No one will be surprised if we suggest that social networks and other large Internet platforms base their business model on advertising and that all of them, in some way, try to direct us towards the consumption of certain products or services.
It is quite another thing to explain, as we will do in this article, how technology (especially big data and artificial intelligence) is combined with the most basic principles of social psychology to turn us all into targets of personalised digital marketing campaigns whose sole and clear objective is to transform us into future buyers of a product. Let’s use the specific case of the worldwide event called “Black Friday” as a mental reference. This “special day” has its origins in the United States and is celebrated every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, becoming, since 2005, the busiest shopping day of the year. It is considered, globally, as the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, breaking records for online transactions year after year. As an international benchmark, it is only comparable – in volume – to “China’s Single’s Day“.
Today’s digital marketing relies on the principles of social psychology to create a huge population profiling platform to support international advertising campaigns. The efficacy of the approach, leaving aside possible ethical nuances, is beyond question.
First element: Technology
The first thing we need when launching a successful advertising campaign is a target audience and sufficient knowledge about that population. For the last 20 years we have had widespread use of social networks on the Internet (current TikTok usage figures are 1 billion active users per month), universal web access and more active mobile devices than inhabitants, which certifies that it is an environment where we can safely have a chance to succeed with our campaign.
The large mass Internet environments offer their “customers” (not paying to use email does not imply that “you are not part of the product”) two great benefits (in the case of advertisers on Google Search or Facebook, it is obvious): precise profiling at the level of the individual and an adequate level of engagement. Let’s look at both concepts.
- Accurate profiling: If we use a platform like Spotify regularly, we are unintentionally giving the platform information such as what device we connect from, what day/time we usually do it, what kind of music we usually listen to, what kind of playlists we follow (e.g. if we search for the word “workout” we might be doing sports activity at the same time) and whether or not we use external devices which, in turn, can give additional information (we listen to music from “Android Auto” in a car, for example). The same could happen with our favourite video streaming platform and with all so-called social networks, without exception.
- With all this information (which can be combined in many cases, due to being publicly visible or being platforms of the same business group) the level of detail of each user is too tempting to resist using machine learning techniques and automatically profiling the millions of users in our environment (for a small fee as an advertiser on a social network, we automatically benefit from this).
- Thus, as advertisers, we can target our digital marketing budget at “young teenagers from peripheral areas” or “women with studies and liberal professions” or homosexual groups or followers of certain political ideologies. The model is not perfect, but we will be fine-tuning our campaign.
- The data is inside the platforms, updated every second and with simple automatic models, each user is tagged by age range, gender, sexual orientation, political ideology, musical tastes, purchasing power, sports routines, specific brands they use, etc. The list is endless.
- Engagement: Every advertiser’s dream is to keep their target audience in touch with their product (those shop windows in the high street where people spend minutes looking inside, now on the Internet). To achieve and maximise the effect in today’s network of networks, the resource is to constantly feed the user with new stimuli, so that they are reluctant to stop watching videos on YouTube or a new series on Netflix. Recommendation algorithms play a central role here: the profiling we have just discussed allows the platform, in a really simple way, to calculate which new video you might be interested in if you have just watched several in a row on a certain theme. The rest is predictable: you’ll find the new video or song interesting and you’ll stay connected for a few more minutes. The new “cop” series will seem most suggestive once the main menu starts showing you the trailer (without having asked for it) and once you have logged in with your “personal” user (so that your partner and your children can use their own profiles and the whole family can be properly profiled). Instead of going to bed early, you might decide to try your luck by watching the pilot episode.
It should be remembered that profiling and engagement form a never-ending virtuous circle: the better the profiling of the person, the higher the level of engagement which, if it occurs, will improve the profile of the new person.
Second element: Social psychology
Now that we have profiled the population (we are talking about more than 4.5 billion people using the Internet worldwide) and we have kept them nicely “hooked” (a high level of engagement produces frequent and loyal access to the corresponding digital platform), we only have to decide how to approach each and every one of these people to convince them of the benefits of the product, its reasonable price and the needs (often social) that they will cover if they buy it.
The universal recipe in this case is to resort to the basic principles of social psychology and to remember the current doctrine on the mechanisms of persuasion. (We have, therefore, to try to persuade millions of people around the world in two ways.
- The need (basically, socially) to buy something on Black Friday
- That what we buy is what the advertisers are offering and not something else.
In the second half of the 20th century, several famous social psychology experiments (which could not be repeated today due to obvious ethical problems) highlighted how effective good persuasion can be. Stanley Milgram’s experiments on the influence of “authority” (this YouTube documentary describes them perfectly) and, years later, the case of the “Stanford Prison” (in this TED talk, Professor Zimbardo himself explained this whole line of experiments) demonstrated, without a doubt, that any of us, under certain conditions and with the right level of persuasion, will perform actions that under normal conditions we would not do. Compulsive buying of products we dubiously need could clearly be another desired outcome, using similar approaches.
When human beings understand that an issue is not important or a priority in our lives (choosing whether or not the pizza we order has cheese on it) we resolve it using what is known in psychology as the “peripheral route” and act in a basically impulsive way to make that micro-decision. If, on the other hand, we are changing jobs to another country, we are more than likely to use the “central route” and reflect for long hours with our immediate environment before making a decision. E-commerce and digital marketing focus exclusively on the first case, trying to persuade us that we really need certain products and that the offer we have one click away on our mobile is the best ever, so it makes no sense for others to buy the product before us. We must buy that product and we have to buy it immediately. This is the goal on Black Friday.
The American psychologist, Robert B. Cialdini explored in detail these decisions and this influence in the case of “peripheral routing” (decisions we choose to spend very little time on). His work has been used to develop many of today’s sales techniques, as well as personalised digital marketing on the internet. We can see his six principles clearly used in the case at hand.
- Commitment and coherence: If the narrative persuades us that the product fits our profile, we will have half a purchase won. It is logical (coherent) that a person like me (profile) buys this product because it fits perfectly with my lifestyle (the message adapts to the profile).
- Reciprocity: How can I not buy something from this kind portal that gives me vouchers to buy at a discount and congratulates me on my birthday; it even reminds me of my last purchases, suggesting the next ones!
- Social approval: Again, persuasion will be in charge of convincing us, no doubt that, if we buy this product, all our close environment (your partner, your friends, the people at the office) will approve it socially and your valuation by all of them will go up again (as in the last purchase, the profile will detail it).
- Authority: The (alleged) doctor in the ad explains to me how germ-free my mouth will be if I use the toothpaste. I cannot doubt (remember Milgram’s experiments and the value of authority) that this is true, if an expert says so.
- Sympathy: If my favourite actress, singer or media celebrity appears wearing those shoes or using that cologne, I can’t be any less. They can’t make the wrong choice.
- Scarcity: The famous (and not always “accurate”) “only 3 units left” banner pushes our mind to the maximum on its peripheral decision route: “Only 3 units left and it’s so cheap! It goes with my personality and others will accept me better! What can I do if there are only 2 units left now?
The formula for success in mass e-commerce on the Internet is obvious and public, but this does not detract from its effectiveness:
Accurate profiling + appropriate level of engagement + appropriate use of persuasion techniques (peripheral route) = Maximum influence on platform users and increased likelihood of purchase…
Let’s keep this in mind next Black Friday, especially before we click on the ” Buy ” button.