Psychology of Social Media, Part 3: How to Be More Shareable

“Change” is the theme of social media. Its very own rapid change has and is monumentally changing the way we interact with others and our approach to marketing. Our brains have a similar mode of adaptation. Connections in our brains continually change and re-organize in response to our needs, a scientific evolution called neuroplasticity. As we adapt to this new form of marketing, it’s imperative that we know what drives our audience’s social media behavior. It’s the million dollar question (literally): What makes a post shareable, or even go viral?

In Part 1 of this series, we delved into social media’s addictiveness (and why), and in Part 2 we discussed the 4 basic emotions with which people connect on social media. And this post brings it home by showing what compels us to share. Social media hasn’t changed us into information sharers; social media provides multiple platforms to do what humans have been doing since the beginning: telling stories.


The Psychology of Human and Computer Interaction


The Ultimatum Game

Psychologists use a tool called the ultimatum game to study human interaction. Basically, they give one person an amount of money, say $50, and he/she must decide how to split it with another person. If the second individual accepts the offer, then each receives the agreed upon amount. However if the person rejects the offer, neither of them gets anything.

In a study cited in the 2003 Journal of Science by Dr. Sanfey, they altered the original game by pairing some individuals with a computer, and others with another human being (just as is done in the traditional game). The study found that completely unfair ultimatums made by computers were accepted at a significantly higher rate than the exact same unfair offers made by human partners. Supporting these findings with brain imaging performed during the game lead researchers to conclude that, on some level, we inherently trust computers more than we trust other people (Psychology Today).

shareable social media contentWhy is Social Media Easier than Face-to-Face Contact?

Our brains gather emotional data in every human interaction based on facial expressions, tone of voice, and other subconscious clues. This data informs our assumptions and affects our experience in an interaction. When a person proposes an idea, like an amount in the ultimatum game, we speculate motive. Conversely, we assume that computers have no ulterior motive or hidden agenda. We take a computer’s numbers, schematics and proposition at face value. Our interactions with computers tend to be easier than with other humans, which leads us to trust computers more readily than people.

So although we may be unaware of why it so often feels easier to interact through a computer (particularly when we are feeling tired or drained), the conclusion is clear – a computer does not require cognitive or emotional involvement, making our interaction with it much easier. –Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., Psychology Today

So people choose to interact on social media because it is easier than face-t0-face contact, plus the information presented to them may be better received because of our subconscious willingness to trust. For online marketing, this baseline trust is a great springboard for designing strategies to build the best kind of relationship with your customers.


3 Types of Relationships

In 2010, Ben McAllister and Kate Canales, two leaders in brand strategy and social media, presented at SXSW, where they broke down the 3 basic types of human relationships:

  1. Authority Relationships: Power-driven, like employers/employee and parents/kids.
  2. Exchange Relationships: Relationships of equal give and take, lasting as long as both parties are willing, and usually held together via incentives.
  3. Communal Relationships: The kind of relationship between true friends, without bribes or power. These relationships stand on trust and are “propelled along by deep-rooted goodwill and shared common ground” (Imglance).

Social media marketing as been geared towards exchange relationships for far too long. Research shows that 67% of people who “liked” a page on Facebook only did so to become eligible for offers. Exchange relationships do not build loyalty or create true relationship.

As McAllister and Canale discussed, by forming communal relationships with your target customer base, you can build trust and gain a lifetime of loyalty. Consider a large archery target: aiming for the outside edges of the target is like marketing for an exchange relationship. Shooting for numbers leaves the people on the fringe, easily won-over by the next business that offers an incentive for a Facebook “like.” Aim your social media marketing at people (vs. numbers)–the humanity that runs through each of us–that is the bull’s-eye. (Click to tweet)


The Driving Force Behind Shareable and Viral Postsshareable grumpy cat

Social media, meet the Temporal Parietal Junction (TPJ). This handy little area of the brain is what drives information sharing. Its activation connects us to the thoughts of others and compels us to feel empathy. Researchers at UCLA concluded that what drives us to share, and what ultimately leads to virality, comes from our TPJs going into overdrive. It’s not the raw visual appeal of an idea or an image that causes individuals to share, but rather how the individual perceived others might enjoy the idea or image in front of them.

“We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds. Good ideas turn on the mentalizing system[…] They make us want to tell other people.” –Matthew Lieberman, UCLA

This goes hand-in-hand with pscyhologist Robert Cialdini’s principle of social proof, which maintains that when a person is uncertain about how to behave, he/she will look to others and behave similarly. Whether the behavior is morally good or bad, people are more likely to fall in line with it, or assume the behavior is okay, based on other people behaving that way.

Social media sharing, particularly posts that go viral, seem to be motivated from one or both of these ideas. People share what they believe others will approve of or find helpful or enjoyable, as well as shareable.


The Takeaway

For success with social media, not every company needs a post to become as popular as, say, the Grumpy Cat meme. But you definitely want your brand to become a top-share in your target audience. Stimulating the TPJ in your audience requires discovering what drives, motivates, and moves them. This reason is why some successful advertising campaigns seem to have little to do with the actual product. They play on pop culture, off-the-wall humor, and celebrities to capture the audience’s attention. Tap into what your TA loves to share, and then form your marketing strategy around it. Grumpy cat approves.