10 Ways in which social media writing is different from traditional web writing.

by Nick Usborne on October 28, 2010

Traditional web writing? It wasn’t so long ago that being an online writer was cutting-edge stuff. We were the new, new thing and looking down in pity at those poor folks still writing for print.

Well, things change. And online they have been changing really fast.

The skills that qualified us as hot online writers are no longer the skills we need to be effective social media writers.

Here are just 10 ways in which online writers are having to shift their thinking when working in social media.

1. You’re writing to individuals, not to algorithms or personas.

Many of us have spent a lot of time figuring out how to write text in ways that would please the Google algorithms. Not to mention Bing and Yahoo!

While constantly reminding ourselves that we needed to be writing for our readers, much of our attention was actually focused on writing for the search engines.

At the same time, we were learning to write both content pages and sales pages to “personas”. I never did quite get the hang of that, but some people are very good at it. The idea being that you aim your text or copy at a group of people who share a common set of emotional and intellectual triggers.

All that is well and good. But it doesn’t do you much good when you find yourself replying to an individual’s tweet from two minutes ago.

Writing to real people, one-on-one, takes a real shift in attitude and skill.

2. Instead of laser-like focus, now it’s about variety.

Many is the time that I have advised online writers to confine each page to a single topic. It helps the search engines determine the subject of your page, and increases reader conversation rates. Focus, focus, focus. Keep it narrow and drive those clicks.

That doesn’t work with social media either. You have probably seen Twitter streams or Facebook walls that comprise an endless thread of the exact same kind of entries.

These pages may have focus, but they are dead in the water.

Social media engagement isn’t about being focused in the traditional sense. It’s about engaging attention with variety. Yes, there is a goal. Yes there is a strategy. But you get there by engaging your audience with an irresistible variety of short-form entries.

You know there is an underlying plan and structure, but your audience shouldn’t see it. They should just see a compelling array of entries that inform, engage and entertain.

3. Social media really is a conversation.

Tip of the hat to the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. How time flies. They were right, but arrived at the party ten years before it truly began.

For years we have persuaded ourselves that we are engaged in conversations with our prospects and customers online. But this was 90% BS. We just said it to sound smart and to persuade ourselves that it might be true. But we didn’t really have conversations with our audience. To really do that involved way too much work and money.

Well, social media, if you want to do it right, is finally forcing the issue.

The best Twitter streams and Facebook walls do include a degree of one-on-one conversation.

As a writer this means you need to make quite a shift in your mind. Instead of writing at an audience, you are having to engage in a one-on-one conversation.

4. Social media is written to be shared.

Ouch. Back in the days of print we could rely on reaching each of our readers in isolation. That gave us power. We could say ridiculous things like, “You are one of just a small group of special customers to receive this amazing offer.”

We could say that in the almost certain knowledge that the recipient wouldn’t be knocking on his or her neighbor’s doors to see if they had received the same mailing.

The web changed that quite a bit. If we crossed the line with our writing and offers, we could find ourselves being lambasted in forums or on blogs.

But social media changes that landscape completely. We are not wondering if what we have written might be shared, we are deliberately writing in a way that maximizes its potential to be shared. We want it to be shared.

This may sound obvious. But for writers and marketers it requires a shift in thinking.

5. We can’t just pretend bad news isn’t happening.

Again, in the good old days, if there was bad news about our company, brand of product, the best course of action was usually just to keep quiet, not feed the flames, and wait for everything to die down.

That doesn’t work with social media. If you haven’t watched it before, go to YouTube and search for United Breaks Guitars. That’s a perfect illustration of what can happen when you decide to ignore bad news.

This means, as social media writers, we have to interact with real, unhappy people, one-on-one.

It isn’t brain surgery, but unless you have some natural empathy for your unhappy customers, it can be quite a shift from the kind of writing you are used to doing.

6. You should sometimes praise the work of your peers and competitors.

Are you crazy? Nope. Again, when compared with traditional marketing and writing, social media turns our world upside down.

Only on Twitter or Facebook would one share great information created by a peer or competitor. It can happen on blogs too. But not very often.

Social media works best when you cooperate with your peers and competitors. Do that, and you’ll end up getting access to their audiences, when they retweet or post something great you have written.

And your audience will love you for it too. Instead of giving them a diet of your stuff alone, you’re pointing them in the direction of other quality content too.

Yes, it may stick in your throat. But if you want to be a great social media content writer, you have to learn to write things like. Fantastic article by @mycompetitor!

