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You Can Master Social Media at Any Age

As these 50+ social media experts prove, you don’t have to be a digital native to act like one.

by Jean Chatzky

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They say young millennials—those in their late teens and early 20s—are the first generation that can’t remember a time when they weren’t sharing content and ideas on collaborative platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like. To them, the idea of not being in the thick of it, of not participating, is as foreign as a bento box at a clambake.

For the rest of us—particularly those who are north of the Generation X line—the situation is the opposite. Social media is something that has to be learned and nurtured. It can be both frustrating and fun. And it can be (and I say this as someone who has worked her way to 300,000 followers across multiple platforms) a big time-suck. But there are plenty of folks who didn’t grow up on Instagram and Snapchat who are now successfully using those and other platforms to find jobs, promote their own businesses and stay connected and relevant. Their stories serve as evidence that you can do it too.

It’s no longer a question of whether the effort it takes to become comfortable with social media is worth it. “This is the reality,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, 41, author of Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World. “If you want to be someone who can communicate and have results ... if you want to tell something to the world, sell something or raise awareness or money, this is the place where people’s attention is gravitating.”

Steve Farnsworth, who at 52 is one of Forbes’s “Top 50 Social Media Influencers,” agrees—and notes it’s particularly important if you’re job-hunting or trying to build a career. “Before you go to a job interview, you’re going to get Googled. If you’re trying to stay employable in the 21st century, you don’t need to be on all social media platforms, but if you don’t have any kind of digital presence, it’s not good.”

Instead it’s a question of how you get there. How do you pick the right platforms, gear up and get good—or good enough—at social without it overtaking your life?

To help answer that, we’ve gathered advice from folks who have been there and done that—older adults who have incorporated social media into their daily lives. Among them, Joan Stewart, 64, a former newspaper editor who now teaches speakers, authors and small-business people how to self-promote through her business, PublicityHound.com. In the beginning, she says she felt “thoroughly confused.” But she got over it, she says, “by reading everything I could possibly find and following people smarter than me.” Similarly Farnsworth, a public relations veteran with decades of agency experience, originally started using social media to burnish his own brand. It wasn’t long before clients started asking him to help spruce up their channels and then help them create fully-formed social strategies. “That’s how I started making money from it,” he says.

Whether you want to increase your income or just your profile, this is something that you can do, too. So read on, and then—because #itgetseasier—just do something. Send your first tweet. Post your first picture. Facebook an old friend. “Don’t obsess to the point of being paralyzed,” says Mark W. Schaefer, 56, author of Social Media Explained. “The way you show up on the web is going to be a lot better in six months than it is today. But it will never improve unless you start.” Here’s how.

Eight tips for communicating on any social media platform

1. Learn one platform at a time. Even your kids didn’t adopt all the social media networks at once. When Snapchat launched, they tried it out, then decided whether or not to add it to their already existing arsenal. You should do the same. As you read through this piece, think about what makes the most sense to you. Are you doing this for business purposes? Start with LinkedIn. Looking to find your college classmates? Facebook. If you’re more of a visual thinker? Instagram or Pinterest. Get good and comfortable with one before you add another. But note, once you start sharing on multiple networks, don’t use the same content—words or pictures—across all of them. You’ll learn how to tailor it for each.

2. Share more than you create. (Or, as Dave Kerpen, 40, author of the book Likeable Social Media puts it: “Be more interested than interesting.”) That means paying attention to what people are saying more than you share your own opinions and content. “Listen to what people are saying, interact with them and respond to them. Show that you’re listening and that you care,” Kerpen says. Melinda Emerson, 43, author of How to Become a Social Media Ninja, says that a 4:1 ratio makes sense; share four pieces of other people’s content for every one of your own.

3. Curate your content. “Content is the social currency of the web,” says Steve Farnsworth. It’s very easy to get overloaded. So, set some parameters to help you manage. Farnsworth suggests picking five blogs or sites in your area of interest and reading them daily with the intent of sharing what you find. (I do this in the world of personal finance. It works. I can’t read everything and when I find one site isn’t as interesting as it used to be, I change it up.) Social Mention is a free tool that can help you do this; it aggregates user-generated content into a single stream of information so that you can easily track and measure what people are saying about you, your company, a new product or any topic across the web's social media landscape in real-time. Similarly, Emerson suggests that you learn the five keywords that apply most to the things you want to talk about, then base your conversations around them.

