Why do people engage (with brands) on social media?

Written by: Lisa Schmelz



Controversial feelings towards Social Media – the boon and bane of social media engagement

 I have often asked myself the question why people engage (with brands) on social media. I have a controversy view on social media: I have a Facebook and Instagram account (which I actually only use to see other people’s posts but I barely upload myself) but do not engage on Pinterest, Tumblr, or Twitter. Therefore, when I talk about social media Facebook will be the most common example, even though I am well aware that there are many other options and that there are new social networks that become rising stars. 

I love Facebook because I can keep in touch with people I have met all over the globe. One is not asking for your address or phone number anymore. One is asking for your name on Facebook – even if you have met only once and you will maybe never see each other again in person. Anyways, I used to have a huge collection of Facebook friends. Some people post several times a day, and I can not deny that it bothers me significantly. If the posts were at least interesting, funny or somehow of importance. But most are not! Hence, I went through my list and asked myself for each person: “When have I, if ever, talked to that person. And do you think you will ever (again)?” If the answer was “No”, I have deleted that person from my lists – which happened to nearly 2/3. I am careful with uploading pictures – I delete old ones regularly – and the information I want to share with Facebook and its members. However, no matter how much I try to consciously control my behavior on this social media platform, I cannot deny that I am also addicted to checking it several times a day for possible interesting news. Luckily but maybe sadly at the same time I am one of those people who check their Facebook newsfeed nearly right away after waking up in the morning. Only seconds after some hours of peaceful sleep I apparently have some kind of feelings that I could have missed something during night. 

The Power of Social Media Engagement: How social interaction has changed

 Social media has reached significant importance for the connection and communication between people and businesses (VanMeter, Grisaffe & Chonko, 2015). I have experienced at first hand that the behavior for building and maintaining personal relationships has changed a lot throughout the years. When I was young I had to knock at a friend’s door or call the parents from the home phone if I wanted to play or do anything. Later there was ICQ and msn messenger, however, Internet connection was expensive and my parents set a daily limit of thirty minutes. Only a few years later I graduated from high school and took off to my first big adventure abroad. Arrived in Australia, I met many people from all over the world and I was thankful that two years ago the social media platform Facebook had been launched. I could, and I still do, easily connect with people and keep up the developed relationships. In only a considerably short amount of the world has changed towards a digital age (Edelman, 2010). People spent hours and hours on social media sites, and against many prejudices, not only teenagers are doing so; in the US, for example, even the 50-64 old people spend noteworthy 17 hours per week on social media (VanMeter et al., 2015). ‘Hashtagging’, ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ have become some kind of popular sport – it is actually a bit ironic because I remember my own parents refusing to use smartphones and comparing them with the devils’ tools; however, now they are active on Whatsapp, iMessage, Facetime, and Facebook themselves and they cannot be stopped using them anymore. 

Why engaging with brands on social media?

I do like the idea of sharing moments, thoughts or pictures with friends, especially if the personal network is spread all over the globe. However, my newsfeed also shows many notifications that my Facebook friends like, share and comment on posts that brands publish on social media platforms. I personally do not engage with any brand on Facebook. Why should I? What benefit would I get if I did? Don’t I risk that Facebook and other stakeholders will use this data for a secret customer profiles, more targeted advertising and observations of online behavior? Well, research shows that many people anyways enjoy to engage with brands on social media (Edelman, 2010). But why is that actually the case? The growing usage of the Internet and social media has a considerable impact on people’s behavior, not only for private purposes but also the relationship to companies (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak & Hofacker, 2013). 

But how does it work with consumer-firm relationships? A closer look at consumer behavior theory offers some possible answers for why people engage on social media. 

What people drives to engage with brands on social media

Social media has not gotten its name for nothing - as social beings, people have a desire to express themselves individually and towards a community; and engaging means being social, and nowadays not only between individuals but also between individuals and companies (Kietzmann, et al., 2011). Some people have a stronger desire to share than others; whether this means that the ones sharing much are more social than those who share less may be another question. I am at least a very social person, however, I do not feel like sharing too much witch others over the Internet. 

Being a “fan” of a brand page on Facebook, for example, is on the one hand a possibility to retrieve information about products, offers and events but on the other hand it also represents the possibility to show loyalty or enforce change (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Lebrecque, et al., 2013). Expressing one’s identity, reinforcing individuality, sharing experiences are only a few examples what people want to communicate. But it becomes clear that people perceive it as beneficial and enriching to engage on social media (Kietzmann, et al., 2011). 

