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The Role of Online Social Media in Brand-Consumer Engagement:

An Exploratory Study

Abstract Submitted to the Direct/Interactive Marketing Research Summit Proceedings

August 31, 2012

Andrew J. Rohm
Associate Professor, Marketing Department, College of Business Administration, Loyola
Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA,
George R. Milne
Professor, Marketing Department, Isenberg School of Management, University of
Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA,
Velitchka Kaltcheva
Associate Professor, Marketing Department, College of Business Administration, Loyola
Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA,

Researchers have noted the importance of generating more effective brand-consumer

engagement with respect to increased profits, customer satisfaction, and customer loyalty
(Palmatier et al. 2006). Customer engagement is defined as active interactions with a
firm, with prospects and with other customers (Kumar et al. 2010). We focus on
engagement because consumers interactions with brands are now more similar to a
multi-party conversation than to a brand-dictated monologue (Deighton and Kornfeld
2009; Hennig-Thurau et al. 2010). Social media platforms including Facebook and
Twitter have become integral elements for companies and brands seeking to develop
intimate online customer relationships; conversely, they provide consumers an online
soapbox with which to publish and disseminate personal evaluations of products and
services (Chen, Fay, and Wang 2011).
The growth in social media activity related to peer and friend recommendations,
user-generated content, and product reviews are increasingly playing a central role in
consumer-brand engagement (Haven 2007). Given that almost two-thirds of adult Internet
users in the U.S. are also active in online social networks (Pew Research 2012), social
media provide marketers previously unimaginable touch points in engaging youth
consumers (Shankar et al. 2011). At the same time, companies are seeking to better
understand the extent to which social media can and should play a role in customer
engagement (Parent, Plangger, and Bal 2011).
Our knowledge regarding social media-driven brand-consumer engagement and
what constitutes effective social media strategy is only now developing. Although both
industry and academic research has begun to examine the role of social media within
firm-customer interactions, there is a continued need for empirical investigation of usage

characteristics and behaviors with respect to social media and online brand engagement,
particularly among younger consumers. Accordingly, our study investigates the role of
social media among younger consumers as they actively engage online with brands
spanning the product, service, and media sectors. We administered a written diary to
fifty-eight individuals over a one-week period in late Fall 2011. Diary data captured
background information on social media usage and recorded 406 discrete companyrespondent interactions across two primary social media platformsFacebook and
Twitteras well as email. Email interactions were included in the study because this
form of contact is part of the electronic ecosystem connecting consumers and businesses
and is complementary to social media usage.
Our study makes two contributions to the growing body of social media
marketing research. First, we uncover several themes characterizing online brandconsumer engagement on social media platforms among youth consumers. Second, we
develop a typology of social-media brand-consumer engagement for this segment of
digital natives (Prensky 2005). In the following sections, we highlight the theoretical
perspective on online engagement that guided the development of our social media diary,
the data collection, analysis and results, as well as the implications from our findings.
Online Engagement
A central element of online social media is the extent to which it enables brands and
consumers to connect, communicate, and engage. Brodie et al. (2011, p. 253) note that
the concept of customer engagement is closely tied with the trend toward interactive
experience and value co-creation within marketing relationships. Consumer engagement
has been defined by the Advertising Research Foundation as the process of turning on a

prospective customer to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context (Burns 2006),
and both academic as well as industry researchers increasingly view engagement as an
important construct in the study of brand-consumer relationships (e.g., Gambetti and
Graffigna 2010; Haven 2007).
Compared to traditional views of brand-consumer engagement, online brand
interactions are viewed as consisting of greater cognitive processing, heightened
relevance and emotional experiences (Mollen and Wilson 2010), and greater advertising
effectiveness (Calder, Malthouse, and Schadel 2009). Driven by the growth of online
media, consumers are increasingly seeking, even expecting, a more involved role in the
consumption process (Calder and Malthouse 2005). Brand-consumer engagement
specific to social media has, more directly, been conceptualized as consisting of several
elements, including 1) creating and posting online content that is relevant to consumers;
2) brands relinquishing some degree of control over content so that it becomes sharable,
and even modifiable, among friends; 3) engendering a sense of online community among
customers; 4) and facilitating conversation rather than delivering one-way marketing
communications (Parent, Plangger, and Bal 2011). Overall, this online engagement
perspective led to the development of our research instrument (a social media diary
assessing individuals engagement with brands using social media), the data collection,
and the analysis illustrated next.
Empirical Research
The research instrument for this study involved a written social media diary administered
to fifty-eight respondents aged 20 to 35 over a week-long period during late 2011. The
diary was developed to guide study participants in documenting their social media

activity with respect to a focal brand of their choice and resulted in capturing over four
hundred brand-consumer social media interactions.
The brands that formed our brand-consumer interaction study were self-selected
by respondents and ranged in type from retailers (e.g., J. Crew), online services (e.g.,
Living Social), media brands (e.g., MTV), luxury (e.g., LMV), FMCG brands (e.g.,
Mountain Dew), sports and lifestyle brands (e.g., Nike), and restaurants (e.g., Pinkberry).
For each day of the diary period, respondents indicated their primary form of brandcustomer interaction for that day (Facebook, Twitter, or email) and described their
experience with each of their daily brand interactions in an open-ended response. Overall,
the diary dataset consisted of 406 total brand interactions from the 58 respondents over
the seven-day period.
We analyzed the 406 open-ended comments for specific themes related to social
media usage and the nature of the daily brand-customer interactions. The initial coding
process resulted in ten unique categories that summarized respondents daily online
interactions with their respective brands on Facebook, Twitter, and email. The ten
categories are: fresh and timely information (26.4%), fun and entertaining content (22%),
product information (18%), incentives and promotions (17%), the extent of two-way
interaction (16.8%), customer service (9.6%), branded content (8.1%), purchase-related
interactions (4.2%), feelings of exclusivity engendered by social media (2.7%), and
privacy and trust (0.7%).
After converting the open-ended responses to binary variables, we conducted a
cluster analysis and identified three clusters of brand-consumer interaction styles: (1) the
Product & Incentive interactions, (2) the Keeping Current interactions, and (3) the

Branded Entertainment interactions. The profiles of the three interaction clusters show
that the Product & Incentive cluster (16.7% of the sample) is more likely to be female,
use email and have social media interactions that involve product information, incentives,
exclusivity and purchase behavior. The Keeping Current cluster (53.6%) is balanced
across the use of all three platforms: Facebook Twitter, and email. Engagement within
this cluster was primarily related to interests in timely information as well as interactions
related to customer service. The third cluster, Branded Entertainment (29.8%), was based
on entertainment-based interactions related to the brand.
Our findings extend previous research examining online engagement by illustrating the
specific nature of consumer engagement using social media. We found that brandconsumer social-media engagement ranges from the functional and purposive (e.g.,
seeking sales and incentives; hunting for news and information associated with specific
brands and related to current events) to the hedonic and random (e.g., coming across and
sharing funny and entertaining brand-related content on Facebook). Building on current
practice, our findings provide important insights to managers seeking to better understand
brand-consumer social media engagement. It is important that brands employ social
media platforms for outcomes beyond actual purchase, including communicating product
information, staying on top of and addressing customer service issues, engaging
consumers with fun and entertaining content relevant to their brand(s), providing timely
and relevant information regarding discounts, sales and other events, and promoting new
product launches. Further, brands must view social media as a platform with which to
quickly react to customer service issues and customer feedback in a proactive manner.

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