If social media sometimes seems like a full-time job, that’s because it is. The world’s biggest brands have teams dedicated to their social media strategy. Armed with the latest strategies, software and spreadsheets, they study behavior and rigorously track every post in their quest to boost engagement and expand reach.
So what about when it’s just you or your small team? As designers and illustrators, we can live or die by our self-promotion efforts: never has this been more true, or instant, than in the age of social media.
(If you saw the fallout when top designer Erik Spiekermann posted a poorly worded comment to new author Laura Kalbag, you’ll know how easy it is to damage your brand with an ill-considered tweet.)
But with over two billion active users worldwide, the rewards of doing social media well can be huge. So how do you find the time when you have deadlines and bills to factor in? Where do you start when it comes to increasing engagement? How can you craft a social media strategy that works more effectively for you – whether you’re a freelancer or studio owner?
First, it goes without saying that successful social media strategy for designers and illustrators is built on brilliant creative. Crafting the best possible work – using the very best design resources – should be your main focus if you’re looking to build your following or increase sales. (We’ve got a great selection of Photoshop and Illustrator tutorials to help with this.)
But there are some additional tips and tricks, too. Read on for our guide to better social media promotion...
01. Understand the algorithms
First, we’ll address the elephant in the room: algorithms. If you were one of the thousands of creatives to watch your Instagram engagement fall off a cliff in the last two years, or you’ve struggled with organic reach on Facebook, you’ll know first-hand the pain of algorithm changes.
Keeping up with the ever-changing rules of each algorithm is like running to stand still. Instead, it’s better to understand the overarching aim of all social algorithms – and to build your social media promotion strategy around this.
So what’s the goal? It’s simple: every social media platform wants to boost engagement by connecting its individual users with the most relevant content. The happier its users are, the longer they’ll stay on the platform.
Here’s how it works. Imagine an engagement pyramid, with your social media post at the bottom. When you publish content, the platform shows it first to a limited sample of your most relevant audience. The level of engagement it receives determines whether the content will be shown to a greater proportion of your audience – and how big that audience set will be. Their levels of engagement dictate whether the next audience set see sit, and so on.
What does this mean for you? The quick takeaway is that to increase engagement on social media, the first thing you need to do is make sure your content is relevant to your target audience.
02. Be where your audience is
Picking the best social media platform to build a presence on is partially a numbers game. You need to make sure you’re where your audience is, so make sure you know which channels most resemble your desired demographics. For example:
Facebook is the best place to reach millennials and generation X. Some 87 per cent of online users aged 18-29 are on Facebook, as well as 56 per cent of online seniors aged 65+. 53 per cent are female; 47 per cent male. And 72 per cent of online users with income more than $75K are on Facebook (which means it’s a good place to sell).
Instagram, meanwhile, is twice the size of Twitter with 700 million monthly users: 90 per cent are under 35 years old and 68 per cent are female. Some 50 per of Instagram users follow at least one business and, this year, 70.7 per cent of US companies will use Instagram for marketing – edging out Twitter for the first time.
Don’t rule out Twitter though. Yes it’s been blighted by bots, poorly targeted ads and slow user growth – and the average tweet lasts just 18 minutes – but engagement is at last on the up again. 24 per cent of all males on the internet use Twitter, versus 21 per cent of all female internet users. Read more Twitter stats here.
Not interested in Pinterest? You probably should be. It’s one of the biggest search engines out there – and according to Shopify, 87 per cent of Pinterest users have bought an item because they saw it on Pinterest. So if you’re selling prints, or just want your work to reach a wider audience, it would be insane not to (at the least) add a pin widget to your site so others can share your items for you. Read more Pinterest stats.
Other social media channels
LinkedIn is aimed at working professionals – which is good if you’re looking for a new design job – while YouTube reaches more 18-34-year-olds than any cable network in the US.
Remember, it’s impossible to maintain a sensible strategy across every platform. Choose two or three primary channels and become an expert in those spaces.
03. Know when to post on each platform
Image created using VectorSketch – vector charcoal pencils for Illustrator
Once you've chosen your platforms, experiment by posting at different times. Use Google Analytics to find out when your audience are online and engaged: there’s no point posting at 3pm on Friday if no one’s going to see it.
