While social media may seem fairly straightforward, in an ever-crowded digital space it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage users who have now become accustomed to online sharing and communities. What was once innovative is now mainstream. Scrolling newsfeeds, updating timelines and expressing life through hashtags is the norm.

In the early days of the digital revolution, a social media strategy was simply this: post more than the other guy. From there it grew to posting quality content in addition to frequency. Unfortunately times have changed yet again; now it takes even more to get seen above the hundreds of other marketers and businesses attempting to gain traction online.

So how do you do it? This week I examine the psychology behind social media channels and a few strategies that speak to your customer’s hardwiring – instead of doing the same old thing and hoping it works (and wasting time and money in the meantime).

The Psychology of Social Media

Community is at the heart of human existence. Without it our species wouldn’t have survived. By teaming up, humans have been able to share resources that allow the next generation to continue on.

Social media is no different. Where we once relied on the physical proximity of our tribe to help us through the highs and lows of life, we now can tap into the deep reserve that is the digital space to thrive. Feeling lonely? Start a conversation with a perfect stranger on the other side of the world via Twitter. Want to see your high school friends without going to the reunion? Head over to Facebook. Need professional resources? LinkedIn is the virtual water cooler.

In a world where individuals express they feel lonely more than ever before (source), it seems the opportunity for connection is at its highest. That being said, what drives online connection is no different than what’s sustained communities for thousands of years prior to the advent of electricity.

There are three keys factors to social media success:

  1. Identity formation
  2. Community building
  3. Civic participation


Identity formation and self-presentation are at the heart of the social media phenomenon.  What is self? How do we understand who we are in a growing global context? How is the self presented both online and off?

These questions contribute to what psychologists call social identity formation.

“Self-presentation is behavior that attempts to convey some information about oneself or some image of oneself to other people.”

By using images to convey a certain look, tone and feel to one’s life, a social media user can generate a perceived reality far different than the lived experience. This in-authenticity has been called out by numerous individuals who shun men, women and companies engaging in this deceptive social sharing tactic, usually employed to gain followers, popularity or be perceived as better than what they themselves believe to be.

Creating a sense of self online may be drastically different than in-person behavior, at the same time the way in which people know a person is directly related to the mode of communication incorporated.  In this case, the ability to utilize filtered images on channels such as Instagram to convey a sense of self may cause individuals to embellish or deceive followers so that they can remain relevant or be liked.

McKenna (2009) goes on to elaborate upon the concept of multiple identities and the struggle to find a ‘true self’ which results in an individual’s sense of self being directly proportionate to the reflection of the external world. What may appear as deception to followers may instead be a user’s exploration of one of their multiple identities and by utilizing Instagram they can begin to explore this other facet of their interior world. The more comments, likes and followers a person receives while expressing this other self may encourage the staged images, which to the user may not be seen as deception but to the follower may be a breach of trust.

In conclusion, how we present ourselves online and in-person is an ongoing struggle for users of all ages. Creating authentic images to convey the story of our lives on social media is one of many new ways to foster a sense of self.


According to Papacharissi (2010), “‘virtual communities’ are defined as social groups that display the psychological and cultural qualities of strong community without physical proximity.”

Social capital, in conjunction with virtual communities, refers to the resources within the social structure that are accessed or utilized by its members. Virtual support groups can provide social capital to its members when the resources are being utilized in a purposeful action.

“Emotional support is found to be especially relevant in situations where people feel they cannot change the situation they are in, but have to adapt to it.” Mothers’ groups create an online environment of female-centered support unlike that found in many offline communities. Not being able to change their circumstances, mothers will adapt and utilize forums or online communities to create a version of motherhood that resonates with them.

“Research has shown that social support can reduce stress, decrease depression, increase self-esteem, increase internal control, and help people to more effectively cope with the situation.” Following the former example, understanding that women who feel isolated, misunderstood and depressed can access support without geographic boundaries and are provided opportunities to alleviate stress is a positive aspect to forming a community online.


The ability to give back, create a movement or align with social change initiatives is the third and final piece to a successful social media presence. Once an individual’s identity is formed and aligned with your brand, an online community is created to foster that identity and build relationships with like-minded individuals, the final piece of the puzzle is civic participation.

One example of creating a movement is with the hashtag. Commonly used on Twitter and Instagram to filter content, the hashtag allows users to find content based on keywords. Hashtags are used to not only highlight important topics but also movements.

The #LikeAGirl campaign by Always, a feminine hygiene company based in the United States, is more than a social movement to educate women on their monthly cycles and menstruation, it’s an advertising campaign geared towards raising girls with confidence as well as promoting greater empowerment through participation in sports teams.  Through educational resources geared towards parents and teachers, Always has commissioned multiple sources of impact for young girls including a 10-city summit series, documentary film, television advertisements, and social media community.

How To Design a Successful Psychology-Centered Strategy


A brand that speaks to everyone, speaks to no one. Define your values, characteristics, tone and identity to carve a niche for yourself. Most often than not this means taking a stand for something! (If you need help with this, I recommend you start here).


Building a community requires conversation. The more you get people talking – whether it’s about what you do or how you do it – the better. Create an open space for dialogue, questions or comments. Conversation also allows expression of your identity, drawing in more like-minded potential customers and expelling the ones that don’t fit your brand’s long term goals.


Understanding that humans thrive on community, create a brand that makes it feel like your customer fits in. You want them feeling comfortable, at home and at ease with your core brand message, tone and whatever it is you are selling. Create a secret club, special member’s portal or online group where you can all geek out together.


Industry jargon and the company “we” don’t belong here! It’s important to make your social media fun – not one sided. So many times I see bland social media strategies focused on pushing content for no other purpose than gaining traction on a particular social media channel. Pick one medium and really ROCK it! Bringing a vivacious energy to your brand will make a massive difference to your social strategy as well as online presence.


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