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Measure First, Make Last. A Study in Social Media Behaviors

How do you create content for your social media channels? If you’re like most social media marketers, your publishing schedule is based on some vague idea of “engagement” or “community.” Only after the fact do you dig up more precise numbers to see how your content performed. It’s easy to get into the bad habit of only thinking about metrics after you’ve published. You post a video and then realize it received a lot of shares. Or maybe a graphic you tweeted got a ton of likes.

But what if you could create content with the end goal in mind from the very start? What if you understood exactly what motivates specific outcomes from your followers? The particular action we desire should greatly influence how and what we make.

Creating content for social media isn’t rocket science, but the concepts of immediate response, advocate amplification, and direct conversation make social channels completely unique as a content distribution system. Never before has the success of our marketing content been so immediately measurable in so many ways. Impact can be measured with likes, ambassador amplification with shares, conversation with comments, and interest with clicks.

This wealth of data makes it more important than ever to know ahead of time which metrics are important to us. If every data point is of equal importance, we’ll drown in numbers. The best strategy is to focus a campaign on a single outcome and create our content accordingly. Let’s take a step back and identify our desired outcome very specifically BEFORE we make the thing we’re going to broadcast.

But what does that look like? How does content created for impact differ from content crafted for amplification? How and why does content motivate action? What factors influence how that action is manifested?

With these thoughts in mind, let’s answer a few behavioral questions that will help us understand the why, and then the how of creating content for the four main outcomes on social. First up, the humble LIKE…

There’s a lot to LIKE About LIKES:

What is a LIKE?

The LIKE is the low-hanging fruit of social media outcomes. Its ubiquitous presence across the three major platforms makes it easy to understand, and the most frictionless of the potential actions consumers can take on content. Little thought or action is required. The LIKE is the “wordless nod of support in a loud room. It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos” said Erin Morgan in her manifesto on quitting Facebook. So if “to LIKE” is so easy, what kind of content makes the action even more automatic?

Why do we LIKE?

We LIKE things we like. Sounds obvious, and it is, but what’s behind that? Well, we LIKE things that affirm who we are. To hit LIKE is to privately remind yourself of what makes you unique. A photographer may LIKE great photos because it affirms who she is as a judge of good photography. A craft beer connoisseur may LIKE a post from his favorite brewery which affirms his deep knowledge of excellent beers. Not just because he likes the beer on a surface level, but because somewhere deep inside it confirms his self-definition of someone who knows the difference between good and bad beer.

The research supports this idea. In a recent study at the University of Cambridge, researchers found they could determine personal characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, gender, and age with up to 95% accuracy by examining an average of 170 likes per subject. The things we LIKE quite literally define who we are.

We’re not entirely selfish with our likes, however. We also LIKE to affirm others. We LIKE to show our support for things we care about, a cause we’re advocates of or people we love. We enjoy showing our appreciation and providing validation. A LIKE is an example of “Virtual Empathy” according to Larry Rosen Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology at California State University. Dr. Rosen describes a LIKE as capable of conveying a “solid feeling of caring and kindness” to a recipient.

How do we earn LIKES?

So, how do we use this understanding to achieve more LIKES for our social media content? For your content to achieve your LIKE goals, it needs to take a strong stance. It must make a specific statement that is relatable to some groups, but not others. A LIKE affirms that you fit into the category reflected in the content. A LIKE confirms this aspect of yourself. Content created for everyone doesn’t affirm anything about anyone.

Here’s an example:

sorryboys32

These posts are from a series built around the idea of providing Tequila Rose’s primarily female audience with excuses to get out of bad dates. The Tequila Rose brand is predicated on the idea of female empowerment and friendship amongst women.

This content affirms those values, celebrates the bond between women, and makes a strong statement in favor of female friendship over dates with men. If you’re one of the 99% of women who have wanted to get out of a bad date, you can definitely relate to this idea. If you’re a man, not so much. Remember, content created for everyone doesn’t affirm anything about anyone.

So, who is your brand? Who are your followers? What content can you create that celebrates the unique thing you’ve identified in answering these questions? Additionally, who is your group not? For your brand to be something, it must not be something else. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down for what you believe in. A firm understanding of both these characteristics can help you craft content rooted in the values you share with your followers. If you do that, you’ll get LIKES.

Sharing about Shares:

What is a share?

The action goes by different names…share, retweet, regram, reblog, etc…but its importance is easily understood. It’s an amplification of a message to an audience who wouldn’t normally hear it. It’s also the biggest investment a user can make in your content because it’s such a public display of support. A follower who rewards you with a share has become an advocate, which is possibly the most valuable social media outcome we can hope for. As much as we like to claim theopposite, a share is an endorsement.

