Consumer brands should mind their manners online, warns Oxford Saïd Professor in new research

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Oxford research finds negative reactions to Facebook advertisers who flout social media conventions

Consumers expect people and businesses using social media to conform to the norms of social behaviour, and either ignore or respond negatively to those that don’t

Consumer brands advised to mind their manners on Facebook

Oxford research finds negative reactions to Facebook advertisers who flout social media conventions

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Academics have found that brands advertising on Facebook face a backlash from consumers if their content is too clear, too persuasive, and contains a direct ‘call to action’ – in other words, if it’s too like advertising.

‘Consumers expect people and businesses using social media to conform to the norms of social behaviour, and either ignore or respond negatively to those that don’t,’ said Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. ‘They shun posts that tell them to enter competitions, talk about price, or contain polished soundbites, much as you might avoid the person trying to sell you life assurance at a party. They are much more likely to engage with content that is informal and a bit woolly, as that is how they expect people to communicate on Facebook.’

Professor Stephen and his co-authors, Michael R. Sciandra, Dolan School of Business, Fairfield University, and J. Jeffrey Inman, Joseph M Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh, analysed 4,284 Facebook posts made during an 18-month period by nine brands from four distinct industries (consumer-packaged goods, restaurants, retail, and sports). They matched the posts to a list of 14 content characteristics covering aspects of what brands say and how they say it, and examined users’ responses, whether in the form of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, clicking through to the website, or writing positive or negative comments.

Their findings included:

  •     Branded posts that received multiple ‘likes’ were generally relevant to the brand but didn’t sound like advertising or marketing messages, and didn’t try to be funny.
  •     Product or brand information generally received a positive response, but not posts which talked about value or pricing.
  •     Posts that communicated very clearly expressed messages were not liked as much as those which were more conversational, informal, and less clear in tone.
  •     Posts asking a question or asking for consumers’ thoughts or ideas received more comments; posts that ‘told’ consumers to do something (such as enter a competition or ‘like’ a page) created a negative effect.

Two practices that are considered by industry experts to be important drivers of engagement were found to have no effect at all, either on prompting ‘likes’ and favourable comments, or on encouraging people to share or click through to content. One is linking posts to holidays (either traditional holidays such as Christmas or pseudo-holidays such as International Talk Like a Pirate Day); the other is including rich media elements such as images or videos.

‘In general, it seems that much of what social media marketers do is either ineffective or, worse, backfires on them,’ said Professor Stephen. ‘Marketers need to remember that on social media, brands tend to communicate mostly with consumers who are already relatively highly interested in them, because they have chosen to follow them. Accordingly, they can be offended by the impersonal tone of much advertising content and also by the notion that they are being “sold to”. Content that is more informal and feels less like conventional marketing communications may resonate more with this already-interested consumer type, which leads to higher engagement.’

The full paper, “Is It What You Say or How You Say It? How Content Characteristics Affect Consumer Engagement with Brands on Facebook”, can be found here:

For more information, or to arrange an interview, please contact the press office:

Josie Powell, Senior Press Officer
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Email: josie(dot)powell(at)sbs(dot)ox(dot)ac(dot)uk or pressoffice(at)sbs(dot)ox(dot)ac(dot)uk

Emily McDonnell, PR Coordinator
Tel: +44 (0)1865 614489
Email: emily(dot)mcdonnell(at)sbs(dot)ox(dot)ac(dot)uk

Notes to editors

About Saïd Business School
Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford blends the best of new and old. We are a vibrant and innovative business school, but yet deeply embedded in an 800 year old world-class university. We create programmes and ideas that have global impact. We educate people for successful business careers, and as a community seek to tackle world-scale problems. We deliver cutting-edge programmes and ground-breaking research that transform individuals, organisations, business practice, and society. We seek to be a world-class business school community, embedded in a world-class University, tackling world-scale problems.

In the Financial Times European Business School ranking (Dec 2014) Oxford Saïd is ranked 10th. It is ranked 10th worldwide in the FT’s combined ranking of Executive Education programmes (May 2015) and 22nd in the world in the FT ranking of MBA programmes (Jan 2015). The MBA is ranked 7th in Businessweek’s full time MBA ranking outside the USA (Nov 2014) and is ranked 5th among the top non-US Business Schools by Forbes magazine (Sep 2013). The Executive MBA is ranked 2nd worldwide in the Economist’s Executive MBA ranking (Sep 2015) and 9th worldwide in the FT’s ranking of EMBAs (Oct 2015). The Oxford MSc in Financial Economics is ranked 14th in the world in the FT ranking of Masters in Finance programmes (Jun 2015). In the UK university league tables it is ranked first of all UK universities for undergraduate business and management in The Guardian (Jun 2015) and 2nd in The Times (Sept 2015). For more information, see


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