TikTok Isn’t the (Only) Answer: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Digital Engagement

With each new social media platform, it becomes increasingly difficult for brands to stand out from the noise and get their message in front of the right consumer. It’s universally understood that the amount of content available far exceeds anyone’s ability to consume it all and that social media provides a stage and a megaphone for anyone who fancies themselves an ‘influencer’ to compete with professionally produced content. But just chasing influencers over to TikTok, and then from there to whichever social media platform figures out how to monetize eyeballs next, (BeReal?) isn’t the answer.

By Mary Mathes, Director of Data Insights for Alpha-Diver

When it comes to digital advertising effectiveness, neuroscience tells us that WHERE and WHEN a consumer sees your content is just as important—if not more important—than what you say and how you say it. This is because advertisers need to understand WHY their target consumer is engaging with a particular medium, and whether that aligns with WHY they would buy your product.

When determining the “media of behavioral relevance,” only three questions matter. Let’s unpack them.

What digital media do they like using?

What digital media are they psychologically attached to? Put another way, which platforms would be the hardest for them to give up using? Understanding this attachment helps us begin to prioritize platforms. It’s not enough to simply know where they are looking. TikTok may be the current craze, but if your target consumer could delete the app tomorrow and not miss it, that should tell you something about whether it’s a good use of your ad budget. The first pass in a good activation strategy should be pinpointing which media a solid portion of your target doesn’t just use, but values.

Why do they like them?

What does using a particular website or social media app do for them psychologically? Neuroscience reveals that ‘social’ media isn’t just social. There are four core motivations people can have for engaging with the various platforms. These may or may not be conducive to them noticing your brand’s content. In short, the four reasons people use social media are: 1) to connect with others and/or tap into their recommendations, 2) to brag about their accomplishments, possessions, etc., 3) to explore, escape, and take a mini mental vacation, or 4) to learn and find information.

If you scroll through the feed of your favorite platform, you’ll likely spot examples of each.

  • That friend who’s always asking the “hivemind” what show they should watch next, or what dentist they should go to? They value the “wisdom of the tribe” and being a part of the group.
  • The one who’s on yet another fabulous vacation, and is making sure you know what a great time they’re having? They’re showing off.
  • If you happen to like perusing the braggard’s pictures so you can imagine yourself at the beach, or enjoying the delicious meal they’re eating, then you’re likely there to explore.
  • More inclined to go searching for the recipe to make that cocktail yourself? You’re probably in learning mode.

Will they like your product for the same reason?

The final, and perhaps most elusive, question is whether the reason your target consumer engages with a given platform is the same reason they would like your product. Does your product serve the same psychological need for them? If it does, it’s more likely your content will stand out to them there, because they’re in the right mindset to receive your message.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your product is an indulgent snack food with globally inspired flavors. Your target consumer goes on Instagram to immerse in the artfully filtered pictures and imagine having different experiences. While scrolling, they come across your ad, featuring exquisite visuals of your product that really help them imagine what it will taste like, smell like, FEEL like to enjoy that snack. That appeal to their sensorial nature is more likely to stand out and be persuasive. BUT, if you take that same highly experiential ad and run it in their Facebook feed, where they go to connect with their friends and family, they’re more likely to scroll right past it.

The reason someone engages with a given digital medium matters, and that reason isn’t the same across all platforms. So, your content likely doesn’t belong on all platforms, nor should it be exactly the same across all the places you choose to advertise. Particularly as the various social media sites scramble to be more like each other, (Facebook adding Reels and YouTube adding Shorts in response to TikTok, etc.). Savvy marketers will need to understand where and how they can best activate to their advantage, based on what drives their audience at a foundational level.


Mary MathesMary Mathes is Director of Data Insights for Alpha-Diver, the market research firm that applies neuroscience to more deeply understand marketplace behavior. She is an expert in revealing strategic, data-driven stories, who has honed a unique ability to distill crucial insights, place business challenges in context, and devise tangible solutions that let clients activate Alpha-Diver’s neuroscience-driven understanding on another level.

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