Insights on Marketing & Technology

Do brands engage their customers through social media?

Social networking is currently the most popular online activity among consumers worldwide. According to recent statistics, it accounts for almost one in every five minutes spent online, and reaches 82% of the entire world’s online population, which represents an audience of nearly 1.2 billion internet users. Not surprisingly, the industry has followed the consumer and almost 94% of all businesses with a marketing department have established their presence and continuously pursue engaging their customer base on at least one of the “Big Three” social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Without any clear definition, application or measurement, the concept of customer engagement has become commonplace among marketers. More and more resources are being invested in social media and brands from all over the world continue to grow their online fan base. However, if we take a better look at the engagement metrics, such as “Talking about it” on Facebook, we will see that even the most popular brands struggle to engage with more than 1% of their entire fan base on Facebook.

A complicated concept
Up to date there is no single definition for the concept of engagement. Even though social media platforms usually present engagement in terms of level of interaction between the brand and the fan base, it is in fact a more complicated concept comprising three distinct dimensions: behavioral engagement (actions), emotional engagement (feelings) and cognitive engagement (thoughts). These three dimensions are also expected to play different roles in the overall process of engaging a customer with a brand on social media. It is believed that a number of different factors may be driving the customers to engage with a brand on social media and a number of different outcomes can be expected dependent on the type of engagement. This article presents the results of a study that aimed to test these propositions and identify the true drivers and outcomes of customer engagement.

This study drew upon the model displayed in figure 2. The model suggests that customer-brand relationship quality together with online social media platform related factors will influence the overall level of customer brand engagement, which in turn will have an effect on the proposed outcomes - intention to repurchase the brand (behavioral brand loyalty) and recommend it to others (word-of-mouth).

The study
In particular, customer-brand relationship quality indicators used to determine the level of influence on customer engagement were involvement, satisfaction, commitment and trust with the brand. On the other hand, the potential effects of social media platform related factors were expected to be manifested by the level of a customer’s involvement and participation on social media as well as the perceived ease of use and the psychological state of being present on the platform (also referred to as telepresence). Finally, a moderator called resources was introduced in the model, in order to test if the effect of platform related factors depends on how much time consumers have available to spend on social media and how much effort it requires for them.
To test the proposed model, we conducted an online survey using a sample of Facebook account holders (N=419). In order to eliminate any potential bias in terms of differences across product categories, we decided to focus on the most popular category on Facebook – food & drink brands. From the total sample, 27% were fans of at least one food and drink brand on Facebook.

And the results?
The results of the study confirm that customer-brand relationship quality is a valid predictor of overall customer brand engagement in this particular context. This finding suggests that a customer who decides to interact with a brand through online social media platforms is driven by the quality of customer-brand relationship, which comes with certain goals and expectations. Hence, the task of the marketers is therefore to capture these expectations and respond accordingly. Social media platform characteristics have an effect on customer engagement only when customers have enough available resources, such as time and effort. That is, the communication with brands on social media be more effective if it is perceived as purposeful, valuable and, hence, worthy of customers’ time and effort. This is an important element for managers to consider, given the increased proliferation of social media.

The study also provides empirical evidence that there is a relationship between customer brand engagement on online social media platforms and the two desired outcomes – behavioral brand loyalty and word-of-mouth. More specifically, the results show that an increased level of behavioral engagement will lead to the development of behavioral brand loyalty, meaning that the frequency and span of various interactions with the brand on online social media will influence the propensity of a customer to repurchase the brand. On the other hand, the level and sentiment of emotional engagement is found to influence a customer’s intention to recommend the brand. These findings suggest a number of important managerial implications for marketing practitioners. First of all, it proves the importance of customer engagement in achieving the ultimate business objective – increased sales. Apart from exhibiting an increased propensity to repurchase the brand, engaged customers are also important for another purpose - successful viral marketing. Specifically, emotionally engaged customers are more likely to spread word-of-mouth and influence other existing and prospective customers by providing referrals and recommendations.

Engage emotionally and behaviorally
Even though this study is one of the first scholarly attempts to test the concept of customer engagement in an empirical setting, it delivers some useful insight and much needed assurance regarding the expected benefit of engaging with customers through social media. In order to achieve higher levels of engagement, marketing practitioners must continue building strong customer-brand relationships and reassess the value that their communication through social channels brings to the customer. In order to best utilize the effects of engagement, it is important to focus on engaging the customer both emotionally and behaviorally, which means that the communication on social media should both excel in emotional appeal, and encourage various forms of interaction with the brand. However, they should always keep in mind that customers have limited resources and don’t wish to spend too much time and effort on their brands’ fan pages, and thus any strategy that doesn’t consider this issue may not bring the desired outcome or even may result in a boomerang effect.

Polymeros Chrysochou
Polymeros is an Associate Professor in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Aarhus University, Department of Business Administration. His research focuses in the area of branding and communication.

Justina Malciute
Justina Malciute is a marketing graduate from Aarhus University currently pursuing
her interest in social media as a product specialist at Falcon Social Aps, a social media management system provider based in Copenhagen