7. You ask real questions.

In traditional marketing we’re good at asking rhetorical questions. We know that by asking the right questions we can connect with our readers more deeply.

With social media, you need to ask real questions.

If you have ever managed or written for a Facebook wall, you know what the certain way to get more Likes and Comments is to ask a question. When you do that, you are inviting response. And unless you have a pretty dead page, you’ll get some answers.

Then what? Then you have to respond to some of those answers. See point #3 about conversations.

Again, the prospect of really asking questions and really taking notice of the replies may not come naturally to many traditional marketers and writers.

But do it right, and questions become a key way not only to win the trust of your readers, but also to achieve deeper insights into what they like, don’t like, and really want.

8. You need to turn on a dime, frequently.

As writers we always complain about tight deadlines. We need time to write well. And that’s true.

The trouble is, when writing for social media, we rarely have time. If a customer asks a question, they want it answered fast. If it’s a customer service question, it is expected to be resolved now. And if there is breaking news, you want to break it first.

On the plus side, social media content is short-form content. You don’t need to write an essay in order to do a good job.

But you do need to adjust to a new way of thinking about “writing”. With social media it’s no longer a solitary profession that takes hours and days. It’s often collaborative, and needs finishing in minutes.

9. Sometime you have to work odd hours.

If you write in the B2B space, lucky you. If you work in B2C, not so lucky. Perhaps not surprisingly, interaction through social media peaks before and after regular work hours, and at weekends.

So if you are engaging prospects and customers through Twitter and Facebook, you need to be more flexible with your work hours.

10. Achieving the results you want can take time.

As writers online, or as copywriters, we are used to writing a page, or an email, and then watching the results come in, often within hours.

This can be true of social media also, if you are writing about a time-limited promotion, or are announcing something new. But for the most part, the real benefits of social media engagement take time to appear.

It’s when you engage an audience consistently, and authentically for weeks or months on end that you finally convert people from some other company’s products to yours.

Social media is a mix of now…and way down stream. So don’t expect all your time to result in short-term returns. If you do that, you’ll be tempted to treat social media channels like direct marketing channels.

And that is a fast and sure way to lose trust and attention.

Summing up.

I originally had a longer list, but decided to keep it down to ten. The bottom line is that if you want to well writing for social media, to have to shake off a lot of previous assumptions and behaviors.

Writing for the social web is different from writing for the web. Just as writing for the web is different from writing for offline media.

And that’s what makes being in this space such fun. We’re always having to learn something new.

[NOTE: If you enjoyed this article, you’ll probably find value in the daily content ideas I publish for Web Content Café members. Learn more about membership here…]


George October 28, 2010 at 10:10 am

Great read Nick,

I always get a lot to think about when I read you.

Nick Usborne October 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm

George, hi. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. ; ) Nick

Melanie October 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

Great article, especially point 6. Folks who take on an adversarial or competitive attitude come across as jerks on social media. Better to give your competitors pats on the back when they deserve it. After all, we do benefit from each other’s knowledge.

Stephanie Slater October 29, 2010 at 1:08 pm

RE #5, let’s also remember that it’s not just about ignoring bad news, it’s also about customer service and the quality and ethics that underpin our organizations (or those of our clients). United had over a year to make good the broken guitar before the songwriter went public with his complaint!

Krista November 2, 2010 at 6:47 am

I like #10. A lot of people think instant this, instant that. Conversations take time. Building true relationships take time. A lot of social media these days are superficial – we think we are engaging in conversations but we’re really engaging in bits of it! A comment here, a tweet there do not a social conversation make. People want quick marketing fixes and if social media can fix their marketing, so let’s all jump into this. In the end, we always write for each other. It does not matter where we are, in Asia or Europe or America, real writing is always honest/authentic writing. Thanks for your article.

Kathy November 2, 2010 at 1:04 pm

My mother always told me if you have nothing good to say about a person, don’t say anything at all. It is nice to know that you can compliment your competitors.

Deborah Cecatiello November 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

I’m wonder if not every good web or ad copy writer can write for social media? I’m sure the greatest writers can write in any medium but my gut feeling is that you really need to be a “person” first (and a gregarious one at that) and a “writer” second to effectively communicate via social media.

Nick Usborne November 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm


I think you are right on both counts. I think most professional writers can write for social media, so long as they step out from behind the desk and act as real people, and as equal participants in what gets shared.


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