the mind

Just about every great marketer I’ve met had at least a bit of interest in psychology.

It’s important to be curious about the ways people think because that’s the only way you can make whatever you’re marketing to someone desirable.

You can apply lessons from psychology to every part of your marketing work.

But we can’t look at it all at once.

Instead, I’d like to focus on how understanding psychological principles of human behavior can benefit you in one area: social media marketing.

In this post, I’m going to teach you 7 different psychological principles and then show you how you can use them in your social media marketing.

However, since social media and content marketing are so intertwined, aspects of some of these principles will spill over to platforms other than social media too.

That being said, let’s start with the first principle. 

1. Children always ask this one question, but adults think it too…

If a kid asks a question, they’re almost never satisfied with a shallow answer.

Consequently, the most asked question by the vast majority of children is:

“Why?”

Why do things work the way they do?

People are naturally dissatisfied with answers if they don’t understand them.

Think of the last time you watched a political debate. How frustrating is it when most candidates don’t give a straight answer to a question?

After they dance around yet another answer, all you want to do is scream at the screen “WHY?”

Eventually, though, most people realize that there are some questions that you just won’t get a satisfying answer to. This is the point where adults give up on asking “why?” even if it leaves them a bit frustrated.

But all is not lost!

That’s because you can provide answers…at least when it comes to your audience on social media.

Answering questions your readers have in full clear detail is one of the best ways to get loyal followers on social media.

Here’s an example:

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Stone Temple Consulting knows that many members of their audience wonder why SEO has to be so complex (it certainly seems that way to beginners).

So, they used that opportunity to explain why, using the question as the headline for the social media post.

Imagine it from one of their followers’ point of view.

  • They had a question about why something (SEO) is the way it is
  • They clicked the social media post to find the answer
  • They found a good answer and felt satisfied

That last part is really important because it reinforces the behavior. Over time, they learn that good things happen when they interact with posts from this particular company.

And there’s no reason why it can’t be your business instead.

All it takes is two simple steps, and I’ll show you how to do them.

Step #1 – Find questions your readers want answers to: Remember that your goal is to answer questions that most of your followers have. That’s how you get them to take action (like click through to your website) and give them a good experience.

There are many places where you can find these questions: on social media, forums, groups, etc.

But I strongly recommend starting with question and answer sites because they are obviously filled with questions. You don’t need to waste time filtering out other content.

The big question and answer sites are Yahoo Answers and Quora.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Quora, and I even post answers there myself. I think the quality of the site is much higher than that of Yahoo Answers’.

The simplest way to find a long list of questions you can answer is to just type in your niche in the search bar.

What you’re looking for is some sort of “Topic: (your niche),” which is basically a category that collects all questions related to your niche.

As you can see below, it should come up as one of the main search suggestions in most cases:

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Click the topic, and Quora will load a feed for you, which will have thousands of questions in it (for most topics). Just keep scrolling when you reach the bottom, and it will load more.

These questions are not organized by date, but rather by relevance and interest.

You can see the number of “upvotes” on each question, which is a good measure of the number of people in the community who are interested in the answer.

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You literally have hundreds of great questions at your fingertips. You could answer one a day if you wanted to.

Step #2 – Find the best way to answer them: Now that you have the questions, it’s time to provide answers.

But remember, you’re providing your own answers on social media (or your website), not on Quora.

Your audience on social media is completely separate from the Quora audience, which means that most of your audience still needs an answer to these questions.

This also means that you can read through the answers on Quora if you need help or guidance to answer the question. However, you should, of course, answer the question in your own words and share your own experiences when possible.

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After you have an answer, there are 3 things you need to decide on.

First, how long does the answer need to be? If it’s really short, you might be able to answer it all in your social media post (depending on the platform).

If it’s on the long side, a blog post is going to be a better choice, and you can just link to the full answer in your social media post.

Second, you need to decide what format is best for the answer.

Some questions are best answered as regular blog posts, while others are better answered as infographics or videos.

My general rule is that if your audience needs to see the answer in action (like how to assemble a shelf), videos are the best.

If they need to see many parts of the answer at the same time (like the steps to baking a cake), an infographic is the best.

