Digital Strategy: 4 Psychology Tips to Improve Brand Messaging

Posted on July 26th 2012

Digital Strategy: 4 Psychology Tips to Improve Brand Messaging

What is good brand messaging? Sitting in brainstorms I often hear terms such as voice, tone, style, none of which are incorrect - when we build our digital strategy campaigns and / or social media plans, each of the three has a part to play and certainly cannot be wrong. But should we be doing more, can the message be made stronger? For my part I believe the answer is yes; in digital and especially in social we need to embrace the fact that our audiences are people and brand messages need to be tailored to them. Whilst this is stating the obvious, the methods and challenges of tailoring message are manifold, but if we are going to get creative in improving message, I believe a route that deserves investigation is psychology. I should give a brief warning at this point - I am not a psychologist and this isn’t a psychology article, but as digital marketers we owe it to our clients and brands that we work with to pick the best from all disciplines, and the human condition is certainly a discipline worth review.

The importance of message

There are many ways that message can be wrapped up to purvey its importance, but put simply: It's what we do!

The line between message and communication is a fine one - by its very nature 'message' encompasses communication, but it goes beyond that:

  • message is communication with an agenda
  • message is communication with goals
  • message is the dirty little desire for power through communication

For every altruistic statement, gesture and ambivalent overtone, as a species we do not 'communicate' so much as 'message'. We give out and receive messages in many different ways, through all of our senses, gestures, musings and actions; we also deal with message through tone, style and timing. Our innate use of message also goes beyond to factor in methods of delivery and route, including societal, influence, projection, empathy and disruption – each strengthening the message to achieve specific goals.

Is the previous description a correct one, however? Is not this post a message in itself and should there - or could there - be another way to describe the concept of message? It would be just as easy to distil the earlier bullet pints into a statement along the lines of:

“Message is the medium that defines communication along routes to enable clearer understanding to achieve common goals through shared information exchange.”

Nothing in the two descriptions is contradictory, except perhaps in the underlying ethical approach; however, the medium of message remains unaltered. What should be clear from both is that message is important, ingrained, and, if positioned correctly, very powerful.

And the psychology?

Psychology has proven itself invaluable in marketing where the expenditure on awareness and margins of action can transpose themselves into significant changes on the bottom line of a campaign. I am not a robot, you are not a robot - when we engage and strive to convey a message, we are doing so as individuals. In understanding the psychology, desires and reasoning of the audience targeted by the digital campaign, each message can be tailored to deliver the best results. The following 4 tips are just some examples of how psychology can be used to enhance message.

Social styles with Merrill and Reid

Merrill and Reid personality types

You can’t please all of the people all of the time - this is certainly true if you take into account the work by Merrill and Reid on personality types. No one will fall exclusively into one of the personality type boxes, but we do have majority types and will struggle most to bond with those diagonally opposing us. For brand message this can be tricky, because audiences will likely encompass all of the personality types; this is where digital and social has an advantage across traditional media - we can engage. Through any social media platform we have to be true to brand guidelines when broadcasting, but when we move into a one-on-one, or brand to small groups, we should use personality types to gently tailor the message to those individuals or small filtered groups to make it stick.

Cognitive Dissonance and the Call to Action

Placidity is rarely a recipe for progression, and cognitive dissonance can be used to agitate action from audiences. Making an audience feel slight discomfort may seem an odd approach, but from a message approach, if you are also providing a call to action (CTA) which will ostensibly remove that discomfort, it can provide the trigger which will stimulate people to action. Cinemagraph display banners work with this to overcome advertorial blindness (with the average person exposed to over 3,000 adverts online each day, we have become at best ambivalent to most ads), by disrupting evaluation and implying subliminal additional message to gain attention (message is present in all creative executions). The simplest way to understand cognitive dissonance and calls to action is to consider a life buoy (CTA), thrown to a drowning person (audience member induced into cognitive dissonance). Of course if the life buoy is being pulled in by cannibals, the person can reflect on their decision from the cooking pot, but that is another set of choices (I do not condone cooking your audience btw).

Creative emotion with James-Lange and memory

We all want our clients' brands to be loved, but do we ever look at the emotion of love - or emotions at all? It is no longer enough that a Facebook page 'looks good' - obviously it's a starting point, but what do you want the audience to feel? James-Lange theory in short states that emotion is derived from physical stimuli ('I am crying - I must be sad'), rather that physical stimuli derived from emotion ('I am sad, therefore I cry'). It is not fully accepted, but both approaches are intrinsically tied. At first glance it does seem a world away from brand message, but, tied with memory, consider the following:

  • The creative in the message induces a reaction / builds on a memory to induce reaction
  • The reaction forms an emotion (either desired, or combined with the cognitive dissonance approach to make the audience more receptive)
  • The message continues to align the brand against the desired emotion
  • The audience, the emotion and the brand start to become aligned

To be effective in this way, brand messages need to start to engage with more than just flat visual approaches and utilities - where possible, they need to stimulate our others sense and cognitive processes. We've all seen videos that move from serene landscapes to people / ghosts / objects jumping out of the screen and screaming, built specifically to shock - working in this way, we have to look at where to take the audience after shocking them. What do we want to make them feel, long-term?

Through the looking glass self with Cooley and Maslow

Cooley states with the 'looking glass self' that we form our picture of self through our interactions and the perceptions of others; in today’s digital age our interactions are increasingly (and for digital natives majorly), on social media platforms. How people project their image of self across social media involves an aspirational self, a self that they wish to become. As we hunt for amplification through brand advocates in social media channels, the brand message can be used to allow potential advocates to wrap themselves in the reflected values of the brand, so moving Cooley into social media self expression:

  • We imagine how we must appear to others with the brand.
  • We imagine the judgment of that appearance bolstered by the brand.
  • We develop our self through the judgments of others raised by the brand.

Brand message therefore needs to reflect into the aligned audience, to build upon their image of self so that they experience worth from their alignment. This, of course, does come close to the final tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

Transposition of Maslow's hierarchy of needs into digital

Growth of self - both esteem and self-actualisation - needs to be possible across message. To make sure this happens, we have to consider that digital messaging is not a single transaction with our audience, rather, it is an engagement; it happens across time and multiple channels. For example, the steps within a Facebook application are engagement, the pages and actions are a conversation that builds into the bigger message; the question is, armed with Cooley and Maslow, 'are we allowing our audience to become part of that conversation, or are we just talking to them?'

I hope I've shown that psychology of message can be a powerful aid to digital strategy and social media. It certainly isn’t all there is to know about digital strategy (of that I've written at length), or psychology in marketing, but hopefully it is enough for you to review more since I am sure the time spent for the insight returned will be worth it.

Richard Conyard

Richard Conyard

CIO, Red Ant

CIO of Red Ant, author of planning and managing a digital strategy - and university lecturer in all things digital strategy.
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