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Psychological Principles in Social Media Marketing — Let the Science Work for You

by Tilo Kmieckowiak on June 14, 2017

Back in the days marketing relied heavily on assumptions of the effects it would have on consumers and how they would react to it. However, during the ‘60s and ‘70s now renowned researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky lay ground for behavioral economics that studies human economic decision making. Today, large parts of their empirical studies are being used as a baseline for setting up effective marketing strategies and - of course - can also be applied to social media marketing.

In this article, I will re-introduce central phenomena that can help you enhance your social media activities. Besides, there are many scientists out there who examine consumer behavior and psychology at universities around the world, often finding very valuable insights. These papers get published in scientific journals which are mostly consumed among a rather small circle of people and are sometimes hard to read. It is thus easy to miss out on it. This is why I also want to present the latest research in consumer behavior and psychology to you, so you can take these insights into account when thinking about your own social media marketing approach. If you want to jump straight to these insights, click HERE!

Psychological effects analyzed for marketing application

In the following blog, I will explain eight important research results that can be very helpful for optimizing your own social media communication.

Repetition can make people love you
How can you get people to love your brand? One first step might be simpler than you first thought. Social psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s showing that each new stimulus causes a cautious reaction in individuals at first. If repeated, however, this repetition to the same stimulus changes the attitude towards it. So when your product is presented to a potential client for the first time, he or she might react cautious. If it is repeatedly presented though, the mere exposure of your product can change the attitude in a positive way as the prospect gets more familiar with it, resulting in the person perceiving it in a more positive way. This phenomenon is called Mere Exposure Effect.

Takeaway: The more often a potential client gets exposed to your brand, the likelier it is that he or she will get a positive attitude towards your product. Awareness campaigns that mainly get your brand’s name out there can thus already be a powerful tool in social media and especially for ads.

It’s everywhere!
Do you know that feeling that occurs when you just heard about something new that you haven’t been aware of before and then all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere? This is actually caused by the effect that your brain gets into a state of heightened attention when it just learned something new. Instead of just passing by a car you never knew about, all of a sudden you would notice it everywhere after you have heard of it. This effect is called the Frequency Illusion. Primacy and recency effects are similar. They basically describe that people tend to best remember things they have seen first and last than what they see in the middle.

Take away: If you want to make the best of this effect, make sure that people who have seen your brand or product for the first time, see it again soon. In their heightened state of attention for your brand they will probably be much more likely notice it and keep it in mind. In combination with the Mere Exposure Effect this can be powerful and shows that it is wise to use a healthy amount of repetition. Primacy and recency effects can be very important in videos, where you should put the important parts rather in the beginning and end than in the middle.

The same thing can seem so different
Words can be much more powerful that one might think. An experiment conducted by well-known psychologist Daniel Kahneman once proved that people tend to react very differently to one and the same problem that is posed to one group in one way and another group in another. The context was that 600 people would be infected by a fatal disease and there are two treatment options to choose from. Participants in Group A were told that there either is a remedy that will save 200 people or a remedy where there is a one-third probability of saving all 600 lives, and a two-thirds probability of saving no one. In this case, most participants chose to save 200 lives for sure. In Group B participants could either choose a treatment where 400 people will die or where there is a one-third probability that no one will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. In this case, participants mainly chose the latter option, as the first one emphasized the people dying. However, when taking a closer look, it becomes obvious that in both groups the same problem was posed, yet taking another perspective or putting another frame on it. This effect is thus called Framing Effect, as the activation of different frames for the same concept can trigger very different reactions in people.

Takeaway: The words that you use to describe your brand or product can dramatically change the perception by the customers. This is why it is always important to carefully pay attention to the tonality and double-checking if there would not be a wording that is more positive.

Who is handsome must also be smart, right?
Imagine it would be so easy to convince a person that you are great by all means! Actually, there is research by American psychologist Edward Thorndike that has shown that if an individual attributes one positive trait to you, it will also influence the perception of your whole personality. So if X is perceived as good, Y and Z will also be perceived as being good. This is called Halo Effect, as one trait is kind of shining onto the others, positively influencing the perception of the others.

