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The 6 Pillars of Social Commerce: Understanding the psychology of engagement

Social media is about social science not technology. As such, its value is not realized in the Likenomics of relationship status nor in the scores individuals earn by engaging in social networks. The value of social media comes down to people, relationships, and the meaningful actions between them. As such, its value is measured through the exchange of social currencies that contribute to one’s capital within each network. Through conversations, what we share, and  the content we create, consume and curate, we individually invest in the commerce of information and the relationships that naturally unfold. It is in how these relationships take shape that is both in and out of your control. This is why, in the age of social networking, relevant engagement counts for everything.

One of the greatest myths in new media is that social networks facilitate conversations about you that would not otherwise take place if your organization weren’t present. As such, some business leaders believe that creating a presence in social networks eventually erodes the control of the brand, risking the governance they’ve theoretically held onto so triumphantly over the years. So, if that logic holds, by not engaging in social networks or by sharing only one dimension of your business online, you can control what people think and say. Well, this always seems to come as a surprise to those who think otherwise, but the truth is that new media did not “invent” conversations, experiences, or opinions. It seems imprudent and perhaps commonsensical to say, but, the truth is actually the contrary to popular belief.

The control you think you lose by opening up to online engagement actually gives you a sense of control. While we are measured by our actions and words. We are also measured by our inaction and silence. Once you understand what people say and don’t say, how they connect, what they share, how they discover and make decisions, and who influences them and who they influence, a blueprint for engagement emerges. People will always talk with or without you. The questions you have to answer are, “what do you want them to say and what do you want them to do?”

The A.R.T. of Engagement

In social media and online engagement, the social sciences of psychology, anthropology, communication, economics, human geography, et al, are essential in building meaningful relationships and influencing mutually beneficial behavior. This means that you as a CMO, a new media or creative strategist, or an engineer of user experiences, must first articulate and ultimately design what it is you want the user experience to emulate or evoke.

I refer to the concept of social architecture as the A.R.T. of Engagement where actions, reactions, and transactions become the fabric of holistic and connected experiences. It’s not as easy as deploying campaigns and landing pages. The click path, the outcomes, and the stated value must be optimized, efficient and worthy of sharing. This is where social science, and in particular, psychology comes in. Unlike the traditional Web, social media is a very emotional landscape where people are at the center of their own egosystem. You must design an experience that captivates the mind or feeds likely emotions to affect desirable behavior in a given context.

The Psychology of Social Commerce

The importance of social psychology can not be overstated. This branch of psychology deals with how people think about influence and how individuals relate to one another. In Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and every other network, the social economy within each is defined by how people earn and spend social capital. Based on the commerce of actions, words, and intentions (or actions, reactions, and transactions), individuals contribute to their stature not only within each network, but among those to whom they’re connected. The same is true for organizations. You earn the relationships and the resulting stature that you deserve.

I recently stumbled across a rather interesting infographic created by TABJUICE that visually communicates the psychology of social commerce. The graphic was inspired by a series of studies based on the work of Robert Cialdini that identified six universal heuristics that shoppers use to make decisions. Referred to as “thinslicing,” consumers tend to ignore most information available and instead ‘slice off’ a few relevant information or behavioral cues that are often social to make intuitive decisions.

Heuristic Number 1: Social Proof – follow the crowd

During the new customer journey (aka the decision making cycle), a consumer may find themselves at a point of indecision. When consumers are uncertain of what to do next, social proof kicks in to see what others are doing or have done.

To influence decisions, wish lists, popularity lists, social sharing, reviews, and social recommendations become paramount.

Heuristic Number 2: Authority – the guiding light

Authority in social media is not only related to commerce, but it is the very source of how interest graphs take shape. During the dynamic customer journey, authorities rise as the sherpas to guide in effective decision making. Authorities have invested their time, resources and activity in earning a position of influence and their reward for doing so is a community of loyalists who place trust in their recommendations.

In Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer report, academics and experts topped the list for trust and credibility (66%), followed by a technical expert at a company (66%).

Heuristic Number 3: Scarcity- less is more

A function of supply and demand, greater value is assigned to the resources that are, or perceived to be, less available. Driven by the fear of loss or the stature of self-expression, consumers are driven by the ability to participate as members in exclusive deals. Part affinity, part elitism, consumers have expressed over and over that the ability to have early or select access to offers and promotions is a top reason to connect in social media.

