Social pressure can change online behaviour

Audience in a theatre, on a concert or in a cinema clapping and applaudingI am going to let you into a secret; the entertainment industry plays with your mind. Indeed, they force you to do things you were not even thinking of doing. As an example, consider performances you have attended where there has been a standing ovation. The show has been stunning, but until a few people stand up to applaud most of the audience stays firmly on their bottoms. Once a handful of people have stood up, though, the rest of the audience appears to feel they have “permission” to get on their feet.

Some entertainment companies (I hope they don’t mind me telling you) employ people to force a standing ovation. They give these people free tickets for the show and pay them a small fee for standing up at an appointed time. These people are dotted around the auditorium and at the point in the show they were told to stand up, they do exactly that. And guess what? All the people around them stand up too. Oh dear, goodness me, who’d have guessed it? Not all standing ovations are spontaneous; some happen because of the social pressure to stand caused by the bulk of the audience seeing a few people stand up.

New research on clapping in audiences shows that it works by “social contagion”. As soon as one person claps those around them feel the need to clap and so on. Within seconds the applause has spread throughout the auditorium simply because one person started it.

People tend to do what other people do because we have a primal need to conform. It helps us all rub along together and avoid conflict. But it also helps us with our own sense of self, ensuring that we see ourselves as “fitting in”, as being a member of a tribe. It is all rather basic stuff.

Yet that basic instinct pervades online. You see someone Retweet a funny message and you think, subconsciously, I should do that too. You see a great YouTube video that has been shared by thousands and you feel compelled to do the same. Littered across the Internet are badges showing how many shared this or liked that. They are like the planted people in audiences forcing a standing ovation. They are little signals that the rest of the group is doing this, so you should too.

Social contagion is alive and well on the Internet – indeed it is the very basis of how viral videos work. Which means you can use this principal in your business. If you want to promote something, simply get a few of your friends to like it, share it, Tweet about it and so on. This will force the hand of others and before you know it your material will be much more popular. Take a tip from the entertainment industry, use “plants” in your audience to trigger social contagion.

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