Since ancient times, both men and women have gathered around fires to swap stories and exchange opinions that helped shape what we call today social interaction. Nowadays, the internet connection has successfully replaced that fire, but the idea is basically the same.

From a business perspective, several key differences can be identified. One of this differences is the power held by social media users who can publicly and candidly express their preference for a certain product or brand and have a considerable power of influence over those brands and organizations. An important event such as a presidential election or just another cereal brand launch, everything can sparkle the public’s interest.

The main idea of shaping the world by swapping stories, remains the same. The interaction and connection we have with other people represent the infrastructure of social change. In order to understand how these connections appear and take place on social media, their purpose and how they can be used is vital to social media marketing.

Game theory – a way to understand social mechanics

Although it is a vital need to socially interact with others, the challenge lies in  thoroughly identifying how social systems work, especially in a society heavily influenced by new media and technology. A promising solution has emerged in the shape of game theory which is a mathematical evaluation of competition and cooperation between interested parties.

Game theory, not actually having to do with “games”, as we might assume, tries to make sense of how rational participants, compelled by the same set of rules, react and respond to different stimuli. By applying game theory to social media, we might be able to comprehend social media users’ objectives and their behaviour towards achieving them.

The participants of the social media game are obviously the users, being either brands or consumers. On one side, we have brands using social media to their benefit by reaching new customers, building and maintaining a loyal audience and interacting with their consumers, while on the other side we have the private social media user, who wishes to stay in touch with friends, be updated on everyday matters and be a part of social conversations on various daily events.

An insight on how to gain allies in the social media game

Although they may differ, both brands and consumers have certain objectives. The achieving method though, is the same: through social influence. Each and every one of the social media users are competing for a limited supply of influence, trying to make their voice heard. The most common mistake, that many brands fall victim to, is seeing consumers as targets, or even worse, enemies and not understanding the power they hold as an ally.

Brands should be aware that collaborating with consumers and helping them achieve their objectives is essential to both parties winning the social media game. Most importantly, this means that brands must provide social media users with the necessary tools for them to upgrade their status, and increase their influence on the conversation. By doing this, brands would earn the loyalty and support of a bigger audience.

At the core of every human interaction lies the social status and it’s recently been discovered that any change in status is processed by the striatum – the same part of the brain that “deals” with money. Research shows that a change in status leads to a precise and perceptible neurological reward.

How to increase and measure status using game mechanics

In a conversation, we usually try to increase our prestige. This can be done in one of following ways:

  • By creating new content.
  • By sharing content.
  • By challenging content.

Each of the above methods brings value to the conversation by introducing a new point of view, maintaining or critiquing an existing one, which leads in return, to a status increase.

These instances are transpired into most social media platforms by “likes,” “shares” and “comments”, all of which allow us to assign status to others and evaluate our own.

Similar to winning points and going up a level in a video game, these features enable us to comprehend and evaluate how popular we are in a community and our brain actively rewards or punish us for every gained or lost point.

These features should be considered part of the game mechanics which influence our:

  • Desire to accumulate.
  • Preoccupation with social standing.
  • Appreciation of feedback.
  • Interest in connecting.
  • Enjoyment of personalization.

These mechanics manage to make social media engaging and rewarding by tapping into deeply embedded psychological drives.

How do brands self promote by giving consumers a voice

Whenever a brand obtains feedback from consumers or posts something interesting, it gives social media users a chance to score social points by commenting on that content or sharing it, which will eventually increase the consumer’s status in the community. This is definitely a win-win situation for both parties.

At the same time, it is equally or even more important to avoid negative feedback or disapproval. Social media has the tendency to amplify an online movement, being either one of support or condemnation. Several brands have experienced this first hand by becoming social media targets when consumers called them out on their mistake, either an unsatisfying product or a poorly conducted marketing campaign.

Game mechanics – a small part of the bigger picture

Pepsi’s ad from 2017 is the perfect example of the dangers that social media poses. The ad featured model Kendall Jenner and made a reference to recent events of social outrage against police brutality. Though the intention was to portray Pepsi as the factor that reconciles and unifies the two opposing sides, it managed to stir up the public and the ad was labeled as insensitive and tone deaf, on social media.

The ad’s failure was caused by the lack of authenticity and failing to align with the brand’s purpose, in the public’s eyes. It also showed a lack of empathy towards the gravity of the conflict whose racial and mortal significance required a higher degree of sensitivity.

Game theory – a winning application

In the same year, but at the opposite pole,  Heineken’s Worlds Apart ad managed to gain global approval. The ad showed antagonistic pairs working together to build a bar and afterwards sharing a beer and discussing their differences. Although similar in theme, with both ads approaching the subject of unity, Heineken’s ad was received in a total different way.

It might be that the public views beer as the middle ground between parties of such serious conflicts but the real difference is in Heineken’s awareness of social concerns. Instead of advertising itself as the hero to end the conflict, it merely portrayed itself as a facilitator, aiming to help individuals make their voice heard and thus improving the world.

How to win the social media marketing game

More and more brands are applying game theory to gain insight on consumers behaviour and use this information to form their social media strategies, in an effective way.

Although driven by different objectives, brands and consumers do share the same thirst for social influence. Owning up to this and allowing consumers to boost their social status, brands are creating a win-win situation for both consumers and shareholders.