When it comes to connecting with people, the trite quote, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is often offered by way of advice. Usually, the hackneyed Theodore Roosevelt quote is met with disdain, as we assume that it holds no value—certainly not when it comes to something as modern as social media marketing.

Connection is king

But, turns out we could’ve been wrong all along. Emotional connection may just be the most important aspect of doing business online. Researchers recently found that connection trumps other considerations when it comes to making sales. Connected customers are likely to buy twice as much as their disengaged counterparts within a given timeframe. The study also listed a whole host of additional benefits that emerged from forging an emotional bond: clients were more likely to listen carefully to your messages, take your advice onboard and encourage their friends to check you out. They’d also pay more frequent visits to your page. So if connection is king, and people are motivated by their emotions, why isn’t everyone focusing on this aspect of content marketing?

The reality is, connecting with people requires hard work. It’s about producing content with a clear message. Rather than developing their story, some influencers have tried to dazzle audiences with clever design and editing. They hope that the visuals will take people’s minds off the fact that there isn’t much depth; much they can relate to. But emotionally impactful content must center around a compelling story.

Tell your story

Neuroscience has begun to unveil the power of storytelling. The ancient art has always been used to relay information, relate to others, and share ideas. Storytelling is now recognized as having powerful effects on our brain, especially when the story features a central character. Oxytocin—sometimes called the love hormone—is released by the brain in response to a compelling story. It encourages us to be more empathetic; to reach out and help others, and cooperate with them.

The second thing that happens is that we begin to mirror the emotions of the storyteller. Our so-called ‘mirror neurons’ fire in the same patterns as those of the person who is sharing the message. This means that whatever we see on the screen, whether it’s an appeal for help, or an emotional story of how someone battled against the odds, we actually start to feel the emotions that they are experiencing.

Israeli scientist, Dr. Uri Hasson, has revealed a similar idea called ‘neural coupling’. This involves a clicking of minds where the brain of the recipient actually synchronizes with the orator. Hasson’s research describes the act of communicating as a “single act performed by two brains.” The speaker’s words have a profound effect on the listener’s brain, bringing them into alignment. The more powerful the effect then the more pronounced the level of mutual understanding.

Create dramatic, character-driven content

But what kind of stories should content marketers tell? Nick Rogers, social media marketer and owner of Pvsted (pronounced as posted ) Media Marketing Agency, advises influencers to keep it simple. The best performing posts normally have a “plain background, basic editing and a strong message conveyed via a relatable story“. Rogers says, “You can have a lot of followers but you’ll never get any sales if you don’t interact and relate to those followers on a deep emotional level.”

Nick Rogers, founder of Pvstd Media

When it comes to the delivery of the story itself, science points to the importance of character-driven stories. They elicit the strongest oxytocin response. Whether you talk about yourself, or use someone else’s experiences, you should generally center your stories around a character. To hit the mark, stories must sustain attention. Boring stories only cause people to switch off. The definition of an interesting story is one which is full of tension and surprise. The events must lead to a climax, and ultimately satisfy the listener with a suitable resolution. For those who struggle to think of relatable items, perhaps it’s best to consider your ‘founding story’: How did your business come into being? Why did you decide to start your site? Why do you represent the brand that you currently do?

The bubble hasn’t burst

Of course, some naysayers will point to tales of woe—an Instagram star who can’t sell 36 shirts to her 2.6 million followers—as ‘evidence‘ that social media marketing is over: the bubble has burst. But it seems that for every suggestion that the bubble has burst, there is a corresponding success story. Take a recent example: Nelk’s new seltzer brand calledHappy Dad’, which launched after a successful marketing campaign across multiple platforms. Nelk has developed an enviable bond with its followers and has leveraged that into a worldwide brand.

Perhaps the real reason behind so-called ‘flops’ is that many sites, and their followers, are merely a mirage. Reports suggest that up to half of all Instagram influencers could be committing fraud, with 45% of accounts being ‘fake’. Perhaps the reason why so many feel the need to try and speed up the process is that creating absorbing, ground-breaking content is extremely challenging. To create content that hits the mark you must develop a real relationship with your followers. You need to understand how they live and what is relevant to them. As Rogers puts it, “There is a reason the biggest influencers and brands in the world are at the top. They understand their audience right down to how they think, dress and communicate.”

Growth hacks and “secret hashtag” strategies

Unsurprisingly, there will always be those who will prey on would-be influencers’ insecurities, urging them to believe that there’s a secret hack to attract followers. However, this is proverbial fool’s gold. Like many areas of life, there is no such thing as a secret shortcut: there is no get-rich-quick scheme that can replace sheer hard work. Self-appointed gurus will, however, tout hash tagging and engagement groups. These will work, but only if used strategically. If there is any secret to social media marketing, it is that you have to consistently put out great quality material. This material must then be viewed by your target demographic. Perhaps, the best way to achieve that is through paid adverts or shout outs.

There are, of course, the lucky few who benefit from the algorithm. This is especially true with new algorithms like TikTok, Reels and YouTube shorts. Nonetheless, true overnight successes are probably still in the minority. More often, the real algorithm winners are those who have developed a library of accomplished content over a period of time.

Rogers, at Pvsted Media, points to his client—Richard Garcia—as an example of “organic growth“. Taking Garcia from zero to thousands of followers meant building a devoted audience, with a “strong emotional connection to his content“. Although his content (teaching) could be potentially pedestrian, it assumes much more “emotional significance because it also documents a story, containing valuable lessons for the viewers”.

Actionable takeaways

Summarising the key findings, it seems that success as an influencer can be attributed to 4 main areas:

  1. Establish a genuine, emotional connection with your audience by telling relatable, character-driven stories with a message.
  2. Ignore advice on random hashtags or “growth hacks”. There are no shortcuts.
  3. Focus on creating appealing content and the growth will come.
  4. Find the right audience; sometimes have to pay for this with ads.

If this was a recipe, the final step might be, “Just add creativity.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. You have to find your own way, using the unique blend of talents, and recounting the stories that frame your life.