How can corporations use developmental psychology to get more value from their use of social media?

Decades of developmental psychology research suggest that people have different social needs at different stages of life. Understanding why people use social media differently at different ages can provide considerable insight.

Corporations could get more value if they paid more attention to this research. This outline of developmental stages and their psychosocial needs draws on E. H. Erikson’s Identity and the Life Cycle (International Universities Press, 1959) and B. M. Newman and P. R. Newman’s Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach (Thompson Wadsworth, 2011):

Early adolescence, ages 13-18:

Peer Pressure: Successfully identifying with a peer group.

Because teenagers are focused on social relationships but highly sensitive to opinions of their peers, marketers may want to think twice about trying to get teenagers to “like” a product or brand. MRI studies of teenagers’ brains show that their fears of having their preferences broadcast to their peers are real, primal and often more salient than actual bodily risk.

These psychosocial characteristics may explain the success of new platforms like Snapchat, a photo sharing service that deletes messages seconds after they are viewed. While adults think teenagers use these platforms primarily for “sexting,” the truth is more likely that teenagers simply favor a platform that does not broadcast their experiences to the world and preserve them forever.

College-age adolescence (ages 18-24):

Role Experimentation: Exploring personal and professional identities.

This age group is trying to figure out who they are and who they will become. While many social media platforms may be well-suited to tracking the people and experiences connected with their identity, few support social experimentation that is so crucial to college-age people.

It is somewhat surprising that no company has moved more successfully into the space that Facebook abdicated years ago — a dedicated social media platform exclusively for college students. Such a platform meets an important social need of late adolescents, and could provide an important environment for marketers looking to target this impressionable demographic with edgier campaigns. Current popular social media platforms may discourage the type of experimentation, as parents have joined these platforms and future employers can track their digital records.

Young adulthood (ages 24–34):

Intimacy and Mutuality: Deciding on the relationships and roles that will define adult life.

Because young adults are beginning to hone in on their careers, identities and intimate partnerships, specialized social media platforms may do a better job of meeting their psychosocial needs than general platforms that continually recommend new connections and encourage broad rather than deep connections.

For instance, the application Path seeks to limit users to 150 relationships to encourage more intimate connections. Some companies — such as the financial services firm USAA — have effectively used specialized social media platforms as a means of effectively socializing young adult hires into the company, many of whom are entering into the full-time workforce for the first time. New employees can connect with one another, and more senior managers can use this forum to convey cultural norms and professional standards.

Middle adulthood (ages 34-60):

Person-Environment Interaction: Productively interacting with their environment.

The middle adult is at the peak of his or her productive years, often interacting effectively with multiple social environments at work and with family and friends. Social media often brings these distinct environments together in uncomfortable ways (e.g. should I friend my co-workers on Facebook?). Many adults adopt a “divide and conquer” strategy, using different social media platforms for different purposes, such as Facebook for personal connections and LinkedIn for professional ones.

Platforms that can bridge gaps between different social environments will be quite useful for adult social media users. For example, one company I have worked with allows employees to invite trusted partners to join their internal social networking platform. The circles feature on Google+ has helped address this need, but more is clearly possible. For instance, secured circles may allow companies to limit what information can be transferred out of the circle, allowing employees to effectively use the same platform for personal and professional networking.

Late adulthood (ages 60+):

Reflection: Looking back on one’s life, accomplishments, and relationships.

In many ways, social media is an ideal tool for addressing the social needs of seniors, the most rapidly expanding demographic on social media platforms. Social media tools allow seniors to communicate easily with old friends and observe the lives of their family in unobtrusive ways.

Seniors may not be out to “like” brands, but they are observing what happens on social media platforms. Marketers should be wary of overlooking social media as an important channel for reaching the senior citizen demographic, as they often have the time and income to become valuable social media users (see the excellent Forbes post “The Overlooked: Social Media Marketing For Senior Citizens,” authored by Katie Moran, one of my students).

Looking beyond “one size fits all”

It is time to consider strategies, platforms and applications that address the unique needs of diverse users. An awareness of these needs can help companies understand how to (or how not to) reach certain demographics, such as whether to expect teenagers to like certain brands and what that “like” may represent.

Managers should also be wary of assuming that current social media platforms represent the end state of social business. There may always be room for a few overarching “general” social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, which allow people from all generations to connect with one another. The opportunity for the next generation of social business, however, is gaining a deeper understanding of the unique needs of targeted users and optimizing the social platform or campaign to address these needs, many of which remain unmet in the current state of social media.

Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane is an associate professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He has been researching and teaching social media and social networks since 2005. He can be reached at gerald.kane@bc.edu and on Twitter at @profkane.