Even with all the hubbub about Social Media these days, not many people seem to be zeroing-in on what may arguably be one of the most important visual elements of a person or company’s online presence: The almighty avatar.

Before we get into the topic of avatars, let’s first divide Social Media users into two broad but convenient categories (for the sake of this discussion):

  1. People who use Social Media for purely social reasons (i.e. connecting with friends and family)
  2. people who use Social Media in a business capacity (community managers, company executives, customer service representatives, PR professionals, HR managers, recruiters, consultants, real estate agents, etc.)

Now, if you fall into the first category, you can basically do whatever you want: If you want to use Kung-Fu monkeys, comic book superheroes, your favorite pet or purple unicorns for an avatar, more power to ya. Ideally though, you may want to use your face as an avatar. People will respond to it better, and we would all rather see who we are talking to anyway.

Why the emphasis on the face? Because this is SOCIAL media, and people would much rather engage with people than faceless logos. People want to see your face. They want to see who they are talking to, and who is talking to them. The point of these social spaces is… to be social. To connect with people and develop a relationship with them.

Note: If you really love your pooch so much that you want to use her for an avatar, set up a Twitter account for her and have fun with it. (You would be surprised how many pets have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. You’ll be in good company.)

Now, if you fall into the second category, things get a little more complicated. Why? Because you are pulling double-duty as a) an individual and b) the paid representative of a branded business. Expressing these two facets of your identity online in an avatar is actually remarkably simple, but because most companies don’t yet have “best practices” to look up ideal corporate avatar design for their employees, they mostly tend to overlook the question altogether.

Ideally though, companies should have two distinct types of avatars: One for the company’s general PR use, and the other for its employees. The first will typically be some combination of the company logo/mark an company name, while the second will be a combination of the person’s photograph and the company logo/mark.

Here are some examples of each:

Corporate Logo Avatars

avatars21Great for brand name recognition and all that, but ultimately… can brands really have conversations with hundreds if not thousands of fans – one on one – and remain faceless? Does anyone really want to talk with… a logo? These types of avatars are great to share information about a brand on Twitter (information, news, offers, pointing at its other accounts, etc.), but probably not the best when it comes to actually engaging with people.

Photo Avatars

a random selection of Twitter avatars
a random selection of Twitter avatars

While it’s great to let people know what you look like and who you are in general, faces alone are not particularly effective at letting people know that you are an online community manager or CMO of Brand XYZ, particularly if that is relevant to your activities in the social media space. (Note: the fine folks used in this example were selected completely at random, so they don’t need to make any changes to their avatars.) ;D

Rare is the company that combines both… yet look how effective a face + logo avatar can be compared to the two types of designs we just looked at:

Photo + Corporate Logo Avatars

avatarsAh. Now we’re getting somewhere! Bringing the best of both worlds together: Nice friendly faces AND the context of the brands/companies they represent. The result: Clarity, stickier engagement, and the potential for increased social media participation within an organization as it grows into the space.

Why the need to combine faces and logos? Simple: Faces provide the humanity. Logos provide the context. The two work together to create clarity.

And within the context of a company/brand with broad social media engagement throughout its organization, the final product should pretty much look like this:

Company-Wide Avatar Design Example

fuel-compositeFuel Labs is one of the first companies to demonstrate an effective and consistent corporate avatar design strategy. Note the faceless avatar for the “company” account on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and the consistency of the design for everyone on the Fuel Labs team. With this type of strategy, Fuel covers a lot more ground, gets to show off its team, and brings clarity to its presence across various social media platforms – especially Twitter. Far be it from me to suggest that Microsoft, Pepsi, The Home Depot and other large brands trying to establish a meaningful presence in social media should follow suit, but… it is something they may want to consider.

Bear in mind that avatars are easy to change: New haircut, new company, new employee… Five minutes in photoshop or some other image/graphic management program, and voila. As individuals change jobs, it is often easier to modify an avatar than a user/account name. Over the next few years, as people become more diligent about cultivating their social media presence – and take it with them from job to job – the ability for companies to plug their employees’ social presence into their brand will become crucial. Rather than wait for your competitors to figure it out and lead the way, start now: Start thinking about what a company-wide avatar design might look like for your employees – especially those whose job it is to represent you online – get your favorite graphic designer on the phone, and make something happen.

Have a great Thursday!