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The 7 New Rules of Social Media in 2021

December 1, 2020 | Influence and Persuasion

The 7 Rules of Social Media for Small Business Owners in 2021 are the following:

  1. The Social Proof Rule
  2. The Proximity Rule
  3. The Free Rule
  4. The Rule of You
  5. The Power Law
  6. The Reciprocity Rule
  7. The Consistency Rule

Full Disclosure:  I do social media audits.  

Our company, WOW Promoter Video Testimonials, makes and sells an app that helps small business owners collect video testimonials into Google Reviews at the point-of-sale.

Many small business owners are not following these 7 simple rules.  The rules themselves are free and easy-to-use – they are more like ‘principles’ than rules.

The rules are based on sound science that goes back at least to the 1950s and have been replicated both online and off-line.  The science is the following:

  • Mirror Neurons, Human Cooperation and Reciprocity
  • Social Learning Theory
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Conversion Rate Optimization

The four individuals I mention in this post :

  • Dr. Albert Bandura
  • Dr. Edward T. Hall
  • Dr. Robert Cialdini
  • Gary Vaynerchuk

…are all well-known figures in social media, psychology and social learning theory.  

If these scientists and entrepreneurs are correct and if science is able to predict future events then social media in 2020 and beyond will change dramatically.  

If you are not following these rules today then read closely because your competition surely is!

The Social Proof Rule

It turns out there are only 2 types of social proof.

Modern social proof – likes, shares, comments, etc – is just one small aspect of the massive and scholarly research (pioneered by Dr. Albert Bandura in the 1960s) on social proof which started out as a remarkable innovation in psychology for curing people with PTSD, alcoholism and attention deficit disorder .

Dr. Bandura used ‘social learning’ to cure people with a behavioral problem (eg: addiction) by exposing them to other people who do not have that behavioral problem.

Dr. Bandura would show his clients images or videos of other people solving or who have solved that particular problem.

Example:  Bandura cured people with an extreme fear (phobia) of snakes.  He would have the patient view other people (the other people were more powerful influencers when they were the same age, gender and ethnicity) handling snakes through a one-way mirror.  He would then have his patient watch videos of other people handling snakes. After some time, he brought the other people with the snakes into the room with the patient.  Finally, he would have his patient actually touch the snake!

At it’s most basic, Dr. Bandura’s work was so important (it earned him a National Medal of Science) because he was one of the first to show that human learning occurs primarily through observation and imitation. 

Dr. Bandura was also an early user of video to teach and train his patients.

Modern Social Proof

Observation and imitation are how website creators persuade visitors to click a button, submit an email or call a phone number.  

The modern art and science of Conversion Rate Optimization is heavily indebted to social scientists, like Dr. Bandura.

Small Businesses Online Today

Many services, such as physicians and dentists, are complex.  To see a doctor in the United States, I must complete several steps successfully (eg: set an appointment, do paperwork, etc.) before I get to see the doctor.  

In other words, since these steps are complicated we can use social proof – observation and imitation – to help new customers complete the steps successfully. 

Hint:  Small businesses, such as physicians, should use video on their website showing people successfully completing each of the following steps:

  • Video of people calling to set the appointment.
  • Video of patients doing the paperwork for a doctors’ appointment.
  • Video of people navigating the complexity of insurance payment and paying the co-payment.
  • Video of people attending their first visit (“What Can I Expect?”)

Use social proof to show people how they might behave in unfamiliar, uncomfortable or complicated situations to ease the process for them.

The Proximity Rule

First described in the in 1963 book The Hidden Dimension by cultural anthropologist Dr. Edward T. Hall, the Proximity Rule elaborates Dr. Hall’s definitions of interpersonal space.   

The Proximity Rule distinguishes the following zones:

  1. Intimate space is within 18 inches of your body
  2. Personal space is 18 inches to 4 feet in radius
  3. Social space is 4 feet to 12 feet in radius
  4. Public space is greater than 12 feet

Intimate space is the most important space for social media photos, images and video placed on public platforms such as your website, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.  

According to Hall: “Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs.  Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached.  

Permitting a person to enter personal space and entering somebody else’s personal space are indicators of perception of those people’s relationship.  

An intimate zone is reserved for close friends, lovers, children and close family members.”

Dr Pimple Popper Consoles her Patient
Dr Pimple Popper Consoles her Patient who may have cancer

 Example:  What does this online image with people sharing the Intimate Zone say about the following three people?  

This photo says “I TRUST you”.

3 friends together demonstrating the Proximity Rule in online social media
3 friends together demonstrating the Proximity Rule in online social media

What builds trust from simply seeing an image of two or three people together, within their Intimate Zones, on Facebook?  

As described by David Meerman Scott in his book Fanocracy…

“Our unconscious brain can respond to what we see as if it were our own experience, even if it is on social media, film, a screen or a faraway stage through something called mirror neurons.  

Mirror neurons are a group of cells in the pre-motor and inferior parietal cortex of the brain.  

These neurons are fascinating because they not only activate when we perform an action – biting into an apple, smiling, or getting near to somebody we enjoy being with – they also fire when we observe somebody else performing the same action.  

