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Understanding The Psychology Of Social Networks: The Secret Ingredient To Social Media Success

Understanding The Psychology Of Social Networks

You can’t escape it anymore.

Social media is eating the world.

Facebook alone has over 1.5 billion users – nearly 50% of the entire internet’s population.

Throw in LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and region specific social networks like Vkontakte and Sina Weibo and WeChat, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s online but isn’t on social media.

What has led to the rise of these social networks? What kind of people do they attract?

What is their psychology? What kind of content do they like to consume? And most importantly for bloggers and marketers – what works, what doesn’t on social media?

We’ll do a deep dive into all these questions and much more in this post. You’ll get the latest data about social network demographics as well as ground breaking research on how social networking is changing the way we communicate and share.

Let’s dig in.

Social media demographics

Not all social networks are built equally. Some have an overwhelming female audience, while some attract teenagers and college kids.

Here’s what you should know about key demographics for popular social networks:

Facebook

Facebook has become the ‘home base’ for most people online. While they may or may not use other networks, a majority maintain a presence on Facebook.

  • Popular: Used by 72% of all adult internet users in America.
  • More women users: 77% of online female users are on Facebook.
  • Younger audience: 82% of all online users between 18-29 are on Facebook
  • USA (14%), India (9%) and Brazil (7%) form the three largest markets.

Facebook Demographics

Twitter

Twitter’s quick flowing ‘info stream’ attracts an audience that swings younger and is mostly urban/semi-urban.

  • Younger: Used by 37% of all online users between 18 and 29.
  • Educated: 54% of users have either graduated college, or have some college experience.
  • Richer: 54% of online adults who make over $50,000+ are on Twitter.

Overall, 23% of online adults are on Twitter.

Twitter Demographics

Instagram

Instagram recently overtook Twitter to become the second largest social network. Pew estimates that 26% of all online adults are on Instagram in the US.

  • More women than men: 29% of all online women are on Instagram, vs. only 22% of all men.
  • Overwhelmingly younger: 53% of all 18-29 year olds are on Instagram.
  • Less educated: Only 24% of Instagram users are college graduates, while 31% have some college experience – fitting since its audience is largely younger.

Instagram Demographics

Google+

Google+ is a mysterious beast. It is ubiquitous, yet doesn’t attract nearly a tenth of the attention as Instagram or Facebook. Some marketers swear by it, while others are busy proclaiming its death.

One thing is for certain: Google isn’t giving up. With the November 17 update, Google+ has been completely revamped. Expect Google to push this platform even more, which means that enterprising bloggers stand to gain a lot from it.

Google+ demographics are a little hard to figure out since Google rarely releases any usage figures. There is also a lot of disparity between total members and active users. Since Google required Google+ membership to post comments on YouTube until a few months ago, many people signed up without actually using the platform.

Based on existing data, here’s what we know about Google+ right now:

  • More male: 24% of all online men are active users of Google+. For women, this number is 20%.
  • Younger users: 27% of all 16-24 year olds online are active members of Google+. In contrast, only 18% and 14% of 45-54 and 55-64 year olds are active on Google+ at the moment.
  • Large non-US user base: Only 55% of Google+ users are American. 18% are Indian and 6% are Brazilian. One reason for this international user base is Android’s popularity outside the US (since Google+ is baked right into Android).
  • Even income distribution: According to GlobalWebIndex.net, 22% of people in bottom 25% of income earners are on Google+. For the top 25% of income earners, this number is 24%, while for the mid 50% earners, this number is 23%. This means that nearly all levels of income earners are nearly equally represented on Google+.

Google Demographics

Pinterest

Pinterest’s visual nature makes it a fantastic marketing tool for B2C businesses. Here’s what you should know about its demographics:

  • Overwhelmingly female: 42% of all online female users are on Pinterest, vs. only 13% of men.
  • Older audience: 72% of Pinterest’s audience are 30 years or older. Only 34% are between 18 and 29. Significantly, 17% are over 65 years old.
  • Distinctly suburban: Suburban and rural users form the largest share – 29% and 30% respectively. This is distinctly different from other networks where urban users rule.
  • Higher income: Given the higher average age, Pinterest users also have higher disposable income, with 64% of all adults making $50,000+ on Pinterest.

Pinterest Demographics

LinkedIn

The professional networking site attracts an older audience that is largely urban, wealthier, and more educated.

  • Older: Only 23% of users are between 18-29 years old. 21% are over 65 years, and 31% are between 30 and 49 years of age.
  • Urban: Very limited number of rural users – only 14%. 61% are either urban or suburban.
  • Wealthier: 75% of users earn over $50,000.
  • Highly educated: 50% of LinkedIn users are college graduates. Another 22% have some college experience.

LinkedIn Demographics

Snapchat

Snapchat is the newest social networks on this list, but also one of the fastest growing. Here’s what you need to know about its demographics:

  • Dominated by women: 70% of Snapchat’s users are females.
  • Overwhelmingly young: 71% of users are younger than 25.
  • Limited income: 62% earn under $50,000 – fitting given the average age of Snapchat’s users.

Key takeaways

Here’s what you should take away from all these stats:

  • If you’re targeting younger users, stick to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.
  • If you’re targeting women with disposable income, head over to Pinterest.
  • For professionals with better education and income, use LinkedIn.
  • For everyone, go with Facebook.

