Share and share alike

20 August 2014

Understanding how people use social media can help businesses get more from their online presence.

The benefits of businesses using social media are numerous: building a customer portfolio, attracting new business and increasing awareness of your products to name but a few. But what can businesses do to maximise those benefits? Studies in social media psychology are becoming increasingly extensive and businesses can learn from this research to ensure their social media strategy is reaching its full potential.

“Businesses should view social media as a communication and listening tool,” says Dr Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in Boston. “Any type of business that uses social media should start with a mission statement about why we are doing this and that should drive strategy. When you are creating messages that move across media, it is very helpful to think of your business as an archetype. Are you wise or are you the hero like Nike? What is the core story that you are telling?” 

As much as a business should have a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve with their social media presence, it is also useful for a business to know why their customers are using social media. “The boundaries between the professional, the personal and the socialisation aspects are blurred when it comes to social media. You manage and satisfy different needs at different moments on different platforms,” explains Dr Sharon Coen, who is a Senior Lecturer in Media Psychology at the University of Salford. “It is, however, possible to identify common values that are driving the adoption of social media. A recent study conducted with Taiwanese students identified the need for belonging, hedonism, self-esteem and reciprocity.”

Sharon continues to explain that belonging is feeling part of a community; hedonism is the way social media can entertain people; users liking your status or sharing your content can boost your self-esteem; and reciprocity is the possibility of interacting and building existing or new relationships. With this in mind, how should businesses interact with their customers online? 

Social media users are no longer simple consumers. In the future, successful businesses will be the ones that embrace a more interactive and collaborative relationship with the public

Sharon and Pamela both highlight the human side to social media and agree that businesses need to provide a more personal type of communication. “I spend a lot of time working with businesses helping them to develop a customer persona, so how does it feel to be that person? It is about engaging with people in a conversational way,” continues Pamela. “Those businesses that are staying out front in the market are the ones that are really listening to their customers as human beings. What are their needs and goals? Customers expect validation of their voice.”

Interactivity is also key as people are motivated to connect with each other on social media. “There should be plenty of opportunities for the user to both interact with the business, but also amongst themselves to create a community,” says Sharon. “There are little tricks one can use to force more engagement. For example, a study has shown that people are more likely to click on a link on Twitter if it is preceded by a question.”

Businesses also need to ensure that their content is relevant, engaging and valuable to their audience as studies have indicated that people share content to manage their identity. When sharing content, they also think about what their Facebook friends or Twitter followers will appreciate and find most interesting. “People use social media strategically to present a certain image of themselves,” says Sharon. “They are more likely to share information which enables them to say something about who they are and what they stand for. It’s so important to understand your audience as you can produce content that appeals to them.”

There has already been a shift away from advertisers using highly commercialised online advertising to using content marketing – for example, embedding a product in an interesting news story. “Social media users are no longer simple consumers,” says Sharon. “In the future, successful businesses will be the ones that embrace a more interactive and collaborative relationship with the public.”

Pamela believes social media will become increasingly fluid with more mobile technology and customers will gain another level of control. “It’s very important that businesses transition from a top-down point of view where they control messages both internally and externally to one that recognises people expect to be more collaborative and participatory,” says Pamela. “I think businesses are thinking of social media as a marketing department but they really need to think of themselves as a social organisation. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a boss. It just means you have a different attitude about what you are doing.”

Which persona are you?

The Customer Insight Group of the New York Times researched what motivates people to share content online. From their research, they came up with six personas of online sharers.

Altruists, who are reliable and thoughtful in nature, are more likely to use email to share content that their friends will find helpful.

Careerists are more likely to use LinkedIn and they share valuable, intelligent content to network.

Hipsters are less likely to use email, and they share content that is creative, cutting-edge and projects their identity.

Boomerangs use Twitter and Facebook to share content to get a reaction from people. This makes them feel empowered and validated.

Connectors are creative, relaxed and thoughtful, and use email and Facebook for making plans.

Selectives, who are thoughtful and resourceful, use email to carefully share content that is informative. 

Putting people in the picture

In a technology-driven world, it’s easy to forget the most important truth about social media: people engagement.  Successful social media strategies put people at their heart. Understanding people’s different personas helps to create more engaging online content. This is why the new website centres around conversational articles about the things that matter to our audiences.