Have you heard about Bethany Mota? Bethany is part of a generation of successful video bloggers (or vloggers) who have made a successful career by, apparently, just being themselves and playing silly in front of a webcam.

Bethany was 13 years old when she created her first YouTube video in 2009, a makeup tutorial for products she had just bought from MAC and Sephora. She made her video out of boredom, trying to reduce the stress of being bullied online by a classmate, using herself as a model and her bedroom as the location. The video and the ones that followed earned her a small community of followers. Soon Bethany expanded to outfit ideas, hair tutorials, and decoration advice. Today, she has over 10 million followers on YouTube — that is one and a half million more than Lady Gaga — 10 million on Instagram — Vogue Magazine has a little under 16 — and 4 million on Twitter — Madonna has only 1.5 million.

Do these numbers make you jealous? Don’t be ashamed if they do; they are big enough to make the best brands VERY jealous. Prada’s YouTube channel has only 66 thousand followers. Chanel has only 805 thousand. It makes one wonder: how can I replicate Bethany’s success? Was it luck? Talent? What is her secret?

As much as I would love to give you a recipe with easy-to-follow steps and accurate measures for replicating Bethany’s success on social media, such thing does not exist. Thankfully, psychology and media experts like Henry Jenkins and Robert Cialdini have studied similar phenomena before, and from Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model we can learn how to strategize possible routes to engagement and persuasion. Here, I use Bethany’s success as an example to explain the experts’ recommendations to increase engagement.

To consume your content, your public has to be motivated

Easier said than done, so bear with me on this one. As I mentioned in a previous blog, motivation depends on satisfying the needs of autonomy, capability, and relatedness. In other words, to become engaged with a message such as a blog post, readers need to do so willingly, they need to be able to understand, and they need to relate to the contents of the message. Satisfying the needs of autonomy and capability when creating content to share on social media is almost a given. No one forces Bethany’s followers to watch her videos. They do so out of genuine interest. Bethany’s viewers are also plenty capable of understanding her videos: the videos are in English, they portray situations which are easy to relate to and understand, and, thanks to the affordances of mobile technology, her viewers can watch them pretty much anywhere, anytime, using a mobile device. Also, because of the affordances of social media, her viewers can find the videos without much difficulty because their close network of friends spread them each time one of them likes, upvotes, shares or comments on a video. The tricky part is then fulfilling the public’s need for relatedness. Who watches Bethany’s videos? I do not. I cannot relate. Do you? Unless you are a teenage girl or have one at home, you probably don’t either. Her audience is young girls mostly, specifically young girls that relate to what she talks about (makeup, hair, fashion) and find her advice valuable because they are interested in the same subjects. Should you run to Sephora and start creating makeup tutorials then? Nope. The lesson to be learned here is not to attempt to lure everyone but merely a few. Create content for a particular audience. Bethany sticks to subjects that are of interest to teenagers living a middle-class, sheltered lifestyle, and covers brands that she knows her followers can afford, like Forever 21 and Aéropostale.

Before you start creating content to spread on social media, figure out who your audience is. Ask yourself these questions: Who buys my product? How do they use it? What are their needs? How can I help them fulfill these needs?  If what you are trying to do is broaden your existing audience, then figure out who specifically you want to attract. The smaller your audience, the easier it will be to create content they can relate to. See it this way: Bethany fails to engage 99.87 percent of the population on this planet, now hovering close to 7.5 billion. The 0.13 percent she draws, however, can guarantee her an estimated $40,000 a month business.

The windy road is often the fastest

The central tenet of Elaboration Likelihood Model is that there are two routes to persuasion:

A central route that relies on the diligent consideration of rational arguments; as when I say that eating broccoli is good because of its anti-cancer properties, and you decide to start eating it because you can verify the validity of my statement and do not want cancer, and

A peripheral route that relies on heuristics and other mental shortcuts, as when I say: Broccoli is fun! It looks like a little tree! Celebrities love it! You wanna be healthy, huh, so why don’t you try it?

Taking the central route leads to longer lasting change and less counter-arguing, yet rational arguments are often BORING. Most times, it is easier to lead your audience through a peripheral route, and once engaged, give them the cold hard facts: Broccoli is high in fiber.


