Jekyll and Hyde: the double-edged sword of social media

Jana Bowden discusses consumer engagement via social media, and how it does not always guarantee positive outcomes.

JANA-bowden-headshot-bwIt’s a perennial problem. Brands need to promote their products, but customers are growing increasingly resistant to traditional marketing messages. Not only is it becoming difficult to generally access consumers to communicate with them, it’s also becoming increasingly difficult to access the minds of consumers to influence them. Yet, engaged customers are the most profitable, they are more likely to recommend your brand, spend more, stay longer and pay more.

Social media is seen as the panacea for customer engagement with its seemingly endless reach and dynamic, networked interactivity, and ability to organically grow brand reputation. Brands have been quick to hop on the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat bandwagons, flagging and tagging their brands in as many diversified social media channels as possible. Social media spending is projected to climb to 21% of total marketing budget in the next five years according to a recent report by Forbes.

It is fast becoming the preferred channel for brand communication. Given its reach and power to penetrate the market, surely then, social media is the engagement silver bullet?


All that glitters is not gold

Social media itself has empowered consumers like never before to share their opinions, both good and bad, leading to obvious contagion effects whereby both current customers and non-customers are exposed to biasing information. Consumers are subsequently no longer passive recipients of brand information, but are instead proactive contributors to the brand narrative. In this realm, the power of referral is crucial and it has far reaching repercussions.

One only has to think for examples, of the way in which review sites such as TripAdvisor shape your attitudes towards branded choices to see the real power of information contagion in operation.

Online brand communities – the Holy Grail?

This opportunity to express consumer voice has in turn spawned the rise of virtual brand communities – online ecosystems that are based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers or haters of a brand. These communities, which are not under the direct control of the brand itself, represent important consumer engagement opportunities. Members have a strong affinity with each other, forge close and enduring relationships and encourage other members towards support or otherwise for a brand. Their purpose is to provide mutual and reciprocal support (eg. troubleshooting like Apple’s forums), but importantly it is also to share and proudly display branded success stories. As such they represent a significant opportunity for brand management.

When they work in the brand’s favour, they facilitate the development of deeply positive engagement and passion with others who have like interests, they offer a different engagement platform for consumers to connect with the brand, and they enhance the brand experience. The case of Australian children’s wear apparel retail brands Bonds, Rock Your Baby, and Lacey Lane, and their consumer-led brand forums on Facebook are testimony to the power of brand communities with their focus on mutual bonding, a deep level of interest and participation and collective learning around the brand.

However, when these online brand communities work against the brand, they can facilitate the development of deeply negative engagement and may lead to anti-brand behaviours, including negative word-of-mouth, negative attitudes, and in the extreme, retaliation, brand sabotage, and boycott. This occurs when brand communities have been set up with the explicit objective of being negative from the outset (eg. Facebook pages such as “I hate McDonalds”), or when they simply contain negative cells of engagement within them (eg. pro-brand community sites which for various reasons develop negative sentiment).

While these online brand communities are not controlled by the brand itself, they are perceived by the consumer to be part of the broader, more holistic brand experience and therefore have the potential to taint consumer’s engagement and enhance or damage brand equity.
Engagement – much like social media – in this sense, is a double edged sword. It can lead consumers to positively engage with a brand, or perhaps more worryingly, engage negatively.

So how should brands navigate this capricious engagement landscape? When should you engage? Where should you engage? And how should you engage? The short answer is, it depends.

1. Information is not knowledge

When nothing is sure, everything is possible. Monitor your social media and undertake frequent health checks. Gather information on both the membership of your formal, organisational social media brand communities, as well as your consumer-led brand communities. Analyse and interrogate the data to understand who they are, what they are looking for, why they are there, what value they get from community membership and how frequently they engage with their communities. Use this information to develop a nuanced understanding of who you are dealing with, and what their key brand triggers and drivers of engagement are. Knowledge is power.

2. ‘Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em’

Social media offers a number of managerial opportunities and benefits by virtue of its densely networked membership base, and extremely high consumer passion for the brand. However, not all consumer-led brand communities should receive intervention from brand management itself. There is a fine line to be walked between enhancing engagement by having a presence within social media through formal channels, and official brand communities, and being active within consumer-led online brand communities. If the wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In other words, if your consumers are highly passionate and engaged with the consumer-led brand communities that you are monitoring, and they appear to be operating productively to enhance the brand experience, don’t intervene. As they say, be careful how you play your cards when you already have a royal flush in your hand.

3. If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking

Strength lies in difference, not similarities. Recognise that engagement is not simple and it is much more than mere satisfaction. It is a complex multi-dimensional mixture of the cognitive, emotional and behavioural dimensions of a customers’ brand experience. It focuses on how each interaction that a customer has with the brand subsequently shapes, and redefines their perceptions of their brand-relationship.

Brands that enjoy high engagement know their consumers well and create a relationship where consumers want to be closer to the brand.

A recent study that I conducted within the children’s retail and apparel sector found that consumers who belonged to an online brand community demonstrated a much higher propensity for engagement than those who did not belong to an online brand community. Despite being equally loyal, they were qualitatively different in the way that they interacted with the brand, the types of brand experiences they sought from the brand, and the feelings and emotions they expressed toward the brand. They were in effect, different segments simply by virtue of their use of and membership to social media groups.

In other words, online brand engagement is complex and brands need to understand the engagement platforms on which they are operating, and the way in which these platforms themselves predispose consumers to engage or disengage with the brand. Without a fine grained understanding of your consumer segments, you are at risk of missing key brand engagement opportunities across your engagement platforms.

In summary, a quote from Jekyll and Hyde, seems rather apt here; “In each of us, two natures are at war, the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands, lies the power to choose – what we want most to be, we are.”

While navigating the social media sphere might seem frightening at first, social media, and online brand communities remain one of the most powerful ways to shape customer engagement, and especially the propensity for positive engagement.

There will always be naysayers of any brand, and those who are vehemently dedicated to spreading negative sentiment wherever they can. The key point to remember is that with every cloud there is a silver lining, and that encouraging and fostering positive engagement is not a difficult task, especially on a platform where your customers already want to engage and be a part of the brand story. This new breed of engagement platform is creating a unique brand touchpoint where brands and consumers can mutually invent, create, and connect. Brands that are successful in their social media pursuits have simply learned to weather the storm of negative engagement without attempting to alter the organic content created by their consumers. They have instead focused on overwhelming the negativity with positive information and positive engagement initiatives.

So, whether or not positive engagement or negative engagement conquers within social media channels, comes down to a detailed understanding of your consumers, the multidimensional nature of engagement (cognition, emotion and behaviour), and your customers use of social media. And, as such, just like the story of Jekyll and Hyde, the fate of brand engagement is, of course, squarely in the hands of brand management.



Dr Jana Bowden is senior lecturer in marketing and research specialist in engagement, Macquarie University

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Read: Dr Bowden on the Instagram format changes which made waves earlier this year »

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