Heuristic Number 4: Liking – builds bonds and trust

There’s an old saying in business, people do business with people they like. And, nothing is truer than that statement in social media. Revisiting the Edelman Trust Barometer, the third most trusted person is someone like yourself/peers (65%). We have a natural inclination to emulate those we like, admire, find attractive as these attributes also contribute to the “guilt by association” impression of self-identity.

Heuristic Number 5: Consistency

When faced with uncertainty, consumers tend not to take risks. Rather, they prefer to stay consistent with beliefs or past behavior. When these do not line up in the decision making cycle, consumers tend to feel cognitive dissonance or true psychological discomfort.

Heuristic Number 6: Reciprocity – pay it forward

Perhaps the greatest asset in social capital is that of benevolence. It’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of paying it backward, where we expect to be paid or rewarded for our goods, services, or actions. However, those who invest in helping others or those who pay it forward, will earn something greater than a reaction, they will earn a repository of reciprocity. As human beings, we have an innate desire to repay favors to maintain a balance of social fairness whether or not those favors were invited.

If ignorance is bliss, awareness is awakening. The psychology of social commerce reveals the emotional elements that stimulate the human network. It is the understanding of the 6 pillars of social commerce that facilitates the development of a more cohesive and connected online experience for customers. More importantly, by investing in the value, productivity and efficiency of consumer decision making and not just the outcome, businesses can not only earn reciprocity and goodwill, but also earn social capital as a result…and, that’s priceless.

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84 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The 6 Pillars of Social Commerce: Understanding the psychology of engagement”

  1. Spike Jones says:

    Interesting angle. The thing I’d like to point out is with the graphic that says that 81% of customers receive advice from friends and family. This is true. BUT this is not a social activity. In fact, more than 90% of these conversations happen OFFLINE. (Kelly Fay Group) My point is that we need to be careful not to give social all the credit, when 3.1 out of 3.3 billion brand conversations in American happen per day offline. So there has to be a balance. Offline drives online and online drives offline. Social is not to be ignored, but it’s not the second coming, either.


    • briansolis says:

      Hello Spike…agreed. However, when you study Gen-C specifically (all who live the connected lifestyle, which includes many millennials) they would rather have those conversations online or in txt than offline. Point is that we have to engage uniquely on all fronts to not miss any opportunities (online or offline).

    • Spike Jones says:

      Agreed, although that communication is overwhelmingly via text (which is still considered offline).  And you’re right about connecting on all fronts – uniquely, but also seamlessly in a consistent customer experience. And even more importantly, as brands, we need to give our advocates the tools they need to talk about their passion – not our product. Cheers.

    • sea says:

       I think the book “leadership is dead” speaks to point … no matter the technique… offline online… the groups/individuals/organisations/brand … the REAL driver will be assessed and play a major influence in consumption.  so less about the “process” of the influence aka entire book on “engagement/stickiness”.  that is the result of trust.  you just can’t fake it anymore.  thankyou goodness.

       anything smelling of “ME”.. “profit no 1″.. over common good, community…”WE”
      so the best influence is being real, genuine. hence to spike Jones comment ” its friends and family we turn to. 

      so if this comment makes you puke… no worries… just means you likely advocate of ME v WE.  no worries.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Brain,

                                              You have a unique point of view. Credit where credit is due. Nicely put together article, including graphics.

    Your point on helping others I’d frame from Anthrolpogy. Gift giving cultures have a currency of their own even though they don’t have a formal tender.  Robert Chaldini (Influence ) talks about indebting people so they’ll do favours in the future that’s fine but not the whole picture.

    I think if you look at societies that have no money you get an interesting perspective because they have colourful ceremonies to support the giving the, thinking of Potlatch.   The effect can work for say Richard Branson. Vigin  sponsors London Marathon in effect indebting us!  We enjoy his ceremony or ritual and when we are looking for a new smartphone we notice the Virgin shop!  It’s somehow  more familar with the Virgin Mobile shop than say Carphone Wharehouse.   

                                               Very interesting ideas!


  3. Tommy Walker says:

    Brian thank you for sharing this. 

    So many in the online marketing space just use conjecture or theory to support their case. Not you though, it’s not just solid information, it’s presented in an awesome old-timey infographic which is awesome. 

    My question is, do you think this applies only to B2C or are these tennants pretty universal because at the end of the day, people are people?

    • briansolis says:

      I can’t help but hear Depeche Mode, but yes, people are people. Certain nuances change such as network or to what extent online engagement applies to decision-making, but there are strong similarities.

    • Kristian Rasmussen says:

      Out of the context. I’m a huge fan of depeche mode. Happy that they got a mention : ). People are people. And people like to communicate about themselves and about the world we live in and life in general.

