We are very grateful for all the research that has been done on social media.

Social media studies have given us great ideas to improve our social media marketing, helped us understand the psychology behind social media behaviors, and made us better marketers.

To help you better understand the ever-changing social media landscape, we jumped into the latest social media research papers, hoping to discover some under-the-radar insights to help supercharge your social media marketing strategy as we head into 2017.

In this post, I’d love to share what we discovered and bring you some insightful and surprising social media studies of 2016, sharing the key findings and actionable takeaways you can try today.

If any of these studies inspired you with more ideas to experiment with, I’d love to hear from you!

5 Under-the-Radar Social Media Studies to Make You A Smarter Marketer

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1. Facebook is more than 2x as popular as the next most-popular social network

79% of U.S. adults are on Facebook, more than twice the percentage of adults on Instagram (32 percent)


Surveying 1,520 U.S. adults above the age of 18, the researchers found that Facebook is still the most popular social media platform — and by a huge margin. The percentage of U.S. adults on Facebook (79 percent) is more than twice the percentage of adults on Instagram (32 percent), Pinterest (31 percent), LinkedIn (29 percent), or Twitter (24 percent).

It’s also interesting to note that percentage of adults on Instagram has risen significantly over the last few years (from 13 percent to 32 percent), Pinterest has also seen a similar curve with 31 percent of U.S. adults now using the platform – that’s just 1% less than Instagram.  

The researchers also discovered that Facebook users are much more engaged than other social media platform users. 76 percent of Facebook users use it daily — 55 percent visit several times a day, and 22 percent visit once per day. This is a quite substantial increase from the 70 percent reported in 2015.

Instagram, coming in second, has 51 percent of its users using it daily.

(If you want to find out more, the report by the Pew Research Center also goes into the demographics of users on these social media platforms such as gender, age, education, and income breakdowns. It could be handy for creating your marketing personas.)

Key takeaways for marketers

As we discovered in our State of Social Media 2016 report, Facebook is one of the best platforms for marketers to reach their audience. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm seems to be prioritizing videos at the moment, so I’d recommend experimenting with videos and Facebook Live videos. If you have the budget, Facebook ads is a popular option among marketers, too.

Alternatively, Instagram is a very promising platform, too. If you are interested, we wrote a complete guide to Instagram marketing (which is one of our most popular posts recently).

2. Over 1/3 of Instagram users are on Instagram for surveillance (yes, surveillance!)

Knowledge-gathering is the No. 1 reason people use Instagram, followed by Documentation

Have you ever wondered why your followers chose to use Instagram? Research says: to keep tabs on you (and your brand).

A research team at the University of Alabama performed a study on the motivation for using Instagram. They asked over 200 undergraduate students how often they use Instagram for each of 20 given reasons such as “to follow my friends,” or “to depict my life through pictures.” Here’s the full list:


After analyzing the results, the research team narrowed down the 20 reasons into four main motivators for using Instagram:

  1. Surveillance – People use Instagram to keep up with or gain knowledge about what others such as their family, friends, and strangers are doing.
  2. Documentation – Many use Instagram to document moments of their lives, and Instagram becomes a virtual photo album for those key moments.
  3. Coolness/Popularity – People use Instagram to appear cool and to gain popularity. Having a following and receiving likes satisfy our psychological need to feel seen and valued.
  4. Creativity – People use Instagram to portray their skills by posting creative posts.

Here’s how I’d look at the findings: When someone chooses to use Instagram, 36 percent of why they use Instagram is because they want to know what others (or your brand) are doing, 10 percent is because they want to document moments of their life, 8 percent is because they want to be cool and popular and 6 percent is because they want to show off their creativity. The remaining 40 percent was not accounted for by the study.

All four motivators lead to more time spent on Instagram — but in different ways. Here’s a chart showing the relation of motivations to activities:


  • People who are driven by any of these four motives tend to spend more hours on Instagram than those who are driven by other motives not accounted for by the study.
  • Instagram users who want to appear cool or creativity tend to spend more time editing their photos than those who are motivated by other reasons.
  • Those who use Instagram particularly to appear cool and to gain popularity tend to use hashtags more frequently than the rest of the users.

Key takeaways for marketers

Understand your audience’s habits and motivations for using Instagram or other social media platforms. This can inform your strategy for each social media platform.

For example, on Instagram, you can fulfill your followers’ desire to know more about you and your brand by revealing more about yourself or your customers (through user-generated content).

3. 62% of US adults get news on social media

Most get news from Facebook, followed by YouTube, then Twitter

Social media has changed the way we consume news. Instead of watching the TV, listening to the radio, or reading the newspapers, more people are choosing social media as their source of news.

Through a survey of 4,654 U.S. adults, the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of US adults get news on social media, with 18 percent doing so often. Back in 2012, the figure reported, based on a slightly different question, was only 49 percent.

