“We're in the midst of the global digital transformation and it’s important to understand the ways that technology is disrupting our lives,” explains Tonya Bradford, assistant professor at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, talking about how tech is helping expand people’s communication circles. “It’s disrupting how we socialise and how we interact with other people, even in our day-to-day lives.”
Social connections are an important part of a fulfilling and healthy life and tech is facilitating a large proportion of people’s conversations. From the 1.58 billion unique visitors to Reddit, to the 2.07 billion active monthly users on Facebook, places where people can talk to one another online are popular. Even 60% of businesses have branded online communities for people, often strangers, to share their interests or experiences, with many proving hugely popular destinations for fans – Lego Ideas is a community whose collective power has brought 12 new ideas to fruition for the brand, while Sephora’s Beauty Talk platform saw superfans spending up to 36.5 hours a week exploring the brand’s latest tips, trends and products.
But as well as satisfying our innate need to belong, virtual communities have other benefits. Research from Bradford – alongside co-authors Sonya Grier and Geraldine Rosa Henderson – finds that the support people give others in social media groups encourages them to reach their personal weight loss goals. Canvas8 spoke to Bradford about the research paper, Weight Loss Through Virtual Support Communities: A Role for Identity-based Motivation in Public Commitment, to find out why sharing your triumphs and tribulations in an online community increases your chances of losing weight.
Why is this topic interesting?
Understanding how humans respond in this digitally driven world is important to get to grips with. And one angle I wanted to explore further was online communities. In marketing, we've been talking about brand communities for a really long time – take the Harley Owners group as one of the most robust examples in this space. It’s a point of affiliation to be associated with these groups and for brands, they can be really powerful ways to increase engagement. M&M’s even has a popular Facebook page for fans of it’s characters, but that’s driven by a brand and people go on there for specific reasons.
Previously, my colleagues have done research looking at how people use Twitter to help them stop smoking and how people behave in online auction rooms, but those are very different to being in fully-engaged conversation with people in a dedicated community. We’re now seeing individuals engage with one another outside of branded, social spaces, investing hundreds of words a day with people they’ve never met. I really wanted to understand what would make a consumer join their own group, how they stay engaged in these groups and how is it that these random strangers online feel so accountable to each other. Can public commitment really exist when there's no in-person relationship?
How does engaging with someone you’ve never met help you reach your goal?
Strelka Institute for Architecture, Media and Design, Creative Commons (2017) ©
How did you go about conducting your study?
We wanted to avoid manipulating the data in any way so to make the experience as natural as possible, we used netnography, which is where you go online and participate in these communities as active participants too. We looked at how people invest their time in weight loss blogging communities and chose to look at WeightWatchers.com (corporately sponsored) and ObesityHealth.com (consumer-driven).
It was important to have a branded and non-branded website, as well as a surgical and non-surgical weight loss community so we could understand any discrepancies that arose between the two. One of these being that those in branded communities are often constrained – they can’t swear and imagery is often censored, whereas in non-branded communities people can typically post whatever they like.
In both of these online communities, we collected data from users’ first blog post to when they reached their goal, which was anywhere from 12- to 18 months. We analysed the frequency and volume of posts, as well as the actual content in their communication with fellow members, using content analysis software to uncover the reasons people join the community, why they were excited about being in it and what purpose these virtual communities serve.
People behave differently in a branded online space to a non-branded equivalent
Strelka Institute for Architecture, Media and Design, Creative Commons (2017) ©
What did you find out?
We found there's something about speaking out and almost saying I want you all to help me to remain accountable for my actions – this notion of public commitment was really prominent. And at first, people's tone in their posts begins as slightly more desperate – it’s an 'I need help' or 'I can't do this on my own' type of mentality. But in very little time, we found people disclosing very intimate things about themselves and having full confidence knowing that it will be held in confidence by those within the group.
There’s a great amount of excitement and joy by others in the group, who embrace them and try to pick them up when they’re down. There’s an unwritten rule that the group recognises that they’re there to support and encourage one another. And the increased anonymity online, allows people to be even more vulnerable than one might expect. That increased vulnerability means people ask for what they truly need in quite an authentic and genuine way.
When people are in situations where they’re seeking help, they’re more honest because everyone in these groups has a common goal. But we found that even as people reach their goals, many of them decide to stay in the community. They feel a sense of obligation to help those who come behind them; we saw people who’d maintained their goal weight for five or 10 years still in the community. They were the cheerleaders of the group, they weren’t posting on their own blogs often but they were cheering others on and supporting them.
When people are in situations where they’re seeking help, they’re more honest because everyone in these groups has a common goalsTonya Bradford, assistant professor at UCI
This notion of public commitment is something that’s used to help people reach their weight loss goals and in that, compliance is key. In their home environment that’s easier – people don't have to go out search of anything, they don't have to worry about public or personal shame because they’re in the comfort of their own home where they’re anonymously getting the help they need to meet their goal. We found there’s a higher likelihood people would meet their goals when compared to offline communities.
In Western societies, people are very individualistic so they don’t tend to have time to support others in these situations, or maybe they don't want to talk about it altogether or be reminded of their past. But going online is much easier. That accessibility increases the ‘stickiness’ (how engaged in your life that is and how hard it is to disentangle it from yourself) people have with that group.
It’s much easier to disclose your personal problems with online anonymity
Olabi Makerspace, Creative Commons (2017) ©
How can these findings be applied?
- There’s a huge gap between society’s acknowledgment of weight issues and the support that's then offered to people offline. According to a survey conducted by ACTION, 71% of obese adults said they’ve discussed their weight with a doctor over the past five years, yet just 26% of those had committed to a weight-loss plan. Of those who’d not pursued a weight loss intervention, the belief that they had to ‘go it alone’ was a major barrier to not seeking help. But the research suggests that for those who feel alone in their weight loss journey, online communities can become a welcome tool to help them feel better supported. It’s a mentality similarly adopted by UK-based YOU-app, which aims to leverage social support to keep people on track towards their weight loss goals.
- The public commitment phenomena proven in online communities helps to mitigate against the change in motivational mindset people experience as they get closer to their goal. Research has found that people are driven by the positive aspects they’d enjoy from reaching their goal – like fitting into new clothes – but as they near their goal, people tend to think about ways they can prevent themselves from failing to reach it. By sharing accountability for progress, people will be more likely to reach their goals.
- Technology facilitates a lot of online conversation, but there’s a desire to make it feel more human. Whether it’s an animoji or a meme, social media groups are encouraging self-expression and more authentic, natural chatter. But brands often restrain online conversations for fear of damaging their brand image or meaning, which Bradford explains can be damaging for the consumer. “When you constrain the ways people share or converse within these groups, you miss out on opportunities not only for the brand to engage more deeply with that consumer,” says Bradford. “But for that consumer to also feel like they're a part of the family.”
- The public commitment displayed in online support forums isn’t just valued in the health sphere though. A 2017 Canvas8 survey finds that 27% of Britons made a New Year’s resolution, with 37% breaking them before the end of January, while 42% of Americans say they never succeed or fail to commit to their New Year’s resolutions every year. But this research suggests that by committing to your goals publicly, you could be more likely to turn over a new leaf. “Our research shows that online communities can offer people the support they need, whatever that might be” says Tonya. “Whether that’s working on an undergraduate degree, stopping smoking or working towards a better marriage.”
Tonya Bradford is an assistant professor at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, and co-author of 'Weight Loss Through Virtual Support Communities: A Role for Identity-based Motivation in Public Commitment'. Her research interests lie in rituals, market exchange, gift-giving, and communities.