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.