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Social Media
WINTER 2015 Are your company’s products primarily useful — or fun?
Recent research suggests that the answer to that question
should guide your approach to social media marketing

Christian Schulze
Lisa Schöler
Bernd Skiera

Vol. 56, No. 2 Reprint #56207



Customizing Social Media Marketing

Are your company’s products primarily useful — or fun? Recent research
suggests that the answer to that question should guide your approach to
social media marketing campaigns.

As the number of social media users contin- unsolicited direct or broadcast “push” mes-
ues to climb, many companies are looking sages. Other social sharing mechanisms
beyond simply establishing a social pres- that rely on “pull” messages that consumers
ence — and are seeking to “get social media seek out — such as when a consumer
marketing right.” The prospect of free, yet actively searches for information about
effective viral marketing recommendations things his or her friends “like” on their
from consumer to consumer is very appeal- profile pages — are rare in comparison. In
ing — but often elusive. traditional company-to-consumer com-
Through an analysis of the success of munication, unsolicited messages are often
751 social media marketing campaigns in- referred to as spam, and their reduced
volving Facebook apps, we investigated the effectiveness compared to solicited mes-
social sharing mechanisms that encourage sages is well documented; in social sharing,
consumers to share information about a one hand and higher relevance of the the verdict on unsolicited messages is still
product with their friends. What we found shared message on the other. The majority out. Still, almost two-thirds (64%) of the
is that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solu- of the Facebook campaigns we studied Facebook campaigns we studied were will-
tion for social media marketing. Instead, favored broadcast messages (64%) over ing to take the risk of relying on unsolicited
companies must tailor their social media individual targeting (36%). messages pushed to consumers.
marketing strategies to fit their products. In
particular, useful products benefit from dif- Strangers vs. Friends In social networks, No Incentives vs. Incentives In 11% of
ferent social media marketing approaches most information sharing occurs between the campaigns we studied, social recom-
than do fun products such as games. direct friends. On Facebook, consumers can mendations came with an incentive to use
On social media platforms such as Face- also reach second-degree contacts with the product. Incentives may be in the form
book, the design of the social sharing whom they have no direct connection of virtual or in-app goodies, coupons or
mechanism intended to encourage con- through comments posted on their friends’ rebates for physical products, or free pre-
sumers to share viral messages is crucial. timelines. When designing a social sharing mium services. Most of the time, incentives
Consumers can learn about their friends’ mechanism, managers must decide whether come at a cost to the company; however,
interests in several ways: via publicly shared it should be targeted at friends or second- whether incentives always provide a mea-
timeline messages, via direct private messages degree contacts who may be strangers. surable benefit is unclear.
or from the “about” section of their friends’ Whether recommendations from direct
personal profile pages. When designing the friends are always more influential than rec- To investigate the effect of these four
optimal social sharing mechanism for Face- ommendations from strangers is an open design decisions on the promotion of fun
book, managers must make four decisions: question. However, of the Facebook cam- and useful products, we carried out an em-
paigns we observed in our study, only 7% pirical study based on 751 Facebook apps
Reach vs. Relevance A social sharing were aimed at strangers. from 22 product categories, including
mechanism can either rely on broadcast games, entertainment, business and money.
messages or target friends individually. Push vs. Pull Social media users receive In each category, our sample included the
Choosing one over the other involves many recommendations without explicitly top 20 apps, as well as a random selection of
trade-offs between greater reach on the asking for them through, for example, remaining apps. To analyze success, we


C. Schulze, L. Schöler and

B. Skiera, “Not All Fun and
Games: Viral Marketing for
Utilitarian Products,” Journal
of Marketing 78, no. 1
(January 2014): 1-19.

relied on daily information about the num-

ber of installations for each app, but we also
replicated our results with alternative suc-
cess measures, such as the number of daily
active users. As part of our study, human rat-
ers looked at each app and manually coded
information about its social media cam-
paign, including information about app
quality (in the form of number of fans and
reviews) and whether the usefulness of the
app increases if friends also use it. This in-
formation allowed us to rule out alternative
drivers of app success. (Detailed findings
from our study were reported in the Journal
of Marketing. See “Related Research.”)
Facebook apps are an ideal study setting,
in that they spread primarily through viral
marketing. At the same time, the success of
an app is often directly linked to the success
of an underlying “real-world” product (for
example, Spotify or Skype), which makes
the results applicable to products beyond
apps. Similarly, our results likely hold for
fun- and entertainment-oriented social
media platforms in general, even though
our empirical study focused on Facebook.

