Applying Behavioral Principles to Personalize Content Using Social Media

August 19, 2013

The framework that Don Norman proposed in 2005 for analyzing products and services by the emotions that they evoke in users includes a product’s presentation—its attractiveness, behavior, and the image that it presents. We can assess a product design according to the different levels at which users process their responses to it: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Visceral design refers to designing the user’s first impression of a product—the appearance the product presents to users. Behavioral design is about the experience that users have while using the product. And reflection is about users’ thoughts after using a product—the feelings that using the product induced, the image that it portrayed, its brand messaging, and the overall trust that the product gains or loses after people use it. It is important to understand these stages because this article focuses on users’ engagement with online products and services, describes how engagement enables conversions, and analyzes the affects of engagement on user behavior.

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In this article, I encourage you to use behavioral tools to engage users and motivate their behavior on a Web site with the help of hotspots. Hotspots are key interaction points on a Web site. They carry messaging to create a touchpoint that converts users by motivating them to purchase something or increases their engagement with the site’s content. The behavioral principles that I describe in this article enable you to increase user engagement online and motivate personalization through social media.


Can you motivate people to come together on a Web site? Site registration aims to encourage this behavior. But why doesn’t this always work? For one thing, people become account fatigued and, thus, more resistant to registering. Even after they’ve created an account, many forget their account information or decide to leave Web sites. Finally, even when people do register, they may lie. So, it’s no surprise that we may mistakenly target people. In a study that Janrain conducted in America, results show that 92% of consumers report having left a Web site because they’ve forgotten their user name or password. In addition, 64% of those who leave sites because they can’t remember their account information say that social sign-in is an option companies should offer. Figure 1 shows an example of a hotspot on a Web site. This hotspot uses the power of social networking to increase a user’s motivation to converge with others on a Web site. When users are aware of which of their friends have registered on a Web site, there is a greater likelihood that they will go ahead and click a social sign-in button.

Figure 1—Facebook’s social sign-in
Facebook’s social sign-in

Social sign-in helps you to understand and engage customers through the user journey that you provide on your Web site. A research study by Forrester shows that users share 70 billion pieces of content on Facebook every month. Interestingly, another Forrester study shows a reduction in the number instances of sharing and contributing to social media networks. To boost social-media participation on a Web site and increase social sign-ins, companies should improve the online tools that they offer, making sure that they are intuitive and easy to use and, more importantly, encourage the instant gratification of interacting with content online.

For example, a site might combine the power of friends, or who’s using a site, with the ease of social sign-in as Facebook does, shown in Figure 1. This creates convergence on a Web site that provides social sign-in, personalized content, and a place where friends can gather. To encourage users to click a call to action, the right copy is also important. It needs to motivate users to click the call to action—for example, Personalise your experience. A study that Accenture conducted in 2012 found that people in the US and the UK want trusted retailers to provide them with personalized content.

Usefulness and Relevance

Users tend to share and recommend content according to the usefulness and relevance of that content. For example, a study by Estes showed that a user subscribed to a news site because he liked “the quality of the news stories.” Research by Buechel and Berger showed that people share information that is relevant and beneficial. This serves as a valuable emotion-regulation tool. People have an affiliation toward others with whom they can share their emotions, and it is less threatening to share information online.

Individuals begin to rely on their online social network to share what they think and feel; hopefully, with the outcome of gaining social recognition. This helps individuals boost their sense of well-being by increasing their perceived social support. With this in mind, companies need to combine relevant information with the ability to share it with a wider network. While your content may be useful to people, it is also important to allow them to personalize content. For example, as shown in Figure 2, a user’s clicking the Want it button for a product should enable the system to monitor and track the products that interest the user. This improves the personalized user journeys that a site provides. Figure 2 also shows that users can share content once they have liked a product online.

Figure 2—Provide the ability to share a product with friends to increase conversions
Provide the ability to share a product with friends to increase conversions

Immediacy of Information

Users choose to look at content because of the timeliness of the information that you present to them. A study by Kelleya and Gorham showed that people are likely to respond to content that is relevant and timely. The effect of showcasing timely content is increased interaction and engagement on a Web site. The hotspot shown in Figure 3 couples personalized content recommendations with timeliness—creating impact when users browse the Web site.

Figure 3—Presenting timely and relevant information to users
Presenting timely and relevant information to users

Familiarity and Trust

When users share information, that information needs to come from a trusted source. Users base their registration and sharing choices on the reputation and trustworthiness of a company or organization. A study conducted by Estes described a user’s experience in this regard, “I shared information because they were known and trusted sources of information. For my games and movies, I select known sources.”

Research online has focused on the type of trust that gets built through ongoing interactions with a Web site that help people to believe in an organization. These interactions affect their level of trust. Research by Gefen showed that people browsing through content online need to trust the vendor before they’ll make any purchase decisions. As seen in Figure 4, on-screen messages can help to build trust online by giving users a personalized experience. Online trust is important whether you are distributing information or initiating online business transactions. Users decide whether they are going to buy your information, or content, or your goods or services. Ecommerce relationships depend on trust. Lack of trust is one of the most formidable barriers to building online relationships.

