Social media affects the brain in the same way that a hug does. Here’s how it works, and what marketers can do about it.
You know how you get a rush after completing a good workout or when you’ve wowed your boss with a winning boardroom presentation? That rush of happiness and contentment is thanks to dopamine, a neurochemical known as the “reward molecule” that’s released after certain human actions or behaviors, such as exercising, or setting and achieving a goal. While physical activity is most commonly linked to dopamine’s release, one form of modern-day, sedentary behavior now gets some credit, too.
According to a study of Australian consumers by San Francisco-based media-buying firm RadiumOne, social media usage is a dopamine gold mine. “Every time we post, share, ‘like,’ comment or send an invitation online, we are creating an expectation,” according to the study. “We feel a sense of belonging and advance our concept of self through sharing.”
The findings are compelling not only because they help explain why we feel compelled to click “like” so often, but also because they lay bare the power that marketers can wield by creating “likable,” shareable social content. As the study puts it: “Building sharing events into any marketing strategy is a valuable step in realizing this opportunity. The benefits and insights gained can ultimately inform abrand’s entire marketing approachand improve results.”
Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., says that marketers’ online efforts can have the same neurological effect on consumers as offline staples of living. “The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli,” he says. “This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similar activity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps, if you’re getting positive feedback in social media—‘likes’ and shares and retweets—it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to, a.) get the positive effects of it, and, b.) return to it seeking out more social reinforcement.”
You don’t even have to go through the physical exertion of clicking “like” to feel the rush, Delgado adds. “Often, if you have the earliest predictor of a reward—a sign of a social media alert, like your phone buzzing—you get a rush of dopamine from that condition stimulus. That might trigger you to go check out the outcome, to see what it is. That type of reinforcement is something that you now seek out.”
And when you share those things that naturally give you a dopamine kick—your workout, a dinner date—you get a second shot of dopamine from the sharing and “liking” aspect, he says. “It’s a daisy chain of dopamine.”
Marketing Social Highs
When a consumer shares something from a brand—whether it’s a funny video, a coupon or a white paper from a B-to-B thought leader—she’s made that content her own, and is thus invested in that content and that brand. She will anticipate the social media feedback that comes from that sharing and is motivated to share more, says Dave Hawley, vice president of marketing and sales development at San Francisco-based social media and internal marketing firm SocialChorus.
“The challenging part for marketers is to make that social media connection into a human connection, and not an automated or derisive connection,” Hawley says. “The connection doesn’t happen because that’s what the brand wants—because the brand wants you to say something nice about them or validate their point of view. It’s actually about validating the audience’s point of view. The goal should be for a brand to validate a person’s point of view about the brand or something related to the brand.”
There’s more danger in disappointing your customer with impersonal or too promotional content online than in not providing content at all, Delgado contends. Since dopamine is tied to anticipation even more than reward, when anticipation is met with disappointment, the brain learns to refrain from engaging with that content. “Dopamine codes a prediction error when a reward is better or worse than expected,” according to Delgado. “If your expectations are not met, and the outcome is either worse or better than expected, then that’s going to impact the next time you encounter that condition. It’s called reinforcement learning. Social media will have similar rules.”
While research into potential neurological effects might seem like overkill when you’re developing a marketing campaign or strategy—heck, you can barely get your boss to invest in an A/B test—it’s worth your while, Hawley says. “Ignore this area of study at your own peril,” he says. “There will be a time when marketers need to understand the basic concepts of neuroscience. They might not need to understand it the way a neuroscientist understands it, but they need to understand a little bit more about how the emotions of the human mind work, and how they can align their messages around it.”
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Marketing News.