What Psychology Teaches About Social Media

social media psychologyBy Thomas Kerr

The world is a massively-complex place. Taking it all in and understanding it is an amazing feat, which is why we humans are so lucky to have the noggins equipped to do so. Psychology — the study of mental processes and behaviors — explains many of the fascinating ways our brain manages to accomplish this. Below, we will explore some of the most interesting (and odd) theories in psychology and how these concepts help us understand marketing on social media.

Social Network Selection: Phrenology & Your Brand’s Personality

The first step to getting started on social media is to identify appropriate channels and establish a tone that is consistent with your brand’s messaging and positioning.

Back in 1796, German physician Franz Gall developed an area of study called “phrenology.” Derived from the Greek word for mind — “phren” — this pseudoscience claimed that behavior of individuals could be linked to the sizes and weights of different parts of their brains. This meant that scientists believed that those with larger heads actually were smarter! Of course, this has long since been discarded as a primitive, obsolete theory, but the principle of dividing the brain into function-based regions still persists today.

Here’s an interesting phrenology chart from 1883 (full size):

 phrenology chart human brain

How does this relate to social media? In Phrenology, different brain shapes “indicated” certain personalities. Similarly, different shapes of businesses indicate certain appropriate social media channels.

Think of brain regions as social channels — which areas of focus are most natural for your business? Based on how your company is shaped, how should you behave and where should you be active? Let’s take a look at a few examples:

 social media chart

Keep in mind that these are basic examples to highlight the strengths of each network, not a list meant to limit which social networks you should use. To formulate the exhaustive list, go through each of the possible networks and ask yourself the following questions as part of your social-media strategy:

  1. Does the tone of this network (casual, professional, etc.) fit with my branding?
  2. Does the preferred style of delivery (visual, etc.) fit my messaging and content-creation abilities?
  3. Is my audience active on this network?

If the answer is “yes” to all three, you’ve found a winner. Each social-media channel is suited for a particular type of content and tone, so researching where your audience is active and what content the people enjoy is critical to finding success on each one.

Getting Attention: The Cocktail Party Effect

You’ve chosen your social media networks, and you understand what tone to use. Now, how do you get the attention of your selected audience?

Imagine that you’re standing in a massive reception hall that is filled with more than 200 people who are all chatting away simultaneously. You approach a friend and begin to hold a conversation about, let’s say, marketing.

How is it that although you’re surrounded by hundreds of conversations, you are able to tune them all out except for the one you are interested in hearing? At any moment, you could stop and eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation, but immediately you would lose your focus on your friend and miss his key point on why inbound is the future of marketing.

This phenomenon is called the so-called Cocktail Party Effect, which is the ability of humans to “zone in” on a select stimulus and filter it from the background.  But here’s where it gets interesting: Say someone nearby mutters your name in a voice no louder than she’d been using before.  All of a sudden, her voice jumps forefront into your focus, despite the fact that you, quite literally, had not heard a word she had said before! This happens because our subconsciouses effectively filter out unneeded information before we even have conscious access to it. At some point, your brain, without your conscious consent, determined that previous information from her conversation was not worthy of passing through the filter (in other words, it wasn’t worthy of your attention.) But your name was.

Let’s flip it around. Now, you’re a marketer in the reception hall — how do you get someone to listen to you? If your target is neither interested in hearing what you have to say nor conditioned to hearing it, you won’t get through. In short, you need to make these connections happen by actively reaching out in a way that is meaningful to the recipient.

Let’s look at some attention-grabbing techniques for different social-media platforms:


  • Find highly-influential users and add them to a list. Use a social-media management application such as Hootsuite to monitor their tweets, and reach out to them if you see an opportunity. Get on their radar through interacting and retweeting, and over time you may see such reciprocation. If you can elicit endorsements via compliments, #FF recommendations (“Follow Friday”), or similar means, you’ll likely see new followers coming from their follower pool.
  • Use hashtags to get in on conversations and spread your reach outside of your personal following. Contribute to trending discussions, and start conversations with involved parties. This will increase your profile’s visibility greatly.
  • Participate in #tweetchats, researching them beforehand to ensure that you understand both the subject matter and tone. You’re almost guaranteed to be seen when participating in a tweetchat, often by the aforementioned influencers, because these chats are great opportunities to “get found.”
  • Promote your social-media profiles on non-social outlets to drive traffic towards your accounts. For example: Add links to your Twitter handle in press releases and e-mail signatures, place a Twitter “follow” button on your official webpage, and so on for all of your relevant social channels.


