One of the of the toughest things about this industry that we work in is the fact that there is no playbook. While a lack of clearly defined rules means that there’s plenty of room for creativity, it can also be stifling. When you’re setting out to build an organization, or develop a social media department inside of an existing company, where do you start?

I strongly believe that some of the best creativity comes out of limitation. When we tell people that they must create a tweet within 140 characters, a Vine within 6 seconds, or work within the Stories format they come up with some of the most amazing content. What I’ve found as this field has matured is that the best social and digital departments are structured in the same way: They’re given parameters to work within, tools to get the job done, and freedom to find their way within that framework.

Applying that framework to organizations, and equipping teams with the tools they need is exactly what we do every day, so when I was thinking about the most valuable content series that I can offer in this space is exactly that: A guide that cuts through the ambiguity of building a social media team, draws on the work that dozens of other teams have done in the past, and leaves plenty of space for creativity in your future.

I can’t tell you what you should post on Instagram, but I can promise you that a well equipped team with strong leadership and clear direction will perform at a significantly higher level than one given the login details and told to figure it out for themselves.

Welcome to your Social Media Team’s Starter Guide

First, let’s talk about you, and who this guide is best suited for.

In my experience, most organizations have a similar challenge: There are experienced, dedicated, well-intentioned senior people working on the strategic direction of the business. Those people have become well aware of the opportunities that are out there in digital, and have likely even gained some experience managing social or digital teams. What they also know is that there are significantly greater opportunities out there than they are currently taking advantage of, and they’re not sure exactly how to set their teams up to operate at their maximum capacity.

These organizations have another person too. This person is the social/digital native who is responsible for the day to day execution. Sometimes that’s an outside freelancer or small agency, often it’s a Marketing Co-ordinator who has intimate knowledge of the space, but lacks connection to the strategic direction of the brand. The Co-ordinators are doing everything that they can to build an audience and run the tactics to the best of their abilities, but it always feels like they’re shooting at a moving target.

This guide is for both of you (for those of you in startup-mode or on small teams, think of those two people as the two sides of your brain). It’s intended to start a conversation about what you’re working towards together, what success looks like, the best way to get there and what resources are going to be required along the way.

So that you can quickly jump to any of the other parts of the guide, I’ve provided links to each of them below. They’re intended to be used as a whole, but can be just as useful as standalone resources:

Brand Strategy

Step 1: Set a clear direction for the brand, and social media’s role

Are you a low-cost provider? A trusted source for your customers? The best of the best quality with no compromises? Or do you exist to make people smile just a little bit more every day?

I hope that it goes without saying, but brand strategy is the essential first step towards equipping an effective social media team. High-performing Facebook ads, well-respected blogs, beautiful Instagram feeds, and pithy Twitter accounts are all possible, and you can build a team to execute on any of them, but it will only make sense to the audience (and ultimately the business) when it aligns directly with what the brand is up to on a larger scale.

There’s a reason why GoPro produces mind-blowing visuals, Hootsuite provides useful content and Wendy’s roasts its followers on a regular basis. There’s an even better reason why each brand doesn’t try to copy each other’s tactics: Because their social teams are a direct extension of their brand strategies.

Especially if you’re a founder, or are hustling on a small team, the brand strategy may seem obvious to you. You’re probably making the world a better place by solving an unmet need in a way that the current marketplace can’t, or hasn’t bothered to provide. That’s your product strategy, and good for you for identifying that need. But what is your brand strategy?

Uber and Lyft attacked the exact same unmet need with (nearly) the exact same product, and their brand strategies are as different as can be: Sleek, black and shiny vs. fluffy pink moustaches.

Photo source: Ridely

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met smart, talented people who were working in the same organization but were equally frustrated about the progress of their social media, only to find that their understanding of the brand strategy was entirely unaligned.

When the social, brand and senior leadership teams are 100% aligned on where the business is headed, getting there not only becomes easier, but misunderstandings go down, cross-team collaborations goes up and the real winner is the prospective customer who gets a much more clear view of what the brand is.

Social Media Goals

Step 2: Set big, clear goals, and trust the team to figure out how to get there.

I feel like “goals” has become a loaded term. It’s not a fluffy vision for the future of the company: ie. “We exist to inspire the next generation of creators…”, and it’s definitely not a to-do list: ie. “Post useful industry information on Facebook and Twitter three times per week.”

The first gives the team nothing tangible to build from. The second is so specific that it leaves no opportunity for the team to do what they do best.

Instead, the best social media goals are a mix of quantitative and qualitative objectives that set a point on the horizon and leaves the path to get there undefined.





I’m sure that as you read those goals, you mind goes immediately to some very different ways of approaching them. That’s the point, and the absence of goals like these is why so many social media teams flounder. They’re trying to do a bit of everything, and end up achieving a lot of nothing.

The Social Media Strategic Leader

Step 3: Put the right person for your brand in control

An absolute truth within every high performing social team is that there is one person responsible for its strategic leadership who has both insights into the business as a whole, and subject-matter expertise. The ability to bridge the gap between those two worlds is the essential skill, as well as the ability to see what’s happening in the social world and make smart choices about how the brand shows up.

