Non - Intrusive Marketing of Brands in Social Media

Written By Emelie Jansaker


Today, there are hundreds of social media platforms; including social networks, video streaming, wikis and blogs. These platforms have empowered consumers to connect, share, and collaborate, creating spheres of influence fundamentally altering the way marketers engage in influencing activities (Crittenden et al, 2011). “The web was created not to sell branded products, but to link people together in collective conversational webs. So as more branding activity moves online, marketers are confronted with the realization that brands are not always welcome in social media” (Avery and Fournier, 2011, p.193). Marketers must be aware that whilst people are willing to spend their time in this environment they are selective about where they engage (Seraj, 2012). Fodor and Hoffman (2010) argue that effective social media strategies satisfy the key motivations that drive consumer use of social media: connection, creation, consumption and control.

This paper takes the perspective that consumer motivation in social media is a key area for marketers to understand, because brands that do not add value will be seen as intrusive, which may generate negative brand associations, which through empowered consumers may quickly go viral. The paper, using empirical examples, will focus on the non-intrusive forms of online-marketing: Word-of-Mouth (WOM) and User Generated Content (UGC), identifying how marketers can leverage these to reap the opportunities and avoid the threats of branding in social media. This paper will guide marketer’s thinking in their social media branding strategies.

Consumer Motivations

Backhaus et al (2012) suggest that to effectively use social media for business purposes, a relevant question pertains to which motivational drivers might influence consumers’ participation behavior in social media. Individual drivers of social media include belonging, socializing, creativity, and escape (Backhaus et al, 2012; Seraj, 2012). Consumer’s motivations lead them to connect online with other consumers while creating and consuming online content, mostly user- rather than marketer- generated” (Fodor and Hoffman. 2010), thus enabling expressing of their identity while satisfying their social needs (Christodoulides, 2009). Empowered consumers now expect to be active participants in the branding process, requiring new approaches to media strategy to capture reach, intimacy, and engagement through providing the consumer with tools for creativity (Crittenden et al, 2011; Wind, 2008). Aaker and Joachimsthaler (1997) suggest that marketers should involve the customer in brand-building as mere advertisements cannot duplicate the impact of customers' personal experience with a brand. To enable consumers to develop these brand experiences, Wind (2008) suggests marketers create platforms that allow customers to manage their relationships with companies, rather than focusing on selling a product. This focus on insight rather selling is expressed by Armelli and Villanueva (2011): first a brand must inform, then entertain and interact and lastly sell. Social media is shifting the formation of corporate reputations away from companies themselves towards their stakeholders (Stuart and Jones, 2004). However, Muniz and Schau (2011) warns that marketers should be cautious: “too rigid an administration can turn users off and even erode your brand image” (p.212) and may lead to consumers questioning a brand’s authenticity.

Social Media Marketing

Winer (2009) classifies social media marketing into intrusive or non-intrusive. In intrusive, advertising interrupts the consumer, such as through pop-ups, buttons and banners. In non-intrusive the consumer chooses to receive the communication, this includes consumer-activated Internet advertising, WOM, and UGC. Fischer et al (2012) define WOM as “any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet” (p.103). Gwinner et al (2004) argue consumers’ desire for social interaction, the potential to enhance their self-worth and their concern for other consumers are primary factors leading to WOM behavior. WOM can be stimulated by the marketer: “the more the social media is built to generate connections among members, the more naturally WOM and brand awareness occurs” (Seraj, 2012, p.220). UGC is consumer created content such as blogs, video sites, and ratings (Winer, 2009). For consumers the motivation of engaging in UGC is that they can become the marketer at low involvement with low personal risk (Muniz and Schau, 2011). In today’s unreceptive, if not brand-hostile online environment, culture-defined relevance allows brands to be invited into people’s lives (Avery and Fournier, 2011); thus, non-intrusive marketing forms a great opportunity for brands to engage, although marketers need to understand its possible threats (Table 1). 

  Table 1:   Theories on Opportunities and Possible Threats for Consumers and
Marketers using Non-Intrusive Marketing in Social Media

Table 1: Theories on Opportunities and Possible Threats for Consumers and Marketers using Non-Intrusive Marketing in Social Media


Both Avery and Fournier (2011) and Muniz and Schau (2011) argue that active listening is critical if a company wants to respond appropriately to what consumers are saying and need as can be observed online, arguing that brands cannot take advantage of organic content if they do not know what is going on. According to Fodor and Hoffman (2010) savvy managers understand that there’s a feedback loop- they listen because they know consumers not only ‘consume’ the campaign but comment, share, and provide their uncensored thoughts about it for all to view. The new brandscape demands flexibility, opportunism, and adaptation on the part of brands, therefore, social media brand strategies are more effective when they take a reactive stance (Avery and Fournier, 2011). Oreo reacted when listening to social media conversations during the 2013 Superbowl: “As soon as the power went down, Oreo and its agency went to work on an ad that was quickly tweeted. Within an hour the caption, "Power out? No problem" (Figure 1), had been shared more than 10,000 times on Twitter and went on to be re-tweeted and favorited more than 18,000 times” (MacMillan, 2013). For free, it became one of the most talked-about ads on the Super Bowl night, when TV spots were being sold for $4m (Ibid). Oreo was monitoring their marketplace, and were able successfully leverage the opportunity to their advantage. However, for a brand to be successful, behavior must be consistent across all touch points. Oreo was able to leverage the power-outage opportunity, “doing so in a social voice true to the Oreo brand" (Ibid). The response was thus credible but also suited the environment, and so, was successful, validating Aaker and Joachimsthaler (1997)’s suggestion that a marketer needs to “ensure that the brand identity is being delivered consistently across multiple media” (p.50). But marketers need to be aware: in the same responsive manner, the empowered consumer- through greater information access, instant publishing power and a participatory audience-, is able to launch meaningful anti-consumption campaigns having visible market impact (Krishnamurthy and Kucuk, 2009, p.1125). When Dell failed to respond to a complaint by a user unhappy with the after-sales service it set off an avalanche of comments by thousands of disgruntled users (Armelli and Villanueva, 2011). The marketer needs to be responsive to prevent brand failures: “listening must then lead to action…If a video is uploaded, someone must monitor the Twitter stream for comments and be prepared to react if problems appear” (Fodor and Hoffman, 2010, p.49). By monitoring online conversations, marketers are able to dampen budding problems, being responsive should thus be a priority for marketers (Fischer et al, 2012). 