Takeaway: If you are able to establish one positive feature of your product like reliability, potential clients are likely to also think that your product is easy to use, well designed etc. Accordingly, it can make sense to focus on one great feature of your product when communicating it in social media.

The world is a constant exchange
We all like free samples, but did you know that they are actually quite powerful? An experiment conducted in 1971 by Dennis Regan tested whether participants who had received a favor from another person would be more likely to help this person than if they had not received a favor. So when you give somebody something, this person is more inclined to give you something in return. This is called reciprocity and we already learn it when we are kids as parents tend to teach: “If somebody gives you something, you need to give something in return”. Another interesting phenomenon is the Foot In The Door Effect. If you are able to get someone to agree to a smaller commitment (e.g. subscribing to your channel), it will also be more likely to get that person to comply with a bigger request like sharing a video.

Takeaway: Give something useful to people, like a helpful guide or white paper, and they will be more likely to buy your actual product at some point as their minds tell them to give something in return.

People like choice, but not too many options
If somebody would ask you in a buying decision: “Would you rather be able to choose by yourself or let any other person choose for you?” You’d probably choose the first, as there is the notion - especially in freedom oriented western societies - that more choice is better than less. But is it really so? Barry Schwartz picked up this question in his 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice”. There he explains why more choice - a choice overload - is not always the better option and that overwhelming choice makes people dissatisfied.

Takeaway: Less can often be more. When giving choice to your customers, don’t choose too many options, as it will make it hard to decide for your potential clients.

Why losing hurts so much
If you hear a story of a guy who just found 10 dollars on the street and then directly lost it while gambling, you might think “Well, he was lucky finding it and then it was gone, so he did not have an actual loss”. However, more research by psychologists Kahneman and Tversky has shown that people display a much higher pain for losses than they show joy for a gain. Accordingly, people are strongly loss averse. Their Prospect Theory tells us that people tend to think in subjective utility, meaning that they attribute their individually perceived value to a good. The felt losses derive from that. If you think about the happy photo of your high school graduation, it’s objective value would be rather low, but the subjective value you attach to it is very high.

Takeaway: Try your best to avoid anything that could imply a possible loss to your future clients, for example by offering free trials without automatic subscription or worry free money-back guarantees. Also, you probably do this already, but always try the best to show the great value of your product or brand that goes way beyond its monetary cost.

Lower prices increase the chance of buying…?
Wrong! At least in some certain cases. Imagine you are selling a smartwatch. If you have two versions on your website, a standard model for 399$ and a pro model for 499$, people will be more inclined to buy the cheaper one, because the pro model seems kind of expensive. However, research by american-israeli psychologist Dan Ariely has shown that if one would present three options, the first two being the same but adding another model for 599$, most people would choose the 499$ version. A higher price seems now more attractive, as there is one product version that is even more expensive. In such a set up, the highest price would act as a decoy, shedding better light another high price. This effect is called the Decoy Effect.

Takeaway: When posing a buying decision, add a decoy option that makes the product you actually want to sell seem to much cheaper. This will increase the likelihood that people will buy that product.

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Two brand new studies that can help optimize your social media marketing

The world of science never seems to sleep, so there is a constant influx of new and exciting insights from latest empirical studies. In this article, I will present two interesting papers to get you closer to latest insights in consumer behavior and psychology. Having these results in mind, you will have a good resource for improving your social media marketing strategy based on evidence.

How effective is sponsored content by brands or influencers?
Social media advertising is a huge success - at least for Facebook, as they have soaring ad revenues. But how effective can it be for brands and other organizations? Sophie Boermana, Lotte Willemsen and Eva Van Der Aaa of the University of Amsterdam and the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht conducted research on the perception of sponsored content, focusing on the effects of a “sponsored disclosure” within the post of either a brand or a celebrity, as working with influencers has become a huge part of social media marketing. There is the assumption that users tend to perceive celebrity endorsements as more trustworthy than brand messages. It offers the opportunity to reach a targeted audience in a less obtrusive way than traditional media.

