This is my first article in a series of posts that will focus on applying social psychology to social media marketing. Little did I know it at the time, but spending 4 semesters in a social perceptions and behaviors lab in college DID come in useful! (I know, I was shocked too). I’m going to start with the Overjustification Effect

Overjustification Effect, simply put, is a description of what happens when someone offers an external incentive for a behavior already found to be intrinsically rewarding.

Lesson One: Overjustification Effect & Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET):

Overjustification, or the undermining effect, occurs when an act that is initially driven by intrinsic motivation loses its behavioral grip as it is replaced by an additional, extrinsic motivator.

Take the example of a young child in grade school – his grades are slipping. The parents immediately recall the hyperbolous discourse surrounding positive reinforcement and tell their child, “Son, for every A you get in school, we’ll give you a dollar.”

Seems like a good deal for everyone involved right? The parents successfully motivate their child who, consequently, strives to achieve better results through the remainder of that rigorous second grade curriculum.

But what if the child already liked school – and thus was already motivated to succeed?

Sounds crazy, I know. But what if…? Well, social psychology would tell us that if the child initially enjoyed learning on its own merit, the subsequent external monetary reward would, while boosting performance in the short-term, also act to devalue the initial motivating factor – the child’s innate affinity for academia.

Now, I ‘m not going to protest the concept of positive reinforcement (surely, it beats corporal punishment) and I certainly can’t argue with years of successful marketing that tells us these types of external rewards (often in the form of deceptive or pseudo-monetary coupons, rebates, points, free samples, contest entries…etc) can influence behavior. I will, however, assert that any impact these endeavors have will be short term, and, when used within the social media landscape, are antithetical to the inherent functionality and opportunity afforded by these social platforms and the brand-consumer interactions they facilitate.

Case in point, Fan Woody. I’ve spoken out against this campaign before, so I won’t go into detail here, except as it illustrates my point and typifies an industry-wide failing. That is to say, TGI Friday’s created a fictional character (also an adversative notion when dealing with social media – which generally serves to augment the human-esque qualities in a brand, as opposed to extending its shadowy anonymity, seemingly embodied in the creation of fictitious characters like Woody), who proclaimed, “Become my fan and get a free burger!”

These sorts of brands propositions can yield a large influx of new fans – short-term, albeit deceptive & superficial, success. These new fans are not brand advocates. They are not invested in the organization. They signed up to get free shit.

I don’t think I need to ramble and rant about quality vs quantity here, but I will (I’ll keep it short, don’t worry).

When advising brands on how to manage a twitter account, the question of ROI always comes up, and it’s intricately linked to the management strategy, specifically, how you decide with whom you should follow and engage. The concern often regards numbers – “But I can only talk to X amount of people a day,” “There are a million people mentioning my brand, how do I determine which ones I should follow?” “How many followers should we aim to have at the end of the campaign?”

This is where I scoff pretentiously and say, you would rather have 1000 followers that are excited to interact with you and actively advocate for your brand, than have 10,000 followers who you garnered by giving away a free vacation to someone who used your hashtag. [Again, not trying to say these types of promotions don’t have their place – they do, and it’s usually when launching an account and should be designed to raise awareness. But that’s all – and that’s not usually necessary for big – household name – brands.]

So what about when you’re not launching a campaign or raising awareness for a new social media presence? What about the preexisting fans and followers – the ones who decided to interact with a brand on social platforms because they actually like the brand – the products, the philosophy, what it stands for? The ones social media is really all about.

Well, all that goes out the window when extrinsic drivers usurp those, valuable, authentic, sincere, innate motivators. A consumer can relate to a producer based on that organization’s brand, not overtly obvious tactics designed to influence purchasing behaviors. The consumers that relate to your brand are the ones that will advocate for you and are therefore the people to whom your efforts should cater, at least insofar as that you don’t abuse their patronage or dismiss their value in light of the appealing and alluring mega-growth (read: meaningless numbers) factor.

Based on the overjustification principal, I would go so far as to say that superficial external rewarding hinders the true potential that social media offers to brands. By actively devaluing the intrinsic motivation that drives consumers to fan or follow (or otherwise engage and interact with) brands (and their content) in the first place, there is a conscious sacrifice of quality for the sake of quantity. Artificial, manufactured growth via fast and easy methods in lieu of the organic growth achieved by brand evangelists who can, and do, influence their peers and legitimately impact consumer behaviors.

The idea of rewarding and incenting behavior probably predates any formal study marketing. However, in my opinion, gimmicky rewards have become so commonplace in social media marketing, too often are brands relying on them as long term strategies instead of for what they actually are, namely, conversation starters.

