Social media handles: The complete guide

Is there anything better than seeing your name in lights?

How about snagging the perfect handle and launching your brand into social media stardom?

It might not be as glamorous, but it will certainly help you get more than just 15 minutes of fame.

Social media marketing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s important to have a strong presence on your target audience’s channels of choice. Where to start? By creating an account with a suitable social media handle. But it’s not always quite so simple.

Let’s walk through:

  • What a social media handle is, and why it matters.
  • How handles appear (or don’t) across different platforms.
  • How you can choose the right handle for your brand.

A 200-year history of the handle

We’ve been using the word “handle” to mean title or pseudonym for quite some time.

As far back as the nineteenth century, someone who earned a designation like Sir or Doctor was said to “have a handle to his name.” But, if the esteemed knight or doctor went by Skip, he would be going by his “childhood handle” or nickname.

In the 1970s, the term came in handy when the use of citizens band radio exploded among commercial truck drivers. In the midst of a nationally imposed speed limit and fuel shortages, truckers took to their CB radios to communicate under assumed callsigns, which they dubbed handles.

When this type of semi-anonymous conversation reached internet chat rooms and instant messaging services, the name stuck. During the early years of social media, handle became an informal way to refer to a screen name.

So, what is a social media handle today?

On any given social media platform, your handle is a public-facing name associated with your account you use when connecting with and broadcasting to other users.

And there’s an important takeaway to note from our little history lesson: A social handle is more than a simple moniker; it’s a communication tool.

Your audience or followers will use this unique identifier to find your brand on Facebook, @mention your business in tweets and Instagram stories and tag you in social media posts. If you think about it, a handle is really the gateway to all social media engagement.

Social media handle vs. username

As a public username, a handle often doubles as a login credential. Indeed, most social platforms formally refer to it as a username instead of a handle.

But not all usernames are handles.

After all, no one else cares about your bank account username, since nobody but you will see or use it. But everyone can see your Twitter handle, even if you tweet privately. That’s why choosing the right handle matters for your brand image.

Social media handle vs. display name

Depending on the social network, you’ll likely be able to choose a display name that’s different from your handle. More than one account can use the same display name, but a handle is totally unique to you.

In that sense, a handle is more like a Gmail address or Social Security number. It’s truly one of a kind. Unfortunately, this means your ideal handle may not be available. But, as we’ll see, there are some ways to get around this.

Here’s how social media handles show up in your profile

Now that you’ve gotten a handle on the basics, let’s see how this useful sobriquet fits into your social profile appearance — and how your audience will view it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Facebook

In your Facebook settings, you’ll have control over two different identifiers:

  • Name: This is your display name. It shows up in more prominent text at the top of your profile, but it’s not necessarily unique to you.
  • Username: This is your one-of-a-kind handle. It appears after an @ sign in your Facebook profile and in the associated URL.

Brooklyn-based jewelry company Catbird uses “catbird” as a Facebook display name, but the brand’s handle is @catbirdnyc. This means their profile URL is facebook.com/catbirdnyc.

When choosing a handle for a Facebook Page or profile, you’ll need to follow Facebook’s username guidelines:

  • Must be at least 5 characters long, up to a 50 character limit.
  • May only contain letters, numbers and periods.
  • Periods don’t differentiate usernames (e.g., @johnsmith is the same as @john.smith).

Twitter

When you open up your Twitter account and profile settings, you have exactly the same options:

  • Name: This is your display name. It shows up in bigger, bolder letters directly above your handle.
  • Username: This is your Twitter handle. It’s unique to your account and follows an @ sign in your profile. It’s also used in your Twitter URL.

Once again, Catbird uses “catbird” as a display name and @catbirdnyc as its Twitter handle. As a result, the company’s Twitter URL is twitter.com/catbirdnyc.

When selecting a handle for your brand, you’ll need to follow Twitter’s username rules:

  • May be a maximum length of 15 characters.
  • May only contain letters, numbers and underscores.
  • Underscores do differentiate accounts (e.g., @johnsmith and @john_smith are different).

