Using the Onion Theory to Create Better Content for Social Media

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Engagement is down. Social media is “dead” (no, it isn’t). And every marketer is struggling to create better content for social media.

Enter the Social Penetration Theory, which explains how our closeness develops through gradual self-disclosure.

Yes, the name is … a lot. However, the theory itself can be a powerful tool for creating more engaging and authentic content on social media.

At its core, this theory poses that relationships deepen through a process of peeling back layers, moving from superficial interactions to more intimate and personal exchanges. Kind of like an onion!

Let’s dive in.

How the Social Penetration Theory Enhances Content

In your quest for better social media content, understanding and leveraging psychological theories can be a game-changer.

I did my undergraduate thesis on the Social Penetration Theory (SPT) and how it works through virtual mediums, mainly Facebook. Below is a picture of my the day I defended my thesis at Penn State University. (Don’t laugh — it’s old!)

Brooke PSU thesis

Me, at PSU with the Nittany Lion.

Using this theory provides profound insights into how we can enhance our social media presence. And thereby, engagement.

Developed by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, the SPT explores how relationships progress from superficial interactions to deeper, more intimate exchanges.

This understanding is a valuable tool in crafting content that resonates deeply with your audience.

Understanding Social Penetration Theory

The Social Penetration Theory poses that relationships develop through a gradual process of self-disclosure, moving from shallow to more intimate levels of communication.

The theory is often depicted as an onion, where each layer peeled away reveals deeper levels of personal thoughts and feelings.

Fun Fact: I dedicated a whole chapter to this in my book, Conversations That Connect!


[Source: Conversations That Connect]

Applying the Onion Theory to Your Social Media Content

To create better social media content, consider the stages of the Social Penetration Theory:

  1. Orientation Stage: At this initial stage, interactions are superficial and non-intimate. For social media, this translates to creating content that is accessible and broadly appealing. Introduce your brand with engaging visuals, catchy taglines, and general information that attracts a wide audience. Think of this as your elevator pitch.
  2. Exploratory Affective Stage: Here, interactions become more personal and informal. On social media, this means sharing stories, behind-the-scenes content, and employee spotlights. This stage helps to humanize your brand and build a connection with your audience.
  3. Affective Stage: This stage is characterized by more open and relaxed communication. Content should reflect a deeper understanding of your audience’s needs and interests. User-generated content, testimonials, and interactive posts like polls or Q&A sessions can be very effective.
  4. Stable Stage: At this point, interactions are characterized by deep trust and understanding. Your content should aim to foster a loyal community. Personalized messages, loyalty programs, and exclusive content for long-time followers are key strategies here.
  5. Depenetration: It’s essential to note that relationships can regress. If content becomes irrelevant or overly intrusive, it may lead to disengagement. Regularly evaluate your content’s performance and audience feedback to ensure continued relevance and engagement.

Finally, I’d like to point out that depenetration is a good thing! I’d rather have 100 engaged followers on a social media page than 10,000 followers who don’t engage at all.

By the way, this is one of the major reasons you’ve seen a decline in engagement. You’ve been building a follower base and not a customer base. STOP THAT!

Crafting Content with Depth

Most of you are doing it wrong. #SorryNotSorry

Truly, most branded content lives in clichés and facts, which is why so many marketers are finding engagement on social media difficult these days.

onion theory content building b squared media

[Source: Me! Book me to train your teams on this!]

By understanding the layers of social penetration, you can craft content that gradually builds a deeper connection with your audience.

Here’s how:

  • Start Broad: Begin with content that is broadly appealing to capture attention. Infographics, memes, and introductory videos work well. Think: New followers who could become new customers.
  • Get Personal: Share more about your brand’s story, your team, and your values. Behind-the-scenes content can make your brand more relatable. Think: Dating. Letting your potential customers get to know you while deepening the relationship with those you’ve been ‘dating’ for a while.
  • Engage Deeply: Use interactive content like polls, surveys, and live Q&A sessions to engage with your audience on a deeper level. Think: Getting to know them. What do they want from you? What types of content do they resonate with the most?
  • Build Trust: Share testimonials, case studies, and user-generated content to build trust and credibility. Think: Lead nurturing in the least sales-y way possible.
  • Foster Loyalty: Reward your loyal followers with exclusive content, special offers, and personalized messages. Think: Marriage. If it’s going to last, you have to show them how you’re their dedicated partner!

These are the basic tenets of any relationship. If loyalty is what you’re aiming for, you have to put in the work.