Looking at the breakdown for each social media platform, the researchers found that 44 percent of the population uses Facebook to get their news. Interestingly, YouTube is the next platform with 10 percent of the population getting their news from there.


The researchers also discovered that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube users tend to chance upon news when they are doing other things online. On the other hand, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit users are slightly more likely to be seeking for news online.

Takeaways for marketers

You can take advantage of this trend by sharing news relevant to your audience on your social media profiles. Sharing great, relevant content can be a way to establish your brand’s authority in the field.

In our case at Buffer, we see great engagement when we share the latest and most interesting social media news with our followers.

4. Social media is proven to increase consumer loyalty

Social media engagement improves brand perception, loyalty, and word of mouth recommendations

Social media spending is on the rise — 42 percent of marketers said their budget has increased this past year while only 7 percent saw a fall in their budget. But there has been little research on the effects of social media interactions on consumer-brand relationships.

This prompted a group of U.S. researchers to investigate how social media interactions with brands influence consumers’ perception of the brand, their brand loyalty, and their word-of-mouth recommendations.

Overall, they found that consumers who engage with their favorite brands on social media have stronger relationships with those brands than those who don’t. They are more likely to have a better evaluation of the brands, stay loyal to the brands, and recommend the brands to others.

They also discovered that this effect is influenced by how humanized the consumers feel about the brand. If they feel connected to a brand like they do with another person, the relationship is stronger than when they view the brand simply as an object.

Key takeaways for marketers

Be on social media and be social. It isn’t enough to be on social media to promote your content. Your followers want to be heard.

Engage with your audience and make them feel connected to you. At Buffer, we try to reply to every tweet about us and every comment on our Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn posts.

5. The three types of gamification that increase social media engagement

Challenges, curiosity, and fantasies drive likes, shares, and comments on Facebook

So how do you engage your audience? According to this study, gamification could be one of the best ways.

Two researchers in the U.S. studied over 200 Facebook posts by Walmart to determine how gamification can drive more social media interactions.

They found that the use of gamification elements in social media posts generally led to high levels of engagement. On the flip side, posts without gamification elements had low levels of engagement.


The researchers found three successful gamification methods:

1. Challenge: Posts that elicited a challenge tend to receive a high level of engagement if the challenge requires little effort. For example, this simple challenge to spot the number of differences in two pictures generated over 9,100 likes and 2,900 comments.


In contrast, when the challenge requires a great amount of effort, the social media posts had little engagement. For instance, this post asking fans to post a photo was less well-received by Walmart’s Facebook fans.

2. Curiosity: Posts that sparked and fulfilled curiosity for fans worked really well for Walmart. There’s a little caveat: only if there wasn’t a link in the post. The researchers hypothesized that links redirect fans away from the Facebook page.

One of Walmart’s top posts was an image of a biscuit recipe with a simple caption, “Boring biscuits? No way! Try this Sweet Potato Biscuit recipe.” It was shared more than 3,500 times! As fans could view the recipe and engage with the post immediately without having to leave Facebook, they were more likely do to so.


3. Fantasy: Posts that provided followers an opportunity to fantasize mostly had high levels of engagement. When Walmart asked their fans what they would do with a $7,500 Walmart Shopping Spree, the post generated more than 3,600 likes, 700 comments, and 150 shares.


Such posts allow fans to express themselves creatively, share a personal narrative, and validate their emotional experiences.

Key takeaways for marketers

Understand the psychology of human interaction to better understand why your followers engage with you.

Experiment with gamification techniques in your social media posts (even beyond Facebook). Give your followers a challenge, spark curiosity, and create opportunities for fantasy.

Over to you

Are there any takeaways from the research that you have thought of and I did not mention?

Have you recently come across other interesting or surprising social media studies?

Feel free to leave any thoughts you have in the comments below! It’d be great to hear from you, and I’m excited to chat with you.

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Written by Alfred Lua

Content Crafter at Buffer. I swim, cycle, and run a lot. When I’m not doing all those, I love to read and try new things.

  • Jennifer

    I love seeing articles like this! I was a psychology major with a love for business, which lead me to do my undergraduate thesis on, the psychology of social media marketing. It makes me happy to see research on the psychological inputs of smm becoming more popular!

    • Yay, thank you, @disqus_ABK9Uwb7O4:disqus! That’s so cool to hear! I’ll be curious to hear more about your thesis. The psychology of social media marketing is definitely an interesting area. ?

      • Jennifer

        @alfredlua:disqus it is an interesting area for sure! And it’s an under researched area as well. For my thesis, I narrowed down 3 primary psychological theories that play a role in social media marketing for example, Social Cognitive Theory.

