The conventional thinking is that social media conversations about brands are representative of broader consumer sentiment in the overall market. However, new research from Engagement Labs finds online discussions and sentiment are not necessarily predictive of offline brand outcomes.
Among other things, Engagement Labs sought to answer the question, “Can the social media tip of the [consumer conversation] iceberg predict what is a much larger conversation happening in real life? The answer apparently is “no.”
I spoke with Engagement Labs’ Chief Commercial Officer Brad Fay about the research. He indicated that there’s a clear distinction between online and offline brand conversations. Fay said the online social conversation is more visible and obvious than the offline “under the surface” discussion happening face-to-face.
Social media conversations skew female and younger
“The social media conversation is more female and younger,” said Fay. “Offline conversations are a different group.” There are also different motivations for each type of conversation. In some cases online, people are using brands to help promote themselves, according to Fay. Offline conversations are more about empathy.
There are also different product categories that tend to be discussed online vs. offline. According to Fay, offline discussions tend to focus on CPG (consumer packaged goods) and food, while online brand discussions often center around media, sports, automotive and technology.
The research, which used surveys and online social media monitoring, looked at correlations between social media and offline discussions surrounding 500 brands over the course of a year. Fay and his team found that there was only “a modest correlation between online and offline conversation volume.” Beyond this, “correlations were near zero for other metrics, such as sentiment, sharing of brand content and engagement by influencers.”
Marketers shouldn’t rely on social media alone to determine consumer sentiment
This lead the researchers to conclude that social media is not by itself a reliable predictor of brand performance in total. One of the big takeaways is that marketers should not rely on social media alone to determine consumer sentiment about a brand.
Fay gave two examples of recent brand controversies: Dick’s Sporting Goods and Starbucks. Dick’s Sporting Goods decided to no longer sell assault-style rifles following the Parkland school shootings. Fay said that the social media conversation about that decision was largely negative. But offline the sentiment was more positive.
With the recent Starbucks controversy, when a white employee called police on two black men in a Philadelphia store, the social media conversation was mostly critical and negative (initially). Offline the conversation was unaffected; there was less concern.
The two channels must be treated as largely independent
Fay asserted that online opinions are often more extreme than in the offline broader market. “People often have stronger opinions on social media; offline people with modulated opinions tend to be less active on social media.”
Fay said that marketers need to address online and offline word-of-mouth separately and see them as largely independent of one another. Accordingly, there should be separate tactics for each channel.
The report concludes that online and offline brand conversations “occur in two vastly different ecosystems, as different as ocean from desert and tropical from temperate . . . Success in one ecosystem does not translate automatically into the other. Only a marketer prepared with a good map, a smart strategy, and the right gear can expect to thrive in both the online and the offline ecosystems.”