The Details are in the Disclosures

Additionally, an integral part of the Onion Theory is the concept of different levels of self-disclosure.

These levels—clichés, facts, opinions, and feelings—can guide how you structure and develop your social media content.

For instance, new followers will need broad, more “fluffy” content. Longtime followers or advocates for the brand will expect deeper content sharing or asking for opinions and feelings.

Therefore, you need to have a mix of the below to get crack the real content code.


These are standard, superficial interactions. In the context of social media, clichés are the use of popular phrases, greetings, and surface-level content that doesn’t dive deep.

While they might seem trivial, clichés are essential for initial engagement. They make your brand approachable and relatable.

For instance, using friendly greetings, common industry jargon, or popular memes can help attract a broad audience.


Proflowers: Cliché but make it punny. 


Sharing factual information about your brand, products, or industry helps build credibility and trust.

For example, sharing statistics about your industry, details about your products, or facts about your company history helps establish authority and provide value to your audience.


United: Factual, yes. Boring, DOUBLE YES.


Moving beyond facts, sharing opinions allows for a deeper level of engagement. Opinions reflect your brand’s voice and values, helping to distinguish you from competitors.

Opinion-based content can include thought leadership articles, commentary on industry trends, and responses to current events. This type of content invites your audience to engage in discussions and share their own views, fostering a sense of community.


Whataburger: Let’s solicit opinions with a supersized side of funny!


The deepest level of self-disclosure involves sharing feelings. Content that conveys genuine emotions can create a strong emotional bond with your audience.

This can include sharing personal stories from your team, testimonials from satisfied customers, or heartfelt messages during significant events.


Horsedotcom: What a clever way to solicit feelings! 1,109 of them!

Emotionally charged content resonates on a personal level, making your audience feel more connected to your brand.

The Role of Authenticity in Content for Social Media

Authenticity is crucial in every stage of the Social Penetration Theory.

Today, audiences are quick to detect insincerity, and this can lead to a rapid decline in engagement. Be genuine in your communications, and ensure that your content reflects your brand’s true personality and values.

Benefits of Using SPT in Your Social Media Strategy

  1. Enhanced Engagement: By gradually revealing more about your brand, you can keep your audience engaged over a longer period.
  2. Stronger Connections: Deeper self-disclosure leads to stronger emotional connections with your audience.
  3. Increased Loyalty: Audiences that feel a deeper connection with your brand are more likely to become loyal followers.
  4. Better Feedback: Engaged audiences are more likely to provide valuable feedback, helping you improve your content strategy.

Why AI Isn’t the Best Way to Create Content that Connects

While AI has made tremendous strides in generating content, there are inherent limitations when it comes to creating the type of deeply personal and emotionally resonant content the way I’m describing it here.

Here’s why:

Lack of Genuine Emotion: AI can simulate conversation and mimic emotional tones, but it lacks genuine human emotion and experience. The subtleties of personal anecdotes, the sincerity of shared struggles, and the authenticity of heartfelt opinions are beyond the current capabilities of AI.

Contextual Understanding: Human communication is rich with nuance and context, which AI often misses. Understanding the context behind why certain opinions and feelings are shared, and how they evolve over time, requires a depth of understanding and empathy that AI cannot replicate.

AI theshit vs THEshit

[Source: Conversations That Connect, pg. 166]

Relational Dynamics: Building a relationship involves understanding and reacting to feedback in a way that feels natural and considerate. AI lacks the ability to truly understand and adapt to the dynamic nature of human relationships, making it difficult to foster the same level of connection.

Creativity and Originality: The creative process involves a blend of inspiration, personal experiences, and originality.

While AI can generate content based on patterns and data, it cannot match the unique creative flair that comes from human experiences and emotions.

Ready to Peel the Onion?

In conclusion, while AI is a valuable tool for many aspects of content creation, it falls short when it comes to creating deeply personal and emotionally engaging content.

By leveraging Social Penetration Theory, or Onion Theory, your brand can build stronger, more authentic connections with your audience through genuine human interaction and storytelling.

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Brooke B. Sellas is an award-winning Customer Marketing Strategist and the CEO & Founder of B Squared Media. Her book, Conversations That Connect has been recognized nationally and is required reading for a Customer Experience class at NSU. Brooke's influence in digital marketing is not just about her accomplishments but also about her unwavering commitment to elevating the industry standard of digital customer experience and customer marketing.
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Category: Content Marketing,
Tags: B Squared Media, Brooke B. Sellas, Brooke Sellas, community building, content for social media, content marketing on social media, content strategy for social media, , , , , , The Onion Theory
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