Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

Once More, with Feeling: Making Sense of Social Media

I was recently asked at a communications and marketing conference for senior executives when Social Media would start to appeal to all senses including, vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It was an interesting question and the first time that I had heard it in public. My response was that it is already in full effect. To go one step further, much of the work I’ve studied and also the focus of much of my own work fuses aspects of sensory branding and marketing with elements of experiential and emotional marketing to appeal to the senses as well as to the emotions that inspire action.

In marketing today, it’s less about what we say about us and more about what people hear, feel, and in turn, say about us.

The “Me” in Social Media

While the culture and corresponding dynamics and mechanics of social media remain elusive to many executives and marketers, its purpose and promise are far more profound than we may realize. To that end, I believe that in order to unlock the methodologies and philosophies tied to effective and long-lasting social media strategies, we must remove our marketing capes and instead remember who we are as individuals.  There’s a “me” in social media for a reason and that is because everything in social networks and online for that matter, begins with us. We define our own experiences. We decide who we follow and who follows us. We choose which stories we read and those we share. And it is only those experiences that we connect with emotionally that compel us to push across our social graphs.

Before we are marketers, sales or service professionals, executives, employees, or leaders, we are human beings. And social media equalizes the playing field for media consumption, production and distribution. We are the champions who introduced businesses to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al. We disrupted marketing. We disrupted communications. We disrupted media. More notably, we are affecting the very foundation of business itself by influencing the evolution of its culture, mission, purpose and how it communicates with its markets. You, me, and everyone with whom we connect online are no longer an audience for messages and gimmicks. We are no longer voiceless and faceless consumers who react quietly to public information. We are now part of the media ecosystem. And, we are stakeholders in the online communities where we define experiences and outcomes.

To connect with the social consumer here and now, we must be part of the community. We must approach business and the business of marketing and engagement with the same resolve we approach our own social networking. We must become the very people we’re trying to reach, because ultimately, we are consumers and we are stakeholders in the evolution of our social relationships and experiences.

Social Media is Rich with Emotion

As we are at the center of our individual experiences, social media then naturally becomes powered by emotion and all that moves us. If you love something, share it on Twitter. If something inspired you, blog about it. If an incredible event is unfolding before you, capture it on video or still and upload it to YouTube or Flickr. If someone captured your attention, connect with them or link back to their post or profile. What’s shared across each of these scenarios is the feeling that motivates us to publicly react. When I refer to sensory and experiential marketing, it is for this very reason. People are emotional creatures and their actions and decisions are driven by a combination of experience, education, instinct, and emotional intelligence.

For those who venture boldly into the very public universe that is social media, we slowly trade privacy for recognition, gaining confidence with every response, new connection, comment, retweet, and “like” we earn. We transform into digital extroverts intentionally or subconsciously seeking affirmation in all that we do, and it’s seductive, educational, and fulfilling when we learn how to manage and invest in our role in these new online societies.

Indeed there is an addictive quality to online interaction. While science is long tied to more personal forms of commercial engagement, we now have a new study that shows that emotion is indeed tied to social networking.


Rude Lovers©

Adam Penenberg a contributing writer to Fast Company volunteered as a test subject in Dr. Paul J. Zak’s “neuroeconomics” research, an emerging field that combines economics with biology, neuroscience, and psychology. The studies seek to “gauge the relationship between empathy and generosity.”

In a series of studies spanning nine years, Zak found that Oxytocin (aka the cuddle drug, not the pain killer Oxycontin) is not only the hormone that forms the bond between mothers and their babies, it is as Zak says, the “social glue” that adheres families, communities, and societies, and therefore acts as an “economic lubricant” to engage day-to-day transactions. Zak’s work has essentially recognized oxytocin as the human stimulant of empathy, generosity, trust, among other important social attributes.

Penenberg connected with Zak to learn if Zak’s research on oxytocin is applicable to social media research. In fact Penenberg’s experience is fascinating to me in more ways than I could possibly share. I too have long theorized that social media IS driven by emotion and as such, the interaction and relationships in which we place great value is indeed rooted in biology. And as such, we can learn from the behavior that ensues through not only biology, but other social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, ethnography, and psychology.

