What motivates consumer participation in social networks and how can brands benefit from it?

September 18, 2014

Written by Corinna Jürgens 

With the rise of the internet and accompanied by the formation of social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, consumer participation has become more proactive.  Consumers have now the opportunity of sharing their lives and experiences with friends and family and even strangers online through social networks (Kosonen and Ellonen, 2012).

Many companies try to become part of this interaction by being active in social networks in order to create and foster a social network around their brands (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). Consumer participation in virtual worlds offers the opportunity for companies to promote their brands and increase purchases, provide information, and conduct market research (Eisenbeiss et al., 2012; Hutter et al., 2013). But what drives consumer participation? Why do they share their opinions and experiences in social networks? Consumers do not get any privileges for sharing their thoughts and promoting brands or companies. So what is it that motivates consumer participation in communities in general and in a brand community in specific?


Consumer participation in social networks

The important aspect for consumer participation in social networks is the need for social interaction with like-minded people as it gives them a feeling of belonging (Eisenbeiss et al., 2012; Guosong, 2009; McKenna and Bargh, 1999; Porter et al., 2011). The internet offers consumers the opportunity of finding those like-minded people more easily and allows them to share their interest and identity (Dholakia et al., 2004; McKenna and Bargh, 1999). Consumers use social networks to talk to people, interact with strangers, and even make new friends (Eisenbeiss et al., 2012). This makes clear why online communities have such high levels of consumer participation.


First of all, we need to understand what a (brand) community is and how it is built. What makes it so special? A community is based on social relationships and forms around a shared admiration for a matter of mutual interest. In the case of a brand community the brand itself represents its centre. Members of such social networks develop a shared consciousness of kind, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility for each other and the brand (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001).

The motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson is a illustrative example for a strong brand community. It provides different communication platforms for Harley-Davidson customers and admirers such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and a website-based brand community (see image 1 and 2) (Harley Davidson, 2014). Over time, a whole subculture developed that influences the daily lives of Harley Davidson motorcycle owners (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995).


Harley Davidson brand community

Harley Davidson brand community

Image 1: Focus on sharing the spirit and being part of the brand community

 (Harley Davidson, 2014)

Harley Davidson Social Media

Harley Davidson Social Media

Image 2: Social networks for brand admirers

(Harley Davidson, 2014)


The difficult path to brand-related consumer participation

That sounds all very well, but is difficult to achieve. In order to take advantage of consumers’ behaviour in social networks and to foster their brands some steps need to be taken. As a first step the company has to analyse what consumers’ needs and wants are and what motivates them. As stated before, individuals who are part of a brand community share a consciousness of kind. This means that they have a shared identity with other members of the brand community and can therefore truly understand each other (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; Porter et al., 2011). As a consequence, they develop a feeling of belonging to that brand community and to one another (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; Porter et al., 2011).


Once this first phase is completed, companies need to find a way to foster consumer participation and to motivate interaction in a virtual brand community. The aim of this step is not to create value for the company, but to fulfil consumers’ needs. There are different ways to achieve this: By encouraging consumers to create their own quality content, by creating a positive attitude towards the brand community, and finally by connecting and encouraging interaction amongst its members (Porter et al., 2011).


Some consumers do not only participate in social networks by commenting or sharing other people’s content, but also by creating their own content. These consumers want to express themselves through their creations. They want to increase their self-activation in order to shape their own identity (Guosong, 2009; Dholakia et al., 2004; McKenna and Bargh, 1999; Eisenbeiss et al., 2012). The role of a company in this case is to support their self-expression. It might lead to less control over brand-related content, but at the same time gives consumers more freedom to express themselves within the brand community (Cova and Pace, 2006).

Companies can make use of this consumer creativity by involving them in their branding and product development process. They can try to give them an incentive to produce brand related content for their own benefits. In the last few years, many companies have tried to increase consumer participation in brand-related social networks by motivating consumer interaction. Procter & Gamble’s razor brand Venus Gillette encouraged consumers to post pictures of bad weather of their home in Sweden via Instagram in exchange for a trip to a sunny destination for the best picture (Think with Google, 2013).


As a final step, consumers need to be motivated to fulfil not only their own needs, but also to add value to the brand (Porter et al., 2011). By providing information that outsiders do not get access to or by providing first-hand information before anyone else, companies put an emphasis on the importance of their brand community. At the same time, they foster the sense of belonging and a feeling of being special in its members (Porter et al., 2011). In addition, companies need to bind their members and encourage participation in value creation. A good example for this value creation is the ‘Got an idea?’ campaign by Starbucks which created the Mystarbucksidea.com brand community (see image 3). The brand community aims at giving consumers a platform for sharing their ideas for the brands future and interacting with Starbucks employees (Porter et al., 2011). In the first year, 70,000 ideas were shared. In the end, 94 of those ideas were put into action and 25 were launched (Porter et al., 2011).

Starbucks consumer participation

Starbucks consumer participation

 Image 3: Interactive platform to encourage consumer particiation

(MyStarbucksIdea, 2013)


Challenges and opportunities of consumer participation

Consumers are the ideal partner for companies to promote their brand, particularly because those who participate in social networks genuinely belief in brand e.g. Harley-Davidson owners. However, companies need to keep in mind that consumers do not want to interact with the brand in the first place. A study by IBM from 2011 confirms that only 23% use social networks in order to interact with brands, while 70% state that they primarily use it to connect with friends and family (IBM report, 2011). As discussed before, companies therefore have the difficult task of providing a platform for consumer interaction with like-minded people rather than having a commercialised brand community only aiming at propagating the company’s message.


In addition, (electronic) word of mouth represents one of the most effective ways of promoting brands as consumers trust each other more than they trust the brand promise in commercials (Blackshaw and Narazzo, 2006). For companies it is interesting to see that, while searching for information, consumers prefer user-generated media if they can choose between user-generated media and information provided by an organisation (Gousong, 2009; Blackshaw and Narazzo, 2006). According to a study conducted by Nielsen BuzzMetrics user-generated media implies high levels of trust, with 60% of consumers trusting posts made by fellow consumers (Blackshaw and Narazzo, 2006). This confirms the importance of interaction with consumers through social networks and supporting the creation of user-generated brand-related content. Research also showed that consumer participation in social networks can lead to higher purchase intentions and can therefore enhance brand value, if perceived as positive by consumers (Hutter et al., 2013).


Even though consumer participation in social networks and user-generated content provide a great opportunity for brands, companies always have to be prepared for negative statements about their brand. Just like brand communities, anti-brand communities are formed by like-minded people and centred around a common interest, in this case brand aversion (Kucuk, 2008; Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009). The stronger a brand, the more likely are negative comments in social networks and anti-brand communities (Kucuk, 2008; Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009). One illustrative example for this movement is Starbucks with a forum called I hate Starbucks that is based on a consumer initiative (I hate Starbucks, 2014).

Starbucks Anti-brand community

Starbucks Anti-brand community

 Image 4: Anti-brand forum (I hate Starbucks, 2014)


All in all, the degree of consumer participation depends on the platform that is provided, as consumers want more than just a brand platform that informs about the latest products. First and foremost, they care about their social life and need to interact with others, either directly or through social networks and virtual communities.

By providing a brand community for like-minded people, companies can try to become part of this interaction and consequently reach higher levels of brand awareness and increase purchase intentions. The main question is whether this is achievable for all kinds of brands, regardless of how much consumers are actually interested in them, such as every day products.



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