Choosing the best social media buttons for your site

There are now well over a hundred social media sites with more than one million active users. From microblogging to social bookmarking, to photo sharing, to business networking – the list just keeps growing. And most of them offer handy “share this on…” buttons that you can add to your site – all with the tantalising promise of sending you more traffic.

But you can’t even put 10% of the buttons available on your site – unless you don’t mind having no content except for the buttons. So the question becomes, how do you choose?

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Here are some tips to help you make the right choice for your site:

  1. Fish where the fish are
  2. Buttons offer the magical promise of tapping into a huge new audience, but the reality is that unless a decent chunk of your readers are already using a social media site, the buttons are close to worthless. So spend some time finding out what the biggest social media sites are in at least the top 3 countries where your readership originates.

    In South Africa these answers are pretty clear already – Facebook followed by YouTube with Twitter and LinkedIn bringing up the rear. But if your audience is Brazillian you need to be focussing on Orkut, not Facebook.

    Another way to choose which networks to target is by using your own stats. Open up Google Analytics (which every site owner in their right mind should have installed) and look at which sites are referring traffic to you already. You might be surprised at who’s on top.

    Adding buttons from sites that are already sending you traffic sounds counterintuitive, but it’s all about reinforcing that positive feedback loop. Say a new reader clicks through to your site from that network, then clicks on a second article. Why make it hard for them to share back to the site they just left?

  3. Pick the right horse(s)
  4. Volumes are always enticing, which is why everyone and their cat has Facebook buttons on their site, but always stop to consider whether a social media site suits your audience. Even though it’s in decline, MySpace has over 100-million active users. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for your fly-fishing blog, or your Public Speakers Association site.

    Choosing a smaller but more appropriate network (see point 1) will pay off with more valuable traffic than simply going for the numbers. LinkedIn is an obvious example. Hardly any local sites feature its buttons, yet its userbase is of exceptional quality because it’s composed almost entirely of professional people. A bottle of champagne is worth more than a vat of cream soda.

  5. Less is more
  6. The temptation is always to hedge your bets by adding a dozen buttons, or to use a service like “Share this” or “Add this” that aggregates hundreds of buttons into handy little pop-ups. Now while I have nothing against those services in principle, I have yet to work on a major South African site which gets any kind of decent traffic from the likes of Delicious, Digg or Buzz. Your site may be different though – so check those stats.

    Every single button you add to your site sends a subtle message – it effectively says “we endorse this site.” By adding every button you can find, however elegantly, you’re saying “we’re hedging our bets – we endorse everyone!” Two or three carefully chosen buttons are easier to design around, clearer to user and place less strain on your site’s loading times.

    This principle also applies to the size of buttons. Most sites offer several different sizes of buttons, and the larger ones are attractive to site owners because they are nice and obvious. The only problem is that obvious can sometimes become loud – particularly with half a dozen of the competiting for airtime. Consider varying the size you use – the largest button for your most important network, followed by smaller versions from the other networks.

  7. Keep it together
  8. Wherever possible, try to group all your buttons together into a single, discrete area – somewhere obvious and prominent without being overwhelming. The top right corner of the content area is very popular and therefore quite familiar to most users, but the bottom left also works well.

    Whatever you do, don’t straggle them across the page, and don’t repeat them unless your pages are long enough to justify it. There’s nothing worse that a site that looks like a Christmas tree, with buttons that overpower the content with their sad-eyed pleas for “moar clickz pleaz!”

  9. Choose smart buttons over dumb ones
  10. More and more sites offer “smart” buttons that react when a user clicks them, and also display how many times a content item has been shared. The most obvious example is Facebook’s “Like” button, which immediately posts the link to Facebook without you even having to leave the site. All the major sites now offer variations on this theme, and the ones that don’t are working on it, trust me.

    The advantages of smart buttons are enormous. Firstly they are deliciously easy and interactive for users: Click, share, happy. Secondly they signal that a story is already being discussed. Humans are social animals with herding instincts and conversation is self reinforcing. Nothing drives clicks like the idea that someone has already clicked before you.

  11. Implementation is everything
  12. A lot of the biggest networks offer several different varieties of buttons, usually graded according to how difficult they are to install. In general the easiest ones are also the dumbest ones and the ones that add the most to your sites load times. Many sites still offer iFramed buttons for instance – these are to be avoided wherever possible.

    A case in point is Facebook’s “Like” button. The quickest thing to do is grab their standard iFrame code and plonk it on your site. But the javascript version, though more challenging to implement, has a lot of advantages including more accurate page targetting and more control over how the button behaves.

    Whatever button you choose, be sure to make the most of the customisation options offered. Facebook, for instance, gives you the option to translate the button into Afrikaans, as Huisgenoot has done. You can also choose how many extra features you want with the button – such as whether faces of the “likers” are displayed next to the button. But don’t get carried away – more features also means more space and more noise.

What would I choose?

In the end, personal preference and design aesthetics will also play a part in your choices. It’s your site, your vision and your audience. Don’t be afraid to make a choice because it feels right in your gut. To my mind, at least 75% of South African sites should be using some variation on this formula:

  • The slimmest Facebook “like” button (aka “button count”) – Javascript version.
  • Twitter’s own Tweet button – I favour the “horizontal count” version because it fits well with the Facebook button above.

And then either:

  • The LinkedIn share button (again the horizontal version)
  • …or:

  • The Stumbleupon button (since it’s the only “traditional” sharing site in SA’s top 100)

These are the plain vanilla choices because they are in the sweetspot of mainstream readers. Your site may be insanely popular with the DeviantArt or Bebo crowd – so remember to check first.

What about all those other fancy plugins and widgets?

You’re quite right, many sites now offer all manner of handy little boxes that pull, for instance, the latest tweets about your content onto your front page. They offer some fantastic opportunities, but also some real dangers.

Until then, remember, common sense should always prevail. If the tail is wagging the dog, trim that tail down. Just bear in mind that a dog without any tail is a sad beast indeed.

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