VanMeter et al. (2015) talk about ‘attachment to social media’ (ASM) and they use it to find explanations for peoples’ behaviors, e.g. why they bond and interact with brands. To summarize very shortly, they found out that people with a strong attachment to social media are more likely to interact with brands. However, this not a bit close to all possible factors that affect people’s reasons for being attached. When I read through this study but also many other scientific articles I got reminded of how complex human beings are

Labrecque, et al. (2013) argue that the concept of power/empowerment influences consumer’s online behavior. The authors talk for instance about information-based power which enables consumers to retrieve information but also enables them to produce their own content. User-generated content provides “an outlet for self-expression, extending individual reach” and increases the possibility to influence brands (Labrecque, et al., 2013, p. 261). So, if you want to find out about events, products or anything else it may help to like the page of your favorite brands. If you want to write something about the brand – may it be positive or negative – you may want to share it right away with the brand and other consumers. Labrecque, et al. (2013) further explain that network-based power has changed digital content. Consumers can create content but they can also modify content. The authors outline that the network which social media represents has nearly no borders anymore (Lebrecque, et al., 2013). The bigger the network the bigger the influence when liking, commenting, and tagging someone or something. Some brands have several millions of followers, so if you post something related to these brands you certainly achieve high reach. More importantly maybe, the more relevant your posted content, the higher the influence on others and the higher the chances of achieving (at least diverting) fame. In short, one explanation for people’s brand engagement may be due to the fact that they know about their power over brands. And they want to use it -  for the own benefit, for helping fellows or to actually exchange experiences with the brand may be worth writing another article about. 

 Also, Lebrecque, et al. (2013) article has made me think that people’s motivation and desire for “communication” may be key to answer my questions. And this in turn has brought me to an article about electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) by King, Racherla and Bush (2014). eWOM again takes up the idea of consumer’s empowerment to “socially interact with one another, exchange product-related information, and make informed purchase decisions via computer-mediated conversations” (King, et al., 2014, pp. 167). King, et al. (2014) categorizes the causes and consequences of eWOM for the senders and receivers.

This overview gives another idea of how complex reasons are for interacting with brands and which benefits consumers retrieve from this online behavior. In general, the time where people purely consume read, watch and purchase is replaced by active discussions, content creation and modification (Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre, 2011; Fournier & Avery, 2011). An “online democracy” and Web 2.0 social collective has developed (Kietzmann, et al., 2011) - brands cannot push pre-determined and controlled information without consumers having the power to affect, change support and/or criticize the brand and its published content (Kietmann, et al., 2011; Fournier & Avery, 2011). A famous example of the power of social media and of how consumers can impact a brand’s reputation is a song about United Airlines breaking a guitar (The Song – having more than 15 million clicks & The Story behind it). This is only one example how consumers have received fundamental power over brands in the digital age (Christodoulides, 2009; Edelman, 2010).  

Engagement on social media: Giving people a powerful voice in the digital age

Answering the question of why people engage with brands on social media is complex and has to consider several factors. The presented explanations I have detected in research are only scratching the surface and offer much possibility for digging deeper into the topic. Among other things, the brand engagement on social media is a mixed result from people’s desire to 

  • express themselves individually and towards a community
  • retrieve information about products, offers and events 
  • express one’s identity, reinforce individuality, share experiences
  • to generate and/or modify content
  • have a noteworthy impact on brands

To what extent people are using social media for interacting with brands depends on the degree of attachment and the involvement with a certain brand. 

Brand engagement on social media: Rising star or dying swan?

I start to understand why people engage with brands; why they like, share posts and produce and edit content. But what does this mean for the brands? It means a loss of power for them because they can not control what people publish online which in turn has an impact on the brand’s image in the wider network (Fournier & Avery, 2011). However, maybe it also means a loss of control for consumers? After reading all these articles I start understanding peoples’ motivations for interacting with brands, however, I am not sure whether people are aware of of how much information they really release about themselves. If a brand e.g. claims to give away products one has to register quite often on a webpage – hence, the customer is asked to share personal information. At first glance, the benefit for the customer may be to get something for free, however, looking a bit closer it also means that the brand gets information for free. So I am still skeptical! At what ‘risk’ do people engage with brands on social media? I will at least continue to engage as little as possible on social media – and there seem to be more and more people that think alike and even unfollow brands (More about Unfollow Brands on Social Media)?











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