An example of building trust online is the use of on-screen messages. Hotspots on a Web site personalize the experience. Acknowledging to a user that he’s new to a Web site piques his curiosity. In addition, providing an introductory video about the company induces trust and familiarity.

Figure 4—A personalized, on-screen message that appears when a user enters a Web site
A personalized, on-screen message that appears when a user enters a Web site

Luhmann suggests that one antecedent of trust is familiarity. In his theory of trust and power, trust creates a framework for understanding both the environment and the trusted party. Familiarity is an understanding of why others do what they do that a person has gained from their previous experiences and helps reduce people’s uncertainty.

According to Gefen, familiarity relates to understanding the current actions of other people, while trust relates to beliefs about the future actions of other people. The study suggested that familiarity and trust complement each other. Familiarity reduces uncertainty by establishing a structure. Trust reduces uncertainty by allowing people to have relatively reliable expectations. Gefen’s research supports the basic assumption that both trust and familiarity influence ecommerce. Their research results show that both trust in a vendor and vendor familiarity impact customers’ intentions to inquire and purchase. The data also showed that trust is significantly affected by familiarity.

Once trust has been established, another way of increasing familiarity is to learn about peoples’ social networks—once they have consented to allowing you to track their data, as shown in Figure 5. Companies should help consenting users to understand their behavior through their friends. Identifying and inviting friends who share common interests establishes a relationship.

Figure 5—Create a social space for friends online to build familiarity
Create a social space for friends online to build familiarity

Similarities and Proximity

Can you provide elements on a Web site with which users can interact and thereby perceive a sense of belonging based on their proximity and relevance? Gestalt psychologists have argued that these principles exist because the mind has an innate disposition to perceive patterns in a stimulus based on certain rules. There is a limit to the amount of information that the mind can keep track of. When the amount of visual information becomes too great, the mind tries to simplify by grouping. We form groups in logical ways, based on what the information looks like and the location of the various items.

Similarity concerns what items look like and is a powerful grouping mechanism. As such, it can contribute significantly toward achieving unity. The more alike items are, the more likely they are to belong to groups that make sense to people. Engage users by providing content to which people can relate and that is similar to their interests. Suggesting relevant friends whose interests are similar increases the likelihood that users will click a Share button. For example, the hotspots shown in Figures 6 and 7 comprise images that appear on a Web site to showcase content, depending on users’ proximity and the similarity of their interests. 

Figure 6—Sharing content with friends who have common interests
Sharing content with friends who have common interests
Figure 7—Showcase related products according to their similarity and proximity with a user’s interests
Showcase related products according to their similarity and proximity with a user’s interests

Emotional Engagement

Can you design your system to engage people’s emotions, or connect their behavior to their emotions? Why send your users to a Facebook page to increase engagement? Instead, bring them to your Web site. Prospects and consumers who have landed on your Web site or picked up one of your business cards are showing interest in your brand and will engage with you at a higher level than with a Facebook page—provided that you give them a personalized experience. For example, by inviting users’ friends to join your site, you can easily enable them to engage with other friends.

Take a look at email messages that have higher-than-average open rates. What topics seem to spark the interest of your fans? At what times of day are these posts receiving the highest engagement? What days of the week? You can create hotspots on a Web site to provide touchpoints that increase engagement. For example, in Figure 8, a hotspot that lets users invite their friends appears depending on personalized triggers.

Figure 8—Engage users by providing personalized triggers on a Web site
Engage users by providing personalized triggers on a Web site

Research shows that, when you make it easy for users to accomplish their goals online, their engagement increases. When you personalize content through social engagement, you will witness the results. A few companies have created a new category of business called social gifting. The emerging giant in social gifting is a company called Wrapp, which has raised $10.5 million in venture funding. The big growth at Wrapp has come from the company’s aggressively signing up retail partners. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, for instance, the company added a new retailer every day.

The key appeal for the potential gift-giver: many of their gift cards don’t cost you a penny. Social media has become the go-to marketing vehicle for companies looking to generate interest, conversation, and increase consumer engagement with their brand. Figure 9 shows an example of a hotspot on a Web site whose purpose is to increase engagement through social gifting.

Figure 9—Increase engagement by providing social gifting, a powerful personalization tool
Increase engagement by providing social gifting, a powerful personalization tool


Can you make users feel that your Web site or your other users have done them a favor, so they’ll want to return the favor? Online users reciprocate positive actions with other positive actions, thus rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that, in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative. Reciprocity is a strong determining factor of human behavior.

