Understanding your audience is the key to success on social media. And the best way to do that is to understand some basic principles of psychology.

At Hootsuite, we’ve long known the importance of social media psychology to making content spread far and wide. In this article, we’ll break down some key concepts so you can put them to work in your own social media strategy. Read on to find out:

  • Why people share the social media content that they do
  • How to build trust with your audience
  • How visuals boost engagement
  • Why color affects audience behavior
  • How to use emotion when creating a successful social strategy
  • How personal experience sells a product for you
  • Why reciprocity is great at developing brand trust
  • How to use the power of FOMO (responsibly)

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the psychology facts that social media managers need to know.

Bonus: Download a free guide that reveals how to increase social media engagement with better audience research, sharper customer targeting, and Hootsuite’s easy-to-use social media software.

8 social media psychology lessons marketers need to know

1. People share content to relate to other people

Have you ever thought about why you share what you do on social?

The New York Times conducted an extensive study and found five key reasons why people share content online:

  • To improve the lives of others. Almost all participants (94%) said they share because they feel the content will improve the lives of their audience. As a marketer, it’s important to create helpful content that will make your audience (and their audience’s) lives better in some way.
  • To define themselves. Two in three participants (68%) reported sharing content in order to create an “idealized online persona” of themselves. When you create content, consider whether it will be something that fits with your audience’s interests—and whether they will be proud to share it.
  • To grow and nourish relationships. Four out of five participants said they share content as a means of staying connected with others. Consider ways your content can be used to foster connections between others. Ask your audience to tag other users in the comments or encourage sharing with a compelling CTA (e.g., “Share this recipe video with the best cook you know for a chance to win this new cook set!”)
  • Self-fulfillment. Everyone likes getting positive feedback and feeling valuable. The same study found that “consumers enjoy content more when they share it, and that they enjoy content more when it is shared with them.” Create informative content to help your audience achieve this feeling on the regular.
  • To get the word out about causes they believe in. Four out of five (84%) participants said they “share information as a way to support causes or brands they care about.” Think about which causes your brand cares about and create content that supports them.

These five key motivations clearly show that your audience’s main reasons for sharing are their relationships with other people—not your brand. Keep this in mind when you share articles, videos, and photos on your social channel.

2. People trust their peers

You wouldn’t buy anything from someone you didn’t trust and your audience is no different.

Ogilvy PR CEO Chris Graves hosted a webinar in which he discussed the ways marketers can earn the trust of their customers.

Oxytocin, dubbed “The Trust Hormone” by economist Paul Zak, is a feel-good chemical released from the brain when someone feels accepted and a part of something.

“People are more likely to change their mind or behaviors when the result will make them feel better about themselves, and oftentimes that means being part of a larger group,” Graves explains.

He describes an experiment conducted by a power company who found that customers who were shown their neighbors’ consumption habits wanted to mirror those (whether they were previously using more or less energy).

As Graves explains, “This is an example of Social Proof, the practice of not pointing out bad behavior, but showing consumers that their tribe is already doing the desired behavior.”

User-generated content (UGC) and positive customer reviews are a great way to show your audience that others are already happy customers of your brand.

In another study, visual content platform Olapic found that “76 percent of consumers believe the content that average people share is more honest than advertising from brands.”

Discover user-generated content ideas with our whitepaper Make the Most of User-Generated Content With Social Campaigning.

3. The majority of people are visual learners

When it comes to the most effective way for your audience to engage with, remember, and learn about your content, a visual aid is key.

One of the most used classifications of learning styles is the VAK model. It separates learning styles into Visual Learners, Auditory Learners, and Kinesthetic Learners.

A study from the Current Health Sciences Journal points to the widely shared stat that 65% percent of the general population are visual learners. What this study aimed to do was see if that remained the same amongst actual students.

Spoiler alert: yep.

A visual component—whether video, photo, illustration—helps sway and educate folks who stumble across your post. They’re also effective when trying to appeal to people who are actively looking for, studying, and comparing products.

It may seem obvious, but there’s scientific reasoning behind why employing strong visual elements to your social strategy will go a long way to successfully promoting your product.

