Secrets Behind the Psychology of Social Media Communities

Ric DragonIf you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a high volume of posts about social media marketing recently. That’s because I have been in San Diego for the Social Media Marketing World conference (#SMMW13). It's so inspiring to be around some of the greatest minds in social media – and doubly inspiring to learn how folks in Spain, England, Sweden, Australia, Peru, Canada and other countries around the world are equipping themselves with the tools for social marketing success.

My Indecision & Psychology Behind It

I had the pleasure of not only meeting author and social media expert Ric Dragon on day one of the conference, but also hearing him speak. A marketer by day, Ric Dragon has also become a part-time sociologist by night, spurring his recent book, Social Marketology

Before the session, I met Ric as he signed books at the Barnes & Noble bookstand. I was planning on attending his session, although I'd found it hard to choose from the not one, not two but five options for the afternoon session track. He mentioned the 'Trader Vic’s jam syndrome' and high cost of multiple decisions on consumers. 

Indecision Making

The jam study was conducted by psychologist Sheena Iyengar and was summarized in a New York Times review: "Sometimes, there were six different flavors to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, popular flavors like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavors. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection."

Jam IndecisionBasically, less is more for consumers. Streamlining choices can make the decision-making process more satisfying, fulfilling and happiness-inducing. But, the magic number depends on the situation. For conference session choices, is five too many? For breakfast morning bagel toppings, is six just the right amount or still too many?

But, back to Ric's SMMW13 speech: "The Science of Community Building in the Age of Social Media." The dynamics and behavior of groups and its impact on social media are profound. Building communities can be one of the most effective approaches for social media marketing. 

Here are some of the most fascinating psychological models I learned about in San Diego, and how you can apply them to your social media marketing:

Groups Influence Personal Decision-Making

Not surprisingly, Ric talked about how consumers are shaped by peer influence and group pressures (see our latest blog post on influence). It's the notion that Apple instilled in its consumer base; "if you want to be cool, you want to buy an iPod," In Ric's estimation, "if your neighbor says 'b' then chances are you'd agree." Specifically, he shared one popular and storied study on group conformity that was conducted in the 1950s: The Soloman Asch conformity experiment.

Here's a clip explaining the experiment and the group-influenced selection of options a, b or c: 

Inherent Uniqueness of Groups

Groups develop their own patois, Ric said. The concept of patois involves a language that is not considered standard. In a recent post on his Dragon Search blog, Ric discussed the specific language of users on Twitter. However, yesterday's topic focused on the culture of groups regardless of medium. 

Community BuildingRic noted that groups tend to create hierarchy, even when hierarchy doesn't exist or isn't needed. Leaders are formed over time. Groups strive to share and bond over historical references (think: the day or year that your book club started or became led by a new member). What I learned most from this topic is that groups want to be unique and form their own culture. As marketers trying to build communities on Facebook, Twitter or customized forums, we should embrace the individuality of the groups we help shape. In the words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, "Communities already exist. Instead, think about how you can help that community do what it wants to do."

Controversy is Powerful in Joining Together

We often advise clients to tie their brands to relevant causes for consumers. From groups banding together opposing controversial legislation to parents fighting for healthy food options at their children’s schools, problems and adversity can foster community. Ric spoke specifically about the "Community Resilience" concept. For a look at more on this concept, here's a directory of case studies involving consumers responding to, withstanding and recovering from adverse situations, including the Sandy Hook and Hurricane Katrina tragedies. 

In Sum

Lessons learned from Ric Dragon's talk include:

  1. Make sure your company's community manager is bonding and forming communities on your social media channels. 
  2. Recognize the power of opposition to bring together a group, the inherent uniqueness that groups strive to have, and the powerful pressures that group members have on one another.


Image Source: The New York Times / Flickr, Will Lion

About the Author

Christina Milanowski

Christina Milanowski is vice president and social media director at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.

Topics:  Social Media Marketing

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