Saying no to social media buttons

Social media buttons are ineffective, damage site performance and distract from primary actions. Fortunately there is a better way.

So your client or boss wants their website to have social media buttons. They want buttons asking people to share. They want buttons asking them to follow. They want buttons everywhere. Bright, gaudy buttons that stick out like a sore thumb. What do you do?

What you must not do is complain that they ruin your beautiful design. The client just won’t care. Instead you need to present them with a solid argument and a viable alternative.

So other than ruining good design why our social media buttons a bad idea?

Clients love social media buttons, but they are a bad idea.
Clients love social media buttons, but they are a bad idea.

Why social media buttons are a bad idea

I should come clean at this point and admit I despise social media buttons. In my opinion they achieve nothing and yet cause significant damage.

Let’s begin with the damage they cause.

The cost is too high

Even if social media buttons were effective, the price you pay is too high for what is a secondary call to action on most sites.

Rarely do you come across a site where the primary call to action is for a user to follow you on a social network or share your content. Even on a news site or blog there are other priorities. Priorities such as encouraging users to subscribe or click on an advertisement.

This means that all social media buttons do is distract the user from completing your primary call to action. This is because social media buttons have the brand of their network and tend to stand out from the design of your site.

Not only that, they clutter the user interface taking precious moments of user attention. Admittedly this is only momentarily, but when user attention is so scarce you need to be careful.

But being a distraction is not the only damage they cause. Because the social media icons load from a third party server they can have a significant performance impact. They could also cause validation errors and security issues.

Loading in social media buttons has a significant impact on performance.
Loading in social media buttons has a significant impact on performance.

You might be able to overlook this if social media buttons were beneficial to either the user or the business. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Why social media buttons do not work

Social media sharing buttons offer little benefit to users. Copying and pasting a link into a social media update is not much slower than clicking a button on a website. In fact for users of Twitter who run the native application it is faster. When clicking a link on a website they will have to login. Something they do not need to do with their native application.

From a business perspective social media buttons do not work either. On the rare occasions social media is the primary call to action on a website, having a few small icons is completely inadequate.

These buttons do nothing to motivate the user to take action. They do not explain to the user the benefit of following the organisation. Or why they may want to share a piece of content.

But it is easy to criticise social media buttons. If we are going to ask our clients to forego them we need to offer a viable alternative.

Alternatives to social media buttons

Social media buttons come in two forms. There are the sharing buttons and the follow buttons. Both can perform valuable roles if implemented well. The secret is in timing and ease-of-use.

Take for example how sharing buttons are often implemented.

Making the sharing button useful

It is not unusual to come across a website that includes sharing buttons on every page of the entire site. This means the user is in the bizarre position of being asked to share privacy policies and terms and conditions!

These buttons should only appear when appropriate. Instead of appearing across an entire site only use social media buttons sparingly. They should operate as integrated functionality within the website and provide real value to the user.

Take for example this website. I don’t have sharing buttons appearing across every page. Instead I associate them with the pull-out quotes found in an article. This suggests content worth sharing and makes it easy for the user to do so.

With this approach the user does not have to think about what they say. They can just click a button and share quality content. Of course, they have the option to edit if they so wish.

A similar more thoughtful approach can also enhance follow buttons.

Improving the follow button

There are two problems with your average follow us button.

First, nobody comes to your website with the intention of following you on social networks. This means they are trying to do something else and you should not distract them. Picking your moment is crucial.

Second, most websites provide no reason for the user to follow them. Instead the user is just presented with a generic “follow us” button.

Imagine for a moment you were visiting a website to buy a new piece of software. The first thing you see when you arrive on the website is a gaudy follow us button. At this point in your journey this is not what you want to see. You are more interested in purchasing the software.

But, once you have completed your transaction you will find yourself on a thank you page at the end of the checkout process. Because you have now achieved your goal you are much more receptive to another task. Now is a great time to ask you to follow the company on social media.

It is not enough to ask users to follow you. You need to give them a reason.
It is not enough to ask users to follow you. You need to give them a reason.

To make this even more compelling it would help if the software developers gave you a reason to follow them. For example they could say “follow us on Twitter for tips and tricks on getting the most from our software”.

They could even offer an incentive such as 10% off the pro version for people who follow them on twitter.

Social media buttons are lazy

My point is that just slapping some social media buttons on your website is lazy and not particularly effective. Your website should be encouraging people to interact with your brand via social media. But there are much better ways of doing it than a row of social media icons.

Next time your client suggests using social media buttons offers them a more effective solution. It is a lot better than complaining they look ugly.

  • Christopher Navarre

    You have a lot of good arguments when it comes to social media buttons here Paul. I noticed the effectiveness of you embed tweets / follow since I saw myself drawing into click on them – much more tempting than random social counter buttons are the top or bottom of a post. Gives me a bit to think about when it comes to unobtrusive design.

  • Great food for thought – thank you.

  • jonathanstark

    I’m going to share the crap out of this post ;)

  • scott_mcleod

    I’d love to share this but there is no way to do so :-(

    • lol. Yeah the big twitter pull out quote is easy to miss. Not to mention the old copy and paste approach.

      • Tanya Perez

        Shouldn’t we, as marketers / writers / content creators – make it more convenient for the user to share content?

        • We should but using social media buttons is a lazy approach. As I say in the article, there are better ways.

          Paul Boag

          Digital Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Writer, Mentor and UX specialist.

  • I’m not a social media buttons zealot by any means, but I do have contrary thoughts on two of the things you’ve mentioned here.

