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“Only 7 per cent of word of mouth happens online,” said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. “…Marketers are always chasing the shiniest new toys and jumping on the bandwagon, but it’s important to take a step back and think about the strategy.”DADO RUVIC/Reuters

Social media represent a huge opportunity – and a conundrum – for marketers. They now have a vehicle to speak more directly to their customers, and for those customers, hopefully, to spread their message.

Social media campaigns are occasionally lauded for successfully blurring the line between entertainment and advertising, as with Pepsi Max's prank sending a race car driver to give an auto salesman the test drive of his life. And some even succeed in convincing people to join in on an ad, giving it further free publicity, as they did with Old Spice's "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," which responded to consumer tweets with humorous videos.

While there's plenty of proof that social media campaigns can draw audiences, the debate over about how best to get real returns on investment out of social media is far from settled. Three articles in the upcoming October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research outline the challenges that the popularity of social media such as Facebook and Twitter present. The different assumptions and conclusions show how scattered the debate over social media marketing remains.

"Only 7 per cent of word of mouth happens online," said Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. "…Marketers are always chasing the shiniest new toys and jumping on the bandwagon, but it's important to take a step back and think about the strategy."

Prof. Berger's article, published in the journal, focused on four studies he and colleague Raghuram Iyengar conducted, looking at the difference between the conversations people have about brands online, compared to offline.

One study instructed participants to discuss brands. Some of the discussions were face-to-face and others were written. The written conversations tended to centre on brands that were perceived as inherently more interesting than those who had spoken conversations. (Think Google Glass versus toilet paper.)

Follow-up studies offered explanations for this. According to the researchers, one factor was "asynchrony," or the time that passes in an online written conversation between comment and response. When people communicate online, they have more time to formulate a response, which helps to account for what leads them to discuss brands about which opinions are stronger or more nuanced.

The research also put forth another cause: self-presentation. Communication on Facebook and Twitter provides the opportunity to refine and construct a comment more than speaking does. In that study, once again, participants communicating in writing were more likely to discuss "more interesting products and brands" compared to those speaking. That result was even more noticeable "among participants whose self-enhancement concerns were greater."

The takeaway for marketers is that they need to emphasize different aspects of their product when presenting their brands online. Advertising offline is more about making a brand top of mind, and can afford to spend time talking about price or product attributes. But online, Prof. Berger suggests, the best way to grab attention is to present a product in a way that has social currency.

That does not mean that advertisers have to be selling iPads or glasses of the future to make the conversation work in social media. Prof. Berger brings up the example of Blendtec, which aimed to differentiate its product from other blenders through its "Will it Blend" YouTube videos. Using a tongue-in-cheek treatment reminiscent of the 1970s, these videos feature a host putting implausible objects, such as a plastic skeleton, glow sticks, Justin Bieber paraphernalia, and – yes – an iPad 2, into the blender.

The Will it Blend videos work by drawing viewers who want to be associated with their off-beat humour and cultural references. That concept of online self-enhancement is central to another paper published in the journal. Russell Belk, marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, calls this construction of an online identity the "extended self."

It's a term Prof. Belk first used in 1988, when he put forth a marketing theory contending that consumer psychology had reached a point where our possessions are seen partly to be part of ourselves. Social media have developed so much since he first posited his theory that he felt the need to update it: In addition to possessions, our online avatars now play a huge role in constituting our identities.

"What we do online is not just play time, but it really affects us offline as well," Prof. Belk said. "With Facebook and other social media, we're expressing who we are. We're posting pictures and writing posts, and we're having people commenting on it. … Those are things that help shape our identity, partly in our control, but not entirely. There's a sort of co-creation of self."

That co-creation applies to marketers, too: They can no longer control their brands' identities, because they are partly formulated by the conversation that happens online.

However, a third piece in the journal suggests that empowering consumers to be part of a brand's message may not be the best idea. The study by Mehdi Mourali of the University of Calgary and Zhiyong Yang of the University of Texas at Arlington, demonstrated that people who are more empowered, and feel stronger about their opinions, may be more inclined to disagree with others to demonstrate their independence.

According to the study, "empowered consumers either pay no attention to other people's opinions or dismiss them entirely when evaluating a product."

That could undercut the value of social influence, which many marketers aim to extend in the digital world. As part of the conclusion, the authors suggested that giving more empowered consumers a chance to express their independence before attempting to influence them may appease some of that resistance.

What these studies make clear, however, is that social media's great promise as a communication medium for marketers also comes with plenty of complications.

"There's a lot of hype now around social media as a channel, and a marketing tool," Wharton's Prof. Berger said. "It's only effective if people know how to use it the right way."