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Maslow, Consumers & Motivation in Social Media – Part I

Maslow, Consumers & Motivation in Social Media – Part I

If Abraham Maslow, father of modern consumer psychology, were alive today I am fully convinced he would take one look at what’s going on in social media and rip his famous Hierarchy of Needs to shreds. From over-sharing on Facebook to 140 character trends on Twitter (like We Want Justin [Bieber] Shirtless Tour), the psyche of the online consumer is so warped that even Maslow would agree we need a new model of consumer motivation.

This isn’t to say that our offline behavior has changed that much but there’s an undeniable difference in what we care about and what we react to when we hunker down over a keyboard.  Take, for instance, the phenomenon of “internet trolls.” In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these modern ne’er do wells might well be relegated to the lower part of the pyramid, seeking acceptance and kinship with other socially isolated individuals.

Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, “trolls” are able to lash out for no other reason than it fulfills their own sense of personal accomplishment.  There’s nothing in the classic Hierarchy of Needs model that accounts for or explains this behavior. It exists though, nonetheless and it is a phenomenon that is uniquely situated and perpetuated in the online space.

Of course, trolling is an extreme case but you can see this change in behavior reflected in positive ways, too. Think those delightful internet cat memes or the advent of crowdsourcing as an alternative to expensive, traditional ad shops.

The way I see it, the dynamics powering these changes are two-fold. The first is the ability to remain relatively anonymous.  Masking one’s identity or contact details encourages consumers to share more than they probably would in-person. The second change is the availability to connect with ever-more specific sub-groups based on interest or life experiences.  This helps grow a sense of empowerment and motivates “group think” in ways that were only possible in rare instances, offline.

These two, new dynamics create a unique environment where it seems like the old rules of consumer motivation don’t apply.  As a result, consumers have become more unpredictable, even using social media to activate on needs we never knew were there.

Going back to Maslow for a moment, the interesting thing about him was that even when confronted with the reality of human frailty and insecurity, he was famous for holding that humans were inherently sane and rational.  In fact, he once stated that “the story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” If Maslow was right, the hierarchy might well require changes to account for new behaviors brought about by social media.

In Part II, I will lay out what might be missing from the hierarchy and what implications any changes might have to how we believe consumer motivation and action have changed in the world of social media.

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