Instagram

Once you get to your Instagram profile settings, you’ll know the drill:

  • Name: This is your display name on Instagram. The only difference is that it appears in smaller text lower on your profile.
  • Username: This is your handle, which appears alongside an @ sign and in your Instagram URL. However, it shows up first on the screen and in larger letters.

You should be sensing a pattern by now. Catbird uses “Catbird” as a display name and @catbirdnyc as an Instagram handle. Outside the app, the brand’s profile lives at instagram.com/catbirdnyc.

Keep these Instagram tips in mind when choosing your handle:

  • May be a maximum length of 30 characters.
  • May only contain letters, numbers, periods and underscores.
  • Periods and underscores do differentiate accounts.

Elsewhere…

Not all platforms make use of the handle as a login or communication tool.

For instance, LinkedIn and YouTube will prompt you to login using a phone number or email address. From there, you can edit your display name so it reflects your brand name.

When members of your audience search for you on platforms that don’t use handles, they’ll see display names pop up in the results.

Let’s compare what that looks like.

No handle? No problem

With an Instagram search, handles appear in bold letters, followed by display names in gray. Here’s how it looks when searching for jewelry brand Mejuri.

Things show up a little differently on YouTube, where video titles are the most prominent and there aren’t any handles. Each account’s display name appears in gray; some are even two words with spaces in the middle.

Let’s look more closely at that first result from that search. On YouTube, the account is named “Lisa Wei.” On Instagram, this social media influencer shares lifestyle content under the delightfully clever handle @getawei. She also blogs at getawei.com.

But a YouTube search for “getawei” still pulls up her channel, even though it’s not technically a handle there. How is this possible?

It’s done with a bit of powder and rouge called a vanity URL.

Dress up other social media profiles with vanity URLs

Like many influencers and businesses, Lisa uses a custom URL, youtube.com/getawei, to tie in her brand name with her YouTube channel.

Here are a few advantages of using a custom or vanity URL:

  • It keeps your brand consistent.
  • It makes your content easier for people to find.
  • It’s short and sweet.
  • It’s easy to remember, pronounce and spell.
  • And it’s a heck of a lot nicer than youtube.com/channel/UCixI6cYiwQM_6ptz7xMIULA.

As we’ve seen with Catbird, platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram helpfully co-opt social media handles when creating custom URLs for each profile. However, others including YouTube and LinkedIn allow users to create their own.

YouTube

To create a custom channel URL on YouTube, your channel must meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 30 days old.
  • Have at least 100 subscribers.
  • Have a profile image and channel art uploaded.

Essentially, YouTube wants to make sure yours is a real channel with a legitimate audience before giving away such valuable virtual real estate. Once it’s clear that your brand is serious about social media, you can add a custom URL through your account settings.

LinkedIn

Creating a vanity URL on LinkedIn doesn’t involve meeting those types of eligibility requirements — you can add one as soon as your account is active.

When choosing what to include, make sure your slug follows these guidelines:

  • Must be between 5 and 30 characters.
  • May only contain letters and numbers.

9 best practices for creating social media handles

Whether you’re a marketer tasked with creating a social media strategy from scratch, or an entrepreneur launching a social media account for your new venture, keep these tips in mind:

1. Assume someone else snagged your ideal handle already

In 2020, brands looking to make a mark on social media now have to contend with some 3.8 billion social media users worldwide. Since handles are available on a first-come, first-served basis, that adds up to a lot of off-limits usernames.

If you’re still in the blue-sky phase with a new business idea, choosing a completely original brand name can improve your chances of securing the perfect handle across multiple platforms.

If you believe another user is committing trademark infringement by using your business name, there are some avenues to resolve this. But you can’t always rely on that process to gain ownership of your perfect handle.

2. Check availability across various platforms

If your brand name is already written in stone, find out what’s available and work from here.