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Often, there might be more than one type of content that makes sense. Feel free to make more than one to give your audience more choice.

Finally, the third thing you need to decide is how you will actually present the question and answer on social media.

I suggest keeping this as simple as possible.

Copy the question just as you found it on Quora in the words that your audience used.

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Then, if you have the space, provide a little teaser that describes your answer and adds a bit of curiosity.

2. Use the endowment effect to get raving fans

Would you trade your current car for one that’s worth a few thousand more?

Even though that’s a great trade from a financial point of view, most people wouldn’t.

And it’s because of the endowment effect. We get attached to the things we own and subsequently put more value on them.

There’s a great study that clarifies this effect. Here’s what the researchers did:

They gave some study participants a mug. Then, they asked those subjects if they would be willing to trade their original item for an equally valued pen or sell it to one of the other participants.

And the results were fascinating.

If the endowment effect didn’t exist, the people who were originally given the mug would have said that they would sell it for roughly the same amount that people were willing to pay for it.

However, none of the subjects given a mug traded it for the pen even though it was worth the same amount.

In addition, when they named the price that they’d be willing to sell it for, it was twice as high as what the other subjects were willing to pay for it.

In practical terms, the subjects of the experiment got attached to the mug once they owned it.

And you can use the endowment effect in many areas of your business, including social media.

Applying the endowment effect to your business: The most obvious place to use the endowment effect in your business is to give your customers a sample before asking them to buy. You see this all the time in stores.

For example, Buffer has a full 30-day free trial, and not even a credit card is required:

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As those new signups become invested in the platform, they’ll put a high value on having their own account.

When the 30 days are up, most of them will value the account high enough that the $10, or whatever Buffer is asking for, will seem minuscule.

However, if they were asked for the money upfront, most people would hesitate when considering the cost.

This is probably the hardest principle to apply directly to social media.

The best way to implement it, from what I’ve seen, is to link to content, but not the full version of it.

For example, Bryan Dean posted a link to his skyscraper technique case study on Facebook:

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The post contains a ton of value, and readers get attached to having the technique in their arsenal.

However, even after reading the case study, some readers could use a bit more help, like a checklist of the steps. Bryan offers this as a content upgrade:

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Readers need to give their email addresses in order to get access to the checklist.

Since they already know that the first part of the content was great, they’ll want the last part as well and will be more than happy to put in their email addresses.

3. A simple principle behind most engagement: reciprocity

Society only functions because we all adhere to some basic rules.

One of these rules, or “norms,” is the rule of reciprocity.

This was one of the 6 factors of influence that Cialdini found in his decades of research.

I can say with certainty that you’ve been enacting this norm many times in your life. It is seen in all cultures, regardless of the language, location, religion, etc.

Here is what the norm entails:

When someone is given something by someone else, they will try to return the favor.

Typically, the favor will be about the same size as the initial gift. If you lend someone money for ice cream, they will be inclined to lend you money for something like a drink later on.

Conversely, if you fly across the country to help someone in a time of crisis, they will basically do anything for you if you ask them.

This principle has been studied many times and proven to be true.

Back in 2002, researchers studied whether waiters could make more money through tips if they took advantage of this principle.

So, the waiters in one experimental group were told to give their diners an after-dinner mint. Tips went up 3%.

Not bad.

Then, another group was told to pause before giving them the mints, look at the customer, and tell them the mint was specifically for them. Tips went up 20%.

Woah. What just happened?

There are a few things to note. First, you don’t have to ask for a favor in return. The diners, in all cases, tipped extra without being asked.

The second thing is that it was important to make sure that the diners knew that the waiter was doing something nice for them. If they thought after-dinner mints were standard and expected, there isn’t much for them to have to give back for.

So, when you do something nice for someone, make sure they know that you put some thought and effort into it.

Think of your blog posts. You put tons of effort into them just to give them away, and then people spend 10 seconds skimming through one and moving on to the next one. I spend 5-10 hours on each post, and I still get people complaining about the content I’m giving away.

It’s nuts! Of course, only some readers don’t understand the effort that goes into creating content, but that’s why it’s important to try to make them aware of it.

