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Companies rolling out social media marketing campaigns should keep their messages casual and general.

Bottom Line: Companies rolling out social media marketing campaigns should keep their messages casual and general.

When it comes to social media marketing, it’s not what you say but how you say it. That’s the finding of a new study, which is among the first to empirically examine the effects of social media advertising on consumer behavior. Consumers who respond to firms’ social media posts are usually familiar with the brand and prefer an informal, less stilted approach that leaves the details for later — in a style that resembles the way they communicate with their friends online.

About 80 percent of Fortune 500 firms advertise via Facebook. But researchers have yet to discover why consumers tend to “like” or retweet certain types of corporate content but give a virtual thumbs-down to others. To provide some insight, the authors analyzed more than 4,200 Facebook posts made by nine brands during a recent 18-month period. The companies varied in size and spanned several industries, including consumer packaged goods, restaurants, retail, and sports.

Using the Facebook Page Insights tool, which provides brands with detailed metrics on their advertising efforts, the study’s authors calculated the number of likes and instances of negative feedback each post received. They also tracked how many unique users viewed a post, the number of comments posted, the frequency with which a post was shared, and the clicks that resulted in traffic redirecting to the advertised brand’s website.

The authors also broke down the number of people reached via different channels within the social network, including sponsored channels (companies can pay Facebook to increase the audience that sees their post), organic channels (some saw the post because an algorithm identified them as having previously engaged with the brand), and viral channels (some people went to the post because a friend liked, shared, or commented on it). Experts also graded each post on the extent of its use of 14 different content variables — for example, humor, brand relevance, and external Internet links.

The findings are at odds with accepted advertising wisdom. Traditional advice emphasizes the importance of clear and concise messaging. But the opposite holds sway in social media marketing: Consumer engagement with branded content increases when the communication is more ambiguous, the authors found — messages that aren’t particularly detailed or refined seem to be right at home on social media. Having less clarity in marketing messages not only makes them seem more conversational, but also draws consumers in and generates interest.

After all, most people don’t go online to look for sales pitches, but to interact with social contacts. Accordingly, marketers should design their social media outreach efforts to blend in with the tone and style of friendly online chit-chat, and avoid coming across as pushy — although it’s perfectly fine to ask users for feedback, which generally elicits a positive response.

“Branded content that departs from norms of social communication on Facebook and is instead more like marketing communication tends to generate a variety of unfavorable engagement responses from consumers,” the authors write.

Most social media consumers will have some familiarity with the brand, especially if they have been directed to the post by an algorithm or a friend. As a result, it’s important to make sure advertising is highly relevant to the brand’s image and reputation. The narrower audience of core consumers is also more easily annoyed by overtly persuasive or “off-brand” messages, the authors found. That illustrates the need for nuance when marketers court social media users who think they already “know” the brand as they would a friend. The findings also cast doubt on the wisdom of paying social media platforms to reach a larger audience, as core consumers are by far the most likely to appreciate and disseminate branded content.

Social media users seem more apt to spread positive word of mouth (via sharing and commenting on posts) when advertising content is general as opposed to specific. Providing information on a product’s features or price can elicit a sizable number of likes, especially when backed up by external reviews and URL links. But it’s not the kind of information people generally share with others, presumably because talking about money or prices is generally frowned upon in social contexts.

Interestingly, a number of content characteristics hailed by industry experts as best practices — posting holiday-related ads, employing humor, using high-quality images and videos, and inviting people to enter contests, for example — had a negligible or negative effect on consumer engagement.

“In general, it seems that much of what social media marketers do [either is] ineffective or, worse, backfires on them,” the authors write.

“In general, it seems that much of what social media marketers do [either is] ineffective or, worse, backfires on them,” the authors write.

Source:Is It What You Say or How You Say It? How Content Characteristics Affect Consumer Engagement with Brands on Facebook,” by Andrew T. Stephen (University of Oxford), Michael R. Sciandra (Fairfield University), and J. Jeffrey Inman (University of Pittsburgh), Oct. 2015, Saïd Business School Research Paper No. 2015-19

Matt Palmquist

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

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