RESEARCH: Social media marketing:
Professor Andrew Stephen

Best face forward

One of the most powerful weapons in the armoury of marketers is social media. Use it correctly and the impact can be explosive, with campaigns becoming viral sensations within minutes. Use it incorrectly and it can blow up in your face causing irreparable damage to a brand's equity.

Words: Simon Creasey

Despite the potential dangers presented by social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, companies know that they must have an active presence on them because the conversation about their brands, products and services will take place whether or not they are there.

One man trying to get to grips with what sort of social media marketing works - and what doesn't - to help brands communicate more effectively with consumers, is Andrew Stephen, L'Oréal Professor of Marketing and Chair of the Marketing faculty at Saïd Business School.

Professor Stephen, whose research has appeared in such august publications as Harvard Business Review, Journal of Marketing Research and the Journal of Consumer Research, has been delving into important issues like how companies should use social media as part of their marketing strategies and how social media psychologically impacts consumers, for more than a decade.

'Broadly my field of interest lies in understanding the potential value of new marketing channels in the digital space,' explains Professor Stephen. 'How they work and why they work in the ways that they do. I then use this information to help marketers figure out how they should most effectively and efficiently use digital channels to achieve their objectives.'

Face off

One of the most challenging channels for brands to get their head around is Facebook. The way that brands interact with the social media channel is constantly evolving and changing, and after talking to professional marketers, Professor Stephen realised that there was a real lack of understanding about why certain types of content work on the platform and other forms do not.

'If you are a social media manager and part of your job is to create content and always post something on Facebook, that's tough. You want to post content that will drive engagement and encourage other things like sales and advocacy, but many of the social media managers I met, who were posting regularly, had little idea about what was really effective,' he says. 'One person described the situation as "throwing darts at a dartboard with a blindfold on. You think you know the right direction but you don't know what's going to hit." In response to these comments, I felt that we needed to develop a more scientific approach to the problem.'

Professor Stephen started to analyse what brands are currently doing on Facebook and to look more closely at the characteristics of content, which marketers can control, that drive engagement. The resulting research project included the involvement of about ten brands from a number of different industries. Some were large global brands and others were relatively small companies.

'We worked with them and analysed all their Facebook posts over a year-and-a-half, looking at metrics such as "likes", comments, shares and reach,' he explains. 'We then deconstructed each post into a set of different characteristics and statistically tested which generated higher levels of engagement.'

Digital DNA

The research project, which Professor Stephen and his co-authors have dubbed The Facebook Genome Project, has led to the creation of a methodology for classifying branded content on Facebook by breaking it down into a set of different characteristics.

'We've identified about 40 different characteristics that are all buttons that marketers can push [when designing content for Facebook], but the reality is a lot of them don't make a difference,' he says. 'But many of those that don't make a difference are the ones that marketers think are very important.'

‘If the content of a branded post feels at all like advertising … then you will get a backlash’

The project is ongoing, but Professor Stephen has already identified some important pointers that brands can use to ensure that they don't make a social media faux pas. 'One of the broader findings coming out of the research is that if the content of a branded post feels at all like advertising - if it is too persuasive, too pushy, too polished, and has other familiar characteristics of advertising - then you will get a backlash,' he warns. 'Even though Facebook users will follow and become a fan because they are interested in a particular brand, it doesn't mean that the platform should be viewed as just another digital advertising channel,' he adds. 'When people are on Facebook, they are in a social mindset. You can't just slap a TV ad onto a Facebook post and expect it to do well. Invariably, it will not help you because it is not the right place for that content.' Armed with the findings of Professor Stephen's research, brands will soon be able to unlock the latent power of this weapon, creating better targeted information that consistently hits the spot.