Once they are aware of it, the reciprocity principle kicks into effect, and they return the favor by giving you more of their attention.

How to put the reciprocity principle to good use: Like most of these principles, you can use reciprocity in many areas of your business.

The main way you can use this principle on social media is to help you connect with influencers. You can share their posts on social media and also let them know that you’ve mentioned them in one of your own posts:

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When you feature someone in a post, you do them a favor.

Following the reciprocity principle, this means they are more likely to do something for you in return.

The important thing to keep in mind is that a share or a mention is worth different amounts to different people.

If someone mentions me in an article they wrote, it’s nice (and flattering), but it’s unlikely to have any significant impact on my business.

For the medium sized blogger who gets fewer than 50 shares on all their posts, it’s a much bigger deal.

What this means for you is that you’ll need to share several posts by a popular influencer to build up any significant good will. Then, they will likely repay that by either sharing something you created or taking the time to open and read an email you send them.

Of course, you also need to create your own great content, or there’s no way they can return the favor.

4. Ask for a favor to capitalize on the Ben Franklin effect

What if I gave you some money?

Then, what if I asked you to give it back?

It’s normal to assume that you’d be pretty neutral about me and the whole thing. But in fact, that’s not true.

To study this effect, researchers Jim Jecker and David Landy split subjects into three different groups. They gave everyone some money upfront. But then they asked the people in each group different things:

  1. In the first group, they asked the subjects if they’d give the money back to the scientist who initially gave it to them
  2. In the second group, they asked the subjects if they’d give it back (not to the scientist in particular)
  3. In the third group, they didn’t ask for it back.

Then, the researchers gave participants a quick questionnaire to fill out. The most important part of this questionnaire was the part where they were asked to score how much they liked the scientist (who gave them the money).

Surprisingly, the group who got to keep the money gave the scientist the lowest likability score. The guy gives them free money, and they still don’t like him!

Conversely, the group that was asked to give the money back to the scientist (most of them did), gave the scientist the highest likability score.

Introducing the Ben Franklin effect.

The Ben Franklin effect explains how people justify their actions.

In the case of this experiment, the people who simply received the money rationalized that they deserved it.

The group that actually gave the money back to the scientist did a favor for him. They rationalized this by thinking that the only way they’d do this is if they liked him.

In short: Doing a favor for someone else will make you like them more. You feel that you must like them if you did something for them and got nothing in return.

Whom should you ask for favors? You can certainly ask other influencers to share your posts and content. If they do it out of kindness (or because your post is amazing), they’ll instantly like you more. This can lead to a mutually beneficial relationship where you both share each other’s content.

But the more interesting application to me is to ask your followers for favors.

Don’t be afraid to ask readers to help you by contributing stories, commenting, or sharing your content.

No, not all of them will, but the ones who do will think of you more favorably each time they do it. You will see that readers who were hesitant to do you a small favor at first are willing to do huge favors for you after a while.

Here’s an example of Marie Forleo asking her followers to contribute silly stories for a piece of content she was working on.

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She does things from time to time, and her followers love to help out (notice the 150 likes). There were several comments on this post with stories that she could use.

One final note: Remember the reciprocity rule. If your follower does you a favor, that’s great. However, you probably want to give them something back. Most commonly, just a public thank you or a mention in a post is a great gesture.

The key is not to offer the reward in the first place. If you do, your readers will rationalize that they only helped you out to get it, not because they like you. Keep the reward as a surprise for after.

5. Reposting content lends well to the “mere exposure theory”

The more you are exposed to something, the more you like it.

At least that’s what the mere exposure theory describes.

We don’t fully understand why or how it works, but studies have shown that this is true in most cases.

For example, in his study, Robert Zajonc showed Chinese characters to subjects who could not read or speak Chinese.

The fun part is that he showed some characters more than others, anywhere from one time to 25 times.

The results were clear: the more someone was exposed to a certain character, the more of a positive meaning they gave it.

This is probably partially why most people like themselves so much. After all, you’re stuck with yourself 24 hours a day.

