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According to the survey, fewer French-speaking Quebecois follow brands on Facebook – just 29 per cent, compared with 35 per cent in the rest of Canada.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Advertisers spend billions of dollars per year to speak to consumers. So when those consumers take notice, and talk back, it would seem the last thing any company would want to do is ignore them.

And yet, in the venue that consumers increasingly choose when they want to talk to brands – social media – many francophone Canadians are feeling left out of the conversation.

That is according to a new study from Headspace Marketing, a consulting firm that specializes in marketing to Quebec. The researchers spoke to 3,000 Canadians and found that marketers are missing an opportunity to endear themselves to Quebeckers through Facebook.

According to the survey, fewer French-speaking Quebecois follow brands on Facebook – just 29 per cent, compared with 35 per cent in the rest of Canada. That is especially bad news for marketers because those same French speakers are far more likely to pay attention to the brands they do follow: 69 per cent read messages posted by brand pages on Facebook "as if they are from one of their friends." That is a huge difference from the rest of the country, where just 16 per cent of those surveyed said they read brand posts that way.

And yet, francophone Quebeckers are more likely to stop following brands on Facebook.

Why? The two biggest reasons were because they stopped liking the brand or that the brand did not respond to an inquiry they sent. Comparatively, in the rest of Canada, people said they unfollowed marketers most often because their content was not relevant or the brand posted too frequently. Both of those reasons scored less than 10 per cent in Quebec.

"When people are asking questions or commenting ... that's where there is a bit of radio silence for brands [in French]," said Headspace president Eric Blais. "If you're encouraging people to follow you on Facebook, and they reach out to you, and you don't respond? That to me is the equivalent of having a customer call centre and not having anyone to answer the phones."

For example, Samsung Canada's Facebook page has community managers who write in both English and French. However, the page is sometimes slower to respond to French speakers. On Feb. 2, a customer posted to the page complaining about a problem with the case for his Samsung Galaxy Tab; there is no response to his comment as of late Thursday, despite the fact that a question from a customer also posted on Feb. 2 in English received a response on the same day.

Samsung said its bilingual community manager tries to respond to as many comments as possible, and that the company regularly responds to customers in French.

But some of its francophone fans have a different impression. This week, a French-speaking customer posted on the page with a complaint about her television and another customer responded to her comment saying that it seemed as though the company does not read comments written in French.

Even when companies do post in French, those posts do not always reach French-speaking consumers. That is the problem Target Corp. faced when it first launched in Canada.

When it launched its Canadian social media in August of 2012, it had a single corporate Facebook page, with posts in both English and French. Like many marketers, it would "target" many of those posts by promoting them through Facebook to make them more visible to people who speak one language or the other. But because some Quebeckers converse in French while leaving their default English settings on their Facebook accounts or on their mobile phones, those French posts were not reaching them.

"We would hear from people, 'Why don't you post in French?'" said Sebastien Bouchard, a public relations manager at Target Canada's Montreal office. "They're frustrated because they're not receiving the content in their preferred language. ... We were surprised how many people were asking for French. We do have French, but it's not effective to ask fans to change their settings."

So, after some deliberation, last August the company decided to launch a separate page for Canada entirely in French. While many marketers take care to post in English and French on their brand pages, dedicating the resources needed to managing a separate brand presence in French is very rare. "Target en français" now has roughly 139,000 followers (the English page has 1.9 million) whom the company now converses with in French.

"Some brands that are big enough are taking a 'two page' approach, for example Target and Molson," Facebook spokesperson Meg Sinclair said in an e-mail. "That's another way to manage, but I'm not sure it would be our first recommendation because it takes more time and resources."

She pointed to companies such as Air Transat, L'Oréal Paris Canada, and Reitmans as examples of brands with bilingual pages that do a good job of targeting their content by language.

Reaching consumers with more targeted messages is becoming more of a concern for marketers, especially since Facebook has been signalling to them that "organic reach" – the ability to reach people with regular messages, without boosting them with paid targeting – is falling. That's because there is simply more activity on the site with people posting and sharing content; more noise means it is more likely people might miss a post.

"We have not given a specific reach number that [brand] pages should expect to see because organic reach will vary by page and by post," Facebook said in a statement. "Like many mediums, if businesses want to make sure that people see their content, the best strategy is, and always has been, paid advertising."

For Target, the investment has increased its engagement from French speaking consumers markedly. The company measures engagement by the number of people commenting or sharing its posts with friends, or clicking the "like" button. Engagement rates average around four times its number of fans, Mr. Bouchard said. Target needs all the marketing boost it can get in Canada, as its launch has hit a snag with customers whose high expectations for the brand here have not been met. Its social media marketing is one thing the company appears to be getting right.

Still, Headspace's Mr. Blais admits that ironically there may be an upside to some of the marketing silence in French on social media. The conversational environment is so noisy in English that it has bred a greater resistance to those messages. The research showed that in the rest of Canada, nearly eight out of 10 people either skim or skip brand messages on Facebook altogether, but less than one-third of French speakers in Quebec said they did so.

"What's happening is a bit of Facebook fatigue – you're cluttering my feed with too much stuff, and not relevant content, so people in English Canada are much more likely to skim or skip. This has become clutter," Mr. Blais said.

The challenge for marketers will be to take advantage of the friendlier environment among francophone consumers without creating the same kind of exhaustion.

"Less attention was paid to French Quebec, but as a result you have a less intrusive presence," Mr. Blais said. "...That could erode over time. Maybe Quebec will get to the point where brands will post too frequently in French. But it's not happening now."

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