4. Use tools to help you manage sharing. A site called Buffer, for example, enables you to customize content (it would allow you to add your own comments to a blog you want to share, for instance), then choose to whom you want to send it (to all or just some of your contacts) and when you want to send it out. Hootsuite and TweetDeck allow you to write a bunch of tweets at once, then schedule when they go out. Facebook has scheduling tools built in for business accounts though not for personal ones. To find them, instead of pushing the blue “publish” button in your “write something” box, click the arrow beside it. That’ll open a drop down menu that gives you the option to “schedule” something.

5. Embrace video. “YouTube is a huge missed opportunity for a lot of people, because they’re afraid of video,” says PublicityHound.com’s Joan Stewart. It’s time to face the camera (and your fears), because video is becoming the preferred form of content across the major platforms, and as you’ll learn below, certain platforms are incentivizing video content, too. Camera-shy? That’s OK, you don’t have to share video of yourself, but rather video of the story or message you’re trying to get across. The good news is you want to keep your videos short and sweet—that means 30 seconds to two minutes max.

6. Master mobile. You may be someone who does the majority of their work on a laptop or other computer. No matter, it’s crucial to learn how to use your social media networks on mobile. Why? Because if you’re tethered to a big machine, you’ll miss things. According to a recent report from ComScore, nearly 80 percent of all social media time is spent on mobile. That’s why you’ll want to make sure everything you post is as quick and shareable as possible—mobile readers are already on the go so they don’t have time to read long. And if you have your own website, make sure it’s mobile friendly. How? By building it using responsive web design, which means that the desktop web pages will present differently depending on the size of the device one is viewing them with.

7. Understand it takes time to get results. In his work coaching social media newbies, Schaefer has seen too many folks throw in the towel too soon. “A lot of people expect it to [work] like advertising. A better comparison would be going to a networking meeting for the first time. It may take months for recognition and to be friends with people.” That’s true whether you’re using it for social or business purposes. Says Schaefer, “It’s about connections, about relationships.” For the record, Schaefer notes that it took time for him to get results, too. He initially started a blog as a way to immerse himself in social media technologies. It led to a book—The Tao of Twitter—which led to speaking engagements and eventually consulting work. But it’s been eight years since he left corporate America.

8. Finally, be you. In other words, be personal. “I thought my personal life was boring,” says Joan Stewart. “But then I started to [post] pictures of my garden, pictures of my family. They’re always a big hit.” Melinda Emerson agrees. “Whether you’re using social media for personal or business reasons, you have to share personal information about yourself,” she says. And, she adds: “Mind your manners. Be friendly. And say thank you.

Put your best foot forward on Facebook

If you’re trying to build your personal brand or reach out socially, Facebook is where you want to focus. Here, as you probably know, your popularity is measured in likes—how many people like your posts, how many people like your page and how many Facebook friends you have. So you want to be, well, likeable. Here are a few suggestions:

1. It’s okay to merge the personal and the professional. Five years ago, many people felt like they had to have one page for their work life and another for their social life. Not anymore, Vaynerchuk says.“Business has always been done by people. You increase the friendship, you increase the business.”

2. Know your audience. Who are you trying to reach? Think about those people every time you post and ask yourself: Would they be interested in this? Not so much? Then hold off.

3. Post daily. Think of your once-a-day post on Facebook in the same way you think of your daily call to your mom or your best friend. If you can’t do it everyday, post Thursday and Friday for the most traffic. The optimal time of day: midafternoon.

4. Prioritize video. Video is exploding on Facebook, Vaynerchuk says, and Facebook’s algorithms (which decide what content gets shared and with whom—not everything you post will show up in the feed of every friend you have) prioritize video and photos. If you’re not creating your own, then share those of others—or if you’re doing something really fun or interesting, document it in real time with Facebook Live, a new twist on Facebook that lets you stream video in real time. (Think of it like your own short-form public access TV show. It starts with your audience, then grows as they share it with their friends.)

Be thought-provoking on Twitter

Twitter is an amazingly useful network when it comes to following live news events as well as the thoughts and activities of interesting people. And for sharing your own pet causes and big ideas. But it’s not for selling. “People don’t go to Twitter for products and deals,” says Schaefer. “They go to meet people and have fun.”

1. Share content that solves pressing problems. “That’s the best way to use Twitter,” says Joan Stewart. “ID your target, ID the problems that keep them up at 3 a.m., then share other people’s sterling content that solves those specific problems.”

2. Write tantalizing tweets. The pithier the better, particularly given that tweets can’t be longer than 140 characters. If you’re not such a wordsmith, use a tweet generator like this one from tweakyourbiz.com to scan the article you’re tweeting and generate suggested tweets for you. And hashtag liberally. People use hashtags—a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound (#) sign—to search for specific topics. If yours have them, they’ll be found and eventually you’ll be followed. And while links in tweets are good, long links eat up too many of your characters; use a link shortener like Bitly. Finally, think about keeping your tweets to 120 characters rather than 140. That gives people who retweet you a little space of their own.

