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How to Actually Attract a Social Media Following: The Science of Building Relationships

The problem with many businesses using social media to drive results is that they don’t often treat people on social platforms like people. Focusing on the likes or the followers isn’t going to grow your audience, just ask social media thought leaders like Guy Kawasaki, or innovative companies using social to level with their customers like Warby Parker or Bonobos.

These best-in-class social media users interact with their following by communicating with in a one-to-one dialogue in a similar fashion as if they were building a relationship with their customers offline. By providing the right context to the conversation and genuinely treating individuals like people, it’ll make all the difference when trying to drive results from your efforts on social media.

Not everyone understands how to apply their skills in building relationships offline to online, therefore having a deeper understanding of the science behind relationship building and how it can be applied to social media can help your business build a valuable community.

Use Consistent Repetition – Cater To the Limitations of Short-Term Memory

According to a study by Peterson & Peterson, short-term memory last 15 to 30 seconds. Participants in this study were asked to remember a string of three letters like ZFA and when tested, after three seconds 80% of participants could remember but after 18 seconds, only 10% could recall the letters.

Knowing this makes it seem almost impossible to get a person to remember your content on social media, since we’re flooded with lots of information every moment across the various feeds we subscribe to. For example, every 60 seconds there is 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube and 347,000+ tweets published on Twitter. That is a lot of content to compete with and that’s just on two of the many social media channels your customer base is active on today.

In order to start a relationship with a person or your community on social media, they must remember you for the long-term. To deal with the way with people interpret information and to build long lasting memories of your business, your organization must continually post messaging that is consistent and memorable to move from short-term to long-term memories. Use content on social media to personalize an experience for a customer or to expand their knowledge of the everyday world as it applies to their career. Both techniques work to help position your company and its content into a long-term memory.


Source: Posit Science

Create content on a regular basis that is consistent with the subjects your company typically covers in both form and topic. If your company wants to be known for sharing visuals, explain your industry at large then continually post relevant images that help demonstrate your knowledge of your industry and the topics your business wishes to associate itself with in order to reach the right type of followers.

A social media user may not remember your business after seeing one tweet on Twitter,  a photo on Instagram, or a post on Facebook, but if this user sees a few posts over a period of time that relate to one another then it’s easier for them to form a memory of your business as it relates to your content. Start building long-term relationships with memories by consistently providing information that matches the interests of your customer over an extended period of time on the social networks where your audience is most active.

This doesn’t have to be difficult due to the nature of social micro-content, which often requires less work to create a worthwhile experience as compared to creating a billboard, television commercial, or a multi-million dollar campaign.

For example, Samsung uses repetition throughout it’s social media marketing channels to alert their customers of their new products, new trends on technology, events the company is attending or hosting, and the capabilities of their various product offerings.


In order to take advantage of the trend in wearable technology, the company released a smart watch and is currently extensively sharing visual content centered around this product offering. This helps remind existing and potential customers of what they can expect from Samsung on a regular basis: products that push the envelope.

Deliver Ongoing Value – Value Is the Foundation of Any Relationship

According to the European Journal of Marketing by Professor Ravald and Grönroos, value is one of the keys of any relationship, whether it’s a relationship between two individuals or a customer and a business. Two friends find value in a relationship because they provide each other with emotional support, companionship, and professional motivation.

Both parties are looking for a type of value from the other and in the case of a business trying to reach consumers, the business must first provide value in order to gain the attention of the right group of potential customers. Value is not only a perception a business must create, but something tangible that a customer must be able to access on their own. Most of what is said about your business across social media won’t be said by your organization, but by users, which gives your company the opportunity to help direct the ongoing conversations around your brand and industry.

Relating back to the idea that a business must consistently share content on social media to become more than a fleeting memory, this messaging must also be of value to a social media user to both form a worthwhile memory of your business and take action with your posts – whether that’s interacting with it or following your profile after first reading it.

Creating content that is valuable enough to incite your customer base to follow your company on social media must relate to their needs and interests as a consumer, be relevant to your organization, and provide either short-term or long-term utility, whether you’re providing tips on how to live a healthier life or make your audience laugh every time they read your content.

Many brands have put this approach into practice, one of the best examples being Colgate. The brand sells toothpastes, toothbrushes and other tools suited to help with oral care, therefore the content they consistently share on social media not only informs their audience about their products but educates them on everything they need to know about maintaining clean teeth and a healthy smile.