A study by Dennis Regan showed that the focus of reciprocity is more on trading favors than on negotiating or making a contract with another person. With reciprocity, a small favor can produce a sense of obligation to a larger return favor. This feeling of obligation allows users to reciprocate an action with another action. Because reciprocity creates a sense of future obligation, it can help you to develop and continue relationships with people. Reciprocity works because, from a young age, people are taught to return favors, so they feel that disregarding this teaching would lead to the social stigma of being an ingrate.

Reciprocity is a key concept for understanding social behavior. We need to be able to think about and design for online social interactions. Indeed, reciprocal interactions underlie much online activity and have implications for designers who seek and support the development of digitally mediated social lives. For example, the hotspots in Figure 10 showcase the act of reciprocation through an offer online. The friend to whom a user directs an offer is more likely to make a purchase decision once a product has been offered to him for free.

Figure 10—Reciprocity makes users more likely to buy a product after you’ve offered a free product to them
Reciprocity makes users more likely to buy a product after you’ve offered a free product to them

Social Proof

Can you show people what other users who are similar to them are doing in a given situation and what choices are most popular? Cialdini has discussed the theme of social pressures that encourage people to conform in a social situation. People are more likely to conform to the behavior they see around them. If several people in a user’s network have mentioned a brand, a product, a place, or a person, that user is much more likely to have positive thoughts about it. In Figure 11, a hotspot on a Web site helps to increase user engagement and persuades users to make purchasing decisions—leading to their purchasing products online.

Figure 11—Recommending products that friends like increases conversions
Recommending products that friends like increases conversions

Since this doesn’t gibe with the psychological belief that people tend to have, this approach can be very effective. Hence, social media as a branding tool is very effective in establishing social proof. Forrester states that people make 500 billion influence impressions on one another regarding products and services every year. We can see the effects of social influence in the tendency of large groups to conform in their choices, which may be correct or mistaken. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as herd behavior. Although social proof reflects a rational motive to take into account the information that others possess, analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice. Thus the decisions of even large groups of people may be based on very little information.


Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is critically important in human psychology. Needs—which we can understand more generally as needs, goals, wants, and preferences—are the motivating factor behind everything we do. They drive our behavior, including the relationships that we cultivate. Every emotion that we experience results from the degree to which our needs are satisfied or inhibited. The need for social recognition, human interaction, and human bonds is at the very heart of most people.

Companies connect with customers and personalize their content through social media. This article has looked at personalization, the psychology of needs, the technological constructs that make personalization possible, and the science behind the man-machine interface that brings user psychology and technology together.

One final consideration is privacy. Sometimes the biggest cost can be the misuse of consumer data. If you are building a long-term relationship with customers and having ongoing, interactive dialogues with them, you need to look beyond the current transaction to how using a user’s data might impact the relationship that you are working to develop. Thus, seeking each user’s permission to gain access to their personal data is key. 


Accenture Interactive. “Today’s Shopper Preferences: Channels, Social Media, Privacy, and the Personalized Experience.”PDF Accenture, November 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Buechel, Christina, and Jonah Berger. “Facebook Therapy? Why Do People Share Self-relevant Content Online? Social Science Research Network, February 29, 2012. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Cialdini, Robert, Wilhelmina Wosinska, Daniel Barrett, Jonathan Butner, and Malgorzata Gornik-Durose. “Compliance with a Request in Two Cultures: The Differential Influence of Social Proof and Commitment/Consistency on Collectivists and Individualists.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Sage Publications, October 1999. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Estes, Richard, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen. Streams, Walls, and Feeds: 109 Design Guidelines for Improving Notifications, Messages, and Alerts Sent Through Social Networks and RSS. Fremont, CA: Nielsen Norman Group, 2008.

Gefen, David. “E-commerce: The Role of Familiarity and Trust.” The International Journal of Management Science, Science Direct, 2000. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Gorham, Kelley. “Effects of Immediacy on Recall of Information.” Taylor Francis Online, May 18, 2009. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Jainrain. “Consumer Research: The Value of Social Login,” Jainrain, 2013. Retrieved July 3, 2013.

Maslow, Abraham H. A Theory of Human Motivation. CreateSpace, Independent Publishing Platform, January 18, 2013.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Familiarity, Confidence, Trust: Problems and Alternatives.” University of Oxford, 2000. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Norman, Donald. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Regan, Dennis. “Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance.”PDF Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1971. Retrieved August 14, 2013.

Senior Omni-Channel Commerce Consultant

London, UK

Afshan KirmaniWith over ten years of experience in customer experience, Afshan delivers ecommerce experiences based on omni-channel content and commerce solutions. She specializes in conversion-centric design, using behavioral psychology to persuade and drive conversions. Her projects focus on discovery and definition for content management and commerce platforms, and her design solutions have a proven track record of delivering growth in strategic accounts and revenue streams within global enterprises. Afshan has worked on Web sites and applications that take a mobile-first, responsive approach to produce designs that span hand-held devices, wearables, and retail kiosks. Her experience touches on social media, analytics, applications that leverage personalized content, and user experiences that optimize customer retention to increase sales.  Read More

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