There has been some debate lately about whether social media is a content publishing platform or a community, and it baffled me slightly at first, to be perfectly honest, because yes. Social media is a content publishing method that can be amazingly effective and yes social media is about creating a community where people can interact with the brands they use and trust and enjoy. This isn’t a zero sum game where we should be looking at Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Pinterest or any other social media platform as any one single thing. I was trying to explain this to a friend, a very smart person but not someone entrenched in this industry, and it struck me as being amazingly similar to every time I tried to throw a dinner party when I was a young single gal in her first apartment. I’d get so excessively, near obsessively focused on what food to make (almost inevitably something complicated that I’ve never made before requiring three trips to Whole Foods and two speciality markets) that then two days before the party I’d be in a panic realizing I didn’t have enough plates, the lighting in my apartment wasn’t good enough, I had no idea what music to play, and I had invited at least three people who I had seen get into loud arguments under the influence of no more than one light beer. The successful dinner party of my dreams was never going to happen if I spent all my time obsessing over what fourteen step main course from Joy of French Cooking I was going to try and make in my tiny just out of college apartment kitchen and didn’t think through all the other things that went into an enjoyable, successful dinner party.

And so, in the spirit of giving and in my attempts to exorcise my own failed party demons after the fact, some tips for great social media inspired by my (many) failed dinner parties of the past decade.

It is greater than the sum of its parts

A really great party is the result of the right combination of food, drinks, music, decor, and people. Don’t do what I did with my dinner parties and get caught up in one small aspect of it (no matter what that aspect is) and miss the rest of what goes into the overall experience. For social media, that means remembering that you need good, engaging content in the places where the right people (whoever is your target audience) are, and that you as the host need to encourage sparkling conversation (in this case engagement via comments and shares). There’s a lot to juggle so it’s entirely understandable to get focused on the one thing that you think is most important or that you’re the most confident in being able to do well, but it really does require all the pieces of the puzzle. Have a plan and bring in help where you need it, but don’t just ignore the things you’re not as good at or you think are slightly less important.

Remember that you are the host

You’re hosting your social media account the same way you would be hosting a dinner party, so remember to be the attentive and prepared host we all love and rave about. Be aware of potential problems (guests who you know tend to disagree loudly, for example, or a controversial topic that has been in the news a lot and could lead to heated discussion) and stop them before they become an issue, and know what your guests are going to want and provide that (not what you necessarily want to provide. Knowing one of your friends hates cilantro and making sure it’s on the side of your taco salad instead of mixed in with the greens, for example, is a small thing you can do as a host that will make someone’s day. On social media, it can be as simple as making sure things are tagged accurately and thoroughly so that people can avoid content that may be upsetting for them or that they’d just prefer to avoid.

Be flexible

There will always be things that don’t work as planned. Either people will show up late or the roast will burn or somebody will have an allergy they didn’t tell you about or something. In social media, maybe it means that you don’t initially get the engagement you thought you would to your big contest campaign, or people are way more into the Throwback Thursday post you put up on a whim without a ton of thought. Be prepared to adjust and don’t get caught sticking to something that isn’t working or miss the chance to run with something that unexpectedly is a hit.

Don’t get people to come under false pretenses

If you’re throwing a Tupperware party or similar for some kind of home based business, you wouldn’t want to just say “hey I’m having a dinner party”, invite a bunch of friends and colleagues over, and then unload the marketing gimmicks. Similarly, don’t lure people into your social media with the promise of exclusive content or some special access and then bombard them with advertising. You don’t have to try and be all things to all people, either as a party host or as a social media manager, but pulling a bait and switch is a surefire way for people to associate you with time share sales pitch “free vacations” and not anything they actually want in their lives.

I hope my many failed youthful dinner parties have taught us all some useful lessons about managing the complex stew that can be social media. The biggest thing to remember is that you are the host. You don’t have to be there in every conversation and supply absolutely everything anyone could imagine, but you are there to facilitate a happy, sparkling, engaging conversation around some great content. If your customers leave after a night of great conversation well fed with interesting content, you’re a success.