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Research Exposes The Danger Of Displaying "Fans" In Social Media Settings

Is social media's power to let consumers see other "fans" of a brand always a boon for marketers?

CHICAGO, Nov. 21, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Believing in social media's power to build groundswells of popularity, firms have pursued large numbers of "likes" or "fans," subsequently displaying the profiles of these brand supporters to target customers. However, new work by researchers at The Ohio State University and the University of Pittsburgh suggests that, in fact, consumers' exposure to existing fans in social media contexts can hurt, not help, brands.

(Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20111102/DC96044LOGO)

The analysis appears in an article by Rebecca Walker Naylor, Cait Poynor Lamberton, and Patricia M. West published in the November issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing.

"We find that if a consumer sees people who are demographically like them supporting a brand, they'll likely do the same," says Cait Lamberton, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.  "But seeing that people unlike them have already 'liked' a brand can alienate a newcomer. So, it's a risk to randomly display fans' profile pictures if you don't know the demographic of your target or which fans will come up onscreen. The match really matters."

So what can firms do? The authors recommend restraint in the display of brand supporters' information. "Interestingly, if consumers don't see any pictures of specific supporters, they make the inference that people who use the brand are just like themselves. As a result, liking and purchase intentions are as positive in this case as for customers who saw demographically matching supporters."

As a whole, the authors suggest that if a firm is unsure about who their target is or who will be displayed on their social media platform, their enthusiasm for displaying the profiles attached to consumer "likes" should be tempered. Not displaying any fan information can be as good as making a perfect match between current and prospective customers. Further, the authors suggest that consumers should be aware of their tendency to infer that unidentified brand supporters are like themselves, as that tendency may lead them toward brands that in fact may not match their personal preferences.

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