Why do we share?

A good way to think about shares is as merit badges on a sash. Social users add ideas, beliefs, and statements from other people and brands to their profiles as a means of self-definition. A share is to say, “me too” in the most public way possible. It shows other people something about ourselves, something we believe in or something we like. Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, describes this idea as “social currency.” He says, “you need to create…something that makes people feel that they’re not only smart but in the know.” Everybody wants to be regarded as knowledgeable about something, even if it’s something as trivial as cat memes. Retweeting and sharing relevant content is one way to achieve that feeling.

Tack on the feeling of involvement and you’ve got a clear motivation for sharing. Sharing can make us feel like we’re a participant in the world or in a specific conversation. Twitter especially thrives on the idea of real-time conversations. It’s the digital town-square where we go to discuss current events. But we can’t be experts on every topic, so instead, we find someone who echoes our opinion. If we can share a friend’s language on a current issue, it’s an easier way to join the conversation. If someone has already stated our opinion, why not share theirs instead of stating it again? Microsoft Research, in a 2010 study on Twitter, found that many Twitter users reported “favoring retweets of time-sensitive material and breaking news.” The only thing better than a merit badge is a NEW merit badge.

How do we get shares?

Create merit badges for your fans. Craft content in such a way that your audience would be proud to pin it to their profile. Give your community members something that helps them define who they are in the public arena.

For Elanco’s Trifexis brand, our primary goal in social media content development is to achieve amplification from our audience. In this example, you can see a clear assertion, if only in jest, placing dogs above people. Here you’ve got a strong statement, that appeals to, and affirms the feelings of dog lovers. A share of this post from a dog lover is a way of saying, “see, I’m not the only one who feels this way.” A share of this post is like an addition of an “I LOVE DOGS” pin to a followers sash.

Remember, a share is not so different from a LIKE. The difference is the strength of the emotional response and the simplicity and meaning of the message. If your message is difficult to understand, it doesn’t do the job of self-definition. In a study by Cornell researchers on the effect of wording on message propagation, they attributed success in social media sharing to a strategy of “mimicking news headlines.” In other words, content that is most likely to achieve shares will be clear, self-contained statements that almost tell you the entire story.

Think you know what kind of content will motivate a share? Take the New York Times quiz to see if you can guess which piece of content received more shares on Twitter.

Comments on Comments

What is a comment?

Comments take social media responses in a more open-ended direction. Instead of the single-motion of a click to LIKE or share, a comment requires more involved thought, and more complex physical actions. According to Moira Burke, Phd., a research scientist at Facebook, “‘composed communications,’ are more satisfying than ‘one-click communication’—the lazy click of a like.” So, comments are more gratifying for the recipient, but also require a deeper connection from the commenter. If a LIKE indicates an appreciation for something, a positive comment must express a significantly stronger approval. Or, on the other hand, a dislike strong enough to warrant expression.

A unique aspect of comments, relative to other social media actions, is the capacity to show both positive and negative reactions. In both cases, the emotional response must be sufficient to make the effort of having an independent thought and demonstrating it.

Why do we comment?

Social media users are motivated to comment to complete a story. To generate a comment, the social media content must begin a narrative, that to the commenter, is incomplete. Social comments generally fall into two buckets. First, much like an improvisation, many comments are “yes and…” in nature. “Yes I agree with this post, and here’s my personal take on the topic to complete the story.” In the other bucket are comments that have a strong negative reaction to the content. “I disagree with this statement, and the story is entirely incomplete until my disagreement has been added.” In both buckets, the commenter feels the need to continue or finish the story begun in the content.

Giving in to the strong urge we feel to finish a story has benefits beyond immediate gratification. Studies show that we also comment to relieve isolation. It makes sense that by sharing our opinion, we feel part of the community…we feel connected around an idea or thought. In Dr. Burke’s studies, she found that participants in “composed communication became less lonely.” Giving credence to the thought that a virtual community is not so different from a physical one.

How do we get comments?

If a comment on social media is the completion of a story in a commenter’s mind, then social media content that prompts commenting leaves room for that narrative to be completed or customized. To do this well, you’ll want to tell enough of a story to engage the attention of your audience, but leave a bit of possibility at the end. Crack a window at the end of your story, don’t slam the door shut. Questions are an obvious way to achieve this, but a more subtle approach is often better. Leave a sense of mystery that allows space for your audience to speculate and discuss what meaning could lie under the surface.