Penenberg’s telling post in Fast Company is worth the read, but in his own words, he summarizes the findings that should have massive implications for the future of socialized media, “…all of this research reinforces the idea that we are biologically driven to commingle, and suggests that online relationships can be just as real as those conducted offline.” He continues, “…social networking may increase a person’s oxytocin levels, thereby heightening feelings of trust, empathy, and generosity.”

In fact, in a series of three experiments in social networking, specifically with Twitter, Penenberg’s oxytocin levels jumped 13.2% while hormones related to stress waned. Zak concluded that Penenberg’s brain, “interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for.”

Will Work for Empathy

In my experience, empathy is a powerful ally and catalyst for sparking meaningful interactions and relationships in social media.  Individuals online are empowered and as such, their attention focuses on those who can demonstrate an awareness and understanding of their interests, challenges and options. Empathy is detectable and contagious.

To garner empathy, we must “feel” that moves our communities and markets. To do so, we must transcend listening and monitoring into a form of kinesthetic analysis to truly become the people we’re trying to reach.

I’m not just listening to you, I hear you. I see and feel what you’re saying.

If we look to forms of interpersonal, sensory, and experiential marketing, the cornerstone of connectivity is built upon meaning, relevance, and purpose. As such trust becomes a measure of metric to weigh our participation efforts and emotional marketing value (EMV) ranks our ability to demonstrate empathy and earn attention, support, and affinity. This insight should absolutely change how you approach social media, from design and imagery to intent and communication.


Source: Advanced Marketing Institute

As businesses seek to establish presence and prominence within these social networks, a sense of persona, character and purpose proves paramount. Those in charge of outbound strategies will have to expand their communications prowess with an understanding of digital sociology and psychology.

The Social Marketing Compass

As we plan for meaningful social media engagement, our strategy should be woven by a fabric of ethics, purpose and principles and bound by salient business goals and objectives. Inspired by a moral compass, I created The Social Marketing Compass, again with the artistic talents of JESS3, to serve as our value system when defining our program activities. The Social Compass made its debut in Chapter 21 of Engage!.

A compass is a device for discovering orientation and serves as a true indicator of physical direction. The Social Marketing Compass points a brand in a physical and experiential direction to genuinely and effectively connect with customers, peers, and influencers, where they interact and seek guidance online.

The socialization of the Web is powered by people and as such, it’s held to the same natural laws and rules that govern human behavior. The outer ring of the social compass guides brands from targets to technology to connection with emotions and empathy serving as the final step to engagement. Successful branding is magnified when individuals can establish a human and emotional connection. In social networks, the brand is represented by you and for that reason, we must factor in compassion, care, and feeling into our planning. Connect from the heart.

Behaviorgraphics: Visualize the “Me” in Social Media

Behaviorgraphics examines the “me” in Social Media. While it’s avatars that capture our attention, it’s personality that captures our heart and mind.

Social media tests the filter that divides inner monologue from disclosure. As our thoughts become words online, they color our avatars and profiles with a glimpse of our personality – who we are online and in the real world. Over time, it is how we put our words into action that establishes our character. And, it is our character, through the marriage of our words and actions that paves the way for relationships and opportunities. At the center of behaviorgraphics is benevolence. The unselfish and kindhearted behavior that engenders and promotes recognition and reciprocity, and in doing so, earns the goodwill of those around them. This is the hub of social networking with a purpose, mission, and a genuine intent to grow communities based on trust, vision, and collaboration.

Visualized once again with the help of JESS3

Influence is distributed across segmented personality traits and categorized by the prominence within specific nicheworks linked by interests. Activating social networks and the people within them is an act of communication to form an association. Therefore, we must understand much more than how content attracts varying levels of behavior, but also surface the personality characteristics of the people we’re hoping to establish connections and relationships.

In many ways, we become social psychologists and linguists who can speak to individuals in manners that appeal to their demeanor. And, since each of us are also consumers, we find ourselves not in any one group, but at any point in time, we can identify with several traits based on our engagement in varying circumstances.