The mere exposure theory and social media: There are two ways in which you can apply this theory to your marketing on social media to make it more effective.

Most importantly, post on a regular basis. I post at least once a day on almost all of my social media accounts:

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Post as often as you can without being annoying to your followers. The more you can expose your brand and content to a follower, the better.

The second way you can use this theory is to share things multiple times.

This calendar by Buffer shows that they share a single post several times after they publish it.

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This will expose your followers to your content more often, adding to the effect.

Have you ever felt unsure whether you liked a movie after watching it for the first time? And after watching it again you absolutely loved it?

It happens all the time.

And not just with movies but with content as well.

Sometimes, a reader doesn’t love your content for a variety of reasons at first, but as they come back to it over time, they like it more and more.

6. Social proof and social networking should go hand in hand

Social proof has been proven to improve conversion rates in a wide variety of situations.

We’re typically talking about sales when it comes to social proof, but it can apply to social media marketing as well.

There are many types of social proof, but we’re interested in one in particular—user social proof:

User social proof consists of approval/positivity from current users of something.

On e-commerce sites such as Amazon, this means reviews and ratings. On other sites, this might mean case studies.

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The effect is as expected.

The more positive social proof a product has, the better it looks to potential customers.

We relate to other users and expect to have a similar experience with the product or service we are considering that they had.

How social proof affects your social media marketing: Social proof is the sole reason why pages buy fake followers. They know that if real users see that they have thousands of followers, they will be more likely to follow them as well.

I don’t recommend doing that for a number of reasons.

However, it illustrates that social media users look at what other users are doing.

If tons of people like or share a post, they are much more likely to do it themselves. You can see this all the time in action when a post is trending (“going viral”).

The practical takeaway is that when you publish a post on social media, do whatever you can to get those first few “likes” or shares.

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It may take messaging some friends or emailing your biggest fans or your peers. But get that initial traction as soon as possible, and the rest of your followers will be more likely to engage with your posts.

If you have employees, ask them to engage with every post as it’s published, at least until you build a larger following.

7. Long term engagement can be secured using the “propinquity effect”

The final principle explains how people become friends.

As you might have guessed, propinquity is related to “proximity.”

And what the effect states is that the closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to like them. For example, tenants who live on the same floor will typically have closer friendships with each other than with the tenants who live on a different floor.

You might have also noticed that the propinquity effect is related to the mere exposure effect, which we looked at earlier. The more you see someone, the more likely you are to feel positively about them.

However, there’s one other factor to the propinquity effect: similarity.

The more similarities you share and the closer you are, the faster and more you will like someone.

Propinquity and social media explained: To continue with the experiment, you want to live as close to your followers as possible. This extends past social media to all other channels of communication with your audience.

Ideally, send them emails on a regular basis. On Quick Sprout alone, I send 3 emails a week to subscribers. If readers want more and also subscribe to the NeilPatel.com blog, they get another 3-4.

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It allows me to be in their lives on a regular basis.

But the same applies to social media as well. I post multiple times a day on Twitter and usually Facebook too.

Example post 1:

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Example post 2:

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The idea is that the more readers see me, the more they will like me.

Did you notice that I left out one detail? If so, that’s a very good catch.

For the propinquity effect to be as effective as possible, those posts and emails also need to be about something that we have in common.

But this is pretty simple for businesses. As long as you are talking about content, events, or products in your niche that your audience likes, you immediately have that required level of relevance.

Then, you just need the frequency to take effect, and you’ll be set.

Conclusion

Psychology and marketing go hand in hand. If you can understand how your target audience thinks, you can figure out the best ways to engage them and the best ways to present your content and products.

I think it’s important to understand how psychology affects every aspect of your marketing, and that’s why I focused on one—social media—in this post.

I’ve shown you seven psychological principles that you can use to improve your marketing in general. However, I’ve also shown you specific ways in which you can apply them to your social media marketing for instant improvement.

Ideally, spend 20-30 minutes going through each principle and thinking about how it applies to your specific business, audience, and marketing plan.

If you have any questions while you do this (I expect you will), I’ll be glad to help. Just leave me a comment below with your questions or comments.

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