The band Coldplay displayed this way of thinking in its recent Facebook announcement of an upcoming world tour. By giving no other details than a hashtag hinting at a tour, fans were left with an incomplete story, and an opportunity to complete it with guesses as to where, when, and how the tour would happen. Music fans love to surmise tour schedules of their favorite artists, Coldplay just took this natural instinct and provided some fodder for the conversation.

So in generating social media content for comments, use your natural social skills. What kind of topics prompt interesting discussions in your community? What are your fans already discussing? These could be fantastic content themes generated with comments as the goal.

What you don’t know about clicks could kill you:

What is a click?

The goal of generating clicks stands out from the rest of our social content objectives in that the content we create for this purpose is meant to take the user away from the social network rather than to engage with it. The potential objectives behind a click are more diverse than the rest of our social media outcomes. A LIKE is a LIKE, a share is a share, but what lies behind a click can be incredibly varied. Brands use clicks to sell products, to disseminate information, to start a free trial, to sign-up volunteers…the options are limitless.

Why do we click?

A click is a manifestation of a belief that the action will bring you closer to a thing you want. That could be a product, an opportunity, or just information. We click on links in social media content when the copy and image elicits a strong emotional response. A feeling of desire around the topic of the post. We hope the click will provide a resolution to that response. Think about clickbait for a second. Headlines like “The Shocking Truth about Clickbait will SHOCK you!” Why do phrases like that work? Primarily because they create a sense of mystery. They create a gap “between what we know and what we want to know…” according to George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon. If we don’t click to remove that gap, we’ll feel emotional consequences. We’ll feel deprived by the missing information or opportunity.

That said, there’s a caveat here. The sense of mystery alone is not enough. We must also believe that the potential value behind the click will be greater than the effort required. To take the action of the click, we must feel secure in the sense that the reward is greater than the investment required to attain it. If we don’t, we won’t click.

How do we get clicks? (Align your goals. Create the gap.)

To create the urge to click is a tall task. Social media users want to be using social media. They’ve decided to spend their current moment browsing Twitter, or scrolling through Instagram. They don’t want to click your link. To surmount that hurdle you need to change the primary want in the user’s mind. The only way to do that is to align your goals with your users. Put yourself in their shoes. You have something to sell, or something to be watched or read, or something to sign up for. How does that “thing” align with your followers goals of feeling smart, or saving money? Understanding the primary wants of your followers is crucial here. If you can do that, you’ll know how your thing can help them.

Once your goals are aligned, use mystery to create the gap we learned about from Loewenstein. Pique curiosity in your followers to a level that’s uncomfortable to resist, but don’t give away all the details. According to a study at CalTech, curiosity follows an inverted U-shaped curve depending on how much we know about a given topic. We’re most curious “when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer).” To capitalize on this idea takes a little trial and error to find the proper balance of giving away just enough, but not too much. It’s when we’re led to believe there’s something of value behind the click, but we’re not exactly sure of what. That’s when a click is nearly irresistible.

Let’s look at an example.

Here, eBay has something that appeals to users who want to improve their cooking. The product and the phrasing in the copy creates a strong sense of mystery. They don’t tell you exactly what the product is, only that it’s something cooks are talking about. As a user interested in becoming a better cook, you’re left with the gap between what you know about cooking, and what this product could do to make you better. Not only that, but you’re probably feeling social pressure, as it seems that a lot of cooks are already using this product. CLICK.

Align your goals. Convey part of the value you have to offer with a sense of mystery. Make it easy.

Tying it all together.

We all know we’re supposed to tell stories on social. But how complete those stories are should depend on our goal. The outcome we’re going for will dictate if we tell the ending or not. Now, if our desired outcome is LIKES or shares, we want to tell a complete story. Our followers aren’t going to share an incomplete message that won’t make sense to their followers and friends. Additionally, if a story isn’t finished, you won’t get LIKES either. A story without a conclusion will have a hard time affirming something about someone. On the other hand, if we’re aiming for clicks or comments, a story with a cliffhanger can be used to our advantage. Placing a bit of mystery behind a click creates that uncomfortable feeling that makes a user unable to resist, and leaving room at the end of a story provides an opportunity for a user to complete it themselves with a comment.

The commonality in our approach to achieving all of the four possible goals we discussed in this series is the idea of putting ourselves in the shoes of our users. As humans, we’re all selfishly focused on our own self-preservation, and this idea carries over to social. We LIKE content that affirms who we are, we COMMENT on content to customize stories the way we think they should be, we SHARE to show others who we are, and we click because we believe there’s something that will benefit us. Keeping this idea top of mind, and focusing in on one desired outcome is the key to creating a piece of social media content that achieves clearly defined goals.

Measure first, make last.

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