Figure 1:     Oreo’s Superbowl Tweet     (MacMillan, 2013) 

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Figure 1: Oreo’s Superbowl Tweet (MacMillan, 2013)

Through understanding consumer’s motivations in the social media space, marketers will understand that it is not about making a ‘sell’. Avery and Fournier (2011) suggest that best-practice companies gain resonance by embedding themselves naturally in social media conversations, seeking seamless integration of branded messages into Web-based interaction. However, Avery and Fournier (2011) argue “amid the cultural conversation, most brands seem inauthentic; their presence intrusive and out of place” (p.193). For example, when Wal-Mart entered Facebook, they were criticized by Facebook users as it was a space for ‘people talking to other people’ (Ibid). Therefore, in-line with consumers’ motivations online, Pehlivan and Weinberg (2011) suggest that effective use of social media can benefit from a personal touch that is relationship oriented- meaning being authentic, responsive, and fighting the urge to constantly close a sale. Barwise and Meehan (2010) propose marketers use social media “to gain customer insights rather than to sell; capitalize on the media’s speed and reach while protecting the brand’s reputation and carefully follow the unwritten rules of customer engagement online” (p.1). The unwritten ‘rules of customer engagement online’ are the expectations of behavior of the different social media platforms upon which customers engage. This is why consumer motivation within the different platforms is important to understand: each site has its own unique architecture, culture and norms, and users visit these sites with slightly different intentions, producing different content (Aljukhadar and Senecal, 2011; Fischer et al, 2012). To act within the rules of the platform Armelli and Villanueva (2011) suggest a social media plan based on listening to what people are saying online, choosing the right mix for the brand in terms of the platform, the message type, and frequency of interaction. A best practice example of this is Nike. “Nike has also done a good job with social media marketing by establishing a community around football through competitions and online gatherings without a major emphasis on its brand or products. Nikefootball is an initiative for the sake of football rather than for the sake of selling more Nike products, which makes it more sympathetic for consumers to associate the football concept with the brand” (Seraj, 2012, p.220). Similarly, Stuart and Jones (2004) purport, “, in not pursuing the Internet as a business (yet), has enhanced its existing corporate brand through harnessing the medium’s interactivity, rather than its potential as a distribution channel” (p.87). Rather Nike created a space for consumers to interact and share their exercise experiences, which created brand awareness without Nike having to ‘sell’ their product; consistent with Crittenden et al (2011)’s suggestion that companies should view their approach to social media as an integrated strategy bringing consumer experiences to the forefront. WOM and UGC are interlinked: when consumers create something they are proud of social media provides the perfect platform for them to share it, thus UGC and WOM together satisfy consumers’ desire to create and share. What best practice companies have done is listen and observe how consumers are engaging, and then seamlessly adapted, keeping consistent with their brand identity that the consumer is familiar with, thus encouraging consumer engagement. Brands unsuccessful in the social media space have failed to understand the consumer’s motivations online. The exposure of Wal-Mart’s fake bloggers highlighted a blatant manipulation of the very tools of transparency and authenticity suggested necessary by Pehlivan and Weinberg (2011) guiding consumers in social media (Avery and Fournier, 2011).


Consumer motivations of creativity and socialization for engaging in social media means brands need an authentic and responsive presence when participating As consumers are now, for better or worse, getting a say in what brands stand for, marketers need to create opportunities for consumers to channel their motivations for engaging online towards the good of the brand-, whether for brand awareness, engagement or positive WOM. This means supplying the consumer with the necessary tools, such as devising competitions and setting up communal platforms for consumers to engage on, like Nike effectively did, but avoiding using social media for direct commercial purposes. . If not, consumers will create their own content (UGC) and use WOM to make their feelings public, which may harm the brand. Implications of this research are the importance understanding of consumer behavior within the social media environment; this will be ensured by listening to conversations, understanding the expectations of the platform, fight the urge to always close a sale, and always keeping to the brand identity. It should be noted that not all brands are suited for the social media environment; this is where a marketer’s understanding of a brand’s identity, the consumer, and the platform’s function and purpose become important- it helps determine what tone to take and how to engage. By observing best practice and enabling consumers to be creative, the use of social media for the marketer is optimized.  


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