Mary Napoleon

The best community managers know there are psychological principles at play behind highly engaging brand communities. Your online community is an opportunity to open up a two-way conversation with your audience. To capitalize on this opportunity you should know what principles can keep the conversation going.

In this post, we’ll unpack four social psychology theories that can be applied to your community management to help you serve your community more effectively.

The mere-exposure effect

The “mere-exposure effect” is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.

By definition brand marketing creates affinity through repeated exposure. Owning a site people visit on a daily basis provides repeated passive exposure to your brand without you having to sell anything.

A mobile community engagement app provides the same familiarity, with the added benefit that you’re with your members on the go. Taking up precious real estate on a user’s mobile device means that you’re getting even more repeated exposure than if the user had to browse to your site on their own.

The good news for brands is that even non-advocates can passively build affinity for a brand through the mere exposure effect.

Infinite Variability

The average internet user spends more time on social media sites than any other online activity. Internet users like connecting with people with shared interests. Sites like Twitter and Instagram have shown we actually like to consume content from people who are like us.

But the second reason that people spend so much time on the internet is that social networks provide what is called “infinite variability.” Each time you log in, you know there might be something interesting there waiting for you. And there’s a sense of anticipation because you don’t know what it is yet.

Psychologists who have studied what creates persuasive or addictive experiences claim infinite variability creates much stickier experiences for people. It triggers a dopamine response for the user each time because there’s something new every time you open an app or website.

When it comes to applying this principle to community management, brands should make sure interesting content is always being shared. Encouraging members to share links, provide a thoughtful comment or ask a question will activate users to continue participating. It’s also a good idea to keep a backlog of topics for discussion that are of interest to keep the community going during slow times.


Just as when someone receives a gift, they feel positive associations toward the gift-giver, the “reciprocity principle” comes into play in your online community. By rewarding customers for participation in communities, brands can create strong networks of brand evangelists who take pride in their level of status within a community and willingly promote the brand whenever they can.

Before asking something of your members, provide them with a “gift” first. This could be as simple as welcoming them to the community when they first join or highlighting members’ accomplishments as they relate to your brand.

When community managers model reciprocity within the community, it says “we’re all in this together.” Come up with an offer or perk to give to your community members to help them experience your brand in a new way and establish brand advocates inside your community.

Other examples of “gifts” could include exclusive content they’d normally have to pay for or a sneak peak at an upcoming event or new product you’re developing. Seed users can also help with reciprocity in the early days of your community by modeling this behavior for other members.

Don’t assume the community experience is a gift in itself. This will only become true as the member gets value from the community over time. Ask your most active members what value they get out of the community and use their responses to replicate this experience for newcomers.

Foot-in-the-door Phenomenon

Typically this technique is used in sales. For example, a company might ask for a prospect’s email address through their website and then later pitch them with a larger request like a sale. The foot-in-the-door phenomenon is the tendency for people to comply with a large request after having first agreed to a small request. Giving an email address is compliance with a small request, setting up the larger “ask” which is the sale.

This technique applies to branded communities as well. The lifeblood of any community is active, engaged users. And members may need help getting started. Getting users to take smaller actions towards the larger goal of asking questions and or inviting new members to join can be a great way to help your members “get their feet wet” and feel comfortable contributing to the community.

Don’t rely on your first users to take it upon themselves to create lots of compelling content. Community managers should identify threads that might be interesting to members or that are controversial enough to spur discussion. Threads that don’t require a “right” answer and lend themselves well to short quick responses tend to work best in terms of getting new members to participate.

Ultimately, brand communities exist to serve the people in them. When someone joins your community, they are buying into a mutual set of values where they feel respected and at home. These psychological principles can help you optimize your community management by creating “stickiness” among users because the community is fulfilling members’ needs and desires.