We’ve written about choosing the best social media platform for your brand here, and how to write converting posts here, but in this piece we’ll be considering best practice in producing effective social media content in general.

What does “effective” mean? People primarily use social media for entertainment, to be informed and to stay in touch. Increasingly, younger generations also use it as a search engine. Above all, they are looking for something to interest, surprise, amuse or educate them. They do this by browsing: scanning hundreds of messages at a time and giving a second or less of attention to each as they scroll.

You already know this because you do it, but creating effective messages means recognizing these things. It’s not possible to produce effective content without understanding how content works on these platforms, which leads us to . . .

Know your audience

Let’s say your company sells holidays worldwide. Your first impulse is probably to fill your social feed with posts about holidays worldwide, but that’s what you want to talk about. Empathize with your audience. Most people are not booking holidays every month of the year, though they may be dreaming about that.

Understanding your audience means giving them content that’s interesting whether or not they want to buy a holiday. It could be sharing beautiful photos of amazing places. It could be interesting information about destinations. It could be insights into different kinds of travel or the equipment needed for it. What is your audience looking for – not only from your brand but from travel in general? What do they want to see?

Your first-party data will give you more specifics about your audience’s ages, spending habits, locations and preferences. This, too, will help you to understand them.

effective social media content

Have a strategy

Once you have a good understanding of what people want to see, you’ll need to create some foundations for your output. What kind of content will you produce? What are the themes? What is the scope? What do you hope to achieve with this content? Ideally, you want to build a large following of people who identify with your brand values and return week after week because they like what you offer.

If your strategy is simply to sell, you may be disappointed.

Social media may not be the best route. People generally don’t come to social media apps with the intention of buying, though awareness and engagement with your brand means that they may come to you when they do want to buy what you’re offering.

When you’ve refined your strategy, it’s time to think about the kinds of posts that perform best. It’s a good idea to use a mix of these to keep your followers interested. Let’s look at some general and then some specific tips.

Stop the scrolling

At a general level, it’s necessary to understand the dynamic of how people consume social media. They scroll, which means they are giving a very small amount of time to each post, deciding if they are interested or not. With so many thousands of posts available, the visual competition is extreme. There are two basic steps to follow.

First, stop the scrolling. You need to capture the user’s attention enough that they pause for more than a second on your post. You can do this in a few ways:

Visually – use a great image that stands out from the rest. Even better, use a video that invites the user to click and spend more time consuming your post. Remember to use subtitles if you have a voiceover, as many people watch video on a phone with the sound muted.

Textually – If you use a caption for your post, be sure that the text is short and well targeted. It also needs to work closely with the image it accompanies so the viewer makes that mental connection. For example, an image from a 1980s TV comedy with the caption “Do you like cheese?” invites the reader to spend a second thinking about the other meaning of “cheese.” This would work less well if the image was also some cheese. There’s no text-image dynamic – just repetition.

Narratively – An effective social media message should make sense at one glance with the text and image working in collaboration, but you can invite the reader to dig deeper by making it a video or a carousel that takes them on a further journey. You grab the attention with the initial image and work with that.

Now create effective social media content

These are the first steps. You’ve stopped the scrolling. Now you need to capitalize on the attention you’ve earned. This is the stage when the user is clicking through the carousel or watching the video. They are now more likely to read the post text.

WARNING: the post text should not be the same information they’ve just seen/read. It should add a new or associated element and be part of the narrative. For example, the 80’s show/Cheese example above could lead into an amusing comment about cliché or media or culture. It depends on your brand and your offer.

effective social media content

At this stage, you’ve created enough engagement to encourage a like, a comment or a share if the user has enjoyed the content. They may even decide to follow you on the basis of this one post. If not this one, then the next.

You can continue the narrative even further by linking to a larger piece of content in a blog post or on your website. This is the Holy Grail of social media engagement: succeeding in taking the user away from the platform to your platforms. It is usually achieved only with the full narrative described here.

Now let’s look at some of the different forms your posts can take. There are limitless possibilities for effective social media content with good design and copy, but here are some basics.

Effective social media content – 8 tips

#1: Quotes

People like quotes because they condense truth or wisdom into a memorable or funny phrase. If a famous person says something, it’s somehow truer. Quotes are also shareable and useful for provoking questions. Do you feel the same? What’s your experience? Add your comment below . . .

#2: Interaction

You can show your audience something or you can enter into a kind of dialogue with them. A simple question such as “Which photo is best?” can prompt the user to click through a number of images (and back again) to make a decision followed by a comment. They are interacting with your brand.

#3: User-generated content

User-generated content (USG) is especially persuasive with Gen Z audiences who may not be so convinced by corporate branding and Gen X audiences who are not convinced by anything anymore. If a person like you communicates something you can empathise with in the name of the brand, it can be quite persuasive.

For example, you could show an idyllic South Pacific beach and say it’s paradise, but we’ve all seen a thousand similar pictures. “Paradise” is a label. Showing a young couple – real people, not models – racing into the sea and having fun on their actual holiday communicates an experience rather than a marketing message.

#4: Numbers

Some people like quotes and others like numbers. A number is a simple way to summarize a bigger topic. If I say, “97% of Millennials prefer video to books,” many people would stop and think whether that was true or possible, reading the post text to see if further information is given. A good number, like a good quote, is highly shareable.

Depending on your business, you might also like to give more detailed statistics in a graph, a list or other infographic visualization. These invite users to spend more time with the content, looking for patterns and drawing conclusions. The post text can provide additional context.

#5: Effective socila media content is current

Posts that reflect or discuss current events can be popular because that’s what people are thinking about already. If today’s news features a colossal volcano causing national disruption, a post about volcanoes will have more interest than it might normally have. Of course, you’ll have to be quick and highly reactive to create content like this.

Other current events such as Valentine’s Day or Christmas or Ramadan can be prepared in advance, but take care: social media becomes saturated with hearts on February 14th and users become blind to it. You have to create content that stands out when everyone else is celebrating the same thing.

Should you post on National Eat a Peanut Day? Perhaps if your business is related to food or peanuts. If you’re selling industrial water filters, however, it’s probably best to skip it.

#6: Useful

A lovely photograph or design could stop the reader for a second, but they can’t do anything with it. Consider giving your audience tips or information that can take away and apply in their real life. For example, the travel company (or dairy producer) could run a post saying that Greek yogurt is effective for treating mild sunburn. Or you could offer a Top Five Fabrics To Wear in Hot Climates.

#7: Funny

Many brands are terrified of humor because they don’t want to offend, but humorous posts are most likely to be shared. Everyone likes to laugh. It’s even better if the humor says something true and useful about life and/or the product. Google “Help a Dane” to see the very funny videos made by the Danish Government to help prevent skin cancer.

#8: Branding and effective social media content

Finally, ensure that all of your social media content speaks with a consistent brand voice. Are the colors and fonts the same? Are the values uniform? Users don’t often look at who has posted ­– they look at the content. Your branding shows your audience that you are responsible and, over time, they will begin to associate your brand with a certain kind (good) of content. That’s when you’re closer to having a loyal customer.