When those around us are happy and smiling, our unconscious brain tells us were happy, and we often smile too.  

When we’re at a rock concert, our mirror neurons fire based on what the performer is doing onstage and what the other audience members are doing.” (p. 69)

Mirror Neurons convey emotions from online images and videos
Mirror Neurons are present in all humans and some animals, like dogs. They fire when we observe emotions.

How should a small business owner use the Proximity Rule in social media?

Competition is tough.  Your product or service is, in all likelihood, indistinguishable from several nearby competitors.  

Hint:  How do you set yourself apart from your competitors when new customers search the web looking for your service?  

  1. Put images of your and your team on your website and on social media
  2. Collect Google Reviews (and, to some extent, Yelp Reviews)

Images on social media (#1) is where the Proximity Rule enters the picture (pun intended).  

  1. Put key employees and team members in the photos and videos with happy customers.
  2. Put the doctor or business owner in the photos and videos with happy customers.
  3. Ask happy customers for video testimonials – make the video ‘interview style’ with two of you in the video. 

Prospective NEW customers TRUST images they see on social media of the doctor within the intimate zone of a happy customer.  Who wouldn’t?  It just makes sense.  

People see the photo and they say to themselves, “That person was happy with their doctor – happy enough to give a testimonial, and look!  They also like their doctor enough to take a selfie together!”  BOOM!  Trust is established – and that doctor is now differentiated from every other doctor the local community.  

Different enough to get the prospective patient to pick up the phone, call and make their first appointment.

The Free Rule

For a long time, the internet has been described as where we get stuff for free.   This model was built over the last twenty years and has emphasized digital products or products that could be digitized.  Think movies, music and books.  The biggest change in physical products delivered over the internet is probably free shipping. 

However, ‘free’ is still a thing on the internet and small business owners can attract large numbers of followers and fans by providing free content.

How does the The Free Rule apply to local service businesses, like dentists and doctors?  

Also, how does The Free Rule apply to product-based small, local businesses like plumbers, pool supply stores and bike shops? 

Doctors, dentists and small business owners CAN discover the unique content that can be digitally shared that can help people and attract them to your business – before your competition does.

Hint:  A video of a doctor describing, in some detail, the anatomy, disease process and even some simple home remedies for a disease they see frequently.

Give Away Expert Advice + Your Personality

Information is free these days.  And, on the internet, information is infinitely abundant.  Granted, I probably couldn’t do brain surgery from a YouTube video but most people aren’t searching for brain surgery – they’re searching for the following:

  • How to tie a tie (72 million video views) – this is one of the most oft-cited examples of ‘help’ content that social media influencers can produce, specific to their expertise, to attract and retain a following of like-minded people.
  • How to fix a flat tire on your car (12 million video views)
  • How to get rid of vertigo at home (35,000 keyword searches per month)

So, what is your specialty?  What information do you have that customers need?  Put it online.

Example:  I’m a physical therapist in private practice – my specialty is exercise, especially exercise for people with difficulty walking, recovering from surgery, etc.

I was actually the Worlds’ First Physical Therapist on YouTube in 2007. 

Some of my PT peers scolded me for posting 54 YouTube videos detailing many of the therapy exercises we routinely prescribe to our patients.  They said I was ‘giving away the store’ and they feared patients wouldn’t come to therapy if I put my instructions on free videos.  

However, my caseload actually INCREASED as a result of posting my free content on YouTube.  Patients weren’t ‘taking’ my information, they were attracted to my expertise and my personality!

The Free Rule is great for selling books on Amazon with free shipping but to sell a local small business, like physician services, we also need the fourth rule, The Rule of You.

The Rule of You

“There is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Except you.  

Many products and services are so commoditized that it can be difficult to tell one from the other.  A dental procedure in Portland, Oregon is exactly the same as a dental procedure in Portland, Maine.

Therefore, we must discover some attractive element to your personality that can be conveyed on social media – perhaps your sense of humor (best), perhaps your energy, perhaps your intelligence…?

Here’s the thing… what others find attractive in you might not even be apparent at first.  Its hard to be objective about yourself.  You could ask 100 people and MAYBE get close to the truth, OR… 

You could use a Traits and Characteristics Checklist to quickly generate a list of your traits and mannerisms.  Do this quickly.  Then, with one other person go through the list and select ONE trait you would like to talk about or demonstrate.  Use this trait to ‘enhance’ your next social media post.  What makes you interesting?  What makes you different?  

Hint:  What would you talk about to attract a friend or partner?  What are your most attractive personality features?

Example:  The same doctor we discussed in the Free Rule, as he is speaking on the video, mentions that he and his wife are taking salsa lessons.  Soon, he begins to dance the salsa.  He just does a few moves – nothing fancy.  

He then smiles, faces the camera directly and states that dancing has no effect on the disease – but it will make you happier 🙂

The Power Law

Gary Vaynerchuk famously promoted the idea that, to succeed on social media, a small business owner should post up to 64 pieces of content per day.  He goes on to share his slide deck that shows how he and his team at Vaynerchuk Media are able to consistently create this daily content.  

