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How to make the social media to work for you, even if you do not have many fans (yet)

June 29, 2018

How should companies use social media? Give your customers a chance to share their stories, not just yours. Also, give them a chance to 'like'.

How to make the social media to work for you, even if you do not have many fans (yet)

This is a guest post by Alexander DePaoli, Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University

Why do people “like” or “share” products online? And why don’t they do it more often? Social integration for any and all kinds of online content is pretty much obligatory at this point, but getting people to share your products presents some unique challenges. If you’ve never tried to “share” a product before, here’s what happens when you click the Facebook icon on Amazon:

How to be good at social media, Share on Facebook

There are a number of reasons customers might not want to put this on their timelines. In this post, I will focus on some of the consumer psychology behind “liking” and “sharing,” and based on these ideas, suggest how to make better use of social integration for marketers and retailers.

In short, I want to encourage you to think about social (and its toolkit) not as a means to drive advertising, but as a way to build customer satisfaction.

Sharing Information about Ourselves

A 2012 Harvard study (using both behavioral economic and neuroscience methods) by Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell took a serious look at when and why people choose to share information. They gave people a series of 195 choices in which they picked to answer either a question about themselves (such as “how much do you enjoy skiing?”) or a question about someone or something else. Participants were paid a little bit for every answer they gave, but the value was different for each question. In other words, each choice was not simply a matter of choosing which question to answer, but of how much money to be paid for that answer.

Imagine you are asked to pick one of two questions to answer, and you are told that you would be paid a little more to answer the second question than the first. Which would you choose?

Question 1: “How much do you enjoy skiing?”

Question 2: “True or false: Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa?”

According to Tamir and Mitchell, their participants ended up sacrificing an average of 17% of their possible earnings in order to answer more questions about themselves! And if the pay was the same for both question options, they found that people opted to share information about themselves approximately two-thirds of the time.

This finding is a logical extension of the fact that people tend to enjoy talking about themselves (some studies suggest that about a third of the time we spend speaking is used for telling others about ourselves or our experiences).  In fact, Tamir and Mitchell also found that discussing information about ourselves is associated with the release of dopamine (a chemical linked to signaling reward and enjoyment) in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area of the brain.

This suggests that if customers share their thoughts and preferences while shopping, they will enjoy that process more. This is one of the underlying appeals of online rating and review features, which allow people to share their product opinions and experiences with other users. However, rating and review systems tend to be used after someone has already gone through the shopping and buying process, but it is during the shopping phase that we want to increase customers’ enjoyment in order to influence their decision.  Furthermore, rating and reviewing products can be costly in terms of time and effort, so the majority of online shoppers don’t bother. Luckily, these kinds of problems can be avoided with social media’s favorite one-click opinion-sharing vehicle, the “like.”

People Like to “Like”

Research in progress at Columbia University (by Daniel He, Shiri Melumad, and Michel Pham) suggests that people derive a small amount of pleasure from rating products with a simple “like” or “dislike.” Exactly like how people enjoy sharing information about themselves, they get a small kick out of getting to share their opinions in even a very basic way.

Social Media - The phenomenon of liking

Plenty of sites allow customers to “like” or “share” their products on at least one or two social networks, but these sites include this feature for an entirely different purpose than for allowing customers to “like” things for their own sake. For example, take another look at that Amazon Facebook share up top. It’s just an advertisement.

People love to share information about themselves, but that does not mean they want to share information for you. Social is a space where every brand wants to be marketed, and for solid reasons: word-of-mouth advertising is a good thing, and Facebook and Twitter are the closest we can get to it online. But to leverage the tools of social media in order to appeal to customers’ implicit desire to share, you need to give them the chance to share their own information, not just yours.

Before I get to some ideas about how to do this, I need to point out one more important finding that both the information sharing and the liking studies found: people enjoy sharing their information even when there is no one with whom to share it.

Social Without the Social

How does that make any sense? Both of the above streams of research posit, in their own ways, that people do not simply like sharing with others (although they definitely do), but they also inherently enjoy the process of thinking about what they like or dislike. In a sense, they enjoy the brief moment of self-discovery associated with answering a question about their preferences.

This means that if something looks and feels like a social feature, people may use it even if it actually does nothing. This suggests that people may use “like” buttons on a website that do nothing except indicate their own preference to themselves (and to the website, of course). Something like this would also free customers from some of the baggage associated with actual social media:

  • It would not make them feel like a billboard
  • It has the potential to let them dislike something (a feature that Twitter refuse to include)
Facebook Reactions - how to use social media
source: facebook.com

Obviously it is better to have customers “liking” your products instead of “disliking” them, but if they already are not going to buy it, why not let them have the pleasure of telling you?

Making social media work for you

This leads to some interesting ideas about how to design a website’s product pages. First and foremost, each product could allow customers to “like” or “dislike” it with a single click, and they should be encouraged to do so. The “likes” do not need to be shared publicly, but they should be linked to the customer’s account or computer if possible. Note that this is not a rating system for giving feedback after a purchase: it is a means to encourage engagement that could lead to a purchase.

If you want to get creative with this, after a “like” you might prompt your customers to elaborate. This would not be in the form of a comment, but rather a question: ask them something about why they do (or do not) like the product, and for extra engagement, have several such questions and pick one at random. For example, if a customer “liked” the Kindle from above, you might ask them, “Where would you use this the most?” or “What’s the FIRST THING you would do with this?” (note that the same could be asked of just about any product).

Finally, returning to the idea of actual social integration, one of the more popular concepts in marketing (with a strong basis in the consumer psychology) is the “foot-in-the-door” phenomenon: once a customer has done something small for you, they are subsequently much more likely to do something bigger. Once someone has already internally and painlessly “liked” a product, why not ask them if they want to share that with Facebook or Twitter? And unlike the Amazon example up top, this would not include too much product information in the post or tweet, but would simply be an expression of the fact that the customer liked it. If you chose to ask a creative follow-up question, you could even prompt an auto-fill based on their answer.


  • People enjoy sharing (non-sensitive) information about themselves, especially their preferences.
  • Furthermore, they enjoy sharing their preferences even when no one can see what they shared.

So give your customers the chance to share their own information, not just yours. If you let them “like” things, or if you have them answer fun and easy questions, then they may like you for letting them do so.

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