The Psychology of Social Media

The Psychology of Social Media, Cranfield Customer Management Forum

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Last month I was invited to present on the Psychology of Social Media at Cranfield University’s Customer Management Forum as part of a day long workshop exploring ‘The Power of Many: Social Media and Social Forces’.

Drawing upon my academic and commercial research as well as project work for IBM, Skype, Nike, Sainsbury’s and more, I explained and explored the motives behind people’s behaviours in online social spaces. I also discussed important principles I believe all businesses should be aware of and adhere to in order to ensure success in these new spaces and places.

I’ve summarised some of the key messages from the presentation below but for more information or to hear the presentation in full drop me a line at

1. Putting social media in context
Social media can be defined as,

“easy-to-access tools that allow digital communication and collaboration.” (Owyang, 2007).

Essentially social media facilitates almost everything we’ve always done, relate, communicate, interact, buy, sell, share, collaborate but more quickly, easily and on a much bigger scale than ever before. So in this context, what’s not social? ‘Social Media’ = ‘Digital’ = almost everything we do online or via internet enabled devices today. Most importantly, social media amplifies and accelerates interactions and information; businesses need to accept this, acknowledge it and adapt accordingly. And they must do this fast!

2. Our evolving use of technology
Technology facilitates human behaviour and we continuously evolve technologies to better suit our needs. Furthermore, we are social beings and the desire to share is driven by a need to establish a clear identity but also to create a sense of community and feel connected. As with all things social, feeling connected to others around a shared interest creates a sense of unity and community. To me, social media represents a maturing or evolution in our use of internet related technologies and we are getting better at adapting them to suit our social needs. Consequently, business must prepare for more and more of the same!

3. Social rules and rituals always apply
Just because something is technically feasible it doesn’t mean it’s right for the user. The Internet and new ‘social spaces’ are not devoid of social rules, rituals and norms; to call the Internet a ‘virtual’ place is a misnomer, it’s very real and so are the interactions and experiences we have using it.

Irrespective of the technology or platform certain behaviours persist so we must ensure that we create experiences, services and solutions which facilitate these behaviours rather than dictating usage based on the capabilities of the technology itself. Key breaches in social rules relate to privacy, irrelevance and inappropriateness of messages. Recent examples include Facebook’s Year in Review service which saw users presented with images of deceased relatives but there are many more (e.g. Google Buzz).

FB Fail 2

Issues of trust and privacy will always be important. Privacy now means having control over how information flows and being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately (boyd, d. 2010). This is fundamental and many business fail to observe this at cost.

Furthermore it’s imperative for businesses to understand the social and behavioural nuances specific to online social interactions. Knowing the right way to connect with users via text based communication at scale is crucial now and perhaps even more important than training call centre agents on how best to manage calls. An awareness of, for example, how we replace the social context cues present in face to face interactions through text based communication can help businesses ensure they engender trust and advocacy from customers when conversing online or via internet enabled social channels.

As ever, motives and needs drive usage in social spaces. If you understand the underlying motives behind people’s behaviours in social spaces you are far better placed as businesses to know how to enter these spaces and design services using them appropriately.

4. The psychology of social media
Below is a list of the key areas I believe important when considering the psychology of social media. I continually explore these in depth as part of my ongoing research. For more information on any area of interest drop me a line,

• Identity as a social process
• How we’ve adapted to the digital self
• Being connected as a basic need
• What motivates us to share personal data
• Broadcasting ourselves via channel ‘me’
• ‘Show’ me vs ‘tell’ me; who’s opinion counts
• Social network theory and brand advocacy
• The power of Internet enabled WOM
• Our continuing evolution; Snapchat and Tinder, facilitating transitory interactions instead of permanence and how this may signal a more ‘accurate’ translation of offline behaviours online?

5. Key principles
We’re all learning through experimentation but I believe, based on extensive academic and commercial research combined with live project work, that there are basic behavioural and social rules which transcend technology.
We can use these to guide us when developing new products, services and processes. And we can avoid breaching them to ensure project success and mitigate risk. The ‘rules’ in brief,
• Help users develop digital identities
• Support discovery and opinion
• Consider the context and communicate appropriately
• Empower the user

For more information or to chat further about any of the above please feel free to drop me a line at

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On 1st April 2015
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