Consumers posting about products on social media can backfire for businesses

Said Business School

Persuading consumers to post about products on social media can backfire for businesses, according to Oxford research

Brands that spend time and money on word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) by encouraging consumers to post about their products may be shooting themselves in the foot say academics from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford: posting about products on social media can actually make people less likely to buy them.

‘It is common for marketers to devote resources to encouraging consumers to engage on social media, believing that the more likes, shares, and posts about products they generate, the greater their sales and customer retention,’ said Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at Oxford Saïd. ‘Our findings suggest, however, that such a blanket approach is not just ineffective, it can backfire. Marketers should adopt a more careful and targeted approach, based on understanding why people post about products on social media in the first place.’

In the research study, part of the Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Professor Stephen and his co-authors, Lauren Grewal and Nicole Coleman, describe five experiments that demonstrate how people frequently use both purchases and social media posts to communicate something about themselves – that is, ‘signal’ their identities. Associating themselves with a brand is one of the most common ways of doing this, which is why marketers pursue WOMM strategies. But a key finding of the research study is that if someone posts about a product on social media they often don’t feel they need to buy it too – they have already signalled their identity enough. In other words, successfully persuading people to publicise products through word of mouth can lead a brand to lose potential sales.

The authors developed four recommendations for marketers to minimise this effect by breaking the link between an identity-signalling social media post and making a purchase.

  1. Frame content they want consumers to post in a way that emphasizes their products’ usefulness, rather than focusing on the symbolic or emotional value of the brand. When products are considered simply for their functional properties, the identity-signalling derived from product posting has less of a negative impact on the poster’s willingness to buy.
  1. Specifically target consumers that have strongly activated identities relevant to the products. Use data to identify people who are already posting about similar products and other issues that relate to relevant identities. When people have a strong identity, they are more motivated to signal it; consequently, a social media post may not be enough for them. They will still be willing to pay for an identity-relevant product.
  1. Offer a discount or a reward for posting. This can actively encourage posters to buy, as well as reducing the identity-signalling nature of the post by making it a transaction.
  2. Delay their responses to consumers who interact with them. Because a social media post is only a virtual identity signal, its effects on the poster are weakened over time. So if marketers wait before contacting them they might be more inclined to make a purchase.

‘Consumers posting about products may still achieve WOM benefits in terms of influencing people who view the posts,’ said Professor Stephen. ‘Marketers’ enthusiasm for generating earned-media is not entirely misplaced. But our research shows that it should be tempered with caution, as the effects on consumers doing the posting may not always be positive.’

When Posting About Products in Social Media Backfires: The Negative Effects of Consumer Identity-Signalling on Product Interest’, by Lauren Grewal (Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College), Andrew Stephen (Saïd Business School, University of Oxford), and Nicole Coleman (Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh) is published in the Journal of Marketing Research