        • Awesome! Do you mind if I ask what the other two theories are? Very intriguing! 🙂

  • Great post Alfred! I am taking some good inspiration from this and look forward to implementing it for my clients. I am curious why in the studies from PEW, in the first takeaway it has 79% of adults using Facebook and then in the third it has 67% using Facebook. That’s a pretty large difference and they are both coming from PEW. Curious…? In any case, I enjoyed the post and will be sharing it with my network today. 3 cheers to all the Bufferoos out there! If I don’t interact with you all before, happy holidays, merry Christmas, and here’s to an amazing 2017 online together! 🙂 @stevehedstrom:disqus / @HedstromMedia

    • DLWilson

      I noticed that percentage difference, too, and think it deserves a response.

    • Hiya @stevehedstrom:disqus and @DLWilson:disqus, that’s a great one! Sorry for the late reply as I was on vacation last week.

      After reading through the studies’ methodology, I think there might be two explanations for the difference:
      1) The studies were done at different times of the year.
      2) The studies were done on different samples of U.S. adults.

      My hunch is that the difference in the sampling techniques might have cause the difference. Though, I’m not sure if that’s a good explanation for the size of the difference. So sorry I don’t have a better answer for this!

      Thank so much, Steve! Hope you are having a great holiday and wishing you an awesome year ahead, too! ?

  • A great post to read after so long. The author has really done a great research before posting this article and really like to read such detail post.

    • Hi @devdigitaldev:disqus, wow, thanks so much for the nice words! I’m really glad to hear that you enjoy reading this article. We’re excited to write more detail posts like this! 🙂

  • Well Written post, Good Research.

    • Appreciate the kind words, @garystclare:disqus!

  • Great insights and very well written post Alfred. I like your analysis and look forward to your next data driven post.

    • Hey @wayne_metcalfe:disqus, thank you so much for the kind words! Are there any topics you are interested in reading more on? 🙂

  • Great insight and creative post seeing clean & clear images and content very good creativity,
    Life changing Vacation

  • Andrew Haberman

    Fantastic article Alfred! I am a Digital Advertising Specialist for a small company and particularly appreciate the user percentage numbers you included for each of Social Media platforms.

    Open Question — Does anyone know if there’s a significant difference between the positive response brands get from using organic posting methods vs. paid advertising on social media? Does the “sponsored” bit of text at the top deter users from taking the content as seriously?

    • Thank you and you’re very welcome, @andrew_haberman:disqus! Did any of the user percentage numbers surprise you?

      That’s a great question! I did a quick Google search but couldn’t find information about that. My hunch is that it would still be worth promoting Facebook posts as organic reach on Facebook is much lower than before. Hope I understood the intention of your question correctly.

      • Andrew Haberman

        Yeah @alfredlua:disqus. In my experience it seems that users are a lot less likely to engage with a post unless it is either boosted or shown as an ad. I’d be interested to see what percentage of Facebook post engagements happen on boosted / sponsored posts vs. organically posted content.

        • Yeah, that will be an interesting one to know! It might be tricky, too, as I believe Facebook post promotion tends to help increase organic engagements too.

  • social media marketing help to improve your business branding.

  • Fabulous article – really interesting I didnt realise half of this!

  • Tracy Strelser

    I need help understanding this. For computer software and services companies that are small, I did not see the research support that fb or ig is used for making buying decisions. Everyone is on those for self promotion and connecting mainly with family and friends. CIO’s, CTO’s who make buying decisions aren’t getting their news from these platforms or using it to compare products.

    I need research to demonstrate ROI for technical products and not the consumer market. I feel forced to be on these platforms. I wish there was research to categorize which products and services make sense and which don’t. For example, CERN has 500K+ followers on fb. Ivanka Trump has 2.5M+. The CERN projects are so much more important to mankind, but generally speaking, CERN is not as interesting to the masses. The fact that such a high percentage of people get their news from fb is alarming isn’t it? Just because everyone is on fb doesn’t mean they are there for what I need. Please help marketers tell the difference between monkey see monkey do and actual BI. Thanks.

  • Benjamin ? ?

    Surveillance is an interesting choice of words for hanging out on the internet… however I realize that is exactly what most folks including myself are doing 🙂

  • Emma Waldron

    Love this article! Fabulous insights into making your social media marketing strategy more effective. The social media platform demographics are very helpful when figuring out which social media platform is best to reach a brand’s desired target market. I found it very interesting that 62% of adults receive their news from social media. Also, I found it significant that Facebook is the most widely used social media platform. The Facebook statistics are very useful.

  • Alex Henry

    I believe in the 80/20 rule. you know, where 80% of all reward comes from 20% of the effort? Well, I believe your blog is that 20%. I’ve added you to the list of sites that I frequent. Thank you for the in depth and detailed blog posts. Not many people are willing to do that anymore.