The Equation At The Heart of Social Media Science

hand touching digital tablet, social media concept

In today’s social media driven society, the voice of the consumer is one of the most powerful concepts in marketing, which has fundamentally changed the balance of power between customers and brand. Search Laboratory’s Joseph Hill looks at the math behind online word of mouth.

With peer recommendations playing a much greater role in purchasing decisions, practices like influencer marketing and word of mouth are becoming much more important in modern marketing strategies.

What is common in all marketing strategies however is the goal of engagement, which is to generate as many likes, shares, retweets and favourites as possible. There are many theories behind engagement however they all contain similar aspects which are demonstrated in the following equation.

Emotion + Participation + Identity (x Visualisation) = Engagement

Allow me to break it down. 


“The web isn’t really made up of algorithms. It’s made of people.” – Sonia Simone

According to a study by Buffer App there is a strong relationship between emotional feelings and the sharing of social content. This was found to be true for not only positive but negative emotions too, although positive emotions were found to be more powerful.

So how should you go about provoking emotion? According to Co Schedule the words which we use on social media are the first port of call, and they can be broken down into three categories.

  • Intellectual – Words which are especially effective when offering products and services that require reasoning or careful evaluation.
  • Empathetic – Words which resonate with empathetic impact often bring out profound and strong positive emotional reactions in people.
  • Spiritual – Words which have the strongest potential for influence and often appeal to people at a very deep emotional level.

As an example, this post falls under the intellectual bracket by using the word ‘science’. This was purposely done to entice the reader who wants to explore social sharing in detail and evaluate it for their own knowledge.

Another way to provoke emotion can be through what you share. Paddy Power saw this opportunity during this year’s FIFA World Cup and decided to opt for controversy, creating the illusion that they had chopped down a message in a Brazilian rain forest. Of course this was a hoax. Yet it was perfectly timed in order to create a negative stir, gain valuable PR and then end the campaign on a positive note.


“Social media is about the people, not the business.” – Matt Goulart

From the #NoMakeUpSelfie to the #WakeUpCall campaign, fund raising trends have swept through social media and raised a lot of awareness and money for some great causes. But was this luck or tactical genius? Participation creates a great opportunity for someone to get to know a brand and build a relationship with it.

The more time you spend, the stronger the relationship; the stronger the relationship, the bigger chance of a social share. If you look closely you can see efforts for brands trying to build participation in the disguise of promoting a competition or even asking for ideas or comments.

In theory every user that will interact with the brand will have a stronger relationship and be more loyal, and in turn become more likely to spread the word and share the brand via word of mouth.


“You are what you share.” – Charles Leadbeater

Another factor that drives sharing is social sharing identity, which is the theory that ‘we are what we share’. By sharing what we find interesting, what we care about and who we follow, we can communicate who we are. From this two principles can be used to generate shares:

  • Social Interest: Sharing something because you find it interesting.
  • Social Influence: Sharing something because you (and an influencer) find it interesting.

These two building blocks provide two different avenues to follow in order to grow your audience online and generate natural sharing:

  • Content Marketing: Since media platforms began content has always been king, therefore success lies with making sure what you share, create and post is going to attract the right people. This means researching your target audience and developing a content strategy which clearly defines what kind of content you’re going to post to attract them.
  • Influencer Marketing: According to a McKinsey Study, marketing-inspired word-of-mouth generates more than twice the sales of paid advertising, and these customers have a 37% higher retention rate. In fact, clothing brand Superdry based their marketing on this principle and decided to concentrate their time marketing time to promote the company name through word of mouth as opposed to advertising. In doing so the brand managed to attract fans such as David Beckham and Nicole Scherzinger who were seen wearing the clothing brand in public.


“Traditional marketing talks at people, Content marketing talks with them.” – Doug Kessler

In short, visual content grabs attention where simple text may be ignored because it is stands out and is digested quicker. In a study by Marketer Dan Zarella this was proven as Facebook photos performed best for likes, comments, and shares as compared to text, video, and links. One of the most popular and effective ways to integrate visual content into social media is by using micro-graphics. These are small infographics which serve the purpose of spreading a small amount of information in a visual way to either generate engagement or valuable click-through’s demonstrated in the post by Visually. 


“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the story behind them.” – Cory Hartlen

For the last 10 years marketers have struggled to determine where social media’s value lies and what data is worth measuring. According to the CMO Survey, it seems that the big three that marketers are focusing on are ‘following’ and ‘click-through’s’, although it’s thought that these are directly influenced by engagement.

Ultimately it seems that success will lie with those who provide what their target market wants. By creating a clear social strategy which is based on research into your target audience, it’s no doubt that your social marketing should be heading in the right direction.

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