


  • TikTok is a short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15-second videos, on any topic.
  • The TikTok app offers users a wide selection of sounds and song snippets, along with the option to add special effects and filters. There is also an option to directly add videos created on your phone.
  • A key driving factor in TikTok app’s popularity is the fact that despite being a global app, it has a strong focus on localized content. The app often runs local contests and challenges and captures on local trends through the use of localised hashtags.

Messaging Apps

  • While platforms such as WhatsApp, Messenger (both owned by Facebook) and WeChat (most popular in China) all started as a private messaging app, businesses have gradually adopted them to communicate with clients. All three platforms are also adding tools to facilitate these interactions.
  • Most of these platforms have recently adopted the popular stories format. 
  • Here are some stories of how businesses have been using these apps. 

File formats

Most of the platforms listed above are primarily accessed on mobile apps (with the exception of YouTube), so make sure to optimize your content for mobile. 

Best practices for file types and formats are likely to change overtime. Please check the most recent guidelines online:

Food for thought

As mentioned several times on this page, social media is an exciting and constantly evolving field. It is important for anyone using social media (but especially if doing so professionally) to stay abreast of recent developments, to look at good (and bad examples) of how it is being used, and to understand its social, political and psychological ramifications. Here are a few articles to get you started:

Icons made by: