Research

Manon Royet

23 January 2023

Strategist’s Digest: Do organic social media posts boost brands’ sales? 

Contagious digests the most interesting and relevant research from the world of advertising and beyond, because there’s just too much to read and too little time

Photo by Georgia De Lotz on Unsplash

A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Brands’ Owned Social Media on Social Media Engagement and Sales 

By Georgia Liadeli, Francesca Sotgiu , and Peeter W.J. Verlegh. Published in the Journal of Marketing

Give it to me in one sentence.

Contrary to expectations, posting messages on owned social media channels does more for a brand’s sales than engagement.

Give me a little more detail.

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 86 academic papers (published between 2011 and 2021) that measured the impact of brands’ owned social media profiles across 14 platforms, focusing on how the volume and character of posts affected sales and engagement.

The headline finding was that posting more frequently on social media produced a larger effect on a brand’s sales than its level of social media engagement. A 1% increase in volume of social media posts by a brand, for instance, translated into a .137% increase in engagement but a .353% increase in sales.

The analysis also showed that the character of brands’ social media posts mattered. Content that establishes an emotional connection with its audience is more effective at boosting engagement than functional posts and social content (that is, posts dedicated to community building, such as contests and calls to action). 

But the character of the brand itself did not seem to matter. The dataset included brands from 31 different sectors and none of them outperformed the rest. The only exception was that new products tended to get more benefit from social media posts than mature ones.

Country and platform attributes did make a difference, though. Posting on owned social media channels had a greater impact on brands’ sales in countries with a lower GDP, and on engagement in countries where the proportion of people with a mobile phone was lower. And brands tend to get less engagement when posting from their own channels on microblogs (such as Twitter) rather than social networks (such as Instagram). The presence of advertising on a social media platform tends to dampen the effect that brand posts have on sales, too.

According to the study, owned social media channels are also more effective for brands with smaller followings. Brands with a larger following often struggle to maintain connections with their audience, creating what the researchers call a ‘ceiling effect’ that doesn’t happen in more tight-knit online communities.

Why is this interesting?

The meta-analysis debunks (or at least prompts us to question) the popular belief that organic social media posts do little to improve a brand’s sales. And since marketers often use engagement metrics (such as likes, comments and shares) to measure the effectiveness of their social media presence, these findings call for a shift in practices.

The authors warn marketers against using one global social media plan of action. Instead they argue for a nuanced content strategy that considers contextual variations, such as the country and platform where social media posts are published, and gears social media content towards rationality to encourage sales and towards emotional needs to drive engagement.

Any weaknesses?

The stronger impact of owned social media on sales might be explained by two effects that the study didn’t account for: the self-competition effect and the fan base versus customer base effect. So, although the study is useful in that it’s a comprehensive guide for marketers looking to improve their social media strategy, its results are not definitive.

The ‘self-competition’ effect is when a brand starts to post more and these posts compete with each other for followers’ attention. For instance, when a brand goes from posting once to five times a day, ‘a given customer may react to one post but not to all five,’ say the researchers.

The fan base versus customer base effect describes how ‘the number of consumers engaging with a brand on social media tends to be higher than the number of consumers actually buying a brand, leading to a smaller impact of owned social media on social media engagement than sales,’ write the researchers.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, and it’s free.

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