At the heart of the social media revolution lies an apparently logical assumption: that somehow social media marketing which devolves into such quantitative gamification as ‘Likes’, ‘Followers’ and ‘G Plussers’, must translate into greater brand awareness, more word-of-mouth publicity and, eventually, more sales. After all, that’s how things work in the offline world so there is no reason to believe that the online one would be any different.
Well, science has now backed expectations with some hard data which shows the power social media marketing has to actually deliver the goods promised in so many client meetings by the social media ‘gurus’ brought in to fix things and make a company social media savvy. In a study rather unsexily labelled: Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long Term Memory Conformity four neuroscientists, Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan and Yadin Dudai, conducted research which showed that volunteers who watched a short film and three days later answered a questionnaire about what they had seen in order to test their recollection of the events of the film, could, generally, be both accurate and truthful about it.
Four days later the volunteers were asked back in and given more questions about the film while hooked up to a brain scanner. What’s more, this time, they were also provided with a memory jogger of replies to similar questions provided by the other members of the group. Although the volunteers did not know it the answers on the memory jogger had been fabricated and bore no relation to the real answers given by the other members of the group. The results this time were remarkable: 70 per cent of those who had the memory jogger changed their own answers to fit what they perceived was the group norm departing from their original recollection of the film’s events, of just four days prior.
This immediately demonstrates two things every school kid who wants to survive already knows: first that to deviate from the group norm is undesirable and second to stray from the pack makes for a lonely experience. To further test their hypothesis the researchers now called the volunteers back and revealed to them that the memory jogger had contained false answers. Wiring them up again to the brain scanner they repeated the battery of questions about the events in the short film they’d seen. While some volunteers went back to their earlier version of events, almost half persisted with the false answers of their previous session.
How Social Media Marketing Really Works
As human beings we are hardwired to be social animals. We also are natural storytellers. Our brains are actively involved in editing our memories of the world around us and the people we interact with both as a means of gaining acceptance within a social group and as a mechanism of establishing a sense of hierarchy and identity within it.
We are, in other words, constantly engaged in a dialogue in our heads which edits, changes and, arguably, augments the memories we have, discarding details which do not fit in with the accepted storyline in order to better fit in our perceived version of the world. The fishing trip we went on last summer ends up, in retelling, being akin to a whale hunt worthy of Captain Ahab. The golf course shot we took is stretched by 300 yards and the cost of the birthday bash we threw can now pay off the debts of Ireland and maybe Spain.
The researchers’ fMRI data proved useful by allowing the comparison of the differences in brain activity between the last questioning, where those who were asked gave a persistently false version of events, and the one before where they were perhaps knowingly lying in order to fit in with social norm (the so called peer-group pressure effect). If changes were noted then it would provide concrete proof that not only are we capable of lying socially but that we can alter our physical recollection of the truth so that our brain can no longer distinguish between the lie and what really happened.
The study revealed strong co-activation between the hippocampus and the amygdala in the brain. The hippocampus is long known to play a role in the way long-term memory is stored in the brain , while the amygdala controls emotions in the brain. According to the scientists, the co-activation of these areas can sometimes result in the replacement of an accurate memory with a false one, provided the false memory has a social component. This suggests that the feedback of others has the ability to strongly shape our remembered experience to the point that we can fabricate a ‘truth’.
The findings suggest a number of things which we have been looking at in connection with social media marketing from a layman’s perspective already:
01. Narrative drive. It has been mentioned countless times to let your social media marketing ‘tell a story’. We see now that marketing which has the capacity to become part of a wider narrative has also the greatest potential to be remembered, disseminated, talked about and, ultimately, succeed in persuading people to make a purchase. Similarly, if you are starting something new you should expect to have to do a lot of hard work before you even begin to see any hint of results.
02. Consistency. Change your ‘story’ or message too many times, or create narrative drives which are too fragmented to be understood and you are seriously weakening the effectiveness of your marketing.
03. Critical mass. Obviously, the more people talk about your brand or message the greater the chance of it becoming part of the narrative of others and thus helping you gain brand awareness, market penetration and more sales. Notice that here you need an actively engaged critical mass so the study supports engagement in your social media audience rather than inert followers.
04. Influence. Opinions clearly matter as does influence and the peddling of it. No one, now, can ever again ignore a single negative Tweet, criticising post or simply ride roughshod over online complaints (Blackberry please pay attention). All of these, however, provide an excellent opportunity for deeper interaction and to help further reinforce the narrative drive you are creating.
05. Peer group pressure. Although I doubt if anyone would ever own up to buying something simply because their friends have it, the study makes it abundantly clear that subconsciously we are hardwired to try and fit in. Great news for Ford then, not so good for the upcoming DeLorean with the new electric motor.
06. Attention to detail. The brain is a powerful filter. It can create patchwork narratives, choosing which bits to ignore and which to keep provided there is some kind of overall cohesion which confers a benefit for the individual. After all, no one wants to weave a narrative for their social group which will make them look lame to their peers. This means that there has to be a clear strategy to all social media marketing with precise aims, feedback mechanisms and tweaking along the way.
If anything the study has shown that far from sticking to the truth we are hardwired to lie to ourselves and to others, using a very complex set of cues from our social interactions and social circles, but only as long as we feel that there is going to be some advantage, like fitting in better, appearing to be more accepted and more stable within our social network. In some cases we lie so convincingly that we actually believe our own lies and accept them as truth.
I am not 100% convinced that a brand (or marketer) could lie so convincingly that it creates the kind of social media marketing momentum that allows them to outperform everyone else. This, paradoxically, leaves us with the truth. We may want to be economical with it, stretch it, augment, embellish it and otherwise play with it – these are all mechanisms we naturally employ in our own, internal, narrative drives, but at the end of the day, to truly succeed, you need to use Truth Marketing as the foundation of what you do.