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The Psychology Behind Social Media Engagement

Bronagh Loughlin | 15 Oct 2019

If you asked any seasoned marketer, they would agree that understanding your customers is largely dependent on understanding how they think. Your digital marketing strategy needs to be guided by your answers to particular questions.

What do your target customers need? What do they want? What can you do to influence their decision-making process? Social media engagement may come in the form of click-activated reactions (such as the Facebook like button), shares (retweets on Twitter, regrams on Instagram) and responses (comments on your LinkedIn status updates). 

Whilst engagement is naturally expected on social media, the level of engagement tends to vary based on a number of factors which may or may not be within your control. You will notice that not all of your updates are equally successful and that some will generate more engagement than others. 

Here’s the burning question, what is it, exactly, that prompts your social media followers to engage with you via your updates? 

Social Media Engagement Rules

In the book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, the author, Robert Cialdini identifies seven key  influencers of persuasion. Since generating engagement on social media is primarily about persuading your audience to respond to you, a close examination of these seven crucial factors may help better understanding what motivates an online user to engage with you or your business on social media. 

  • Weapons of Influence (Social Selling) 

As Simon Sinek famously said in his TED talk on leadership, “start with why”. You need to give your audience a clear reason to engage and I guarantee you that they will. “Give a reason” does not just mean the usual calls-to-action or questions. 

Infact, too many questions may even have a negative effect on your engagement rate, however I will delve deeper into that shortly. You need to talk about the significance of your offerings and how they can be of help to your target market.

The only thing that differentiates you from your competitors, is you. Share your why story, why you do what you do and why you are so passionate about doing it. 

  • Reciprocity (Relationship Building)

Cialdini argues that, at our core, we hate owing someone a debt, whether it is of gratitude or of a financial nature. The idea is that we are likely to grab any opportunity that gets us out of that perceived debt as quickly as possible, even if it means doing something we would not regularly do. 

A good example of this is the unspoken “I’ll follow you, then you follow me” strategy employed by many beauty brands on Instagram, who monitor hashtags related to their industry and subsequently follow the accounts of people who use them.

This is a form of profiling in itself, as it banks on the likelihood of people who use those particular hashtags to be interested in what you are offering. 

  • Commitment and Consistency (Content Marketing)

In the same way we hated to be in debt, we also have a strong dislike to breaking promises. I always leaves us with a nasty feeling whenever we commit to something we eventually neglect to do and the usual result of avoiding that is to remain true to our commitment. In a way, this is another observable phenomenon on social media. If you do not post consistent updates, your followers are likely to forget about you or even unfollow you. 

Another example is the Twitter account of the US fast food chain ‘Wendy’s’. It made headlines in 2017 because of their social media manager’s snappy comebacks at competitors and even customers. A lot of people followed that account because they wanted to read those updates for themselves and some even tried to get responses from Wendy’s (often giving hilarious results). 

  • Social Proof

There is a fascinating snowball effect which you can observe on your most popular updates. The more people that like and share your Facebook update, the higher the chances that other users will follow suit. Cialdini explains that people are influenced by what others do in their immediate surroundings and the environment of social media is no different.

This is also why there is such a thing as thought leadership. People who build up their credibility and reputation are more likely to accumulate followers who adhere and listen to the ideas they advocate. 

  • Liking (Personal Branding and Storytelling)

This is where the personal branding comes in. Customers are more likely to engage with a brand that has a distinct identity that they can relate to. Brands with a face feel far more real, like a breathing human being.

We tend to gravitate towards people and things that reflect the views, values, interests and beliefs which we perceive to be vital and positive. You must know your audience, tailor your brand identity and engage in storytelling and watch your engagement rise. 

  • Authority (Thought Leadership)

Let’s go back to the example of thought leadership earlier. As a thought leader, you are also perceived as a person of authority, a credible source of information whom your followers can trust.

With this kind of reputation, you can enjoy a higher level of engagement, whether it be from fans who share your insights with the rest of their network, ask you questions to find out your opinion or recommended course of action or click the like button to silently agree with what you say. In other words, as an authority, you would have no problem establishing and facilitating a conversation between yourself and your audience. 

  • Scarcity

The simplest example of how scarcity affects engagement is when you post limited-time offers or contests on your page. People are more likely to ask questions, join your contest or directly buy your products if they know that they are working within a limited time frame. Create a sense of scarcity to subsequently create a sense of urgency. 

Social Media Engagement Tactics that Work

  • Updates that trigger an emotional response- Post updates which make your audience feel something. A car brand that posts dramatic advertisements for an awareness campaign on driving safely is a good example, as those can elicit an emotional response from its followers who may feel sufficiently touched by such posts to share or comment on them. 

  • Relevant questions for your target audience- You can put up a poll, ask your followers about their opinions on a specific issue or even turn it into a giveaway or contest. 

  • A sense of humour- You can share funny images, memes, jokes or humorous articles that your typical followers can appreciate. Be warned that there is such a thing as too much when it comes to sharing humorous content if you want to be taken seriously in business. 
  • A contrarian point of view- Present an opinion on a hot topic that runs contrary to the opinions of the majority. Do not be scared to receive negative comments or dissenting opinions because those still count as engagement. 

  • Compelling storytelling- Tell a story with your updates. On platforms such as Facebook, where there is no character limit, you are free to write long status updates that give your followers more insight about yourself. On Twitter, the workaround is to post a series of tweets that connect to form more contextualized thoughts. Either way, your updates have to be compelling and share information with your audience in an interesting way. 

  • Newsworthy content and updates- You can pull news updates related to your industry from credible sources and share them on your social profiles. You can also provide updates to your followers about the latest events at your company. 

  • A consistent presence- Responding to comments and messages is an absolute must, so your audience is aware that you are paying attention to them and their inquiries. Keep the page and your social media engagement alive by actually being there. 

  • Having a healthy mix of content topics and formats- Do not be scared to mix it up and keep your audience interested. You can share content on a wide variety of topics (from personal to business), with different voices (from inspirational to aspirational) and storytelling techniques (text updates, visual marketing and images). 

  • Include a call-to-action- Simply put: If you want people to take a specific action, tell them what that action is. As much as possible, be direct without being too blunt or sounding desperate. If you want people to comment, invite them to comment, however, provide something substantial for them to comment on in the first place. 


Content that inspires emotion typically generates more social media engagement, as does anything that makes people laugh. However, ensure that you are sensitive about what is appropriate and what may be crossing the line. Overall, a strong social media presence and better engagement can only come from an effective and consistent content marketing strategy. 


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