From the clunky blue Facebook feeds of 2004 to the birth of livestreaming and Insta-reels in 2020, social media is evolving into a diverse ecosystem of online expression. Moving beyond keeping in touch with friends, these platforms are the go-to for everything from accessing news and organising political change to finding romantic partners. Indeed, more than half the world actively uses social media, with the number of global social media users up by 10.5% from July 2019 to July 2020 as COVID-19 encouraged more digital interactions.
“At a time when people are seeking more intimate connections online and are spending more time engaging with brands on social media, the contrast between effective and ineffective brand messaging is growing more apparent,” says Dr. Matthew Pittman, assistant professor of social media at the University of Tennessee. As social media platforms become increasingly important spaces for exploring and expressing ourselves online, each platform has its own unwritten rules. From TikTok becoming a platform to explore subversive narratives and cure boredom to Twitter users trolling feeds for unreliable news, there are clear contrasts in the purpose of each platform.
But what does this mean for brands? Canvas8 sat down with Dr. Pittman and Dr. Brandon Reich, assistant professor of marketing at Portland State University, to find out more about their research. The paper – titled An Appeal to Intimacy: Consumer Response to Platform‐Appeal Fit on Social Media – explores how and why content lands differently across various social media platforms.
Why is this topic important to understand?
When it comes to social media behaviour, usage tends to exist in the eye of the beholder. While someone’s Twitter may be professional, their Instagram could be entirely personal, or vice versa. Yet despite the growing awareness that people treat and use these social platforms differently, brands are still struggling to identify the nuances and adjust their content accordingly. Despite cropping up on people’s newsfeeds more often, many brands are still failing to capture the mood of their online consumers and close the purchasing gap. The idea that you can be more efficient in matching your brand’s tone to that of the social platform is really important.
Working from our previous research that found image-based platforms tended to foster more intimate connections than text-based ones, we wanted to take these learnings further. We felt that research into the psychology behind social media platforms was suffering from both a theoretical and pragmatic gap. From a theoretical standpoint, when it comes to media psychology there is very little known about how these platforms differ in terms of the user experience on a psychological level. And from a pragmatic angle, marketers often use a one-size-fits-all approach to social media advertising where they are crafting messaging based on demographics and algorithmic insight that don't really help dig beneath the surface. We wanted to uncover how consumer responses to different ad appeals might differ depending on the platform through which they’re advertised. Focusing on the notion of ‘fluency’ as a way of understanding how people engage with content, we wanted to show that features of the ad may be altered to increase consumer engagement by matching the style to the personality of the platform.
Mark Decile (2020) ©
How did you go about conducting your study?
We ran a pilot study to confirm our expectations around which platforms were seen as more intimate versus less intimate. For this, we ran a survey asking people to rate six of the largest social platforms in terms of intimacy and several other characteristics. We found pretty broad distinctions between image-based platforms Snapchat and Instagram, which were regarded as highly intimate versus platforms like Twitter and Linkedin where people mostly use it for news or making professional connections – although there are some exceptions here.
Then we ran two experiments. In the first, we created an online test where we exposed participants to an intimate or a non-intimate version of an ad on either their Instagram or Twitter feed. The ads were similar except that in the intimate version it had two people together taking a selfie and in the non-intimate version just one person featured in the image. Before showing the ads, respondents spent 20-30 seconds interacting with their social media feed to get them in the ‘mindset’ of that platform. The ad was then shown, only for a few seconds (respondents could advance past the ad at their own pace but on average spent about 5-6 seconds looking at the ad).