Most of their content is educational, since it provides ongoing value to their existing and potential customer base through how-to’s and guides on how to improve your oral health. Follow Colgate’s lead and educate your audience with your social content in order to provide ongoing value to help foster a long-term relationship.

Communicate With Context – Tap Into the Power of Framing

The way people think is heavily influenced by the terms in which issues are expressed. People have many different types of relationships throughout their lives and different contexts in which these unique relationships operate. The types of discussions, environments, and interactions that make up a relationship vary based on the context of the individuals in the relationship, whether it’d be professional or personal. The context of a relationship informs how it functions overtime, framing it for the future.

Context is incredibly important when a business looks to build relationships with its customer base on social media, since it’s often a deciding factor in whether the consistent messaging from a company is considered value, timely, or relevant to a user.

A business must first listen to the conversations its customer base is having online and offline that relate to its product or service offerings and then frame discussions on social media around those topics with their customers. Your business can gain valuable insights about the perception of your brand by listening to this feedback.

For instance, ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s makes use of the context of various events in pop culture as they relate to their core offerings to ensure they are a part of relevant conversations. Instead of jumping on every trending topic, Ben & Jerry’s takes the time to communicate with their audience in relation to relevant events like when they tweeted about the munchies after marijuana became legal in Colorado.


The company was able to bring some humor to a recent event, successfully bringing their brand into the conversation with the context that they are a laid back organization with a sense of humor. The context of this messaging is perfect for an ice cream brand, trying to present itself in a humorous light as it builds a relationship with its following. Use social media to interact with your audience in the right context, in order to avoid forcing conversations on topics unrelated to your business.

 Make the Right Associations – Attribution Helps People Process Relationships

Attribution theory is the explanation of how people construct the meaning of events and interactions occurring in their everyday lives, in other words – how we explain things. Our brains process observations, begins to interpret the meaning of these different happenings in our lives and then attribute the cause and meaning of these events to other factors, whether they are external like our culture or environment, internal like our emotions and inner-thoughts, or a combination of both.

Attribution is a factor affecting the ongoing evolution of our relationships because it’s how we interpret the actions, decisions and events occurring between others and ourselves. For example, if a friend continually invites you to rock concerts and occasionally listens to rock music when you are together, you can attribute these events and interactions to mean that your friend is in fact a fan of rock music.


Source: Study Blue

We analyze the complex nature of attribution everyday through various behaviors filtered by moments of distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency to lead us to actions and conclusions. A business can use social media to make associations with the right partners, topics of interests, musical acts, celebrities, and brands to help encourage certain attributions with their customer base on these channels.

By having a distinctive and memorable position on certain topics, your business can stand out on social media from others in your industry. One differentiation is all it takes for segments of customers to shop at your company as opposed to another; same goes for associations on social media. The unique attributes of your content, mission, and messaging overtime will help encourage like-minded individuals to follow your accounts on social media.

An attribution with the right topics and partners doesn’t happen overnight, neither does coming off as distinctive brand. Like discussed previously, the consistency of your social media messaging and associations with like-minded partners will affect how your business is perceived in the long-term. It’s a commitment to create attributions in the minds of your audience, let alone get these users to pay-attention to your business in the first place.

It not only takes your business being distinctive and consistent to build the right associations with relevant people, organizations, ideas, and emotions, but your business must also strive to echo the consensus of your target audience. Social media is a powerful tool because it helps businesses identify and target the interests of parts of each channel’s users, which can help make a company’s messaging more relevant and therefore, more effective.

Analyze what the consensus is on various issues and topics of your audience on social media and position your company inline with these stances as it makes sense for your business and its goals. The fashion brand Nasty Gal is very successful at growing a passionate community on social media using the right associations. Nasty Gal shares content related to the music, movies, events, celebrities and other brands they want to associate with on a regular basis. Sharing content about upcoming festivals like Coachella on their Google+ page, images of musical acts like the Spice Girls, or scenes from the movie “The Craft” on their Tumblr, the clothing brand knows what related subjects are of interest to their audience.


By understanding what associations to make with their brand, Nasty Gal consistently reaches the right demographic most interested in the type of content they’re sharing, as well as their product offerings. When building a following on social media similarly to Nasty Gal, make associations with the right images, words, moments in pop culture and more to help strengthen the ties between your business and your customer base.

How does your business build relationships on social media? What has worked to delight social media users to become a follower and what hasn’t? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Updated November 20, 2017.