Social media has revolutionized the public relations and marketing world in ways that few of us anticipated. From brand creative to interactions with customers, from how brands participate in popular culture to what customers expect of modern brands, the corporate landscape has forever changed. And yet few among us truly understand it. 

There is a serious knowledge gap in our profession, and its one Joe Federer aims to bridge in his new book, The Hidden Psychology of Social NetworksThose of us who’ve been around long enough to watch this evolution occur know all too well that millennials and Gen Z understand social media in ways that we don’t. But understanding social media from the perspective of a user simply isn’t enough to form an effective social marketing strategy. Average users don’t drive attention-grabbing headlines, amass huge followings, or foster deep engagement the way best-in-class brands in social often do.

Federer’s impressive digital strategy career provided insights that enabled him to write this almost encyclopedic book about social media. A decade ago, he helped me understand the game-changing possibilities of social media. Until he decided to devote his full-time focus to this project, Federer was head of Brand Strategy at Reddit.

The Hidden Psychology of Social Networks provides an in-depth analysis not only of why social media is so compelling to us as humans but how brands can align themselves with the value people derive naturally from participating in it. Federer uses a range of scientific research and evolutionary science to explain how ideas form and propagate, how our senses of self shift through different kinds of social networks, and how the structure of our brains lends itself to different kinds of expression -- and with different goals. 

Equipped with best-in-class examples of stellar social media campaigns -- many of which are of his own creation -- this book provides not only a theoretical model for understanding social media but practical application for brands of all shapes and sizes. His insight into what makes these campaigns work goes beyond the “social media best practice tips” espoused by many social gurus and helps readers understand the inner workings of great social marketing. 

Federer begins the book with an exploration of the word meme, coined in evolutionary biology to mean a “unit of culture.” Many of us understand generally what is meant when we refer to “Internet memes,” but Federer helps us understand that memes and meme culture go far beyond silly pictures with superimposed text. While many brands have tried (and failed) to use memes in their marketing, Federer explains that memes are products of various online cultures, and “like any culture, it’s extremely difficult to fool the natives into thinking we’re locals.” 

While he specifies that memes and meme culture aren’t right for every brand, Federer insists that every brand can learn lessons from the levity and accessibility meme culture has evolved to share ideas. He also issues a compelling challenge to the industry: “Every day, kids with old versions of Photoshop on their parents’ computers manage to create content that engages millions of people. And if they can do it, our armies of professional designers, photographers, copywriters, strategists, marketing professionals, communications specialists, and community managers can too.” It’s hard to argue with that. 

In an age defined by social media, understanding these technologies -- and more importantly, how people relate to them -- is absolutely pivotal. Not only does this book provide a useful frame for the social media landscape, it does so in a way that’s accessible to even the least social media-savvy reader. If you are looking to deepen your understanding of social media and how best-in-class brands are thinking about marketing within them, this book fills in a lot of blanks. 

My key takeaways from the book:

  • The format through which an idea is conveyed is as critical to its success as the idea itself. Internet meme culture provides a series of case studies in formats that most efficiently communicate the ideas embedded in them.
  • The structure of a social network -- how its users are identified and organized -- dictates mindsets for users in different online environments. For example, when people are connected only to offline friends and identifiable as their offline selves, they’re likely to engage different kinds of content than in a social network that organizes people around common interests and allows them to be anonymous. 
  • In most social networks, it isn’t enough to create interesting content about our brands. We must create content that helps our audience brand themselves to their networks, especially when people are in modes of representing themselves.
  • To create content that will be engaging in different social media platforms, brands must first understand what value people derive from their participation in that social network organically.
  • Social media pushes brands to act in accordance with what they say -- or risk being shamed publicly. Whenever possible, we should strive to behave in the world in ways that align with our brand purpose, then tell stories about our behavior in ways that are interesting, bite-sized, and shareable. 

Ron Culp is a veteran corporate and agency public relations leader who now teaches at DePaul University. When Culp headed Ketchum’s Chicago office, Joe Federer was one of a small cadre of innovators plowing new ground in digital and social media. Culp blogs on careers for aspiring public relations pros at