May I Have Your Intention Please

As actions speak louder than words, intention also speaks volumes. While my work has not involved a lab such as Zak’s, it has experimented with the idea of connecting with individuals based on empathy and recognition in order to earn awareness, consideration and ultimately trust. It is the basis for my focus on R.R.S. (relevance, resonance, significance), social media’s new critical path.  Without relevance, we cannot trigger resonance, and without resonance, we cannot establish significance. As such, in social media, we earn the relationships, responses, and trust we deserve as measured through the emotional vibrations that reverberate across social graphs.

Now, once more with feeling…

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google Buzz, Facebook

Engage! was written to help you find answers to your questions and the questions you didn’t yet know to ask…


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Lead Image Source: ShutterStock

201 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Once More, with Feeling: Making Sense of Social Media”

  1. Amanda Quraishi says:

    I agree, but I'm curious to know if you think the intense personalization of social media makes it a more manipulative form of marketing than traditional marketing? I think there could be a case argued for it being so.

    • briansolis says:

      Hello Amanda, it's certainly possible in new media, but the same is true in traditional media and also direct contact. Over the years, I've read books that demonstrate just how many triggers we as consumers unknowingly possess…a couple that come to mind, “Influence: The psychology of persuasion” and “Yes! 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive.”

  2. Kyle Lacy says:

    This is really something. To understand the psychology behind social media is quite the feat.

  3. judyshapiro says:

    Great marketing always understood the balance between emotions, psychology and the rational mind. 25 years ago I worked for a large ad agency called NWAyer – whose strategic anchor was “Make Human contact” .. This type of thinking created landmark campaigns still touted as the best like “reach out and touch someone” (AT&T), “Be all you can be” (US Army), “best part of waking up” (Folgers) …

    Now we have pretty charts, infograpghs and big words to describe the work of these great marketers. While the tactics have changed one thing stays the same – great marketing always started with the “Judy Consumer” and where she lived and what she felt. Nothing is more social than that.

    It's a lesson that's very old and worth reminding ourselves about as things evolve.

    Judy Shapiro

    • briansolis says:

      Judy, exactly. As social media invites new perspectives into the mix, we cannot forget the excellent thinking and work from the past. The challenge ahead requires us to take this wonderful ideas and transform them from a campaign to a continuum approach.

  4. This is a fascinating post. Emotion is a driving force and it is something to always be considered, especially with social media.

  5. paulkonrardy says:

    Your analysis of the Zak research is spot on. I believe in ways we cannot even count – yet – that there is an evolutionary impact of social media and other online pursuits to the human brain. Reminds me of the discussion of Digital Natives and Immigrants from years ago – where those who are raised in a world where instant communication is unknown (native) has a very different level of filtering than those who were not (immigrant).

    This generational divide can also be identified by the intention-based empathy you discuss while providing the opportunity to make a huge difference in how we interact with one another – perhaps even helping to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide.

    Question: while marketing tends to use age demographic targeting as a huge identifying factor when creating campaigns, do you know of anyone studying behaviorgraphics for various age groups? My guess is that each age group would have a unique take on “empathy” and “recognition” as it relates to online comfort. Could be an interesting thing to participate in…

  6. Dino Dogan says:

    Oxytocin is also released when we interact with dogs (especially puppies). And most other furry cute things I would imagine although the research in the latter is scarce. Jst sayin 🙂

    Loved your interview on social media examiner btw

  7. Catherine Davis says:

    It is terrific to see a perspective on social media that looks at how it forges emotional connections to a brand or an author. While there seems to be a lot of focus on building trust, less is said about building passion.

    There is a lot of evidence that shows that people make brand and product decisions based on an emotional connection. Even when consumers play back a very functional reason they bought the brand, there is often a much deeper connection. People talk about Grey Goose being the best tasting vodka, but they choose it because of what the brand says about them. Kraft cheese reinforces your perception of taking good care of your family.

    So much of brand's interactions in social media feels very transactional. I think there is a real opportunity to extend the personality and character of the brand vs. simply participating. It is “the how” that will provide real differentiation and more lasting relationships.

  8. Jack Bremer says:

    Awesome and illustrative choice of photos, great article!

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