psychology in social media marketing

To gain insights, the researchers probed three aspects. First, they tried to find out if a disclosure triggers the use of “persuasion knowledge” in users. This means if they actively think “Oh, this is an ad and I know it uses persuasive techniques in order to make me interested in a product”. Second, they examined differences between sponsored posts by brands or by influencers (celebrities). Third, they tried to unravel the process through which the sponsored disclosures are likely to affect the consumers’ response to ads. They found that these disclosures in ads by brands don’t lower trust in them as when users see a brand post, they already know that it is commercial. Accordingly, they don’t seem to perceive sponsored brand content on Facebook as deceptive. However, for influencers, the disclosure makes a difference and makes people more suspicious if they detect that a post is sponsored. People are then as aware as with ads by brands that this is actually commercial. The created distrust by realising that an endorsement might not be genuine can lower the intention of the users to engage in word of mouth. However, 56% of the participants didn’t even notice such a disclosure and it thus made no difference.

Takeaway: Cooperations with influencers can be very valuable, however, working with them in an ad marked as sponsored significantly lowers trust and thus the willingness to interact and share. Accordingly, pay close attention on how you present a celebrity endorsement of your product in order to do it effectively. At the same time, users seem to always perceive brand messages as commercial, so the display of a sponsored disclosure does not make it less effective.

How perceived interaction can foster brand loyalty and get you leads
I recently watched an Australian TV series called Please Like Me that is basically about the daily struggles of twenty-somethings in getting used to being adults. The characters were so easy to relate to that after some episodes I kind of felt like I know them personally. In psychology, this phenomenon is called parasocial interaction and describes the feeling of being engaged in a direct two-way conversation, having the impression that a mediated other is talking directly to oneself. This has also confirmed for brands or celebrities in an online environment. So for example, concerning people who present their personal lives on Instagram, it is very easy for their followers to have a feeling of belonging to them and being friends with them. Lauren Labrecque, a researcher at Loyola University Chicago, had a closer look at this phenomenon from a strong social media perspective.

psychology in social media marketing

For fostering relationships in social media between users and a brand or influencer, interactivity plays an important role. However, there does not have to be “real” interactivity. A style of communicating that evokes the perception of interactivity can be enough. In one study, the researcher of this phenomenon was able to show that brands can create a sense of a reciprocal relationship with the brand through message cues that signal interactivity, as well as openness in communication. This sense of feeling connected with the brand drives increased feelings of loyalty and willingness to provide information to the brand. A second study intensifies these findings. Lastly, it was examined if automation could have a negative effect on establishing a feeling of a connection with a brand or celebrity and they found out that it can have a negative effect if noticed.

Takeaways: Through carefully designed messages marketers can create a sense of familiarity and belonging to a brand. It can be fostered through subjective camera angles (the camera serves as the eyes of the audience), eye contact and directly addressing the viewers. Openness through the communication of personal stories can also have a positive effect, so try to give a “backstage view” every now and then, as these can lead to an increased brand loyalty and willingness to provide information by the prospects. Automation can be helpful in communicating with many users, but use it with caution, as when it is noticed it can have a negative effect. So as much real one-on-one communication as possible should be your ideal goal.

Let the evidence do the work

There is much advice out there on how to create great social media content. However, lots of it relies on guessing - mostly educated guessing often fostered by valuable experience, but still guessing. At the same time, there exists a plethora of empirical studies that show hard evidence for solving many social media marketing puzzles. Nevertheless, these research results always have to be used with caution as they are usually based on lab experiments. There, everything happens in a very controlled environment and many possible influences that exist in the real world get filtered out - researchers would call this noise. You should remember that during application and use a cautious trial and error approach while basing your trials on science. Keep that in mind while you try to apply these findings when you think about your strategy or specific content and it might help you to optimize your performance.

If you found this article helpful, let me know. I’m looking forward to your feedback or any questions you might have! You can also send us a Tweet or message us on Facebook!

Recommended Readings

Russell W. Belk: Extended Self in A Digital World

"Apply Magic Sauce" - Prediction of psychological traits from digital footprints of human behavior

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