The Psychology behind Social Media Engagement

By Melonie Dodaro

Ask any seasoned marketer, and they’d agree: understanding your customers is largely dependent on understanding how they think.

Your digital marketing strategy should be guided by your answers to certain questions. What do your target customers need? What do they want? And what can you do to influence their decision-making process?

Take social media engagement, for example. The importance and impact of social media on any business’s overall marketing strategy has been discussed ad nauseam, both here and all over the internet. At nearly every speaking engagement I’ve been invited to, I had to discuss how being on social media can benefit brands and businesses. Chief among these is the level of engagement you get, which is basically how involved your fans and followers are with you on social media.

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 so on), and responses (comments on your LinkedIn status updates, for example).

However, while it’s natural for engagement to be expected on social media, the level of engagement tends to vary based on a number of factors that may or may not be within your control. You’ll notice that not all of your updates are equally successful, and that some may receive more engagement than others.

Now, here’s the question: What is it, exactly, that prompts your social media followers to engage with you via your updates?

Rules of Engagement

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini identifies seven key influencers of persuasion. Since getting engagement on social media is basically all about persuading your audience to respond to you, I thought that a close examination of these seven crucial factors can help you better understand what motivates an online user to engage with you or your business on social media.

1) Weapons of Influence (Social Selling)

As Simon Sinek famously said in his TED talk on leadership, “start with why.” Give your target audience a clear reason to engage, and I guarantee you that they will. By “give a reason,” I don’t just mean the usual calls-to-action or questions (in fact, too many questions may even have a negative effect on your engagement rate, but I’ll get deeper into that shortly).

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 do you do what you do, why are you passionate about it.

2) Reciprocity (Relationship Building)

Cialdini argues that, at our core, we hate owing someone a debt, whether it’s of gratitude or of a financial nature. The idea is that we’re likely to take any opportunity that gets us out of that perceived debt as quickly as possible, even if it means doing something we wouldn’t normally 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 your offerings.

3) Commitment and Consistency (Content Marketing)

In the same way we hate to be in debt, we also have an aversion to breaking promises. It 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 stay true to our commitment.

In a way, this is another observable phenomenon on social media. If you don’t post consistent updates, your followers are likely to forget about you, or even unfollow you. (Don’t bother trying this, though, for obvious reasons. Just trust me on this one.)

Another example is the Twitter account of the fast food chain Wendy’s. Remember how it made headlines a few months ago 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 producing hilarious results).

4) Social Proof

There’s an interesting snowball effect that you can observe on your most popular updates. The more people like and share your Facebook update, for example, the higher the chances that other users will follow suit. As Cialdini explains, people are influenced by what others in their immediate surroundings do – 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 amass followers who adhere and listen to the ideas they advocate.

5) Liking (Personal Branding and Storytelling)

This is where personal branding comes in. Customers are more likely to engage with a brand that has a distinct identity that they can relate to. Brands that feel less like faceless companies and more like real, breathing human beings.

We tend to gravitate towards people and things that reflect the views, values, interests, and beliefs that we perceive to be important and positive. Know your audience, tailor your brand identity and engage in storytelling, and see your engagement rise.

6) 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 that your followers can trust.

With this sort of reputation, you can enjoy a higher level of engagement, whether it is from fans who share your insights with the rest of their network, ask 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.

7) 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’re working within a limited timeframe. Create a sense of scarcity to subsequently create a sense of urgency.

Content that inspires emotion always gets more social media engagement, as does anything that makes people laugh; however, make sure that you are sensitive about what’s appropriate and what may be crossing the line.

It always pays to be careful with your social media updates; you don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences.

Overall, a stronger social media presence and better engagement can only come from an effective and consistent content marketing strategy.

Melonie Dodaro is founder of Top Dog Social Media that helps brands and businesses, use social media marketing and social selling to boost visibility, attract new customers and increase revenue. Dodaro is also the author of The LinkedIn Code. To learn more visit