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140 Characters Can Make or Break Your Brand

An informal social media style can backfire on an unknown company or boost trust among an audience that is already familiar with the firm.

Bottom Line: An informal social media style can backfire on an unknown company or boost trust among an audience that is already familiar with the firm.

What’s in a (first) name? When it comes to social media marketing, a lot.

According to a new study, addressing social media users in an informal way — using their first names, for example, or sprinkling colloquial, decidedly unbusinesslike words such as “awesome” throughout posts — can either be a big hit or backfire. It all depends on consumers’ familiarity with the brand.

With the ability to communicate in a conversational style, far removed from the stilted company–consumer exchanges of yesteryear, some companies’ official Twitter accounts and Facebook pages entertain and build brand awareness even as they solve customer service problems. Unfortunately, they can also seem too chummy, coming across as insincere or even offensive. And that’s when companies can become the victims of cringe-inducing hashtags courtesy of the very consumers they were trying to win over.

People spend most of their online time engaging with social media, and that’s now one of the main ways consumers discover new products. However, despite all the resources firms have poured into developing social media strategies and building online brand “personas,” research suggests that marketers’ social media outreach attempts mostly fall flat in building trust and loyalty.

A new study is one of the first to examine the relationship between a firm’s social media communications style and the brand trustworthiness it engenders. Brand trust has been shown to be instrumental in fostering consumers’ long-term loyalty and desire to purchase products. This is especially true in the social media context, where consumers can form strong opinions solely because of something a company representative tweets, and not necessarily because of their hands-on experience with a particular product or service.

The authors conducted three experiments involving both real and fictitious brands (to ensure that some products were wholly unfamiliar to participants), and either informal or formal social media styles.

The study found that people responded differently to the same message depending on how they related to the brand. The use of an informal style — peppered with exclamation points and emojis — increased consumers’ trust when they were familiar with a brand, but had the opposite effect when they lacked previous knowledge of the brand.

The authors found that people responded differently to the same message depending on how they related to the brand.

Although using an informal style is likely to reinforce a bond of familiarity with existing customers, consumers with little or no awareness of a brand tend to be turned off by an overly personal approach that they may deem inappropriate, the authors suggest. To connect with new or dispassionate consumers, a more formal and distant communications style — replete with full sentences, proper punctuation, and plenty of pleases and thank-yous — is a better bet. It’s not that different from how one would strike up a conversation on the street with a friend versus with a stranger. 

Source: “‘Don’t Pretend to Be My Friend!’ When an Informal Brand Communication Style Backfires on Social Media,” by Anaïs Gretry (University of Liege), Csilla Horváth, Nina Belei, and Allard C.R. van Riel (all of Radboud University), Journal of Business Research, May 2017, vol. 74

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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