These sites allow you to check the availability of usernames and handles across hundreds of social media platforms:

Take the results with a grain of salt. The only way to know if the name is truly available is to go through the process of creating an account or changing an existing handle.

3. Align your handles with your business name and domain name

The most logical thing to do when approaching social media management is to assign the same name — or variations of it — to your business, web domain and social profiles.

This keeps it clean and simple for you and your audience:

  • When talking about your business, you and your customers can use one name and one name only.
  • When your followers want to find your website or look you up on Google Maps, they can type that familiar name into the search bar and reach you right away.

4. Choose matching handles for brand consistency

Ideally, your social media handles will be consistent across all platforms.

Take Etsy. The company’s site links out to 5 social media profiles, all with @etsy as a handle or the /etsy/ slug in a vanity URL. It’s highly satisfying.

But, more than that, a consistent naming mechanism promotes better communication and bolsters brand recognition:

  • When interacting with social media campaigns, audience members know there’s just one name to @mention, regardless of the platform they’re using.
  • When you get business cards and event banners printed up, you can slap @brandname on the collateral and you’re all set to jet.

5. Opt for an original name instead of punctuation

Different platforms allow different characters. So, the easiest way to achieve consistency is to avoid periods and underscores altogether.

Which would you rather explain to your audience?

This:

  • Facebook: @brand.name
  • Instagram: @br.andname
  • Twitter: @brandname_

Or:

  • Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: @heybrandname

It’s not even a contest, is it? These organizations — whose top handle choices were probably taken — created brand-aligned Instagram handles without using punctuation:

  • Gemological Institute of America: @giagrams.
  • Chatsworth House: @chatsworthofficial.
  • Christian Louboutin: @louboutinworld.
  • Modsy: @modsydesign.
  • Pietra: @shoppietra.
  • GLDN: @itsgldn.

6. Keep social media handles concise

A relatively short and to-the-point handle contributes to clean and memorable social media branding. It should be quick and easy to type so your ideal customer can find you faster.

If you have a long company name to contend with, you could choose to spell it out or acronymize:

  • The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa): @themuseumofmodernart.
  • Chicago Architecture Center: @chiarchitecture.
  • New York Botanical Garden: @nybg.

Also, remember to stick to each platform’s character limits. If you plan to have a presence on Twitter, choosing a handle that’s 15 characters or less will help your brand’s social media team maintain consistency across all platforms.

7. Make sure they’re easy to spell and pronounce

Generating word-of-mouth interest is one of the many benefits of going social. But your handle should roll off the tongue if you want to encourage conversation. And, it should be easy to spell.

As Alexis Nido-Russo, founder and CEO of Local Eclectic noted, “Don’t choose a brand name that no one can say or spell. I own most misspellings of ‘eclectic’ online.”

That’s a potentially pricey mistake for the brand, and an inconvenience for the would-be customer.

8. Select a name that stands the test of time

It doesn’t matter if you’re going live every Wednesday or creating evergreen content; your social media handles should remain relevant, now and in the future.

It’s not always easy — or possible — to change a handle or vanity URL once you’ve chosen it. A name that boxes your brand into a particular product category, for instance, can perpetuate misinformation about what you do if you later expand your offerings.

When kicking off your brand’s social media presence, pick a handle that can grow with the business.

9. Be ready with a backup plan if your preferred handles aren’t available

After doing some availability research and considering what’s left, you might find that you still can’t get the most succinct social media handle for your brand.

The reason Catbird operates under @catbirdnyc and not simply @catbird is probably this: A design professional by the name of Ryan (you guessed it) Catbird nabbed the Twitter handle two years before the jewelry brand made their Twitter debut. And on Facebook, the handle is owned by Cathy of North Carolina.

Instead of choosing mismatched handles, Catbird prioritized consistency. (They actually own @catbird on Instagram, but direct visitors to their official account.)


With all handles aligned, Catbird has a social media presence as distinctive as the content they produce.

Keeping these strategies in mind, your brand can do the same.