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Three Reasons We Can’t Disconnect from Social Media

This article originally appeared in Webbiquity

by Mary Mathes & Rosalie Samide, PhD

The term “social media” implies connecting with others, socializing and sharing. While this is a reason one may engage with social media, from its earliest days other motives have driven users to partake. Our research among 4,000 US respondents ages 18-75 reveals that out of 10 social media platforms, only Facebook is primarily associated with serving social connection.

There are four core motivations for engaging with social platforms. In short, the reasons people use social media: 1) learn and find information, 2) connect with others and/or tap into recommendations, 3) explore, escape, or 4) brag about accomplishments, possessions, and show off their life.

A scroll through your feed will reveal examples:

  1. Learn: If you’re scrolling for how-to videos, articles about vacation destinations, or slow cooker recipes, you’re in learning mode.

  2. Connect: That friend who’s always asking their network what show they should watch, or reminiscing about “that one time at band camp”? is seeking social connection: they value the “wisdom of the tribe” being part of the group.

  3. Explore: If you peruse your friends’ spring break pictures, or watching animal videos, you’re likely taking a mini mental break.

  4. Brag: The friend who’s off on another fabulous vacation, or sharing pictures of their child’s Ivy League college acceptance? They’re showing off.

All four behavioral drivers can exist on any platform, but users have figured out which platforms best serve each. They subconsciously associate sites with different emotional “jobs” when they use (or don’t use) a particular medium. Let’s examine the top social platforms users associate with each drive.

Learning: YouTube (used by 66% of adults according to a study we fielded in February 2023), Reddit (used by 11%), and LinkedIn (used by 14%) are primarily associated with finding information.

Social connection: Facebook is about connecting and bonding; it is the only platform primarily associated with the ostensible purpose of “social” media. Two-thirds of US adults regularly use Facebook.

Exploration / escape: drives engagement with TikTok (used by 34% of US adults), WhatsApp (21%), and Pinterest (18%).

Showing off / bragging: is the primary purpose of Twitter (used by 28% of US adults), Snapchat (21%), and Instagram (39%).

Some platforms over-index on more than one driver; Twitter is associated with bragging, but also serves the desire for learning. Similarly, TikTok is strongly associated with exploration, but can be a means for bragging. What is perhaps most notable is the Connect “neighborhood”: Facebook stands alone in over-expressing this drive.

The subconscious reason someone engages with a given digital medium matters, and that reason isn’t the same across platforms. This is why some people find it jarring when they see personal or family-focused posts on their LinkedIn feed. In their mind, these connection-focused posts “don’t fit” with why they’re using LinkedIn.

Advertising that doesn’t “fit” the job of the platform can be similarly be off-putting or risk being ignored. So, a brand’s content likely doesn’t belong on all platforms, nor should it be the same across all. Considering your brand / product and the message, what platform(s) logically fit?

Alternatively, if you’re determined to advertise on Facebook because that’s where the eyeballs are, think about how to tweak your approach to align with the connection-focused nature of the platform, while your YouTube content can be educational and informative.

Understanding what motivates your target consumers when they engage with a platform provides a significant unlock in your media planning to drive greater engagement by reaching consumers in the right mindset to receive your message.

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