  • Funnel traffic from other social-media channels to your Facebook page.
  • Aim for maximizing shares and likes, both of which increase visibility among your followers and their friends.
  • Consider using Facebook’s paid-advertising service to gain access to a wider audience.


  • On personal accounts, post industry-relevant articles in your status updates and LinkedIn Groups to generate discussions. Connect with individuals with whom you’ve conversed as a way of growing your network. These are the “connections” who will then see company content when you share it on LinkedIn.
  • Have employees “endorse” each other for expertise in their individual skills to improve the front-line image of your company’s LinkedIn presence.


  • Answer questions that relate to you and your brand’s expertise in a thorough manner. The more time that you spend on answers, the more likely they will be seen as authoritative responses, which will lead to people “upvoting” them and getting you seen by your desired audience.

It’s not about what you want to say, but what your audience wants to hear. Capture their attention by reaching out and finding them where online they naturally reside.

Engagement: What Neural Adaptation Can Teach Us About Attention

You’ve got their ears, now don’t squander the opportunity.

Loud noises get your attention.

But wait — air conditioners, car engines, lawnmowers are all loud, but no one turns their heads to look at them. Why? Well, because it’s simply background noise. Our brains are wired to ignore it.

You’ve probably experienced this yourself. After a while, you can’t smell the perfume you’re wearing. The room seems to get eerily quiet after you switch off the nearby fan. You don’t feel your wristwatch, even though it’s constantly touching your skin.

This process is called Neural Adaptation. Over time, our sensory system will begin to ignore stimuli when it does not contribute any new, valuable information. How else can the human brain hope to deal with the chaotic blitzkrieg of visual, auditory, and other cues?

But this principle is not limited to just the sensory system. Have you ever known someone who couldn’t stop exaggerating the truth, eventually leaving you deaf to their opinions? When was the last time you actually read the terms of service before installing new software, knowing that there were likely few consequences to ignoring it?  What about those companies that have nothing new to say, nothing valuable to offer you — but yet continue to interrupt your life with ads, promotions, and, frankly, spam?

If you want to retain your social-media following, you must avoid being mere background noise.

No one wants a noisy Facebook news feed. No one wants to see useless updates on Twitter. For your fans, it’s a personal space — you must earn your right to exist there. This is because unlike most traditional media, users control the content. You don’t show up unless you get explicit permission from the users themselves through methods such as “liking” your Facebook page.

Here are some high-level concepts for maximizing engagement:

  1. Provide utility. You don’t want followers to think, “Ugh, here’s another useless post by ____.” Eventually, they’ll unsubscribe. Find out what is valuable to your followers, and provide it.
  2. Find an optimal amount of content to share. Don’t post for the sake of posting. Maximize engagement by posting quality content rather than overloading followers’ feeds with excess mediocrity.
  3. Don’t be too promotional. It’s not about directly marketing your business with every share; it’s about finding things that your audience will find entertaining or informative. Respect their time and interests, and they will respect you. As Pamela Vaughan notes at Hubspot, a good rule of thumb is the 80/20 Rule: 80% non-promotional content, 20% promotional.

Remember — there are too many people creating too much content for any one person to experience it all. This is why most content-delivery systems on the Internet use filters to weed out the bad content and allow users to get only what they value. E-mail has its spam filters, search engines their algorithms. Social media is usually the same, only it is the users who directly control whether or not you will be a part of their social-media experiences via their choices to follow/like/subscribe or not.

The dynamic that allows any humble individual to broadcast to millions over the internet with the click of a button is the same dynamic that will unremittingly squash dull or uninteresting content.

It’s not just the content of a share; it’s also how you share it.

Let’s say you want to ask your followers a question. While the right question at just the right time may elicit a healthy discussion, there are steps you can take to improve the chances of this happening. Make your followers feel like their input is not only being read but also being considered by personalizing the copy ever so slightly:

Example 1:

NO What are your opinions on this?

YES We’re curious: what do you think about this?

Example 2:

NO Do you like large or small smartphone screens?

YES We can’t agree at the office so we need your input — what’s better: large or small smartphone screens?

These may seem like subtle changes. However, from the audience’s perspective, a differently-phrased question could make the difference between feeling like a brand is personally requesting an answer rather than just churning out mechanical questions (that often appear rhetorical).

The key to a long-term, sustained social-media presence is not just “scoring” followers but also engaging with them earnestly. By thinking about the kind of content you are sharing and how to phrase it, you can retain your fan base and make them feel not only welcome but also valued.

In summary: Identify appropriate social networks, find and charm your audience, and retain your following through quality engagement. Phrenology may have been debunked, but the psychology of social media is alive and well.

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