It also helps to note that 70% of users log into Facebook daily, while only 13% log into LinkedIn every day. Keep that in mind when you tailor your marketing schedule.

The psychology of social networking sites

While knowing the demographics of your target social network helps, it’s far more important to understand how users actually approach each network.

As it turns out, how open/closed a network is, and what kind of content dominates its ‘feeds’ plays a crucial role in determining the behavior of its users.

Let’s look at some of these networks in more detail. We’ll cover Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest because these are most relevant to bloggers. LinkedIn and Instagram, while immensely popular, aren’t quite as conducive to marketing.

The psychology of Facebook users

Facebook is a ‘closed’ network where your friends list will usually be limited to family, friends and acquaintances you’ve met in real life. Privacy is a big concern for Facebook’s users, and all posts are private by default.

This ultimately affects the way users interact with each other and with businesses on Facebook.

According to a Pew Internet study:

  • Facebook users are more trusting (since the network is closed).
  • Facebook users have more close relationships. Pew found that heavy users of the platform are more likely to have a higher number of close relationships.
  • Facebook users are politically engaged and active.

At the same time, heavy Facebook use has been linked to negative self-perception. When you see your friends leading (apparently) happier lives, it can affect your sense of self-worth.

Plenty of studies also link Facebook’s role in identity formation. The lack of anonymity along with the presence of close friends/family means that your FB identity is likely to mirror your real-world identity. That is, if you like Bon Jovi and horror movies in real life, there’s a good chance you’ll also like these on Facebook as well.

How this affects your marketing

  • The trusting nature of Facebook users is good for business since users are more likely to trust a claim if it shows up in their feed.
  • A Facebook user’s list of likes is a good indication of their real world likes. Thus, if someone likes X, you’ll have an easy job promoting the same to them.
  • Positive, uplifting stories that counter negative self-perception issues can work really well in the feed.

The psychology of Twitter users

Why do people follow and retweet what they do?

This is a question that has perplexed marketers and researchers alike for years.

Unlike Facebook, understanding Twitter’s users isn’t quite as easy. The lack of a cohesive identity and structured network means that a user on Twitter can be anyone and anything.

One psychologist links Twitter use to narcissism and the need for self-validation. Neurologically, Twitter offers ‘intermittent rewards’ that light up effort-reward loop part of the brain. Which is to say, the few ‘rewards’ (retweets, favorites, replies, or reading a funny tweet) you see in your feed make up for the effort of going through hundreds of tweets.

To understand why people share or follow on Twitter, researchers at Georgia Tech and UMichigan analysed over 500M tweets over 15-months. They found that the three biggest reasons why people share/follow on Twitter are:

  • Network overlap: Your network is similar to your followers’ network.
  • User tweet-RT ratio: The number of tweets vs. the number of RTs for a user.
  • Informational content: The more informative the content, the better.

(h/t to Kevan Lee of Buffer)

How this affects your marketing

  • It’s crucial to get the right type of followers. Instead of ‘just any’ follower, try to get followers who have something in common with people you follow.
  • Keep the tweet-RT ratio in mind – heavy retweeters are more likely to share your content.
  • Informational content trumps self-promotional content.
  • According to Cornell, using the same language as your target audience and mimicking news headlines in brevity and focus helps get more shares.

The psychology of Pinterest

“Pinterest boards are like its users’ personal happiness collages”.

This quote from Dr. Christopher Long of Ouachita Baptist University perfectly captures the essence of Pinterest.

Unlike Facebook, which charts a user’s “interest graph”, Pinterest charts a user’s “desire graph”. Pinterest users don’t always pin things they have or like; they pin things they want and desire.

As per one study, a person’s Pinterest boards represent his/her “ideal self”. That is, it is a representation of everything the user would want to be or have. This is in opposition to Facebook that represents the user’s “real self”.

This is why the mundane and the reachable doesn’t get much love on Pinterest; that’s something users can easily buy or create. Extraordinary, expensive things and images that represent a desired identity (“artist”, “creative designer”, etc.), on the other hand, get shared more.

How this affects your marketing

  • Play to the “ideal self” – share images that represents what your followers want to be like, not what they already are.
  • Exotic imagery works. Don’t pin a picture of Disneyland – that’s something plenty of people have already travelled to. Instead, pin a picture of the Mongolian steppes or Angkor Wat – some place people desire to travel to.
  • Share images that play up the audience’s desired identity. For example, if your followers fancy themselves as ‘artists’, share images that play up the artistic identity.

What you can learn from this post

Social media marketing is a tough nut to crack. Different social networks favor different types of interactions. Unless you spend a substantial amount of time on a social network to truly understand its DNA, you’ll have a hard time succeeding at it.

To start with, however, keep the following in mind:

  • Instead of marketing yourself on every network, pick the network whose demographics matches your target audience’s.
  • Positivity always wins – unless you’re deliberately trying to create controversy (not a good option for most non-media businesses).
  • Rules of content: Informative content on Twitter and LinkedIn, aspirational content on Instagram and Pinterest, fun/positive/uplifting content on Facebook.

About Puranjay Singh

Puranjay is a writer, blogger and content marketer. He's passionate about helping businesses get leads and increase traffic through content marketing. You can see more of his work at GrowthPub.com.