We then asked them to rate their reaction in terms of a few different dimensions. The main thing we wanted to measure was engagement – how likely are you to click or like this ad? We also wanted to get a broader sense of how fluent the content felt on the particular platform by understanding three separate dimensions: respondents' emotional reaction, truthfulness perceptions, and familiarity. For our second experiment, we used the same setup but swapped in Snapchat and Pinterest, two primarily image-led platforms to push the idea that differences in platforms lie in their use rather than layout – while Pinterest is more about solo browsing, Snapchat is more social. This time we showed participants a fitness ad, using the same image and the only thing we changed was one word in the tag line which was ‘keep up with yourself’ or ‘keep up with your friends’ – a very subtle manipulation of appeal intimacy.
Windows (2020) ©
What were your key findings?
In line with our initial hypothesis, we found that intimate content worked better on more intimate platforms (such as Instagram and Snapchat) whereas non-intimate content worked better on non-intimate platforms (Twitter and Pinterest, for example). One finding that helped to reinforce this idea is that it’s about fluency. Statistically, we found the effect on consumer engagement exists because of those variables – how familiar it feels, how truthful it feels, my emotional state, my general attitudes. This was a really consistent pattern and we were surprised at how sensitive people were to very subtle manipulations in the ads, such as just changing one word.
We also found that age didn’t seem to make a difference. Even in contexts where we weren’t sure whether the effect would carry, we were continually surprised by the results, which we felt speaks to how the industry remains uncertain of what content will sink and what will float. Another observation that was interesting to note was that just 20-30 seconds of exposure to these ads on their feeds was enough to prime respondents towards thinking a certain way. The pattern of people’s responses showed a clear difference in how people receive certain ads on their feeds. In particular, when asking how familiar this ad felt, it was remarkable to note how engaged people were – given that it was a fake ad we had people saying that they felt they had seen it before.
Jeremy Wilfong (2020) ©
Insights and opportunities
- While TikTok may appear to be the catnip of younger cohorts and Facebook the social platform for Boomers, simplifying usage according to age can be problematic. “What marketers attempt to do is use age as a proxy for values, lifestyles, and other psychological mechanisms when in fact demographics don't predict much, they are just easy to measure,” says Dr. Reich. And Gen Zers are a prime example. As a generation juggling a diverse set of values and modes of expression online, they aren’t just using TikTok for fun – but also for moulding their own identities through subcultures. #KinkTok is a community of TikTokers where members are free to talk about kink practices, while ‘scene culture’ has similarly been courting a following on TikTok. Keen to be seen as individuals rather than shoehorned, 67% of Gen Zers believe that being true to one's values is what makes someone cool. And as TikTok’s #AllTheDifference campaign – an initiative that asked users and brands to upload videos of how they’re eschewing stereotypes and labels – showed, brands that focus on a platform’s culture and values are more likely to resonate.
- Social platforms are becoming a blend of both social and shoppable content, which some feel is blurring their purpose – 75% of social media users feel that ads are taking over their feeds. That’s not to say brands aren’t welcome, though. Social media platforms are a prime space for people to find out more about certain products – 74% of consumers say they rely on social media for information about product purchasing. And they’re looking for brand experiences that chime more authentically with the overall social experience of that space. “Brands try to hedge their bets and communicate all their benefits – social and individual. For the most part, that seems to throw the biggest chunks out there, but it's not the most efficient or cost-effective,” says Dr. Reich. Bud Light’s move to recruit a chief meme officer illustrates how brands are taking a more targeted approach when it comes to social content.
- From the dangers of endless scrolling to darker fears around surveillance, people are growing increasingly mindful of the impact content on their social feeds may be having on their well-being. In response to amped-up concerns, one in three British adults reported cutting down their time on social media in 2019. And with 48% of British Gen Zers feeling more anxious about their future when comparing themselves to other people on social platforms, many are imagining what life would be like without it. As documentaries such as The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma bring the dark side of social media increasingly into public discourse, the move towards a more discerning style of media consumption is growing. While LUSH has shut down its socials in favour of a more people-first style of consumer engagement, ad-free social platform Scroll is gaining traction. For brands looking to stay authentic online, a level of self-awareness and honesty surrounding their social content will resonate with an audience wary of being played.