    > Copying and pasting a link into a social media update is not much slower than clicking a button on a website. In fact for users of Twitter who run the native application it is faster. When clicking a link on a website they will have to login. Something they do not need to do with their native application.

    On Android at least the phone’s intents system means that links to the Twitter website are passed directly to the native app. The user gets to choose if they want to direct Twitter links to the mobile site or the app the first time a link is clicked, then the choice can be remembered.

    So for me to share an article on my phone with a share button the process is 1) click on the button. The native app loads with the tweet filled in for me. 2) click the tweet button and the tweet is sent. Without a button I have to open the address bar in mobile Chrome, click and hold on the URL, click copy. Navigate to my home screen, then the twitter app. Click the new tweet button, click and hold in the text field to bring up the menu, click paste, and then finally click the tweet button to send the tweet. A slightly shorter alternative is to click to open the Chrome menu, click Share, find the Twitter native application’s entry in the share menu, then click the tweet button to send a tweet. In the second case the tweet’s text will be based on a pattern that the native application has chosen for me, rather than the developers of the website that I am sharing.

    The performance issue is a very valid one, but this can be mitigated in some way by lazy loading the buttons. This way they don’t affect the initial load time so the perceived performance of the page should be greater.

    I suppose a happy medium from a design, performance and security viewpoint would be to provide your own sharing buttons linking to the correct URL to share an item, but with all the design and code coming from your own site rather than being loaded from a third-party. This is similar to what you’ve done with your pull quote sharing elements, which look great and work really well too.

    • Megabyte

      Phil, I definitely agree with you on the time-saving aspect of share buttons, but I don’t think having your own “style” of other brands is a good idea. When I see incorrect branding of huge media companies (like the misuse of the Twitter icon on this page), it says “unprofessional” or “illegitimate” to me. I think people need to stick to Facebook/Twitter/ect. brand guidelines, as it would be very frustrating to have our own logos misused. :)

      (Although I may have misinterpreted that point? If I did, sorry!)

      • You can stick to their guidelines and yet still not have the performance hit or design disasters of most social media buttons. Just look at my pull out quote above. It uses Twitters logo correctly and even their corporate colours.

    • You make a good point Phil. As I say in the article, we don’t need to rely on copy and paste. There are lots of alternative approaches and I agree that using your own sharing buttons is a better way.

  • Megabyte

    I’m confused by this article. Have you ever heard of “top of mind”? The goal of modern marketing is actually more about brand awareness than “sell sell sell.”
    Marketing has changed goals entirely in the last 20-30 years in that regard. Companies and organizations like to try to provide valuable information and fun facts to consumers because that is a better way of creating loyal customers and building relationships. It costs an average of 10x more to obtain a new customer than simply keeping a current one. Building trust and loyalty through social media and easy/transparent sharing of information is key to online marketing.

    • I couldn’t agree more with everything you are saying, but don’t know how that relates to the use of social media buttons. Social media buttons do little to increase the number of people actually selling. There are more intelligent ways of achieving that.

      • Megabyte

        Allowing others to share your content in the most direct and convenient way (for them, not us) will help keep your brand on top. Social media sharing is a supplement to traditional media. If the users are using the buttons, therefore spreading brand awareness, why deliberately take that away? I see that website speed is a possible reason to nix the buttons, but save lower res. files or set the social sharing buttons to load last, so that the content load time isn’t sacrificed.

        • Paul Boag

          I think we will have to agree to differ. But if brand raising is honestly your highest priority then I suggest that content marketing is a more effective approach that sprinkling a few buttons across your site.

          • Megabyte

            Clearly we have different definitions for the word “supplement.” *Sigh*
            But yes, a valid point for arguing with someone whose highest priority is brand awareness.
            Great read.

          • I missed the word supplement. Sorry about that. I guess my point in the post is that social media buttons are not the BEST way of encouraging sharing. I actually share a lot of other approaches in this article.

          • Mary

            From my perspective, both of you (Megabyte and Paul) have great points. Sometimes the main CTA for a blog post, for example, is to share. But, as Paul says, there are lots of more creative and interactive ways of accomplishing this besides simply putting a button up. This article by Neil Patel on interactivity brings up the point that social sharing widgets do work, but “sharing widgets are still a bit disconnected from the content and require people to both choose which social network they want to share the content on and craft a description.” So he also recommends embedded tweets, for the purpose of increasing interactivity and decreasing bounce rate:

  • I totally agree,

    Custom share buttons however, are a much better solution if you still want to use the social media share buttons. It’s just the standard ones that are ugly and slow.

  • I like your solution for this post with the ‘NUMBER OF SHARES (CLICK TO SHARE): 288 people’ link.

    How do you achieve this may I ask? A link to a resource/source/plugin etc would be great.

    • Thanks! I just set that up yesterday so it is nice to know it has been spotted already :)

      I have a wordpress plugin called Social Media Tracker. I installed it ages ago as it provides me with stats on how my posts are being shared. I discovered last night it also outputs certain information into PHP if you want. I used that.

      • Nice, thanks Paul! I’ll look into it. Is it “Social Metrics Tracker”?

        • If you need any more help stop me an email and I’ll share the code with you. Should be pretty obvious though.

  • Consider replacing all your social media buttons with a single one.. our free service, does the job!

  • Alius Umbra

    It’s been 2 years and I still see Social Media buttons everywhere on the web. Even on some popular business websites. It seems the masses have spoken. Have you changed your tune at all, or do you stand by your post?