Decoding Online User Expectations: The Intersection of Digital Marketing and Psychology

When you read articles about Digital Marketing, there is always a best practice to follow. Usually, marketers accept those as they follow search engines and social platform guidelines. However, search engines and social platforms were created to serve online users and ensure they stay and keep using what is proposed; the algorithms are based on core digital marketing and psychology principles from the 20th century. Marketers often run after Google and other online platforms, fearing new updates and needing a deeper understanding of those principles. It is time to cut the middle man and truly understand what makes your target user perform an action: it’s a blend of digital marketing and psychology. Let’s dive into the key aspects that shape this understanding and how various psychological theories have defined them.

1. Clear and Consistent Brand Messaging

Online users crave clarity and consistency in brand messaging. This goes beyond words; it encompasses the brand’s tone, visuals, and overall narrative across digital platforms. This preference is anchored in the Consistency Theory (Leon Festinger, 1957, “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”). A consistent brand message aligns with our inherent desire for consistency in beliefs and behaviours, clustering information into “safe” and “unsafe” boxes, ultimately bolstering trust.

2. High-Quality, Relevant Content

The demand for content that informs, engages, and caters to specific interests is high. Whether through blogs, videos, or infographics, content must transcend product promotion to offer real value. This need aligns with the Information Processing Theory (1950s-1960s, various cognitive psychology works), emphasizing our inclination towards content that is not only relevant but also enhances our knowledge or problem-solving skills.

3. User-Friendly Website Design

We often judge a brand’s credibility by its website experience. A website that’s easy to navigate, quick to load, and optimized for mobile use is critical. This emphasis on usability is grounded in the Usability and Cognitive Load Theory (John Sweller, 1988), highlighting the importance of minimizing cognitive strain that can slow down your thought process and distract your online user from performing the action you were hoping.

4. Transparency and Authenticity

Today’s consumers value transparency in business practices, sourcing, and pricing. Authenticity in marketing, avoiding exaggerated or false claims, fosters trust. This aspect is tied to the Expectancy Violation Theory (Judee K. Burgoon, 1978), where positive violations in transparency can significantly boost brand trust while negative violations can damage it.

5. Social Proof and Reviews

Social proof, like online reviews and testimonials, plays a crucial role in establishing a brand’s reliability. The Social Proof Theory (Robert Cialdini, 1984, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”), where seeing positive experiences from others enhances a brand’s credibility, explains very well the behaviour and expectations of users. The principle is simple: if those other people were happy with this product/service, I should be too!

6. Engagement and Community Building

Active social media engagement and community building create a sense of belonging and loyalty. This strategy reflects the Theory of Planned Behavior (Icek Ajzen, 1985, “From Intentions to Actions: A Theory of Planned Behavior”), suggesting that user engagement can positively influence attitudes and perceived norms, impacting behaviour towards the brand.

7. Consistent Customer Service

Reliable customer service is a cornerstone of trust. This approach taps into the principle of Reciprocity (Robert Cialdini, 1984, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”), where excellent service can lead to loyalty and positive customer advocacy. The same principles apply to brand advocacy for B2B, where employees showcase their brand’s successes and milestones, allowing potential B2B customers and potential employees to glimpse the internal work a brand is conducting.

8. Security and Privacy

In an era of heightened data privacy concerns, robust security measures to protect personal information are non-negotiable. These measures are pivotal in establishing trust and addressing basic psychological safety needs. Privacy needs are triggering more and more rules. Of course, it clashes with the personalization principle as it becomes difficult for a platform to render personalized content while they can’t access preferences from a user. 

This core principle is probably one of the strongest, though – if we look at the history of digital marketing and the new gadgets it came with, such as Voice Control devices, we can see limited success here. While some people entertain themselves with those devices, you can only find them in some homes, compared to a mobile phone. The reason behind this is usually the fear of a device actively listening to you while not being aware of it. Safety first.

9. Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility

Younger demographics increasingly expect brands to demonstrate environmental and social responsibility. This ties into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Abraham Maslow, 1943), relating to the higher-order needs of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Each generation will have its priority depending on the hierarchy of their needs. It often needs to be clarified with trends and fashion, especially by generations whose needs differ. Trends and fashion usually don’t have a purpose and can be discarded, while need prioritization is no joke, and brands failing at catering to those needs often fail. The more weight a brand demonstrates in visibility and popularity, the more expectations rise: welcome to the world of digital marketing and psychology!

10. Personalization, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
  1. The Good

Personalized experiences, like customized product recommendations, significantly boost user engagement and trust. This leverages the Endowment Effect (Richard Thaler, 1980), where personalization enhances the brand’s perceived value as it feels it completely matches your needs. This is the most exciting point and the one we will see fluctuate the most in the following years. How can we personalize an experience without access to preferences and not jeopardize safety and privacy? Or are they just incompatible, and users need to be classified into two tiers: the ones who want true personalization and those who put their privacy on top of their needs.

  1. The Bad

Where can we find the sweet spot with AI coming into the mix? So far, the best option platforms have come up with is the opt-in/out option. Or can a brand still personalize an experience while a public platform gathering multiple brands should not? This comes to ethics, and recent years have shown that personalization can trigger another issue: the rabbit hole where you may have a question for which you find an answer (correct or false), and the personalization bombards you with similar content that reinforces, even more, your beliefs, making you enter a world you will struggle to get out of as you will only be presented the content that validates your thoughts, making them “true” to you. This triggers another psychological principle: conditioning (Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner), where behaviour can be reinforced when a positive or negative feeling is associated with it.

  1. The Ugly

Propaganda, conspiracies and political issues are the ones that usually trigger that question. For more information about these psychology theories, read the work of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann about propanganda.


In conclusion, by weaving these psychological principles into digital marketing strategies, brands can forge a more engaging and trustworthy online presence tailored to their unique audience. Remember, these user expectations can vary, so adapting strategies to align with your brand’s specific audience is critical to making a meaningful connection while considering digital marketing and psychology. If you need help figuring out where to start or would like to improve your brand perception, let’s have a chat!

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