Social Media: Use it wisely

Introduction

The web provides masses of opportunities to facilitate engagement, social interaction, communication and community building but which ones are relevant for your site? Despite rumours of ‘facebook fatigue’ social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo still attract millions of visitors a month and time spent using Twitter is on the increase (complete.com).

More and more sites are integrating their own social features or linking into the functionality on these sites. Some functionality can be relatively simple to incorporate, such as ‘share this’ links. Others such as forums can require considerable planning and development.  Whatever the method adopted the aim is to increase the ‘fun’ and interactive impact of your site, to both draw the user in and encourage them to return. So…is it worth jumping on the bandwagon?

Where does usability step in?

Part of creating a great user experience is to listen to what users actually want from your site. This user insight can provide valuable information on where to focus your development time and costs. For example, due to the great success of social networking sites many companies have or are considering developing their own online community functionality, such as site membership, forums and personalised content. Many of these require significant investment and so to be financially viable there needs to be a big enough need. Impartial user research can be very revealing; it can help to really understand what people want from your site. Often what you expect your users to want can be very different to what they actually would like to use.

It is important to select functionality that meets the level of interest and commitment your users are prepared to give. Sometimes providing a range of options requiring various amounts of effort and commitment is a good idea if your audience needs are varied. For example, news feeds for quick, low effort engagement and user photo galleries or competitions for those prepared to spend more time and effort.

Once you’ve decided upon the functionality you want to develop considering its ease of use will dramatically increase its take up and success. Designing the functionality to be user friendly will maximise how quickly users learn to use it, their enjoyment of the process and inevitably how popular it becomes.

What functionality suits my site?

Here are some key questions to carefully consider when choosing the right features for your site:

  • Why recreate something that’s already great? – The big social networking sites have already developed effective methods so why not take advantage of them. Create groups or communities on existing networks and integrate these into your site.
  • How much time do users have to devote to your site? – Be honest, will users actually want to spend time chatting and discussing your site content? Select a level of community building appropriate to your audience needs.
  • What will enhance your current content? – If you sell products, allowing users to share reviews or videos of the product in action can increase both the trust in that product and your site.  This then encourages users to take that big step further and commit to purchase.  However, a forum will be unlikely to provide an effective route to selling products.
  • Do you want to help build and support an online community (e.g. forums)? – This works best when it gives people a chance to ‘meet’ who wouldn’t otherwise, for example geographically separate people who all share a common passion, such as a sports team.

Common social media examples

Share this page – adding a ‘share this’ link to your page is a relatively simple way for users to express their interests by sharing them with friends. This also gives companies valuable word-of-mouth promotion.

Live content feeds – integrating relevant content feeds or groups from existing sites such as flickr or facebook brings in social networking with less development and maintenance costs. On the downside there is less control over content and ensuring it is appropriate.

Reviews – allowing users to submit reviews can be a really effective way for users to interact with a site and in return attract others in. Real reviews from real people can be very persuasive.

User submitted content –in particular photo and video content is generally instantly engaging and can enhance feedback about products, services and communities. It allows people to participate and feel part of a site’s community.

Personalised content – customisable homepages are becoming more popular, for example  the BBC homepage, which gives users control over the content they see and makes it quicker and easier for them to access information they have chosen to view, which interests them.

Forums – forums are can provide great freedom for geographically separated people to discuss a whole range of topics, from general conversation to requests for help. However, forums are unlikely to be appropriate in every case and can be tricky to build and maintain a community.

So how do I make it usable?

Here are some general usability tips to consider when developing interactive content:

  1. Keep the content up to date – fresh and current content is considerably more engaging and communicates to users that participation is meaningful. Users are likely to ignore outdated content and class it as non-relevant.
  2. Create clear and easy cues to action – make it easy for users to find out how they can interact and participate.
  3. Make the benefits clear – highlight what people can gain from using your functionality so they can understand how it works and motivate them to participate.
  4. Simplify the upload process – if you want users to submit photos or videos, keep the submission form as straightforward as possible. Flickr is a good example of clearly laid out upload process.
  5. Allow users to interact with the site without registering - users are often put off by having to create yet another account.
  6. Make sign up easy – if users must register with your site then allow users to log in with an existing network account that copies over their existing contacts. This means users don’t have to remember another set of usernames and passwords.
  7. Only ask users for essential personal information - explain how this will be used and displayed on the site to help create trust within your users.

Summary

If used appropriately, social media can boost the appeal and engagement of your site and encourage users to return.  The key tactic is to listen to what users are prepared to get involved in or what they want from your site and then select the type of social media accordingly.  Prioritising the usability development of your new social media will then increase participation, enhance the speed at which users learn to use it and optimise their enjoyment of the process.