This will be different for everybody. However, there are some broad-brush findings that it's handy to know about. Sprout has an excellent article looking at the best time to post on each major network: Best Times to Post on Social Media: A Complete Guide; and so does CoShedule: What 20 Studies Say About The Best Times To Post On Social Media.
But we'll say it again: use these as a guide only. It's important to create your social media strategy around your specific audience.
04. Build connections
The best way to build engagement is to seek out relevant conversations and join in. Whether you’re joining a debate in a design group on Facebook, asking questions and sharing advice on Twitter, or engaging in InstaMeet communities, the theory is the same: for people to engage with you, you need to participate.
The ultimate goal is to establish an emotional connection before a person even visits your profile. When they do, they’re much more likely to follow you and begin engaging with your content.
Why is this a better way? Well, if someone always engages with your content when it appears in their feed, the platform will continue to show it in their feed – often giving it higher priority. The better your engagement, the better visibility your content will get, which will help boost organic reach.
05. Remember the golden ratio
The key to social media self-promotion is to make sure you don’t always post about yourself. Content marketing platform Rallyverse analyzed customer data across a wide range of industries and found that the optimum ratio for increasing your following is:
30 per cent original content, created by you
This includes articles on your blog, your photos, videos and so on.
60 per cent curated from relevant external sources
This means links to content that’s relevant to your audience and your brand – just make sure you add your own commentary to the links when you share them.
10 per cent purely promotional calls to action
'30% off all purchases' and so on.
The worst thing you can do in your social media strategy is to make it all about you. Focus, instead, on helping your audience solve their problems. It’s good business, establishes you as an authority and makes you more memorable, too.
06. Tell a story
We already know that social media updates with images are shared more than those without. But on image-sharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest, it isn’t enough to simply reply on vibrant colors, well-designed layouts and high-level photography to stand out. For a powerful way to really engage people, you need to tell a story with your images.
Wording, too, is important: this is where you add to your storytelling strategy, adding personality, authority and insight to your posts. Don’t make your updates too long, though. Super short 40-character posts on Facebook receive 86 per cent higher engagement than others, while tweets that contain less than 100 characters receive 17 per cent higher engagement than longer tweets.
07. Get wise with video
When it comes to social media strategy, the smart money is on video: it isn’t going away. Live video is currently the flavor of the day for most algorithms – Facebook Live content receives 10 times more comments than regular videos, for instance – so experiment with live stream videos. Put them on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, even Snapchat, and see what works.
Not sure about being on camera? Screencaptures showing the sped-up creation of an illustration are an easy way to dip your toe into video and extend your reach a little – just make sure you upload them natively. Facebook won’t fall over itself to promote a YouTube link...
Here are some great tips for mastering video: 10 Quick Tips for Creating Compelling Videos for Social Media.
08. Fine-tune your hashtag strategy
Hashtags are a great way to increase your discovery. According to Buffer, tweets with hashtags receive twice as much engagement as those without, and tweets with between one and two hashtags have 21 per cent higher engagement than those with three or more. But more than two can lead to an engagement drop of 17 per cent.
Treat them like keywords: include relevant, popular hashtags with your updates (Webstagram has a list of the 100 most popular) but also integrate less popular ones, so that you’re more likely to appear at the top of search feeds.
The optimum number on Instagram is 8-12 per post – but watch out for Instagram’s mysterious shadow ban, though. This is where Instagram hides your posts from users who don’t follow you.
The aim is to prevent spammy, inappropriate or abusive behavior, but many users have complained of being shadow-banned for using the same set of hashtags in every post, or innocently using a hashtag that other people have used to spread questionable content.
Our best advice is don’t act like a bot – mass liking, commenting or following can be seen as spam; avoid copying and pasting the same block of hashtags for every post; and make sure a new hashtag isn’t banned before you use it.
Here's a helpful guide for avoiding being shadow-banned.
We’ve covered a number of best-practice rules here. Ultimately, however, the best social media strategy is to make sure you know your target audience – who they are; where they are; what they need - and focus on helping them achieve their individual goals.
Keep it relevant, make an effort to engage with others, always think before you hit publish, and you’ll be one step closer to winning at social media.