If I am going to follow a brand on twitter or fan one on Facebook, 9 times out of 10 it’s because I am already familiar with the brand and wish to augment my relationship with that brand by adding a social dimension. The benefits of such an enhanced association can include customer loyalty & CRM programs that may be partially comprised of para-monetary rewards. But when brands offer up nonsocial incentives, like TGI Friday’s now infamous Fan Woody campaign, as the basis for the interaction, yes – there is an instant and tangible ROI – but they lose out on what social platforms do best – connect brand lovers – active, consumers evangelists, with the brands they love and feel connected to.

So I beseech the marketing community – enough with the gimmicks. If you want real results, focus on enhancing the users experience with your brand, offer utility and content that allows the consumer to get the most out of their relationship with you, programs that have something to do with why these individuals are real life fans of your brand to being with.

This is what I’ve gleaned from my personal, professional, and academic experiences. But what about you? Do your experiences as a marketer speak differently? Do your experiences as a consumer reflect what I’ve discussed here?

  1. Great post, David!

    I think you make some great points here.

    “But when brands offer up nonsocial incentives, like TGI Friday’s now infamous Fan Woody campaign, as the basis for the interaction, yes – there is an instant and tangible ROI – but they lose out on what social platforms do best – connect brand lovers – active, consumers evangelists, with the brands they love and feel connected to.”

    Social media should be a platform to build brand lovers and I think there needs to be more focus on this aspect rather than short term ROI. In the end, someone that loves your brand and connects with your brand will probably buy more from you down the line anyways….

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!


    • Aerocles says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you’re looking forward to the rest, I hope I don’t disappoint. Always appreciate your thoughts & feedback on my posts, Tegan 🙂

  2. With a PhD in psychology, my interest was piqued by the title – but flagged with the verbiage.
    You make good points, but relay them in pedantic style that doesn’t fit with the social media mindset.
    Short choppy sentences with smaller words (grade level 4 or less) seems to fly best.

    • Aerocles says:

      Well, I’m glad you concur with the content and my assertions. As for the style, this is just how I write, very stream of consciousness. I don’t think I’m being pedantic, but if that’s how you read it, I suppose it’s a valid perspective. While I agree, social media lends itself to short choppy dumbed down sentence structure, I am more than happy to cater to the masses, in that regard, on Twitter. But here, I’ll write how I write and if people like what they read then they’ll come back for more. If not not. Either way, I hope I’ve made a return reader out of you! Thanks for the feedback!

      • Keith Morris says:

        I think Kristine’s comment was a jab at the average Facebook user for his short attention span and lack of intelligence–an underhanded compliment to you for the thought you put into this piece.

  3. ronwolf says:

    Excellent post and I agree.

    I was first trained as a content creator for film and television and I believe that without a well-structured story there cannot be a truly engaged audience and therefore the film will not succeed. Having dabbled in digital content creation and now as a student of advertising, I see a common thread.

    It is the creative content that will attract attention and if the message is easy to understand and achieves solid communications objectives, people will talk, share and repurpose the content wherever they can with or without support or gimmicky incentives from the creator.

    I believe brands should strive to take advantage of this natural dissemination and facilitate cooperation with these advocates through social networks to further evolve the brand and create future campaigns. Much like a great movie, campaigns have the ability to create an experience that can live on for years but the call to action has to be strong enough to create the motivation.

    Some (well, most) may jump at the opportunity to get free stuff but I don’t believe they would remember who gave them what the next month.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series as well,


  4. Amanda Oleson says:

    I think you’ve brought up some good points here, David! I think a lot of times we as marketers can lose sight of what we’re actually trying to accomplish by using social media with short term results. Yes, the Woody campaign gave away tons of free burgers, but how many of the fans who signed up for free stuff are still fans? Not me… I unfanned as soon as my free burger came along. You’ve done a great job of pointing out that social media channels and tactics should be in place to maintain contact with key audiences- to listen to them, to bring your audience something of value to them – not just to get 10,000 people to RT a giveaway hashtag.

  5. Deirdre says:

    Hi David, really interesting post. You’ve brought up some great points. I agree that if you want to go beyond short term ROI, then the communication/interactions must go beyond the gimmicks and promotions. It takes true commitment to a relationship to build loyalty. Like you said, enhancing the users experience, offering utility and content that allows the consumer to get the most out of the relationship , and offering programs to further connect the consumer to a brand, is a great way to move the relationship to another level and long term positive outcomes.

  6. […] out this extremely interesting deck on psychology and social media). This is not to say we should over-justify what we […]

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