What brands need to know about Mastodon and the ‘fediverse’

As decentralized social media grows in popularity, companies have a unique opportunity to position their brands early in the fediverse and differentiate themselves from competitors. Mastodon provides the quickest path to creating and controlling a brand’s decentralized social presence.

Mastodon and Fediverse logos

Elon Musk’s dismantling of Twitter is driving people and companies away from the service and putting a spotlight on the decentralized platform Mastodon. Marketers are curious to know how the Twitter alternative can be used to further their brand and whether or not they can advertise on it.

PR Week and AdAge addressed marketers’ questions by essentially writing Mastodon off as something they can ignore. Their one-dimensional coverage of “it’s too small and dispersed, and if you can’t advertise and easily manipulate it, then what’s the point” (my words, not theirs) was a disservice to talented marketing teams looking for new ways to experiment and reach customers. Companies seeking to differentiate themselves and breakout out from what Kyle Chayka calls “blanding” – the copy-paste brand marketing model that follows repetitive patterns – may have an opportunity to express a unique voice within a crowded market with Mastodon.

Mastodon is part of a movement towards decentralized social media, where users control their online presence instead of relinquishing it to centralized companies such as Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Twitter, and Microsoft (LinkedIn). Unlike centralized social media, Mastodon allows its users to have an account on any server running Mastodon. People can also run personal servers as I do at henshaw.social. And regardless of what server a person is on, they can still follow, read posts, and engage with anyone on any Mastodon server.

Mastodon uses the ActivityPub protocol, which is an open standard that makes all of this possible, and Mastodon isn’t the only platform that uses it. Other decentralized social media platforms like PixelFed (an Instagram alternative), Plemora, Soapbox, and Friendica use it. All of them, including Mastodon, allows users to follow and engage with each other. It’s similar to if Facebook could natively connect with Twitter and LinkedIn. The interconnectedness of decentralized social media platforms is called the Fediverse.

If the experience of using the fediverse becomes better than centralized social media – it remains ad-free and connects people cross-platform – people will leave services like Twitter en masse. And when that happens, brands will need to adapt their marketing strategies to reach audiences where they are. That’s why companies need to consider the fediverse and its place in it, and Mastodon is the best place for them to start.

Top reasons companies should create a Mastodon instance

  1. Momentum – Mastodon is growing quickly and being covered and adopted by news media.
  2. Future-proof – Forward-thinking companies that get on the fediverse now won’t have to play catch up with their competitors.
  3. Low-pressure – There’s no pressure to post often, and brands can use it solely as a micro-blog channel.
  4. Modernity – Having a presence on the fediverse conveys technical savvy and a willingness to participate in cultural trends that benefit society.
  5. Presence – A Mastodon instance can connect brands with the growing number of people opting out of centralized social media.
  6. Support – Companies can use their Mastodon instance as a low-touch support channel.
  7. Discovery – Brands can monitor trends and learn the best ways to reach customers on the fediverse.
  8. Control – The only way to completely control a brand’s presence in the fediverse is to run an instance the same way one runs a company website.

How to setup a Mastodon instance for a brand

Here’s everything a company needs to consider when setting up a brand presence in the fediverse.

Choose a subdomain or domain

The first step to setting up a personal Mastodon server is picking the best domain.

One option is for companies to create a subdomain using their primary domain. If they do, they should avoid using mastodon as the subdomain (i.e., mastodon.company.com) because, in the future, they may choose a different fediverse platform. Instead, they should consider something like the word social (i.e., social.company.com).

A second and preferred option is to use a unique top-level domain (TLD). Subdomains are treated somewhat similarly to subfolders on the primary domain by Google Search, which means the user-generated content (UGC) found by Googlebot on a company’s Mastodon instance may not be relevant to the brand. To maintain topic relevance and brand continuity in search for the primary domain, using a general TLD such as .social or .chat is recommended.

