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The Role of the Designer in Social Media

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Saturday, 09 October, 2010

Content Although social media commentary has saturated our technology news feeds, the BBC's Tim Weber wrote an excellent article analysing the various efforts of companies who adopt this strategy.

As a consumer, it is with some satisfaction that I read about the power and the influence that consumers "who tweet" now have over companies that could once ignore their unhappy customers, previously isolated from the world and in no danger of causing PR damage with their complaints.

The shift in power and the reported mismatch of timely reconciliation in the fast moving world of social media brings most misery to corporates who lack the agility clearly absent from their old world cultures. As individuals, we sometimes read with glee, how mammoths are brought to their knees, buckling under their slowly crumbling reputations that are subsequently picked on by that little blue bird. All power to the people - we're only asked to be treated right.

Designers and Social Media

As a designer who works in the digital realm social media has also had an impact professionally. Since the advent of tools like blogs and then Facebook and Twitter, the process of website consultancy often touches on the incorporation of these tools. They're useful to help connect an isolated website to a community and so the design, or more so, the information architecture of a site may be geared towards the efforts of a social media strategy.

Include social media and possibly a whole can of worms lies waiting to be opened. With clients using social media at different levels or more realistically, having variable budgets available to spend in this area, it's understandable, when a passive approach is adopted whereby Facebook and Twitter are further outlets for news perpetuation - extended from the trusty RSS Feed.

Experts would argue that this isn't an effective use of social media. It's much less a conversation and more akin to a loudspeaker (or small speaker in most cases). If there isn't a way to hear some feedback, who knows what everyone else is saying in the Twitterverse behind the client's back. Or more literally on YouTube. Tim's article gives great examples of social media backfiring.

From a designer's perspective, it can be considered the designer's role to integrate elements of social media. Graphic cues still apply to designed Twitter and Facebook profile pages as extensions of a brand, in addition to the design of a client's website and its integration of calls-to-action buttons and perhaps, exclusive-to-social-media content pages. But then what?

PR and Marketing responsible for Social Media

We've seen how successful social media campaigns have been the reason for a website's purpose, created separate to a corporate site. In Tim's article, social media seems to be the sole preserve of pr and marketing strategists and even the majority of them seem to get it wrong.

Some corporate structures I've come across involve pr and marketing departments retaining responsibility for the messages that a website is meant to harbour and then liase with a designer to make it happen. I could play with fire to suggest that any designer in this situation has been asked more than once to change a colour because someone in marketing "didn't like it".

Multi-Disciplined Designers

A decade ago, being a designer who creates websites often meant that to stand out, you simply had to adopt several skills sets. Visual layout skills were expected, but you were appreciated further if you could code. Were paid more if you did Flash (or Director even) and considered a magician if you could manipulate motion graphics.

Being a designer today, I've found little has changed except that the situation appears to be more common. Experienced designers have nurtured their multiple talents for years and utilised their experience to elevate themselves to more managerial roles, whilst new generations of talents have grown side by side with the technologies they work with.

Whilst social media may be considered less visual than traditional creative crafts, there's no stopping a new breed of multi-skilled designer, comfortable in the digital realm and all that it offers, from taking the mantles of social networking and declaring it another weapon in their arsenal.

Selling Design and Social Media

Design in its purest form is about communicating a client's message in the most effective way to the right audience. A designer fluent in social media could extend their capabilities beyond the creation of visual designs and offer to translate the client's message further in a strategic mix of graphics, content and timely conversations - basically, the whole package. With this degree of integration, the point is still the same, to communicate a message.

Opposers to this view will no doubt emphasis how it isn't this simple and that there are various researched techniques to consider etc. There are stats to monitor, customer relations to manage and buzz to build. Again, perhaps the preserve of the pr and marketing departments.

A key scenario for a commissioned (freelance) designer to sell a social media strategy to clients, is often whether they're only creating the website or whether they're retained on an ongoing basis afterwards. The latter is open to strategic social media work but understandably less practical for budget-conscious clients.

The Suitability of Designers Selling Social Media

Designers might have touched upon analysing the metrics of a website they've been working on. Looking at the effectiveness of different landing pages and what areas of a site sell, informs the designer of changes that are worth making.

Whilst this is arguably comparable to managing a successful social media campaign, but probably less so to managing a reputation disaster, the approach still adds a different dimension to the creative requirements of a designer and to some individuals, will provide encouragement for further learning. Though social media may in some schools of thought, still belong in the PR and Marketing departments, it is not unheard of for there to be designers who are also skilled in those areas too.

Ultimately, how much a designer integrates social media into their skill set is up to them. If the interest is there, then no doubt they're already fluent and getting their stats on.

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