Although Vaynerchuk shares freely on the internet, it is obvious that most small business owners have neither the time nor the inclination to create that much content.  Most dentists, physicians and veterinarians would do well to post ONE visually arresting, pithily-worded Facebook post per day – especially if each post gained dozens of Likes, Shares and Comments!

Vaynerchuk demonstrates The Power Law, also known as the 80-20 Rule, where most social media content is created by very few creators who end up dominating their industry.  The Power Law is actually a somewhat complex mathematical phenomenon (too complicated to discuss here!) that also describes many, many naturally occurring events, such as the following:

  • the distribution of wealth in developed economies (the Pareto Principle)
  • the frequencies of words in most languages
  • the frequencies of family names (eg: Smith)
  • the sizes of craters on the moon
  • body masses of different animal species
  • the number of computers in a network (Metcalfe’s Law)

The Power Law essentially states that the rate of growth is non-linear (like this graph below) such that the outcome is much, much larger than the input.  

The Power Law (specifically the last example, Metcalfe’s Law) is responsible for things like the viral nature of YouTube videos or Tweets.

A Power Law demonstrates how viral videos can lead to massively expanded advertising reach for small business owners.
A Power Law demonstrates how viral videos can lead to massively expanded advertising reach for small business owners.

Social media success is likely no different from these examples given above – Gary Vaynerchuk is right.  

Unless you have a team (like Vaynerchuk does!) ready to help you create and post 64 pieces of social media content every day, you’ll need to automate some or all of the content creation process.  More on how to do this below!

The Reciprocity Rule 

The Reciprocity Rule is from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion where he shows that reciprocal obligation is ingrained in people from a very early age.  Reciprocity makes it possible to build ongoing relationships and mutual exchange.

Read our detailed blogpost on Dr. Cialdini.

It turns out, according to several noted anthropology experts, that EVERY human society trains it’s children in the Reciprocity Rule – for the good of those societies.  

In the book, Dr. Cialdini cites Dr. Richard Leakey, the famous anthropologist who discovered ‘Lucy’, the worlds’ oldest human skeleton, in Africa.  Dr. Leakey states that, “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and skills in an honored network of obligation.”

Example:  Readers of a certain age will remember the 39th American President, Jimmy Carter.  No matter your politics, most readers will agree that Carter’s tenure is almost universally judged as one of the most ineffective in American history.  Carter campaigned as an ‘outsider’ to the Washington political establishment, saying that he was ‘indebted’ to no one there.  One possibility for Carter’s ineffectiveness: while Carter owed nobody in Washington, nobody owed him, either.

Hint:  Draw upon the Reciprocity Rule once you have offered your free, unique content and remind people to communicate with you:  ask them to call or email with  questions and comments.  Content creators who end their video with this simple ‘ask’ receive many more of this type of engagement.

Key to the research is that reciprocation is strongest when the time span is the shortest so your reminder of the customers’ reciprocal obligation needs to be immediate.

2nd Example: Once the doctor concludes his description and his salsa dance he says, “I hope you like this video and found it informative, if so, please hit the Like button and even subscribe to my YouTube channel so you can continue to get free medical information and dance videos from me!”

Because your viewer now trusts you (from the Proximity Rule) and you gave them something (from the The Free Rule) they are obligated to you (from the Reciprocity Rule) to give you something in return.

The Consistency Rule

The Consistency Rule is  also described by Dr. Cialdini in Influence as one of the strongest ‘weapons of influence’ due to it’s tendency to change peoples’ behavior in your favor.

The Consistency Rule simply states that people will tend to adopt their behavior to be consistent with previous decisions they have made.  Their previous decision was to become your customer!

Dr. Cialdini describes the Consistency Rule as a desire to spare the customers’ ego of any conflict with their initial decision to support your business.

In other words, once they have made the decision to become YOUR customer or patient, they’re yours – so ask for their support!

You can ask people who are ALREADY your customers to give you a positive recommendation or referral on social media.  Ask them for a video testimonial!  The Consistency Rule predicts they will comply, based on their previous decision to do business with you.

Hint:  Ask them for a video testimonial for use on on social media. 

A video testimonial of your CURRENT client, with the doctor in the frame (within 18″ in the Intimate Zone), describing how the paperwork was easy to complete (using the Social Rule), the staff was friendly and the doctor was nice.

The doctor shares (using the Free Rule) a quick tip that anyone can do at home to improve their health and their life.

They conclude the video with a few seconds of salsa dance while a voice overlay asks the viewer (using the Reciprocity Rule) to Like, Share, Subscribe and comment on the video.

The point is not to go out and take salsa lessons – the point is simply that there are small changes to the way MOST professionals are posting social media that are FREE and easy to implement.

Take Home Message of ‘The Seven New Rules of Social Media’

My current assessment of social media is that many small business owners use a ‘spaghetti’ strategy – that is, we throw spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks.  If the strategy sticks, spend more money!

We end up spending money on social media, Facebook ads, pay-per-click, whatever, all in the hope that SOMETHING will work.

There IS a better way.  

Let’s improve your social media game in 2020 and get ahead of your local competition.