Impression Management – The Psychology of the Viral Ice Bucket Challenge and more...

Impression Management – The Psychology of the Viral Ice Bucket Challenge

Ice Bucket Challenge Zuck LeBron Gates

Okay, so why has the charity Ice Bucket Challenge* become the viral sensation of Summer 2014, recruiting over 20 million views and a million participants including celebrity pop, screen and sports stars – Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Oprah Winfrey?

The Ice Bucket Challenge is basically video chain mail - you receive a video, make your own version of it, and pass it on.  And the psychology of chain mail is instructive.  Chain mail is all about incentives, minimum believability and costs

  • Incentives – we are motivated by positive incentive (like getting rich) and negative incentives (like getting bad luck)
  • Minimum Believability – we need to believe – at least a little – that the promised incentive/disincentive could possibly come true
  • Low Costs – the cost of participation (time, effort) should be low enough to make the ‘possible’ outcome worth the investment

So how does chain mail psychology play out in the Ice Bucket Challenge?  In a word (or two) - Impression Management.

Impression Management is the term psychologists use for how we manage our public image through self-presentation – consciously and unconsciously

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Impression Management

  • Positive Incentive – Participate and you’ll enhance the impression others have of you (celebrity association, ‘good’ charitable person) (Also legative Incentive – Don’t participate and you’ll damage your public image (kill-joy, ‘bad’ uncharitable person)
  • Minimum Believability – celebrities, professionals in managing their public image are doing it, so it must work!)
  • Low Costs – it’s Summer and it’s water, and we all have smartphones

So if you want to create a craze, remember it’s all about impression management, and you’ll need to set up an incentive structure, create minimum believability and minimise costs for participation. Add some celebrity sparkle – and you have the blueprint for a viral hit!

*If you haven’t received the Ice Bucket Challenge yet, here’s a quick refresher.  You’ll get an online challenge from a friend or acquaintance, and within 24hrs you’ll have to post a video of yourself pouring a bucket of ice water on your head and challenge others to do the same – and then make a donation to a charity – ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in the US and Macmillan Cancer Support/Motor Neurone Disease in the UK,  Digital celebs who have participated so far include Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.



The Uberfication of Everything: Directory of Uber-inspired Businesses


Uber, the on-demand ‘driver for hire’ mobile service (ODMS) has become the poster-child for digital disruption and ‘convenience tech’.

Uber, bank rolled by Google, is disrupting (destroying) traditional taxi services by delivering more ‘value’ (mostly convenience value) to ‘value-maximising’ consumers through a smart mix of ‘regulatory hacking’ and technology.

And so digital innovators are seeking to ‘uberfy’ the world with convenient on-demand mobile services that digitally and conveniently match demand with supply.  Tap your phone, get service. It’s that simple.

Some will flourish, most will fail – (based we think, on the degree that current alternatives are actually inconvenient and offer poor value).

So here’s an evolving master-list of Uber-style services that match on-demand requests with real-time supply… (please message me, or add more in comments – and I’ll update the list)

The Uberfication of Everything: Directory / Master-list



Uberfy or Get Uberfied! The Psychology of Digital Disruption


Every marketer should take a long hard look at what Uber is doing to the legacy taxi industry.


Because Uber teaches marketers is that digital disruption is not really about technology at all, it’s about economics.

More specifically, Uber is about market rationalisation.  Uber is disrupting the economics of an inefficient taxi market built on monopolistic practices and politics by allowing people to get better value (ratio between perceived economic, functional and psychological benefits we get and the resources (monetary, time, effort, psychological) we use to obtain them). Uber does this with a ‘regulatory hack‘ – getting around regulations that benefit the incumbent. And in doing so, Uber allows people to act in their own best interests – not those of the taxi industry.

Uber’s disruptive value proposition

  • Economic Benefit – Less Costly
  • Functional Benefit – More Convenient
  • Psychological Benefit – Less Risk (and bragging rights for being an early adopter)

More generally, the core role of digital is not about presentation (however cool the Uber app may be), it’s to disrupt markets by delivering more information and more choice so people can make better ‘value-maximising’ decisions, that is, act in their own best interests – as they perceive them.  This idea of ‘value-maximisation‘ is a founding principle in consumer psychology – we seek to get the best benefit bang for our buck – as we see it.  And by giving us more information and more choice to value-maximise, digital is a force for market rationalisation. In other words, digital disruption is about market rationalisation (think music, publishing, travel, hospitality…).

So if digital disruption is about ‘Uberfication’ (market rationalisation – often through ‘regulatory hacking’), then there is a clear strategic implication for digital marketing; we should be targeting inefficient markets with information, choice and a disruptive value proposition; one that offers clear economic, functional and psychological benefits.

The ‘Uberfication’ of marketing has started. Time to jump on board?



Neuroscientists Find Formula for Customer Happiness (It’s all about Expectations)

Happiness Formula

Here’s what happiness looks like to a neuroscientist;


The happiness formula has just been published by neuroscientists at University College London in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) (full study).

The neuroscientists developed an equation that could predict subjective happiness, and then tested it with 18,420 people.

Squiggle-babble aside, the key finding of the research is that happiness is about ‘expectations’ as much as it is experiences; the anticipation of a positive experience drives happiness – as much as the reward of the experience itself.  Looking forward to something is an essential component in happiness.  They also found – naturally enough – our prior mood affects our happiness levels.  It’s as if happiness plays in three dimensions – the past, present and the future. Marketers take note.

What does this mean for digital marketing?  The simple takeout is that the effectiveness of branding, strategy and creative would benefit if we focused on building a sense of anticipation and shaping expectations.




Social Risk: Why Word of Mouth Doesn’t Work in Social Media


An interesting study, “Why recommend a brand face-to-face but not on Facebook?” has just been published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, looking at differences between word of mouth recommendations in social media and in person.

Bottom line, people are far less likely to recommend brands to each other in social media because of the perceived ‘social risk’ social media recommendations entail (‘social risk’ = risk to your public image and reputation if your recommendation sucks).  People don’t recommend (often) on Facebook because Facebook recommendations are public, written and broadcast (in contrast to the private, oral, and personalised one-to-one recommendations of traditional word of mouth).

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense – you might make a private personal recommendation to a friend, depending on their particular needs, but would you make a blanket public recommendation to everyone you know, without knowing their needs?

The implications for digital (and traditional) marketing are key

1) Digital (and traditional) marketing should get back to focusing on stimulating traditional word of mouth (via content that gives people the reasons and language to recommend) – private one-t0-one recommendations

2) Digital (and traditional) marketing should focus on stimulating professional and expert recommendations and reviews, rather than peer to peer recommendations.  Professional reviewers and experts are paid to make recommendations – the social risk is part of their job.

The study also helps explain why  ‘would you recommend?’ is a better predictor of profitable growth for brands than ‘do you recommend’; actually recommending is contingent on situations were social risk is low; where you can make private, one-to-one personalised recommendation – with caveats as needed.

It’s not all bad news for brands looking to drive online consumer word of mouth; the study did find that one type of person – those with a high need for ‘social enhancement’ (need to be seen positively by others, social approval seekers) were more likely to broadcast recommendations in social media.  But are people who agree strongly with the statement – “In general, I like to hear that I am a great person” really your best word of mouth advocates?






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