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Bottom Line: Companies rolling out social media marketing campaigns should keep their messages casual and general.

When it comes to social media marketing, it’s not what you say but how you say it. That’s the finding of a new study, which is among the first to empirically examine the effects of social media advertising on consumer behavior. Consumers who respond to firms’ social media posts are usually familiar with the brand and prefer an informal, less stilted approach that leaves the details for later — in a style that resembles the way they communicate with their friends online.

About 80 percent of Fortune 500 firms advertise via Facebook. But researchers have yet to discover why consumers tend to “like” or retweet certain types of corporate content but give a virtual thumbs-down to others. To provide some insight, the authors analyzed more than 4, 200 Facebook posts made by nine brands during a recent 18-month period. The companies varied in size and spanned several industries, including consumer packaged goods, restaurants, retail, and sports.

Using the Facebook Page Insights tool, which provides brands with detailed metrics on their advertising efforts, the study’s authors calculated the number of likes and instances of negative feedback each post received. They also tracked how many unique users viewed a post, the number of comments posted, the frequency with which a post was shared, and the clicks that resulted in traffic redirecting to the advertised brand’s website.

The authors also broke down the number of people reached via different channels within the social network, including sponsored channels (companies can pay Facebook to increase the audience that sees their post), organic channels (some saw the post because an algorithm identified them as having previously engaged with the brand), and viral channels (some people went to the post because a friend liked, shared, or commented on it). Experts also graded each post on the extent of its use of 14 different content variables — for example, humor, brand relevance, and external Internet links.

The findings are at odds with accepted advertising wisdom. Traditional advice emphasizes the importance of clear and concise messaging. But the opposite holds sway in social media marketing: Consumer engagement with branded content increases when the communication is more ambiguous, the authors found — messages that aren’t particularly detailed or refined seem to be right at home on social media. Having less clarity in marketing messages not only makes them seem more conversational, but also draws consumers in and generates interest.

After all, most people don’t go online to look for sales pitches, but to interact with social contacts. Accordingly, marketers should design their social media outreach efforts to blend in with the tone and style of friendly online chit-chat, and avoid coming across as pushy — although it’s perfectly fine to ask users for feedback, which generally elicits a positive response.

“Branded content that departs from norms of social communication on Facebook and is instead more like marketing communication tends to generate a variety of unfavorable engagement responses from consumers, ” the authors write.
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