Social media is a seemingly unstoppable force. Facebook has exceeded 2 billion monthly active users. Seventy-five percent of people in the world who have an internet connection are active social media users. And by active, I mean that the average person nowadays will spend more than five years of his or her life socializing online. The social revolution is taking over our lives!
From a neuroscience point of view, the proliferation of social networks is no surprise at all. Our brains are designed for social contact. As social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman describes, social cognition is our brain’s default operating system. When we think our brain is at rest, it’s actually thinking about other people. We’re literally wired to connect with one another. Now with smartphones, we’ve removed the wires, added bells and whistles, and made the connection compulsion even more compelling.
What does this mean for marketers? Connecting with consumers in a way our brains are designed is a powerful proposition. Insights from behavioral science can help us grow beyond counting likes (which don’t necessarily mean much) toward building true engagement.
Here’s what marketers need to know:
1. Showcase what others do.
Social proof is one of the most powerful behavioral motivators in the land. Social scientists have found hundreds of ways to nudge positive behavior change by reframing messages from “you should” to “others do.” People like you pay their taxes on time! They use less energy! They save more money! You really should, too. Social proof is hugely compelling. And what are Facebook and its peer platforms if not giant social proof machines of likes, hearts, and follows?
One of the most interesting nuances of social proof is that similarity tends to enhance the effect. Subjects prompted to follow a social norm of reusing their hotel towels are even more likely to do so when they’re told that guests who stayed in the same room reused their towels. Likewise, on social media, when I see not only that 10 million anonymous people liked something, but that 35 of my own friends liked it too, I trust the message all the more.
Another factor is that when it comes to social proof, the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” readily applies. Research suggests that we’re more influenced by what others like or prefer than by what they have or do. Consider how you’re using social proof not only on social platforms, but also on your website, advertising, and other messaging with a mantra of “Others like you like us!”
2. Embrace the visual medium… carefully.
We share, on average, 95 million photos and videos every day on Instagram alone, and those posts harvest 4.2 billion likes daily. Apparently, we really like to share and consume photos.
New psychological research finds that taking photos tends to enhance our engagement of an experience, as well as our memory of the event — even for details not captured in the photos. Importantly, though, taking photos with an intent to share them (versus to capture memories for oneself) actually decreases our enjoyment of the experience. This is due to the anxiety of self-presentation. Who among us hasn’t taken 1,000 angles to capture the perfect effortless selfie in a natural landscape? It’s stressful!
Prompting your audience to take new photos of themselves specifically to share with your social community could backfire. Instead, how about a nostalgia campaign calling for fans’ favorite throwbacks? Snapchat might be another smart angle, as the researchers noted that reminding subjects they could delete their photos eliminated the effect. Perhaps knowing that the photo will disappear will keep consumers engaged in the moment, even while snapping for shares.
3. Give the gift of sharing.
According to an fMRI brain scan study, when we consider the share-worthiness of content, we think both of ourselves (How does this make me look?) and of others (Will my friends find this interesting?).
Other behavioral research suggests that it might be the former consideration that tends to win out. A Rutgers University study found that people spend about 80 percent of their online conversations speaking about themselves. In real-life conversations, that figure is much lower — around 60 percent. The online space provides people with a license to talk about themselves, and the temptation to humblebrag is fierce.
In another study, participants were asked to share details of an imaginary day with a group of friends in the form of a written note. When the participants were told that they were addressing a large group, most of them exaggerated their stories to enhance their image.
Your best bet is to generate a marketplace of social currency for consumers to share with one another, as Kraft did by encouraging fans to share recipes. Having relevant content to share with our friends satisfies both the “self” and the “other” considerations — making us look cool and giving others something useful. Hosting the exchange puts your brand in a position to delight the most people.
For marketers looking to engage the individual, it helps to call on the squad. Science says so!