Tailoring a Campaign
When managers decide on the design of the
social sharing mechanism for their social
media campaign, they must consider two
things: the type of product they are promot-
ing (is it a fun product or is it primarily
useful?) and the nature of the platform they
will use for the campaign. Facebook, for
example, is seen by most consumers as a plat-
form for fun and entertainment. As a result,
Facebook users’ reactions to social recom-
mendations will differ depending on
whether the product’s purpose fits their ex-
pectation. Consumers expect to encounter
(Continued on page 10)


Customizing Social Media Marketing messages about fun products seem to be useful product, consumers seem to value
(Continued from page 9)
okay on Facebook, because the recommen- objective recommendations from outside
messages about fun products on platforms dation does not come directly from a their own social group more than recom-
like Facebook, so upon receiving such mes- company and meets the consumers’ general mendations from their friends. Because
sages, they may be willing to invest some interest. The most important sharing com- Facebook users visit the platform for fun and
time and effort into determining their inter- ponent for fun products, however, is entertainment, their tolerance for unsolicited
est in the particular product. In contrast, incentives. messages about useful products is low; mes-
they will only glance over recommendations sages they seek by reading on their friends’
for useful products and rely more on social Social Media Marketing for Useful Facebook profile pages about products those
cues and heuristics to assess those products’ Products However, when marketing use- friends “like” or use are much more effective
merits. Consumers’ reactions differ, and so ful products on Facebook, the recipes for in comparison. Finally, incentives have a neu-
should the social sharing mechanisms used fun products no longer work. Perhaps be- tral effect for promoting useful products.
to promote these products. cause consumers do not visit Facebook to Social media marketing is still a new
hear about useful products, we found that marketing instrument and, compared to
Social Media Marketing for Fun Products aggressive unsolicited broadcast messages traditional television and print advertis-
After analyzing hundreds of social media from friends will even decrease campaign ing, we still know very little about how it
campaigns on Facebook, we found that the reach! Our research suggests that to be suc- works. At the same time, its huge audience
social sharing mechanism that games such as cessful, social media marketing for useful makes social media a potentially powerful
FarmVille made famous — broadcast mes- products could instead rely on more subtle tool to reach many consumers at relatively
sages from friends that contain incentives to promotion in the “likes” section on con- low cost. Our research shows that the key
try the product — is the most effective social sumers’ “about” pages or on more relevant to successful social media marketing lies in
sharing mechanism for fun products on direct messages between friends. customizing the campaign to the product,
Facebook. Our findings indicate that the When consumers receive viral messages and that might even involve a deliberate
reach of the average fun product will increase from their friends about useful products, rel- decision not to include common social
by a factor of 19 with the help of incentivized evance beats reach. “This product isn’t fun; sharing mechanisms, such as timeline
timeline posts from friends. my friend would have sent me a direct per- posts from friends that contain incentives.
For fun products, broadcast messages are sonal message if it was truly relevant for me,” Many well-known success stories illustrate
as effective as direct messages. Apparently, seems to be a common line of reasoning what our research confirms: Well-designed
receivers of messages for fun products do among consumers who receive broadcast social media campaigns can be a powerful
not regard broadcast messages as largely messages about useful products from friends. tool. However, managers must be careful:
irrelevant. Unsolicited messages from friends Interestingly, broadcast messages from Choosing the wrong kind of social sharing
about fun products have a greater impact friends for useful products are not only less mechanisms for your product can stymie
than similar messages from strangers; we effective than direct messages from friends, your social marketing campaign.
seem to trust our friends more when it comes but also less effective than similar broadcast
to fun and entertainment. Unsolicited messages from strangers. When evaluating a Christian Schulze is an assistant professor
of marketing at the Frankfurt School of
Finance & Management in Frankfurt,
The optimal design choices for social sharing mechanisms for utilitarian products are doctorate from Goethe University Frankfurt,
different from those for fun products. is a consultant in the Frankfurt office of
Strategy&. Bernd Skiera is Chaired Profes-
CHOICES FUN PRODUCTS USEFUL PRODUCTS University Frankfurt in Germany. Authors’
Reach vs. Relevance Either; no significant Relevance note: This article reflects the personal view
of the authors and does not represent the
views of Strategy&. Comment on this article
Strangers vs. Friends Friends Strangers at, or
Push vs. Pull Either; no significant Pull contact the authors at
Reprint 56207.
No Incentives vs. Incentives Either; no significant
Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Incentives difference
2015. All rights reserved.



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