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The 6 Pillars of Social Commerce: Understanding the psychology of engagement

Social media is about social science not technology. As such, its value is not realized in the Likenomics of relationship status nor in the scores individuals earn by engaging in social networks. The value of social media comes down to people, relationships, and the meaningful actions between them. As such, its value is measured through the exchange of social currencies that contribute to one’s capital within each network. Through conversations, what we share, and  the content we create, consume and curate, we individually invest in the commerce of information and the relationships that naturally unfold. It is in how these relationships take shape that is both in and out of your control. This is why, in the age of social networking, relevant engagement counts for everything.

One of the greatest myths in new media is that social networks facilitate conversations about you that would not otherwise take place if your organization weren’t present. As such, some business leaders believe that creating a presence in social networks eventually erodes the control of the brand, risking the governance they’ve theoretically held onto so triumphantly over the years. So, if that logic holds, by not engaging in social networks or by sharing only one dimension of your business online, you can control what people think and say. Well, this always seems to come as a surprise to those who think otherwise, but the truth is that new media did not “invent” conversations, experiences, or opinions. It seems imprudent and perhaps commonsensical to say, but, the truth is actually the contrary to popular belief.

The control you think you lose by opening up to online engagement actually gives you a sense of control. While we are measured by our actions and words. We are also measured by our inaction and silence. Once you understand what people say and don’t say, how they connect, what they share, how they discover and make decisions, and who influences them and who they influence, a blueprint for engagement emerges. People will always talk with or without you. The questions you have to answer are, “what do you want them to say and what do you want them to do?”

The A.R.T. of Engagement

In social media and online engagement, the social sciences of psychology, anthropology, communication, economics, human geography, et al, are essential in building meaningful relationships and influencing mutually beneficial behavior. This means that you as a CMO, a new media or creative strategist, or an engineer of user experiences, must first articulate and ultimately design what it is you want the user experience to emulate or evoke.

I refer to the concept of social architecture as the A.R.T. of Engagement where actions, reactions, and transactions become the fabric of holistic and connected experiences. It’s not as easy as deploying campaigns and landing pages. The click path, the outcomes, and the stated value must be optimized, efficient and worthy of sharing. This is where social science, and in particular, psychology comes in. Unlike the traditional Web, social media is a very emotional landscape where people are at the center of their own egosystem. You must design an experience that captivates the mind or feeds likely emotions to affect desirable behavior in a given context.

The Psychology of Social Commerce

The importance of social psychology can not be overstated. This branch of psychology deals with how people think about influence and how individuals relate to one another. In Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and every other network, the social economy within each is defined by how people earn and spend social capital. Based on the commerce of actions, words, and intentions (or actions, reactions, and transactions), individuals contribute to their stature not only within each network, but among those to whom they’re connected. The same is true for organizations. You earn the relationships and the resulting stature that you deserve.

I recently stumbled across a rather interesting infographic created by TABJUICE that visually communicates the psychology of social commerce. The graphic was inspired by a series of studies based on the work of Robert Cialdini that identified six universal heuristics that shoppers use to make decisions. Referred to as “thinslicing,” consumers tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions.

Heuristic Number 1: Social Proof – follow the crowd

During the new customer journey (aka the decision making cycle), a consumer may find themselves at a point of indecision. When consumers are uncertain of what to do next, social proof kicks in to see what others are doing or have done.

To influence decisions, wish lists, popularity lists, social sharing, reviews, and social recommendations become paramount.

Heuristic Number 2: Authority – the guiding light

Authority in social media is not only related to commerce, but it is the very source of how interest graphs take shape. During the dynamic customer journey, authorities rise as the sherpas to guide in effective decision making. Authorities have invested their time, resources and activity in earning a position of influence and their reward for doing so is a community of loyalists who place trust in their recommendations.

In Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer report, academics and experts topped the list for trust and credibility (66%), followed by a technical expert at a company (66%).

Heuristic Number 3: Scarcity- less is more

A function of supply and demand, greater value is assigned to the resources that are, or perceived to be, less available. Driven by the fear of loss or the stature of self-expression, consumers are driven by the ability to participate as members in exclusive deals. Part affinity, part elitism, consumers have expressed over and over that the ability to have early or select access to offers and promotions is a top reason to connect in social media.

Heuristic Number 4: Liking – builds bonds and trust

There’s an old saying in business, people do business with people they like. And, nothing is truer than that statement in social media. Revisiting the Edelman Trust Barometer, the third most trusted person is someone like yourself/peers (65%). We have a natural inclination to emulate those we like, admire, find attractive as these attributes also contribute to the “guilt by association” impression of self-identity.

Heuristic Number 5: Consistency

When faced with uncertainty, consumers tend not to take risks. Rather, they prefer to stay consistent with beliefs or past behavior. When these do not line up in the decision making cycle, consumers tend to feel cognitive dissonance or true psychological discomfort.

Heuristic Number 6: Reciprocity – pay it forward

Perhaps the greatest asset in social capital is that of benevolence. It’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of paying it backward, where we expect to be paid or rewarded for our goods, services, or actions. However, those who invest in helping others or those who pay it forward, will earn something greater than a reaction, they will earn a repository of reciprocity. As human beings, we have an innate desire to repay favors to maintain a balance of social fairness whether or not those favors were invited.

If ignorance is bliss, awareness is awakening. The psychology of social commerce reveals the emotional elements that stimulate the human network. It is the understanding of the 6 pillars of social commerce that facilitates the development of a more cohesive and connected online experience for customers. More importantly, by investing in the value, productivity and efficiency of consumer decision making and not just the outcome, businesses can not only earn reciprocity and goodwill, but also earn social capital as a result…and, that’s priceless.

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84 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The 6 Pillars of Social Commerce: Understanding the psychology of engagement”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brian, I really enjoyed this post. I had seen before the infographics, but with your analysis it was definitely enriched. This information is really valuable when you are defining a new social commerce “initiative”, it helps you thru the strategy definition process.

  2. Anjula Ram says:

    Great read. This brilliantly ties together psychology with social engagement, and its application to behavior on social media. Fairly new to social media, yet well versed in psychology, its great to know this is not all technology. In the past I viewed social media as ‘messy’, but now I see the use of strategy and psychology, and this opens up many new possibilities. Thank you. 

  3. Student says:

    Wow. Every time I read something by you all the little puppies come out and kiss and ask to be kissed back.   Pretty amazing considering that some of the “data” you give us does not hold up to “logic”. But hey man….. at least you have minions.

  4. Hi Brian  – We are glad you enjoyed our infographic! Dylan

  5. Gary says:

    Great summary of the work by Robert Cialdini as applied to social influence.

  6. This
    is great insight into a vital field of study.  Universities are starting “Media Psychology”
    tracks. Seems we need a descriptive term. Social Commerce Psychology seems more
    appropriate for business than Social Media or Usability Psychology. Personally
    I like Digital Frontier Psychology, but that’s too colloquial.  (Here is a link to Media Psychology Research
    Center –

  7. Ahmedyusuph says:

    Thanks a lot for the very interested article It’s so much inspiring

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