Defining roles and hiring the right people into those roles is everything. The rest of this guide is useless without it. What constitutes the “right” person is different for every brand, which is why the first two steps are essential before we can get here.

The role often looks like: Director of Social Media, Manager of Online Experiences, or VP of Social & Digital. Remember, we’re still making this stuff up as we go, so the exact title and seniority is up to you, but what must remain consistent is the ownership of the channels and how the brand shows up.

A few things to consider when either delegating, or interviewing for this role:

Notice that nowhere in there did I mention copywriting expertise, or sweet Instagram skills. Those things can be easily hired in (if you have a larger team) or contracted out (if you have a social media department of 1), what’s more important is that your person has the taste and creativity to know what people want, and comfort with the channels to brief in the creator(s).

Don’t look too hard at other brands’ Directors of Social, and certainly don’t assume that if you poach a high performing leader from another team that she/he’ll be able to do the same for you.

The Social Media Executor(s)

Step 4: Create your own process for producing content, and let the creatives do their thing

Photo by Kevin Fremon on Unsplash

I’d like you to notice something here for a second. We’re now deep within a guide about running social for an organization – we’re on Step 4 – and only now am I even going to start talking about the people who make the stuff that goes into your channels.

Great creative is absolutely essential, but it’s also the step that low-performing organizations jump to because they believe in the Golden-Post Myth.

The Golden Post is a fallacy that we’ve been fed by case studies and agencies touting breakthrough work. It tells us that the only thing that stands between us and runaway success is that one magic video, tweet, Story or other post. Few of us will ever admit to falling for the Golden Post Myth, but we all have its kernel deeply embed in the back of our minds.

It causes us to hire talented people without providing strategy, structure or leadership. It leads us to over-shoot short term expectations and under-value long term value. That creates an amazing paradox that is: Social will save our business, but it’s not a core part of it, so we’ll just hire an outsourced creator to run our channels.

But that’s not you, right? You’re on Step 4 now. You’re invested in social and are effectively bridging the gap. You’ve set strategic goals that equip your team, and have the right leader in place. The result of all of that work is that now you have options.

Here’s where the creativity comes out of limitation: Everything up to the point was structured and tried and tested. When it comes to execution, nearly all of the best channels are a combination of the following three sources:

  1. In-house. If you have the budget, and the recurring need, then hire someone onto your team who can write, shoot, and otherwise create. It’s a fantastic luxury to have a social creator on the team, but a word of warning: There are very few creators in the world who are talented at copy, photo, video, publishing and all of the different variants of each that you’ll need.My strong recommendation is to invest in a creative copywriter who gets your community. Copy is the starting point for every content brief, and the share copy is the last touchpoint before it goes out.

    Additionally, if you have someone who can write in your brand’s voice, then that person can also manage your community replies and customer service. A copywriter opens up a ton of doors, whereas a photo/video person can be limiting.

    Now, if you can afford to have both a copy and a visual person, then you’re ahead of the game. Just know that they will still come to you at times needing additional budget for contractors who complement what they can achieve in-house.

  2. Outsourcing. There are literally thousands of talented creators out there who would love to shoot photos/video/write copy for you. They’re awesome because you don’t have to provide equipment or benefits, and you retain the flexibility to create new types of content whenever you like.That flexibility comes with a lack of consistency. Your community will start to get used to a visual style, or voice and expect that you’re able to consistently deliver it. Or worse: They won’t become accustomed at all and your feeds will always feel a bit disjointed to them.

    The best way to work with outsourced creators is to create a bucket of content that you’re going to need for a series, or campaign, or to fill a content calendar, and hire a contractor who fits the style to create the whole batch. Check out the upcoming post on Management & Execution for more on the practice of Buckets & Batching

  3. Crowdsourcing. If people know and love your brand, there’s a good chance that they’re posting about you. This is true of SAAS products that get blogged about, consumer products that get Instagrammed, and services that get written on review sites.With each post that goes out featuring your brand is an opportunity to appropriate the content and feature it on your own channel. There are brands who use crowdsourcing almost exclusively for their content, and do it very effectively: @HelloBC, @Patagonia, but most use bits of it to supplement their own original content.

    Of course, leaning too heavily into crowdsourcing puts you entirely at the mercy of the crowd for the volume and quality of your content. There are ways to incentivize crowd-content, but the best way to know if it’s a good choice for your brand is: Are people pumped to post about you already? And, would they be even more excited to be featured on your channel?

    If: Yes, then you’ve got yourself a strong community that should be encouraged. If: No, then you’ve got some building to do before you get there.

The right cocktail of creativity for you is going to be as unique as your brand. In next week’s guide I’m going to talk about the shopping cart of resources that the social media leader needs to have at her/his disposal in order to make all of this stuff a whole lot easier.

If Part 1 of this guide is useful to you, the I’d love to have you on the Social Brief list so that you get the rest – every Monday I send a piece like this out to our community. To be included, just enter your work email address in the box below. If you know more people who could benefit from this series, send them the link to this post, and if you’d like to talk about how my team and I can help you in your process of setting your organization up for success, shoot me an email: I look forward to hearing from you.

Part 2 – The Toolkit