Neuroscience Doesn’t Have Great News for Social Media Marketers


When Dr. Matthew Leiberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect was published, it created a stir in marketing circles. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology and traditional psychological research techniques, Lieberman’s research detailed the science behind our primal need to connect. His research prompted many marketing leaders to try to take his findings and apply it to long-held marketing principles, conditioned as we are to believe the investments we’ve made in these practices are more tenable than is in fact the case. 

For me, having spent more than a decade studying social capital, Dr. Lieberman’s work points in a radically different direction. If you can’t turn away from a marketing mindset when curating your social media communities, then, to quote Avinash Kaushik, one of the most respected analytics leaders around, you should: “Kill all the organic social media activity by your company. All of it.”

That’s a bold (and to some, crazy) idea, and it all starts here: According to Dr. Lieberman, a social connection “is so central to our well-being that our brains treat [severing it] like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not.” 

This is not at all good news for social media marketers, we need to face this reality, and the data about social media marketing’s effectiveness bears it out. I see two key takeaways from this science that marketers need to embrace, along with some ideas on how to start shifting toward generating more meaningful value in social groups.

1. You’re not a reliable data point.

I had a boss a long time ago tell me “Aaron, you’re in marketing. You need to replace ‘I think’ with ‘the data shows.'”

My boss’ statement, it turns out, couldn’t be more true in a social media setting. Marketers enter social media literally in a different head space to those participating in it. The network responsible for social interaction is quite distinct from the abstract reasoning section of the brain associated with general intelligence. Dr. Lieberman describes their relationship with each other as at odds, as an “antagonism between social and nonsocial intelligence […] like two ends of a seesaw; as either side increases (goes up) in activity, the other side decreases.”

So marketers, like some alien interloper, evaluate the context and data about social media marketing’s effectiveness with a strong bias activated: we have our work hats on. While people on social media have their full-on social networks activated–exchanging living room design tips, scrolling through shared opinions about the news, commenting on selfie videos at K Pop concerts–marketers see channels, sales funnels, and frequency and reach opportunities. The marketing mindset is in conflict.

When deciding if my firm can generate value with social media marketing for a client, it’s imperative that I and the team remember that we have our work hats on, and we need to switch from “I think” to the “the data shows.” And if we decide social media isn’t a tactic we can return value from–like anything else we evaluate when creating marketing plans for our clients–we turn to something else.

It’s all about being honest about the data, and renouncing the data theater that social media companies present to demonstrate ROI.

2. Stop trying to convert. Connect instead.

Remember that our need to connect and the need to protect those connections is fundamental to our survival. As a result, our brains have evolved to feel and protect against social disconnections in the same neural network as we deal with physical pain. Again–whether the threat really matters or not.

If you’ve ever experienced a heartbreak, you know why we use the same words to describe social disconnection as we do physical pain. And if you’ve ever sacrificed something to keep a relationship together–even if it wasn’t good for you–you know the lengths to which we’ll go to protect them.

What does this mean to social media marketers? It means your target audience in a social media setting is actively weighing avoidance of social loss over whatever offer you’re bringing to the table (neuroscientists call this ‘loss aversion bias’). Also, since this protection-wiring functions to create harmony with the group, you’re asking for an action of dissent: An action that’s outside of the agreed-to purpose of the social setting.

Not exactly permission-based, opt-in marketing.

Social groups require that all members play by the group’s collectively created rules, and that all participate in reciprocity. In other words, you have to give in order to receive, within a democratized structure over which you have no authoritative say. 

The better path for marketers to take, then, is to look for ways to solve problems. A simple concept, but in conflict with the fundamentals we’ve built up in the social media marketing industry. Solve problems, always and consistently. Not 80 percent of the time. All the time. It’s the clearest path for someone with a commercial interest in a social setting to receive value from a social structure. 

Call it customer care if you like. Just dump the conversion mentality and connect instead. I talked with social media teams from Xbox and Zappos for my book (here’s a deep dive into the latter), two brands with exemplary social media practices, and they both told me the same thing: They don’t hire marketers for their social media teams. They hire people who know how to solve problems.

When evaluating your investment in social media, be sure to factor in hours for this kind of problem-solving, community-building, and connection-making. And the talent with the skills to execute it.

From a neuroscience perspective, biased marketers trying to convert in a context of social connections are basically just peddlers with a flier at a festival, interrupting something that we’re hard-wired to protect. Getting in the right head space to connect instead of convert is the better way forward.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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