As social media marketers, we’re programmed to create content that yields positive feelings towards our brand (or the company we are working on behalf of), even if that makes for safe posts that get little engagement. Much rather that than compose posts which irk customers into engaging, right? Wrong. Or at least it is according to a new study from the US.

Shocked

After assessing data from a “large specialty retailer with multiple locations in the northeast United States”, the University at Buffalo School of Management concluded: “A neutral or even negative social media post with high engagement will impact sales more than a positive post that draws no likes, comments or shares.”

Study co-author Ram Bezawada, PhD, associate professor of marketing in the UB School of Management, added: “This is true even among customers who say their purchase decisions are not swayed by what they read on social media.”

We can’t help but be suspicious, as it goes against everything we’ve come to learn about social media marketing, i.e. don’t go upsetting your loyal customer base.

The study, published in the Journal of Marketing, also fails to look into the long-term impact on a brand of creating posts which serve to aggravate followers.

Still, it’s worth taking the research at face value, right?

Right

In order to draw its conclusions, the researchers combined data about customer participation on the company’s social media page with in-store purchases before and after the retailer’s social media engagement efforts. They also conducted a survey to determine customers’ attitudes toward technology and social media.

As well as finding that high engagement is the thing we should all be trying to achieve, over and above everything else, the study also found that businesses’ social posts significantly strengthen the effect of traditional television and email marketing efforts.

When social media is combined with TV marketing, customer spending increased by 1.03% and cross-buying – when a customer purchases additional products or services from the same firm – by 0.8%. When combined with email marketing, customer spending increased by 2.02% and cross buying by 1.22%. A timely reminder amid Black Friday week.

Blood bath

Bezawada’s wrap-up is something we can all agree on: “The clear message here is that social media marketing matters, and managers should embrace it to build relationships with customers. Developing a community with a dedicated fan base can lead to a definitive impact on revenues and profits.”

However, the question for social media managers is: Is it worth taking the odd risk as we go in search of high engagement, even if it yields some neutral or negative sentiment?

We will be doing some experimenting of our own, although our instinct for building long-term relationships rather than short-term gains will probably win out.

Ben Hollom

November 23, 2016