Bonus: Download a free guide that reveals how to increase social media engagement with better audience research, sharper customer targeting, and Hootsuite’s easy-to-use social media software.

Get the free guide right now!

4. Color is key when establishing your brand

Consider this: according to the study Impact of Color on Marketing, “People make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with either people or products. About 62 to 90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone.”

That’s big.

But it isn’t so much about the color itself as it is about whether the color suits your brand and product. As this study found, it’s important to use colors that express your brand’s personality, rather than trying to take advantage of stereotypical color associations.

When making strategic color decisions for your social media content, consider how they’ll fit with your brand voice. What message do you want to send, and what colors can help you send that message? While there are common associations with certain colors (such as green for ‘go,’ yellow meaning ‘happy,’ etc.) context is key.

For more information on the power of color in your marketing strategy, check out this handy Color Psychology guide.

5. Positive content gets shared more often

According to Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, evoking certain emotions can help increase the chance of a message being shared.

Their study explains, “The sharing of stories or information may be driven in part by arousal. When people are physiologically aroused, whether due to emotional stimuli or otherwise, the autonomic nervous is activated, which then boosts social transmission.”

While all emotion-inducing content was found to have a bigger impact on the audience, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that the more positive the content, the more it was shared. Using (appropriate) humor helps. But what wields some surprising emotional power? emojis.

Human beings experience emotional contagion—the practice of mimicking expressions in face-to-face conversations—as a way of building connectedness. Scientists with the journal of Social Neuroscience found that the same parts of the brain are activated and the experience is replicated online with the use of emoji.

The study Emoticons and Phrases: Status Symbols in Social Media backs this up. After studying emoji use on Twitter, researchers found “individuals who use emoticons often (and positive emoticons in particular) tend to be popular or influential.”

The bottom line? Don’t be shy about using emojis in your social media content. And err on the side of positivity.

6. A customer’s personal experience helps assign greater value to your product

This is otherwise known as the Endowment Effect. It’s a cognitive bias that points to people assigning a greater value to something if they have some type of ownership over it.

A study from the Journal of Political Economy tested this idea with a variety of goods, most notably, coffee mugs.

Two groups of people were given mugs and asked to assess their value. One group had been able to personally keep the mug for an extended period of time, while the other was asked to name a price after initially receiving it.

The group that had “owned” the mugs gave them a significantly higher value than the group that hadn’t. The mugs now had experiential and even symbolic value. Another study done with baseball cards found the same thing.

As a social marketer, you can apply the Endowment Effect in a couple of ways you can create authentic content that shows someone using and finding value in your product, establishing that same value for someone else. You can also give away a free trial, creating that experiential value directly.

Speaking of giving things away…

7. If you scratch their back, your customers will scratch yours

Not, you know, literally.

We’re talking about reciprocity. The idea that when someone does something nice for you, your instinct is generally to do something nice for them.

When it comes to your brand, this could mean anything from a product giveaway, some type of free content, or even something like a resource hub that your audience can regularly return to.

These freebees help you build trust with the audience. They also encourage people to do something for you in return. That might be purchasing your product, signing up for your newsletter, following you on social, or just sharing your message with their network.

8. People don’t want to miss out

FOMO (the fear of missing out) is a new phenomenon directly related to the rise of social media.

Exploiting someone’s anxiety about not being included in something is a bit morally dubious, as the effects of FOMO are real and aren’t overly positive.

But if you use this principle sparingly and humanely—say like, “this offer expires at midnight—act now!” or “follow us on Instagram for the best videos of dogs driving boats that you won’t find anywhere else”—it’s more effective than it is exploitative.

Overall, an obvious but important thing to consider when employing these principles of psychology as a social media marketer is it’s all mild manipulation on some level. So make sure you’re using these tactics with your audience’s best interest in mind.

Plus, if you’re transparent with your intent and aren’t being predatory, tapping into your audience’s psychology can strengthen trust in your brand. You’ll engage your current followers more effectively and maybe even attract new ones.

You don’t have to be Freud to understand your audience on social media. Hootsuite Analytics can give you tangible insights into your followers’ social media habits, including the content they love and the times they are most likely to interact with it. 

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