In a new study from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, three researchers found something that anyone who’s ever gotten irritated on Instagram can confirm: the short-term returns of social marketing couldbe offset by long-term drawbacks. The reason? Brands are overdoing it.
"Firms and consumers hold different views of social media," said Shuting Wang, the study’s lead author. "Firms see a potential to contact consumers, but users can consider commercialized social posting annoying if they are too frequent or sent at busy times."
Wang and co-author Paul Pavlou were quick to note that the study is limited in scope, since their data came from a single CPG firm advertising to Chinese customers using WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook). But the results were clear: without the right strategy, social marketing can drive consumers away permanently. While the brand they studied saw a 5 percent bump in sales immediately following a social post, it experienced an overall 300 percent drop in engagement in the form of unfollows—the brand lost an audience it had already captured.
The study squares, to some extent, with the experiences of Jeff Nicholson, CMO at digital agency VaynerMedia. "It takes a lot of risk in associating a negative connotation with social advertising, but the callout is correct," he said. "You have to realize that there’s both risk and reward on social and not have a negative interaction."
Instead, effective social campaigns should be highly nuanced, taking into account not only audience demographics but how the product plays—or, more importantly, if it doesn’t—on a feed. Nicholson pointed to VaynerMedia’s recent work for carpet cleaner StainMaster as an example of how to leverage social for a brand that doesn’t naturally gel with those platforms.
"For CPG products that aren’t exciting and cool like SnapChat, you have to create an environment in which you can talk to a person and still relate to your product," he said. "We created content"—a series of narrative spots—"that had entertainment aspect in a social environment. No one would watch the classic ‘swipe two windows side by side’ TV commercial, but they did watch a minute and a half video that looked like a movie trailer."
Wang’s study examined ads with much lower production value, but the findings likely apply to campaigns of any budget, since the takeaways related less to how to market a brand but when. Engagement dropped most steeply during commute hours and among consumers in big cities— in other words, people who are already stressed and look to social media as a way to escape or relax. It’s the last time anyone wants to see an ad they’ve already scrolled past, or one for a product they’ve already purchased.
"The main thing brands should take away from this study is that they need to be careful," said Pavlou. "There’s a tendency to send too many messages, because that short-term bump looks nice, but companies [need to] focus on the long-term effect. Otherwise, they’ll annoy customers, not only in the moment but in association with the brand."
Nicholson said he’s personally experienced that annoying moment of seeing something he bought pop up in his feed, but he cautioned brands and agencies not to get spooked after reading Wang’s study. Take heed, certainly, but don’t panic.
"Audit from the top around common sense: who is going to buy my product, and do they want to talk to me on these platforms? Then, audit how much control you have over your data to understand what you can signal off of to move people in different clusters. And finally, audit your strategy and how you deploy your investment, and what partners are doing that on your behalf."
Because as both he and the researchers agreed, eliminating, or even reducing, social spend is a losing move. Brands must adapt or die—just look at Dollar Shave Club, whose social campaigns formed deep bonds with customers and helped the upstart brand trample longstanding competition.
"All the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies losing market share, it’s always to B2C market players who are doing well in these spaces," Nicholson said. "Those brands are going to win because they’re speaking to consumers in ways they want to speak with brands."