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Many digital marketers make a common error from the outset when planning their content marketing campaigns.

The tendency is to think "what shall we give our audience?" when it is just as important to ask "why should they care?"

I am fascinated by the whole psychology of social media: What motivates people to take certain actions, such as overshare the minutiae of their life, or angrily "out" brands on social networks rather than complain directly to them in private, or retweet unproven allegations (and therefore get sued), and so forth?

As well as these inevitable threats there lie opportunities for marketers if they can understand what motivates people to retweet, share, plus one, like and comment on content.

We hear a lot about the word “engagement”, but just what is it? We see that as the point at which customer-focussed content linked to business objectives meets the demands that target audiences want satisfied, be that the answer to a specific question, a general quest for knowledge in a particular field or just purely entertainment.

If marketers can find that sweet spot where their content satisfies consumer demand then they stand a chance at being successful at content marketing. They have achieved engagement.

Why we do what we do online

I recently interviewed an internet marketer for the University of Westminster’s New Media Knowledge website who was also, handily, a trained psychologist, about the psychology of social and he affirmed that people treat social media as an extension of their own persona.

What they post and say is a projection of themselves, their beliefs, their interests, their entire identity.

There’s a certain “me too-ism”, as I call it, about the way people act online.

We like to be first – or amongst the first – to know something; many people follow the crowd and don’t want to stand out, thus retweeting or commenting on popular subject matters; or maybe they just want to be associated with a cause – the Twitter era equivalent of those campaign wrist bands we all used to wear in 2005.

How can we as marketers provoke an emotional response?

Then there’s the whole issue of “social proofing”. People love numbers. Right now there’s probably a box following you down the left hand side of this post, almost imploring you to share the article.

These numbers are critical to virality as you will share the article with your own sphere of influence if you oblige. Almost as importantly, they tell those visiting this post for the first time that lots of people have read and shared this post, the implication being that they should to. Social proofing is a very powerful force.

Watch, wait and listen

At the start of campaigns it is essential to listen to your audiences, so see what they are talking about and in what context, in order to create relevant content for them going forward. But the question why will they enjoy and share your content, and respond to calls to actions, needs to be addressed at the planning stage too.

Too many organisations fail to step away from the brand and look objectively from the outside in, as if through the eyes of the punters they wish to reach. By and large, the man and woman in the street is not anywhere near as interested in brands and their messaging as marketers would like to believe.

Neutral, quality, unique, engaging content is the bridge between the two worlds.

Social proofing is one easy best practice to follow, but if that content lacks the context and relevance for the target audience in the first place, if it fails to educate, entertain and/or answer questions, then the content – and the campaign – is doomed to fail.

Build for the long-term

Building a community is a long-term game, but psychology also plays a big role here in nurturing the community. I have seen it argued that people do not like to simply throw away relationships that they have taken time to nurture, and this should extend to the relationships between brands and their communities, wherever they reside.

Like a plant, it needs regular watering to grow: give it knowledge, entertainment and genuine engagement. Any relationship needs a value exchange, so give the community value.

In social media, a little understanding of psychology can go a long way to creating engagement and virality. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is being reassessed 70 years on as social media ticks the esteem and self-actualisation boxes for brands and individuals alike.

Understanding what drives, rewards, motivates, entertains and generally stirs an emotional response from people and content marketing can flourish. If you fail to understand what motivates your audience, then you will most likely be left scratching your head.

Chris Lee

Published 22 May, 2013 by Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a freelance digital consultant, trainer and copywriter. He is also @CMRLee on Twitter.

9 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Kokkeler Carrie

thanks for giving this needful information to us

about 4 years ago


Denis Failly

The vision of Maslow and his hierarchy of needs remains fairly mechanistic, a higher need can not be satisfied without the satisfaction of preceding one. Given the complexity of human and ecosystem around it, are we sure of that (especially as everything leads us to swim in the "massively parallel", in the "simultaneous" and less in the sequential or linear). Finally Maslow built his pyramid in a Western context only for a certain population and in the 40s!. The trend today is to creolization, interbreeding and hybridization of all kinds ...
I am always skeptical when we try to fold the reality to make it enter in a model as Maslow Pyramid !

about 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Thanks for your input, Denis. I've only referred to Maslow fleetingly as it fascinates me to think how he would reassess his pyramid in today's very public arena.

The principle remains, if you can trigger an emotional response from your content, you are more likely to achieve virality and engagement.

about 4 years ago



Maslow, as with much of the positive psychology movement, suffered from essentially looking like a nice idea, but being unfalsifiable.
The complex nature of humans in any environment seem to make simple constructs like the hierarchy essentially a bit simplistic, and remove explanatory power.
I do agree that in all probability, our social media life is an extension of ourselves, but then, why wouldn't it be? It is us after all.... Group dynamics are in action on all sorts of levels and it seems reasonable to assume that they would continue to be in social media. We are, as they say, a social animal. But to hold up Maslow as a panacea of understanding, well, anything really, seems a little naive and uninformed...

about 4 years ago


Deborah Meredith

Thank you for reminding us of what is behind social media engagement. Too often we get caught up in the drive to continually post to social media without understanding what type of information we really need to post to get our audience excited.

about 4 years ago

Danny Ashton

Danny Ashton, Founder at Neo Mam Studios

Chris, I love most trying to get in the mindset of the audience. One of the books that I recently read that I think you would like is called 'Contagious' by Jonah Berger. In the book he looks at a number of factors that actually improve the rate in which content is shared. One of those points is Social Currency where certain content will provide the person who shared it with social currency and its value. That really matches up with the point of social proof that you talked about as well. Certainly, I look forward to some more posts by you in the future.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Thanks for the tip, Danny. I'll make sure I check out 'Contagious'.

almost 4 years ago

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