      The article is brilliant and the psychological-science approach is relevant and inspiring.

      Thanks !

  4. Anonymous says:

    One of the best essays I’ve ever read. The interrelationship of  psychology and social engagement is not unknown, but it’s application to behavior on media has come across very lucidly…and the graphics are awesome

  5. Tom George says:

    Not to be critical but there is a typo in the beginning of paragraph nine. The beginning of the authority paragraph. This is otherwise a fantastic expression from you written on the relationship between psychological factors and social media. Flawless, if you fix paragraph nine. I was happy to curate this piece Brian and give my interpretations. Well done!

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  7. Laura says:

    Really enjoyed your post, Brian. It’s interesting to see that although online commerce is most often done in isolation (i.e. one person at one computer), the tenets of human or group behaviour / inclination remain. Perhaps these evaluations or ‘thinslices’ are happening at an even quicker level given the speed with which we gather information from the net. I also agree with your statement that it is better to engage rather than to back off in an attempt to ‘control’ your organization’s image. The online environment will inevitably end up writing your story for you. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the fate of online ‘deal’ sites (ie. Groupon) which are often circulated etc.. Some have said that their bubble has burst because the market is over-saturated, but do you think these types of sites are just in the process of evolving?

  8. Teri Conrad says:

    You KNOW I love this post! Human behaviour…the ‘why we do what we do’ factor fascinates me but what I most love about this is it fosters good ol decency! We really want to do the right thing and support and lift and inspire. The brands that fall flat are just ‘selling’. Ick.  Have saved to Evernote and will be using in my next presentation Fo SHO! 🙂

  9. Peggie B. Hensley says:

    Good read. Glad I happened upon it.

  10. Corey Quinn says:

    I love how you are applying Cialdini’s weapons of influence to Social Media.  Very smart.

  11. The brain diagram hit it on the head – Consistency: very key to success, Scarcity: of course people like exclusive content, Likes: who wants to like a page that isn’t popular?, Authority: people listen to those who seem to know what they’re talking about. It’s a science, not just a computer or iPad or phone. Great post!

  12. Jeffrey Peel says:

    I note that the article refers largely to consumer engagement.  But, of course, government agencies are also concerned with engagement and are often budget constrained – but are increasingly required to embrace new social channels.  My company is running an event in London on June 28 that will address these issues.  We’ll be live streaming (free of charge).  Your readers may want to take part in the debate. Twitter hashtag is #citizen2012 and web address is

  13. Denise Yanez says:

    Brian, this is a really great post. I found the bit about “social capital” especially interesting. I have a friend who works for a small agency and she told me about a service they used (i.e. pay for) to get their Twitter followers in the thousands…yet, they’re all mostly bots and spammers. I think companies want to take shortcuts now that social media is so “hot.” They want those thousand followers without putting in the time, effort, and social elbow grease that is required to create those connections you refer to in your post. The result? One-sided conversations and no real engagement.I was wondering, what are your thoughts on services like “Klout” that measure a user’s “online influence,” are Klout scores relevant to the online social exchange? Is your Klout score indicative of your social capital?  

  14. Anonymous says:

    Brian, I really enjoyed this post. I had seen before the infographics, but with your analysis it was definitely enriched. This information is really valuable when you are defining a new social commerce “initiative”, it helps you thru the strategy definition process.

  15. Anjula Ram says:

    Great read. This brilliantly ties together psychology with social engagement, and its application to behavior on social media. Fairly new to social media, yet well versed in psychology, its great to know this is not all technology. In the past I viewed social media as ‘messy’, but now I see the use of strategy and psychology, and this opens up many new possibilities. Thank you. 

  16. Student says:

    Wow. Every time I read something by you all the little puppies come out and kiss and ask to be kissed back.   Pretty amazing considering that some of the “data” you give us does not hold up to “logic”. But hey man….. at least you have minions.

  17. Hi Brian  – We are glad you enjoyed our infographic! Dylan

  18. Gary says:

    Great summary of the work by Robert Cialdini as applied to social influence.

  19. This
    is great insight into a vital field of study.  Universities are starting “Media Psychology”
    tracks. Seems we need a descriptive term. Social Commerce Psychology seems more
    appropriate for business than Social Media or Usability Psychology. Personally
    I like Digital Frontier Psychology, but that’s too colloquial.  (Here is a link to Media Psychology Research
    Center –

  20. Ahmedyusuph says:

    Thanks a lot for the very interested article It’s so much inspiring

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