Fans Only? Why brands love haters

By Eric Weiss and Koen Pauwels

The playful circus that is social media poses challenges for brands aiming to navigate it to grow and engage their audiences. Marketing managers weigh the costs of open conversations on their public posts versus censoring or taking other action against negative comments. We address these concerns in our publication on “Battle of the Brand Fans: Impact of Brand Attack and Defense on Social Media” with Behice Ece Ilhan and Raoul Kubler in the Journal of Interactive Marketing.  

Attack, Defense, and Across (ADA) posts are the weapons of war waged in social media comment sections. Consumers attack brands on their own social media accounts, defend their own favorite brands on their brands’ comment sections, and post across pages to argue their case. Below is a real example of consumers both attacking and defending a brand, in this case, Nike:

The comments were in reaction to a recent Nike marketing communication featuring Roger Federer, an elite athlete signed to the brand. In addition, product introductions (e.g., Samsung) and product announcements (e.g., Apple) will also generate ADA reactions. Electronic Word of Mouth (eWOM) is the positive and/or negative comments made online about a product or brand. When consumers attack a brand, that company is receiving negative eWOM, which according to previous research and common wisdom should lower product image, company value, and sales. In contrast, we find brand-negative comments on a company’s social media do not typically hurt the brand, but actually may increase its online engagement. Instead of the company stepping in, brand-negative comments often rally the troops and lead many more fans to defend the brand, leading to net brand-positive eWOM. Increasing eWOM volume and positive net sentiment benefits the brand, implying marketing managers should attempt to stimulate ADA rather than restrict such action.

What exactly did we find? We focused on the ADA effects on the volume and valence of social media discussion for a brand on Facebook. Volume is simply the daily number of comments on a brand’s social media page, while valence is the ratio of positive comments to all comments. While a negative comment immediately hurts valence, it generates so many positive comments that valence becomes higher overall. Moreover, we find that ADA also prolongs and/or amplifies the impact of the brand’s marketing actions, which are often the very topic of discussion (does the new product rule or suck? Is the advertising wonderful or a cheap PR stunt?). Below table shows ADA’s effect on engagement longevity. We observed that a new product announcement by Apple garnered 796 comments on the Apple page, and 11 on Samsung’s page without ADA. However, with ADA we observed 3,003 comments on Apple’s page and 102 on Samsung’s page, in addition to detracted valence for Samsung. This happens because Apple fans, upset with Samsung fans dissing Apple’s new product (‘You finally have the features Samsung had years ago’) post across in Samsung’s page dissing its product line up and originality.

How about other social media platforms?

While our empirical analysis leveraged Facebook data, we see similar discussions scrolling through pages on e.g. Instagram. Sometimes, it seems the entire comment section is up in arms. Brands such as Chik-Fil-A (1.6M) and Patagonia (4.6M) are followed by millions – both fans and anti-fans. As shown in the above Facebook example for Nike, there usually a large number of replies consisting of defense of the brand. The same goes for political brands, with Trump having 24.5 and Biden having 14.1 M followers. Recent research showed that discussing political issues on a creative outlet platform such as Instagram is more beneficial than on a self-media outlet such as Twitter, as the latter attracts more anti-fans. Extending our ADA analysis to such platforms is a great idea for future research to investigate whether our findings apply in other contexts. What is your hypothesis?

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