3. Use the Twitter search tool. If you want to see what people are talking about in your field of interest, search for hashtagged terms in and around it. “For example,” says Vaynerchuk, “if you’re an accountant, you might search an accountant term: IRS. There’s your content and those are your customers.” Then follow the conversation for a little while before diving in.

4. Aim for eight tweets a day. Experts agree, that’s a pretty good cadence—it’s not too little, it’s not too much. But if you’re going to go over it (if, for example, you’re participating in a Twitter chat or Twitter party, an hourlong dialog around a specific topic), send a courtesy tweet to your followers to warn them first. And if you’re going to be a less frequent tweeter, know that Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays have the most traffic.

5. If you’re scheduling content in advance, be mindful of world events. If you’re posting a lot, scheduling content becomes a necessity—but you have to keep an eye on world events (and your own life). If the entire world is fixated on the latest tragedy abroad, pitching your new e-book like it’s any other day will register as tone-deaf.

Leave your love life off of LinkedIn

In the same way Facebook is home base for your personal life, LinkedIn is the repository for your professional one. These days, if you’re applying for a job, you’ll often be asked to fill out an online application where you submit a resume or link to your LinkedIn page. As such, it’s not the place to talk about what your cute dog did last week, or look for a date, and it’s definitely not the place for politics.

1. Devote time to your profile. It should include a good picture (even if you have to have one taken), your work history for at least your last three jobs and where you went to school. Farnsworth advocates putting some thought into your summary description. “It’s your advertisement for yourself,” he says. Once that’s done, your goal is not only to connect with as many people as you can—but to curate who those connections are. What does that mean? Search for the people you’d like to meet, people you think can help you in your career, and then figure out who to tap in your own network that might be able to introduce you.

2. Join groups. LinkedIn has a huge array of groups focused on various interests and industries. Find two or three that fit and become active, sharing relevant content, posting (occasionally) your own content and commenting on other people’s posts. Commit to 10 minutes a day, suggests Farnsworth.

3. Consider publishing a blog. If you’re looking to build your brand and share your expert knowledge, it makes sense to publish a blog post on LinkedIn. Anyone can do it. You just have to eyeball the publishing button at the top of your homepage. That’ll take you to the publishing tool. You can add pictures, video, links, and then put it up and await the comments.

4. Post only when you have something of value to share. Although you can post as often as once or twice a day, unless you’re contributing something to the conversation, it’s seen as spam, Stewart says. And don’t be too self-promotional.

Publish pleasing photos on Instagram and Pinterest

Think of these platforms as a modern-day print magazine. They’re best for extremely visual people and businesses (fashion, real estate, vacations, food, etc.) Instagram revolves around a single image, with or without a caption. On Pinterest, instead of posting a single image at a time, you curate a collection of items around a particular interest (or around your personal taste). It’s better than Instagram, experts say, for selling things. People click on the things you post and link to, and that results in higher sales.

1. Be consistent. Aim for posting two to three times a week on a fairly regular basis, says Steve Farnsworth. On Instagram, use hashtags as much as you do on Twitter, for the same reason—it makes your posts searchable.

2. Supplement pictures with graphics. Although both Instagram and Pinterest are visual mediums, you can do a lot with words posted in a visual way. In my social media world, every Monday has become Money Rule Monday, and I post a specific #MoneyRule—recently, Frugal Is the New Black—on Instagram. Stewart created a Pinterest board with her top 50 publicity tips. “It’s PowerPoint slides with a tip on each, and each tip clicks back to my blog and pulls traffic back to my website,” she explains.

3. Know that quality counts. The quality of the photos and images you’re posting will be the key to keep visitors coming back. Use filters and editing to make them as pleasing to the eye as possible. Then, when you’ve found one that strikes a chord, take note of what did well and try to capture that same feeling and energy again. As with all new ventures in life, social media success results from a strategy of “test and learn.”

In some ways, mastering social media is like learning a new language—a universal language the whole world speaks. It can be overwhelming at first. But the payoff can be profound. In the words of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel laureate in history, “What is interesting is the power and the impact of social media. So we must try to use social media in a good way.”

Financial journalist Jean Chatzky can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn (where she’s proud to be an Influencer). She’d love it if you’d give her new podcast HerMoney with Jean Chatzky a listen and leave her a review.

With reporting by Kelly Hultgren