Self-host or use managed hosting

Most medium-to-enterprise-sized companies have software and operations engineers that can self-host Mastodon. However, I recommend all companies use managed hosting to save money and resources. Masto Host, for example, is the service Coywolf uses for coywolf.social, and they are affordable, reliable, secure, keep Mastodon up-to-date, and make backups.

Complete user profile and verify your site

Mastodon instances can have one account or several. If a product or ops team manages the presence, I recommend having an administrative profile for them and another profile for the brand that the social media team manages.

The brand profile should complete the profile description. That includes adding a link to the company site and verifying it. Verified links are Mastodon’s way of confirming the identity of a profile and will ensure the legitimacy of the profile to everyone that views it.

Coywolf brand profile on self-hosted Mastodon instance

Override styles to better match brand

A company may want to update the color scheme of its instance to better match branding guidelines. Mastodon allows adding custom CSS via Administration > Server Settings > Appearance in the Preferences. The official Mastodon documentation doesn’t provide many details on modifying styles, but Carlo Denaro has Mastodon Custom CSS example code on GitHub for reference.

Mastodon Custom CSS
Appearance settings in Mastodon for changing theme styles

Publish clear server rules

Each Mastodon instance is a unique community on the fediverse, and server rules are considered essential. Aside from setting the expected behavior for users on an instance, they also communicate the rules to other instances. And based on the actions of users and their instance’s server rules (or lack of), some instances may suspend or block an entire instance. That action is typically referred to as defederating. Therefore, brands should have clear server rules.

Example server rules for Mastodon

These are the server rules for coywolf.social, which were copied from other Mastodon instances, and can be viewed on the About page.

  1. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated
  2. No discrimination, including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.
  3. No explicit (NSFW) content without content warnings and/or sensitive media markers. Explicit content must not be used in user avatars or header images.
  4. No harassment of other users on this or other servers.
  5. No content illegal in the following countries: United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States of America.
  6. No incitement of violence or promotion of violent ideologies.
  7. No disinformation regarding public health issues or political/military campaigns.
  8. No spam. This includes commercial advertising, promotional campaigns, and SEO.
  9. No impersonation of other individuals, public figures or organizations, unless clearly marked as a parody.

Since Mastodon instances republish posts from people on other instances based on who accounts follow and who they interact with, as an added precaution, companies should consider registering for DMCA protections. Registration is pretty simple and only costs $6.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 USC § 512 creates a “safe harbor” immunity from copyright liability for service providers – including instance admins – who “respond expeditiously” to notices claiming that they are hosting or linking to infringing material. Taking advantage of the safe harbor protects you from having to litigate the complex question of secondary liability and from the risk you would ultimately be found liable.

Corynne McSherry, Legal Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), User Generated Content and the Fediverse: A Legal Primer

What companies should and shouldn’t do on Mastodon

While there’s no playbook yet for how companies should conduct themselves in the fediverse, here are several things they should keep in mind after they create a Mastodon instance.

  1. Don’t spam – Since advertising doesn’t exist on the fediverse, self-promotional engagement will likely get your instance blocked and defederated. That means you shouldn’t do any outreach, such as private messaging or replying to people with special offers.
  2. Do post about yourself – Like a blog, use your Mastodon instance to share articles, new features, and company news. As more customers and fans discover your instance, they will follow you and boost posts they’re excited about to their followers.
  3. Don’t allow open registration – Allowing anyone to create an account on your instance could result in a public relations disaster. Communities are difficult to moderate and unknown users could harm your brand. Keep your registration closed and only allow employees to use it.
  4. Do focus on earned media – The fediverse is an excellent channel for repurposing helpful content and studies others may want to share or write about. And make sure the world knows you’re on the fediverse. Depending on the size and popularity of your brand, simply announcing that you’re on Mastodon could be newsworthy.

The fediverse and Mastodon present a unique opportunity for brands, with a minimal downside for participating. And if the entire decentralized social media experiment becomes a dud, companies can always shut down their instances.

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Jon Henshaw

Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @[email protected]