How Applied Psychology Can Help Inform Social Media Ethics

Social media is a powerful tool for connecting with customers. As with any tool, it comes with capacities for use and misuse — which raises questions about how marketers can use social media in effective, ethically responsible ways.

A person scrolls through their social media feed on a cellphone.

An estimated 92% of marketers at U.S. companies with 100 employees or more are using social media for marketing in 2022, Statista reports. In an interconnected digital world, how can organizations market exciting new products and services responsibly?

While the idea of social media ethics may seem abstract, business leaders and marketers alike can learn applicable and actionable insights from applied psychology. A keen understanding of consumer and organizational psychology principles, like those gained by earning an advanced degree in applied psychology, can help marketing professionals navigate social media platforms with a high standard of ethics that customers and businesses alike can trust.

The Role of Social Media in Marketing

It’s easy to see why social media has become an effective marketing tool:

  • Social media is wildly popular among consumers. Backlinko reports 4.48 billion people globally used social media in 2021 — up from 2.07 billion in 2015.
  • Social media provides customer and market insights. Sprout Social reported in 2021 that marketers relied on social media to determine how consumers used their products and services, to determine customer preferences and expectations and to track trends.
  • Social media is relatively inexpensive. Social media marketing is a lower-cost option than traditional advertising. It combines technology and interaction to promote products and services.
  • Social media empowers connections between branding and marketing. Marketing professionals can help personalize their business’s brand by managing its social media presence.

Long gone are the days when newspapers, magazines and billboards were the primary media for advertising. Digital content provides many different avenues for social media marketing, including:

  • Photo ads embedded in website banners, sidebars and social media feeds such as on Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterest
  • Video ads on platforms like YouTube, Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories and TikTok designed with or without sound to draw in viewers
  • Messenger ads that appear between conversations in a user’s private chat portal and link to product pages and customer service
  • Instant experience ads that allow users on mobile devices to engage in interactive ad experiences, such as “choose your own adventure” experiences
  • Text ads that use text-only posts to send short, targeted messages to potential customers on public chat boards and microblogging platforms such as Twitter

How Social Media Psychology Affects Businesses

The psychology of social media produces a feedback loop: technology shapes behavior, and behavior shapes technology. As a tool for connecting, sharing, entertainment and learning, social media offers numerous opportunities for businesses that understand the psychology of their customers.

The psychology behind consumer behavior should be an important factor in all marketing efforts. Social media tends to elicit specific psychological responses, however, that organizations should be aware of when creating and promoting marketing content.

Consider the following approaches to social media marketing from professor Dr. Julie Albright, lecturer in the USC applied psychology program, where she teaches graduate-level classes on the psychology of interactive technologies.

1. Tap Into Daily Routines in the Age of Digital Hyperconnection

Albright argues in her book, Left to Their Own Devices, that the widespread availability and adoption of smart mobile devices (including smartphones, tablets and wearable technologies such as smartwatches) allow people to connect with others anywhere around the globe. However, this is done at the cost of the “unhooking” from traditional social structures and institutions, such as neighborhoods, churches and physical community spaces.

People are “hyperconnecting” on social media. Pew Research found that as of February 2021, 70% of Facebook users, 60% of Instagram and Snapchat users and around 45% of Twitter users visited these platforms at least once per day.

Marketers can establish a presence in the daily routines of people who use social media by creating ads that are relevant, engaging and speak to the human need to connect and stay informed.

2. Offer Customizability, but Avoid Choice Overload

Social media platforms are well known for their capabilities to provide personalized experiences for their users. However, marketers should be sensitive to the problems inherent in providing customers with too many options.

According to consumer psychology, choice overload is common on social media. Also called the “paradox of choice,” choice overload is the psychological phenomenon of getting overwhelmed when presented with a large number of options. In short: The more choices a person has, the less likely they are to actually make a choice.

Social media offers a seemingly endless parade of options, which can paradoxically impact a user’s ability to make a choice to click, buy or explore a product or service.

Savvy marketers understand that managing the choice infrastructure (the design and layout of options on a social media platform) can have a huge effect on marketing success.

3. Create Inclusive Marketing

According to AdLock, in the 1970s, the average American person saw an estimated 500 to 1,600 ads daily. In 2020, the company reports, that number increased to an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 discrete ads per day. With exposure to so much marketing material, consumers have high ethical expectations from the brands they choose to support.

Plus, the consumer population continues to diversify — sparking further needs to authentically reflect a greater range of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and differences in ability in social media marketing in the U.S.:

  • Race and ethnicity: U.S. Census data shows that people who identify as Asian, Hispanic and multiracial drove the majority of the population growth between 2010 and 2020.
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity/expression: A 2021 Gallup poll notes that the percentage of respondents who identify as LGBTQIA+ rose from 3.5% in 2012 to 5.6% in 2020.
  • Disability: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that 26% of all adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, which amounts to around 61 million people.

Inclusive marketing — marketing that recognizes the diversity of the human experience — pays dividends, especially among younger consumers. Deloitte found that in 2021, between 23% and 35% of global consumers aged 18 to 25 were more likely to notice representative advertising at the time of purchase when considering buying any of a range of products, from apparel to electronics, furniture, cars and banking services.

The same Deloitte survey of 11,500 global consumers found that 57% (from all age groups) reported greater loyalty to brands that committed to addressing social inequities in their operations, suggesting that ethics in social media marketing that highlight the impact of a brand or product on combating social inequality may outperform other kinds of marketing.

