Psychology of Social Media, Part 1: The Phenomenon

At its core, social media isn’t as much about technology as it is about people and what makes their minds work. The psychological connection between social media and marketing is critical–perhaps more than ever previously thought. 

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and you’re settling in for some hot Earl Gray tea and much-needed social media downtime. First, you open Facebook for friend updates, then you head on over to Instagram for visual inspiration, and you end on Pinterest, where your eyes eagerly devour the newest trends and enough delicious recipe ideas to last you for months. It’s relaxing, inspiring, and visually stimulating. But is that all?

With each trip down social media lane, you take away something more than eye candy: behind each interchange is a story of why and how. We don’t merely post fashion trends, and recipes, and photos of strangers–we post connections.

It’s easy to forget that when we use social media for business. We often ask what content we should show our clients and we forget to ask why. Let’s take a journey into the psychology of social media. The importance of finding out what governs our audience — and why — has limitless value to the vision and prosperity of our businesses.


The Who, What, When, Where and Why:
Social Media Psychology and Business Marketing


1. Why is social media so addictive?

As the magazine Psychology Today reminds us, humanity was a race of hunters and gatherers until around 10,000 years ago. So humans spent 99% of their million years on earth doing just that – hunting and gathering (Gray, Psychology Today). It stands to reason that our basic instincts are still shaped from this way of life. Though the times of foraging are long past, our impulse to act on these intrinsic needs is very much intact. As simplistic as it may seem, having platforms at our fingertips like Facebook and Pinterest activates sub-conscious impulses which result in an emotional buzz-like satisfaction. Searching and finding on social media is like finding a deer and bringing it home.

Takeaway: Each of us instinctively wants to hunt, gather and track… something. So give customers something to discover.

2. Why are we tethered to our devices?

I don’t think any of us would deny that our culture is obsessed with getting instant results. (A line at the bank? *eye roll*!) Social media is the perfect answer to our “now now now” society. It allows us to skip waiting by getting everything we want at the click (or swipe) of a device. This is perhaps the reason we jump at every ping, ding, jingle and whistle our devices make.

So, we are given constant but unpredictable stimulation, and that fulfills one of our needs. But more than that – what urges us to instantly check our devices the moment we hear a techno chirp is the allure of knowing who wants to interact with us.  Our devices keep our minds constantly stimulated while simultaneously gratifying us with the ability to be heard and feel needed.

For business to initiate stronger connections with a target audience (TA), follow these guidelines:

Respond to comments, tweets, and any connections people make on your business social media platforms.
Jump into conversations where you can add value — just don’t get spammy!
Stimulate your consumer base through your own content.
Pay attention to your TA’s content and use that as a connection base.

Takeaway: At our core, everyone desires connection and contribution. Remember, we all love attention!


3. Why is social media so appealing?

We are emotional beings whose state of mind is typically first demonstrated through facial expressions, followed by verbal expression. Emotional expression has a new outlet, though, and its name is social media. Dr. Paul Ekman, a leading figure in social psychology, suggests that there are 6 basic universal emotions regardless of language or culture. This theory has recently been whittled down to 4 basic emotions, and research is finding that social media taps into each of them (

For years, social media has been a premier way to touch, tap into, and share moods across a broad range of topics. It might surprise you to discover how interconnected emotional outlets of social expression and business marketing really are. Here’s what researchers found: through data analysis of the IPA dataBank, case studies from 1,400 successful advertising campaigns revealed that campaigns with an emotional content performed almost twice as well. So let’s get emotional!


4. Why are we drawn to some things more than others?

Emotion is even more contagious than content! And positive emotion goes viral. Psychology Today found that negative posts on social media resulted in only 1.29 re-shares, but positive posts gained an average of 3.75. It’s not only a positive message, but a positive emotional connection that is important. For example, a smiley face is happy, but lacks the emotional trigger of a video of a baby giggling hysterically.

Takeaway: Keeping messages positive should give you greater impact and expand your viewing audience.


So what does it all mean?

The psychological knowledge behind social media informs our online marketing approach by providing insight into what motivates every like, share or retweet. So return back to your lazy Sunday and recreational social media scanning, and consider that behind the faces, the filtered photos, and the eye candy, is a narrative. Notice why you like or share one image or idea over another. It’s evident that each of us are sharing much more than a video or an image; we’re sharing the emotional connection that valuable content creates.


Next week in “Psychology behind the Social Media Phenomenon – Part 2,” we look at the four basic emotions, and we’ll discover which is the most powerful in driving social media content.

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