Increase engagement by appealing to heuristics

The first thing one notices when watching one of Bethany’s videos, like this one for Valentine’s Day is that she is quite attractive. Beautiful hair, flawless skin, big eyes. Then, that she’s also quite expressive, cheery, bouncy, and even a little childish. Bethany is quite likeable! And because she is good-looking, confident, and the video looks professionally made, we can safely guess that she knows a thing or two about making things look pretty. Finally, we notice the number of people that have watched the video. Whoa! Nine million views and counting. We have not watched much of her video, but after a few seconds, we already know that Bethany is pleasant to watch, she seems to be an expert on the subject of beauty, and over nine million viewers have endorsed her message. One can only conclude that, if beauty advice is a topic that interests us, her message is worth watching. Note that we reach this conclusion before a careful deliberation on the merits of her video, but by using heuristics, mental shortcuts based on experience and driven by emotions that we use to save time every time we need to make a decision. Any decision. As humans, we prefer to guess rather than to elaborate, because elaborating takes time. The lesson to be learned from Bethany is that for your message to successfully reach your target audience, you need to convince them first that there’s value in spending time going through your entire message. The sooner, the better, because there are zillions of other things, including cat videos, potentially more interesting than your content going around on the Internet. The Internet is a cruel, nasty place, where nobody has time for the central route. Unless your viewers are super motivated to engage in your content, appealing to heuristics, the peripheral route, is a more effective way to persuade them that your content is worth their time, at least until they have enough information to decide whether the information is relevant or not.

Good, but you don’t have time for a course on consumer psychology, do you? Cialdini mentions six basic principles of persuasion based on our use of heuristics for decision-making. Above I mentioned the three most important:

1. Liking, either the speaker or the way the message is delivered: using fancy colors, music, humor, etc. You do not have to be as gorgeous as Bethany to be liked. Being funny and relatable helps.

2. Authority, recognizing that the speaker must be an expert on the matter at hand,

3. Consensus, public validation of the message.

The other three are:

4. Reciprocity, our desire to repay people like Bethany for her valuable and funny advice with our attention, first, and maybe then with a “Like,” or by purchasing their product. Think about it, how many times did a restaurant earn your business with a free sample?

5. Consistency, our desire to stick to what we commit in public. Credo Mobile marketing strategy relies on reminding the public that they are as committed to social progress and environmental causes as their customers are. You cannot use another carrier if you truly care about the environment, can you?

6. Scarcity, as in “this offer will not last!” Scarcity appeals to our fear of losing an opportunity. Sure, by now we all know that that 30 percent discount will happen again next month — but what if it does not? Taking advantage of the now is an evolutionary advantage acquired during a time when winters were harsh and summers were relentless.


Tell a Story

What is stronger than Superman? A story about Superman! In the Running Late for School video, Bethany starts by telling us a story. The birds chirping let us know it’s morning time, we see her tossing and turning, then when her alarm clock goes off, she pushes it off the bed table. Oh, no, she’s going to be late! Then comes the core of her message: Running Late for school? Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes. If we weren’t interested in the subject before, now we are, because by following her narrative and understanding her goal—making it on time to school and still look ravishing—we got emotionally involved. We want to know whether she will make it on time and how. Yep, Bethany’s is a simple story that won’t entice everyone, but remember the only people you need to lure are your target audience. Not every message can easily be turned into a story and stories are not always the most efficient way to deliver a message because they are not as economical as simple rhetoric — it takes Bethany a full 36 seconds of introductory narrative before she starts talking; that’s longer than most commercials. However, when motivation is low, stories are your best bet to increase engagement.

How can you create an engaging story? The recipe is simple:

Identifiable characters. Bethany uses herself. It doesn’t matter who you use, as long as you make it clear that the story is about that character.

Familiar situations that your viewer can relate to. In Bethany’s video, we easily infer it is morning time inside a teenage girl’s bedroom.

Conflict. A dismissed alarm clock. Uh-oh, she’s going to be late.

Clear goals. Making it on time to school while still looking good, as stated in the video title

Resolution. Following Bethany’s advice for Easy & quick hairstyles under 5 minutes.

Note that Bethany’s story is not about how her product saved the planet from zombies, but about how using her product, beauty advice, can save an ordinary girl from an embarrassing situation. Your story should not be about what your product does then but about how it helps people succeed or avoid failure. At ePaisa, we constantly use stories to show how our product can change merchants’ lives, like this one about a man that learned that not embracing technology can be costly.

Want to learn more about creating persuasive messages? I created this video to help communicators on choosing the shortest route to persuasion based on their audience’s motivation to engage. It’s a bit long, so watch it at your own risk 😉

— Originally written for ePaisa.com