Neuroscience Tells Us Social Media Marketing Doesn’t Work


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A canvasser knocking on your door during game night. A sales pitch at church. The guy at the BBQ telling you about an investment opportunity. The hawker on the beach breaking into your group lunch peddling necklaces and flowers.

If those kinds of activities trip off alarms in your head, send you into a near rage, or cause you to feel physically sick, there’s a reason. People are unable to receive marketing messages when they are directly engaged in purposeful social interaction, neuroscience suggests, because they’re hard-wired to fiercely protect against anything that will break their social connections.

Social vs. Transactional Relationships

When our social constructs—gatherings of opted-in groups brought together for activities unconcerned with financial transactions—are interrupted by sales and marketing, we all react instinctively and strongly in defense of our social bubble.

With the exception of a rude driver getting in the way of our Car Culture feel-good, nothing matches it. We set aside normal empathetic responses and break all kinds of conduct codes with words and phrases not typically used in such settings. Red faces, embarrassed friends and families, money deposited into the curse jar.

In other settings, when we know there’s an exchange for value—say, commercials that pay the bills on a TV channel, or popup forms gathering our email address to pay for an industry whitepaper—things are different. We’re quite literally in a better headspace to receive marketing messages. When we feel we’re a part of the arrangement, when it’s what we’ve signed up for, we’re at least more tolerant. That’s the nature of transactional relationships.

It seems intuitive: Not many of us need convincing that interrupting meaningful social gatherings with random peddling from sales and marketing people run contrary to our internal sense of right and wrong.

Social media marketers, on the other hand, aren’t getting the signals. Still, they insist on practicing expensive and persistent marketing campaigns that barge in on our social media feeds as we share pictures of our lives, exchange knitting tips and tricks, offer advice for hidden hiking trails, or discover a new chord progression.

Despite the piles of data that demonstrate suspect results at best and brand-damaging results at worst, most marketers approach social media as a transactional channel to find customers to convert.

That is in part because the neuro-network responsible for social thinking is distinct from the abstract reasoning section of the brain associated with general intelligence (the part of the brain where, for instance, marketers evaluate what kinds of marketing tactics will work for selling their goods). In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, social neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Lieberman describes the relationship as at odds with each other, as an “antagonism between social and nonsocial intelligence…like two ends of a seesaw; as either side increases (goes up) in activity, the other side decreases.”

That contributes to strong biases. Marketers are engaged in social media with their work hats on and their nonsocial network activated. Marketers see potential, creativity, and possibilities in social media—which is different from the way people in social circles are actually engaged.

Loss Aversion Bias

Dr. Lieberman’s research intersects with many other areas of social media marketing. For example, the previously explained seesaw effect also means people engaged in social activity need to completely switch their networks when being asked to consider a transaction. The bias of “loss aversion”—psychologically we’re more predisposed to avoid losses than we are to take advantage of gains—works to help us avoid social loss.

In a social setting, we’re deeply biased toward avoiding losing that social connection much more strongly than we are to gain a new product, a discount, or even a nugget of value by way of branded content. We’re also wired to find harmony within our social groups, so accepting a transaction is an act of dissent.

In our view, the most important finding from the research in Socialand many other studies is this: We are creatures with deep, physical needs for belonging. We experience pain from social separation and rewards from social acceptance in the same way we feel physical pain and rewards. And so, we see and protect ourselves against threats to our social connections fiercely, doing so “whether the instance of social rejection matters or not,” according to Dr. Lieberman.

Let that sink in: We experience social pain and protect ourselves against it the same way we do physical pain. It explains a broken heart after a breakup, or a kick to the gut after a rebuke. We use physically derived words such as broken, ill, shattered, empty, and sick when describing a lost relationship.

That’s the result of millions of years of evolutionary development to ensure our survival—something social media marketing managers try to overcome with cat videos and Star Wars memes.

And you thought your job was hard.

Persuasion in Social Settings

Because social media marketing is such a huge industry, and because so many have been convinced by the behemoth ad platforms telling us that it’s worth the cost, let’s take things out of the social media context to illustrate how the mind is wired to receive transactional messages in social settings.

Persuasion is an art, meaning that there’s no one way to do it well. To persuade people, you have to get their attention, gain their trust, and provide them with an action they can take.

Imagine trying to convince your family to do Christmas in Hawaii this year, and you have an idea about how hard that act of persuasion might be. It doesn’t matter how awesome the product is (island holiday, yeah!), it’s still hard to persuade people to do something that they weren’t already planning to do.

Sales and marketing strategies need to accomplish two things:

  1. Meet their customers where they are.
  2. Coordinate sales and marketing interactions to correspond with the moments when the customer is primed and ready to take in such information.