4. Understand Digital Herd Behavior

Herd behavior is the tendency to imitate the behavior of others. Individuals open themselves up to the influence of the friends, family and internet strangers they connect with on social media, which can lead them to make purchases they may have not otherwise made. The pressure to socially conform and fit in with the people in one’s social circle has an enormous influence on consumers’ choices.

Similarly, boycotts promoted on social media may gain further reach among social groups — so businesses and organizations should also be aware of how their messaging is being received on digital platforms.

To leverage the power of digital herding tendencies, businesses and marketers should create content that is fun to engage with and easily shareable.

5. Use Customer Reviews to Amplify Word-of-Mouth Advertising

According to Search Engine Watch, 54% of social media users use these platforms to research products and 71% are more likely to purchase products and services based on referrals found on social media. Customer referrals, product reviews and recommendations are easier to find than ever — and influencer marketing has also been shown to drive direct purchases.

Businesses understand the value of a positive review — and the dangers of a negative one — on social media. Marketers should create spaces for users to share their product reviews and recommendations. By empowering users to write compelling reviews about products they love, social media can amplify word-of-mouth advertising and improve the reach of marketing efforts.

6. Leverage Applied Psychology

Ethical social media use in marketing should build from psychologically evidenced practices. Marketing managers can easily access consumers via social media to market their products and services, appealing to people’s tendencies to respond to personal experiences and trust their peers.

A deep understanding of the audience or consumer base a business is striving to reach on social media and a willingness to monitor and learn from previous digital ad campaigns will go far in leveraging herd behavior to market effectively on social media.

How Ethics and Social Media Connect

As the use of social media has skyrocketed in recent years, so have concerns about the ethics behind its practices. Some governments have called it an addiction driven by what a 2020 Business Ethics Quarterly piece called the attention economy.

The prominence of social media makes it a prime target for unethical behavior, such as collecting personal information, bullying and spreading misinformation. Consider the following current issues related to social media ethics:

The Line Between Market Research and Irresponsibly Collecting Personal Information

Businesses and social media companies collect vast amounts of data on their customers’ and users’ demographics, media consumption behaviors and purchases. Smart technology, including home systems and wearable devices, collect even more data, from biometrics to personal location and daily routines.

While some companies are transparent about their data practices, most are not so transparent and may quietly collect personal data for future use. This leaves consumers open to countless hazards, including data security breaches.

In April 2021, Facebook reported that a data leak exposed the customer data of over 530 million people, including their names, phone numbers, account names and passwords, to the public. That same month, over 700 million LinkedIn user records were leaked, including full names, private email addresses and geolocation records.

Although market research is important for any business, organizations must understand that the ethical use of social media for market research purposes involves both the safe and secure storage of consumer data, as well as the request for consumer consent before collecting personal data.

Dangers of Bullying and Radicalizing

The decision-making process is emotionally driven, and marketers do a great job of eliciting emotional responses from potential customers. But the digital herd tendency can easily spin out of control, leading to bullying bandwagons.

Marketers must stay savvy about the potential use of their material for bullying and radicalization purposes, and they need to recognize they have an ethical obligation to stop bullying when it occurs. Just because a topic or hashtag is “trending” does not always mean that it is appropriate marketing material.

Another important consideration of ethics in social media is how marketers handle complaints from their target audiences. Social media platforms allow users to easily contact their other users and voice their opinions about content that is being posted on the platform, including complaints about products or services. However, businesses should take care to monitor these discussions and respond with a customer-first attitude, seeking to understand and resolve issues rather than exacerbating them.

Marketing Must Not Promote Misinformation

Although social media can be a useful tool for connecting with potential customers, it can also be used to spread misleading information and harmful content.

Marketers must be careful when using social media platforms to communicate with their target audiences. Social media platforms are designed to allow users to share content and engage in conversations with other people, which means that content posted on these platforms can easily and quickly spread around the internet. Marketers must be careful not to post inflammatory or inaccurate content on their social media platforms.

How Marketers Can Promote Social Justice

On a more positive note, businesses can promote social justice through social media marketing. Marketers can do this by:

  • Bringing more diverse voices into the marketing industry
  • Representing diverse groups and experiences in advertisements
  • Challenging harmful or hurtful messaging with counter messages that uplift and empower diverse groups rather than marginalize them
  • Considering the larger social and ethical ramifications of specific marketing messaging
  • Listening to consumer feedback and adjusting marketing strategies as needed to promote equity, inclusion and diversity

Why Social Media Ethics Are Important in Marketing

Businesses are focusing more on ethical actions, a trend driven at least partly by consumer behavior. In 2020, for example, Accenture reported that 61% of consumers were making more purchases that supported sustainable and ethical practices than they were before the pandemic — and 89% expected that behavior to continue.

Concerns about ethics in social media are important for marketing professionals to keep in mind as they do their work. Ethical practices for social media management include protecting users’ data and privacy, guarding against biases, being sensitive to people’s feelings and verifying content.

Put Psychology and Business Ethics to Work in Social Media

Social media ethics aren’t complicated or abstract. Using social media ethically is about choosing to design experiences in ways that promote universal values such as honesty, respect and dignity for all people. When you understand the lessons from applied psychology, demystifying and acting on ethical values becomes easy for any business.

If you’re looking to advance your career in marketing, management or human resources, USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program can give you the tools and education you need to leverage industrial-organizational psychology principles to advance modern strategic initiatives. Learn more about how USC can prepare you for new career opportunities today.

Recommended Readings

What Is Organizational Psychology? 6 Real-World Applications

What Is Upskilling, and Why Is It Good for Companies?

Leading a Virtual Team in the 21st Century


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