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Five psychological principles to rev up your social media marketing

“Know your audience” is a tag line for all social media marketers. Brands often rely on various analytical tools to answer questions about their social media demographics, to predict their followers’ preferences and behaviour and create content that would best resonate with them.

Going back to the basics of human psychology can help even better. Here are some research-backed tips on using psychological principles to hook in and retain your desired online audience.

Social proof

We navigate life guided by others. Social proof depicts the idea that people tend to copy the actions of others in unfamiliar settings to elicit the “correct” social behaviour. First coined by US psychologist Robert Cialdini in 1984, the term posits that, to avoid uncertainty, we assume those around us have better understanding than us.

Influencer marketing revolves entirely around this concept: people trust reviews or buy products promoted by experts or celebrities. This principle, however, only works if they identify with the influencer psychologically. A study shows that if young users (the demographic groups most likely to trust online influencers) identify with an influencer, their buying behaviour will likely be guided by his or her promotional posts. (2021, Croes, E., & Bartels, J.)

Another group we look up to for recommendations is our friends. For example, people tend to follow social media accounts already followed by their close ties.

The wisdom of the crowd is the broadest dimension of the social proof phenomenon: in social media marketing, that translates into the concept of clout.

The more popular a brand is on social media (in terms of page likes or engagement), the more trustworthy and attractive it would appear to its potential customers. Recent marketing stats show that nearly 80% of customers rely on online reviews before even visiting a business.

User-generated content and testimonials are the two go-to types of content used to create social proof. Some brands feature positive comments from their users on social media visuals. Others promote content that shows how their real customers are enjoying their products or services.

You may not have the cash to splash on big influencer campaigns but creating visual quotes by your happy customers may just as well work in your favour to entice new audiences. Check how brands are already doing this on with the hashtag #TestimonialTuesday!


Give, and you shall receive: this principle holds true also in marketing.

Psychologists describe reciprocity as the social norm to respond to a positive action with another positive action. Similarly, treating your customers or competition nicely will rake in lots of unexpected positives for your brand or organisation.

The first thing that jumps to mind is distributing free gifts, but that may not always be physically feasible. There are plenty of other ways to use the principle of reciprocity online.

For example, your content marketing strategy may be focused on adding value to your customers by creating free manuals, eBooks, blog posts, white papers, podcasts: anything that informs, entertains, or educates your audience. All social media accounts of the big-fish marketing platforms such as Hootsuite, Sprout Social, SEMrush are first and foremost education hubs for free resources on digital marketing, and only then – places to sell their pricey premium products.

In social media marketing, reciprocity also translates into sharing someone else’s content, liking, or engaging with their posts, tagging, or promoting another organisation… All of these small gestures build connection and ensure that your brand will be equally treated in the future.

Are you striving for some genuine likes and comments on your accounts? Be proactive and start engaging with others on social media first!

Mere exposure effect

We prefer familiar things or people to unfamiliar ones: this psychological principle is known as the mere exposure effect.

Social psychologist Robert Zajonc first came with the hypothesis in 1968. To test it, he developed a series of experiments asking people to read out selected words in a foreign language and then guess the meaning of a list of words (whether positive or negative). The participants ascribed positive meaning to the words that they had previously repeated more often and disliked the completely unfamiliar words.

According to Zajonc, we prefer the familiar because it makes us feel safe, while new things or people may represent a potential danger.

This principle has many implications in real life: ever fallen in a love with a colleague? Chances are you were not smitten, but simply started to like her or him because of your daily interactions.

Mere exposure effect proves the usefulness of online advertising: repeated exposure to ads can make people like a brand. There is a limitation though: this study found that the optimal effect to online ads kicks in at around 8-10 exposures. If the exposure continues for too long, people will eventually get tired and start to dislike the brand instead.

Cognitive fluency

Our brains are powerful but lazy. All neurons love simplicity: the easier a text or a picture is to process, the more likely people will respond well to the content. Psychologists call that cognitive fluency, a principle that applies to both copywriting and interaction/graphic design.

Cognitive fluency is comprised of two aspects: perceptual fluency (the ease of processing the new stimuli) and retrieval fluency (our ability to retrieve information from our memory).

When doing graphic design, keep it clean and simple. Avoid noisy visuals. Focus the viewer’s eyes on the most important element in the photo.

And please don’t get crazy with fonts. Easy-to-read fonts are known to influence the reader’s perception of written instructions. This study found that people are more likely to consider a cooking recipe difficult to follow if it was written in the difficult-to-read Mistral font than if it was presented in the familiar, easy-to-read Arial. (2008, Song, H., & Schwarz, N.)

This principle also applies to copywriting. Easy-to-process texts, for example, are perceived as more truthful and accurate. For marketers, this translates into the well-known maxim that simplicity sells.

Paradox of choice

Social media users are bombarded by messages, ads, and branded posts across different platforms.

Scrolling down their feeds, potential consumers are literally swimming in a sea of abundance with all possible products situated just a tap away. Having too many options is never a good thing for buyers, though: in fact, it freezes us and makes it very difficult to choose anything.

Psychologist Barry Schwarz first developed the concept “paradox of choice” to explain the phenomenon in 2004. Giving consumers a limited range of choices has big psychological benefits because it reduces their anxiety and the cognitive overload related with decision-making processes.

For digital marketers and copywriters, that means less is more: don’t stuff your copy with details and avoid confusing your audience with too many call-to-actions (CTAs).

What do you want your followers to do? Download your brochure, visit your website, like your post, tag a friend?… Choose only one verb for your CTA or you risk getting no action at all.

The same applies to visual communication: how many photos of products do you really want to feature in your ads? You can add as many as 10 images or videos in a carousel ad, but this is bound to overburden your audience with sensory stimuli.

UX, product and interaction designers follow the same principle, lovingly abbreviated as the KISS principle: keep it simple, silly!

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