Now, to get your whole family to Hawaii, you need a strong sales strategy. Wait until the whole family comes together for a family reunion. Makes sense, right? You get to tell everyone about your Hawaii Christmas plan at the same time.

Intuitively, unveiling your proposal one time for everyone at once seems efficient. Persuading everyone to make the long flight to Hawaii seems like it would be easier to do when everyone is already socializing and having a good time together.

Unfortunately, that strategy is flawed in a specific way. If you try to change people’s minds while they are engaged in a purposeful social interaction—such as a family reunion—they will not be primed to receive the message. In fact, they will be primed to avoid that message because, as we learned from Dr. Lieberman, their social network is activated, and the nonsocial network is deactivated. They’re literally in a different headspace.

Instead of a welcomed landing space, your Hawaii proposal will land on people who are focused intently on the subtle facial expressions and signals of approval or disapproval within their social group. Any grimace, tsk, or sigh from a member of the family will be amplified in that environment.

You might argue that Christmas in Hawaii is so awesome that the excitement will outweigh your aunt’s negativity (you know the one). Unfortunately, your news about Hawaii is just that: news. New information creates a natural conflict—one that, as we discussed earlier, is working against strong biases. In one moment, your family knows nothing about Christmas in Hawaii and instead has a standard construct of the tradition in mind. In the next moment, family members are faced with a decision: Join in or resist.

Some members of your family will resist, at least at first. When they do so in a social context, the resistance is amplified.

Such a scenario plays out in sales and marketing campaign strategies on social media. Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, Imgur, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube are basically family reunions among strangers who are paying close attention to each other’s social cues.

That is why, in part, social media communities tend to generate negative biases, contrary to the stubborn beliefs of social media marketers.

Brands on Social Media

Across 170 million unique users of 3,000 brands on Facebook, the word-of-mouth that occurs is typically negative—and when it affects brand performance, it tends to damage it, a University of Maryland study found. What’s more, the larger a brand’s following, the more likely word-of-mouth is to be negative, whereas that of brands with smaller followings leans in a more positive direction, the study found.

Think about that the next time you report social media follower growth to your boss—or demand it from your marketing agency.

Organizations that have built thriving online social communities understand the difference between a community longing for belonging and market segments ripe for conversion. They usually build those communities outside of the marketing department.

Some of the most powerful examples we found in our research didn’t even staff their social media teams with marketers. The managers of those communities know, even if only intuitively, that a marketing mindset is a virus inside social groups.

Organizations are realizing that social media activities can return much more value when used outside a marketing context, specifically in customer care settings. That’s because the construct of customer care is much more social: Democratized relationships built on reciprocity.

For example, McKenzie Eakin built Xbox’s groundbreaking customer service team called The Elite Tweet Fleet and a 1000+ member Ambassador Chat program composed of Xbox users who provide peer-to-peer support. She told us she didn’t even have a Twitter account when she started the project, and she didn’t hire social media experts.

Instead, she looked for people with a passion for Xbox, so they’d have a deeper understanding of the problems their users were experiencing. That resulted in more authenticity online, as well as acting passionately in solving problems.

Nichole Kelly built a a million-strong online community for debt consolidation nonprofit CareOne. She told us she staffed her team with customer-oriented talent so she “wouldn’t have to train them to unlearn marketing.” She says she’s been dealing with that dynamic her entire career as her community-building professional practice has developed. “Recognizing opportunities for human connection is very different from opportunities for conversion,” she told us.

The rewards for such investments can be handsome. British Telecom lowered the cost of its customer service operations by £2M a year (approximately $2.6 million). About 600,000 contacts are now handled via social media every year instead of through expensive traditional methods. And the company’s live chat and social media channels have both registered a 44% increase in preference scores while traditional methods decline.

Social Media Is Not for Marketing

It’s time to view social media marketing for what it is: a telemarketing call during game night.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t outliers, of course, or some general contexts in which social media marketing can work. But we believe it’s long overdue for organizations to stop marketing to their online social groups.

Avinash Kaushik, one of the Internet’s most respected analytics practitioners and thought leaders, goes all the way, appealing to “the intelligent rational assessor of reality” in all of us: “Kill all the organic social media [marketing] activity by your company. All of it.”

More Resources on Social Media Marketing and Neuroscience

Why Social Media Should Leave Your Marketing Department—And Where It Should Go Instead

Neuroscience and Marketing Storytelling: Context Is Everything [Video]

How to Make Sure Your Social Media Strategy Succeeds: Take a Cross-Discipline Approach

Steve Liem

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