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The psychology of marketing in the digital age

Psychology has been used as a marketing aide for almost as long as we have studied the human mind. But what can psychology tell us about the brave new world of influencers, algorithms and data insights? Web psychologist Nathalie Nahai reveals all.

The world’s first psychology lab opened in 1879 and, by 1895, Harlow Gail had begun using the science to study corporate persuasion. In fact, the 20th-century marketing landscape was shaped by two core factors: changing technology and psychological understanding.

The last decade has seen seismic changes to the marketing industry because of emerging tech. Not only does the digital age change the methods of marketing, but technology also provides more precise insight into consumer behaviour than ever before.

Professionals are increasingly working at the crossroads between psychology and marketing – like Nathalie Nahai, author of Webs of Influence and professional speaker with Speakers Corner. Nahai has coined the term ‘web psychology’ and uses her expertise to coach digital agencies and multinational tech companies such as Google and eBay.

Her investigations dance close to the question of whether tech insights and influencer marketing can “go too far”. As Fyre Festival continues to raise eyebrows inside and out of the marketing world, is it finally possible for brands to make consumers believe anything, and where do ethics lie in all of this?

“It’s never possible to convince everyone of everything,” Nahai stressed. “Neither would I suggest that it is possible to convince anyone of anything.”

However, she warned: “The danger is that we can incrementally convince people to shift their perception and beliefs about the world in ways that are not immediately apparent to them, either by gradually re-orienting people’s perspectives over time, or by encouraging stasis through reinforcing existing beliefs.”

In this sense, algorithms can hold a lot of power over our lives. But, they are only powerful if the people or brands using them have a sharp grasp of the art of persuasion. The act of shaping perception is not necessarily an ethical conundrum – after all, shifting the way the public sees brands has always been the goal of marketing and PR.

According to Nahai, brands should focus on transparency if they want to hold onto consumer trust through this era if change. This should mean being ‘explicit about values, and embodying them business-wide’ and: “This means that everything from their product development and HR policies, to their marketing campaigns and social media presence should be congruent with the ethics they espouse.”

In the same vein, Nahai says influencer marketers should strive for transparency. Following two documentaries exploring the 2017 Fyre Festival scandal, some commentators asked whether the social influencer trend is finally over.

This seems unlikely, since ‘influence’ sits at the core of how societies are organised. Social media allows leaders to reach more people than ever before, using astronomical budgets to do so. But, at its core influence is age-old and easily explained by things like evolutionary psychology and the need to conform – as well as even simpler psychological theories like the Mere Exposure Effect.

In Webs of Influence, Nathalie Nahai explores fields including behavioural economics, neuroscience and psychology to delve into the complex world of online influence. She also teaches digital marketers how to sell with integrity – something that goes hand-in-hand with achieving great influence, according to Nahai.

She explained: “In the last few years we have become more aware as a public as to the structural systems and dynamics that allow methods of influence to propagate.

“This growing awareness of ‘influencer marketing’, alongside the deep ethical questions raised by data and privacy scandals – think Cambridge Analytica – suggest to me that the future of influencer marketing will have to be more transparent if it is to continue and be effective.”

The benefit of using psychology as a tool for digital marketing is in its many branches: on one hand, evolutionary psychology tells us we are primal creatures motivated by social rank and the desire to belong. Behavioural psychology tells us many of our actions are almost automatic; we can be conditioned for predictable responses. Even simple, strategically-placed messages telling us to ‘buy’ or ‘click’ could make conversions more likely. According to Nahai, even colour can have an impact.

At the same time, cognitive psychology explains our ability to scrutinise media messages. Social algorithms may be able to mould our most intimate opinions, but we are also able to distrust certain types of campaigns and partnerships that could seem inauthentic.

Perhaps one secret to the future of digital is to revive the human spark in content and campaigns – to treat consumers as individuals rather than data sets. Remembering this spark of humanity is important for digital marketers, according to Nahai.

One of the elements that many of us feel we most lack in our daily lives is a sense of connection – with ourselves, with one another and with our living environment.

“This plays out in many ways, but when it comes to bringing magic back into digital experiences, we can make the most of this opportunity by creating stories that reconnect people to a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

“A brand that does this really well is Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear designer with a strong activist streak, whose stories, ethos and products all express a love for the natural environment and the positive role we can play towards protecting it.

“In my opinion, it is this ability to use one’s presence, products and content marketing to dive beneath the surface, that will yield the most magic and the best experiences for a brand’s customers.”

It isn’t just Patagonia – huge international brands such as Kraft Heinz are exploring ways to bring magic back into their marketing by creating an ethical and sustainable image. Ideas about identity, self-improvement and belonging are as important as ever.

Alongside investment in data analytics software and savvy technological minds, agencies are falling back in love with pure creativity. Grey New York has pledged to reserve 75 per cent of its human resource investments for creative talent in 2019.

Perhaps this is because its leaders understand something important about the psychology of persuasion – that digital shortcuts are not enough on their own. For a campaign to make waves across the industry, the ability to tell stories that engage our cognitive biases may become increasingly important as the digital age marches on.


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