Research

Is social media undermining your sales?

Consumers are less apt to purchase products after they post about them on social media. Here’s why – and what marketers can do about it

Many brands actively encourage consumers to post about their products on social media. They believe, as conventional wisdom suggests, that this act drives up product sales. Marketers also tend to assume that a consumer who praises a product on Twitter or shares a photo of it on Instagram is highly likely to purchase that product – ­if they haven’t purchased it already. 

But what if this logic is flawed?

New research indicates that may be the case. In a five-part study co-authored by Andrew Stephen, the L’Oreal Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Research at Saïd Business School, researchers found that consumers became less interested in purchasing a product – and similar types of products – after they posted about the product on social media. Notably, this occurred when the product was relevant to a consumer’s identity and communicated something about their values (e.g., owning a Tesla implies that you are wealthy and tech-savvy) as opposed to serving a function (e.g., 3M tape).

The researchers attribute this phenomenon to a psychological mechanism. Human beings are naturally inclined to express their identity, and purchasing an identity-relevant product is one way to fulfil this need. However, sharing an identity-relevant product on social media also satisfies this need. Posting about a product in the virtual world, therefore, obviates the need to make a purchase in the real world. For example, if a consumer shares a photo of a 100% biodegradable Patagonia backpack on Facebook, this helps identify them as an environmentally conscious person and, consequently, makes them less inclined to buy the backpack.

Woman using phone for social media

This finding has several important implications for how firms conduct social-media marketing if they sell identity-relevant products. At a high level, it means that marketers need to consider whether their word-of-mouth marketing strategies are undermining consumers’ intent to purchase. It also means that marketers might want to stop encouraging consumer engagement with identity-relevant products on social media, or at least revise their expectations for what these campaigns might achieve.

For marketers that want to continue engaging consumers on social media, the researchers suggest adopting three tactics to lessen the potential for negative consequences: reframe content, incentivise posting, and delay engagement.

Phone with social media icons
People on their phones

1. Reframe content

By prompting consumers to focus on the functional or practical aspects of their products, marketers can reduce the identity-signalling value that comes from posting about products on social media. This reframing tactic tends to work best in forum-based platforms that are heavy on text (e.g., Reddit), as opposed to platforms that are more visual (e.g., Instagram or Pinterest). For example, to market a Louis Vuitton handbag, marketers might prompt consumers to discuss the craftmanship and quality of the bag, instead of encouraging them to share photos that speak to the consumers’ status level. Of note: These discussions should target consumers pre-purchase, not post-purchase.

2. Incentivise posting

Identity-signalling is stronger when it is intrinsically motivated. To dampen this effect, marketers can provide an external motivation for posting on social media, such as by offering consumers a product discount or reward for sharing a post. These incentives interfere with consumers’ desire to express themselves and lessens the identity-signalling satisfaction they get from posting online.

3. Delay engagement

The researchers found that the psychological effect that consumers experience after posting about products – both the identity-signalling satisfaction and subsequent reduction in purchasing intent – is dynamic and temporary. In fact, most consumers return to their ‘natural level,’ so to speak, after about 1-2 weeks. Marketers can take advantage of this outcome by delaying their engagement with consumers. For example, after targeting a consumer who has posted about their product on Instagram, marketers might wait two weeks before emailing them a promotional offer. At that point, the consumer would be more likely to receive the message positively and make a purchase.