June 11, 2013

Fostering Digital Evangelists – An Interview with Linchi Kwok, Ph.D.

How can companies get consumers to recommend their products and services? What’s the best way to promote through social media channels? These questions were the focus of our recent conversation with Professor Linchi Kwok of Syracuse University.

1.    Thank you for speaking with Digital Growth Insights. Please give our readers some background on yourself and your work at Syracuse University.

I am an assistant professor of hospitality management and a Kauffman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Syracuse University (SU). I conduct research on social media, service operations, and organizational behavior. Besides teaching numerous courses in hospitality management and social media, I often share my perspectives of business strategies on my blog: http://linchikwok.blogspot.com/.

2.    You recently published a study that looked at using Facebook to market to consumers. What was the objective of the research?

Facebook is one of the most popular social media platforms among internet users, with over one billion active users. Almost every company has a Facebook page now. Companies feed content from other social media websites to their Facebook page. They embed Facebook’s “Like” and “Share” buttons in their own websites. Some even allow Facebook users to make purchases directly on their Facebook page. When Facebook users like or share content or write comments with their Facebook credentials, an update of the “Like,” “Share,” or comment will be posted on their wall, which creates an e-WOM (electronic Word of Mouth) effect for companies. Companies want to engage with Facebook users because they know have the potential of reaching over one billion customers.

Seeing the importance of Facebook in B2C (Business-to-Consumer) communication, I then designed a study to answer two specific research questions: (a) What social media messages do hospitality company share with consumers on Facebook? and (b) What types of social media message are endorsed (and thus propagated) by Facebook users?

In this study, even though I used a hospitality (restaurant) sample, I believe the research findings can provide some insightful information for businesses in general on how to better engaged with Facebook users. If companies understand which types of messages are endorsed by Facebook users, they will be able to communicate with their customers more effectively and possibly develop better strategies to engage with those users.

3.    What were some of the main findings?

We measured the “popularity” of a message by the number of “Likes” and/or the number of comments that the message received from Facebook users. Our text mining and statistical analysis on a restaurant sample reveal the following findings:

(a)  The keywords associated with the more popular messages involved information about the restaurant and those associated with the less popular messages contained marketing-related words.

(b)  Dividing the messages into four media types (i.e., status, link, video, and photo), photo and status receive more likes and comments than the other two categories.

(c)  After coding the messages into two message types (i.e., sales and marketing vs. conversational messages), conversational messages are endorsed by more Facebook users.

(d)  Cross-effects of media type and message type affect the number of comments a message received but not the number of “Likes” a message received.

It is interesting to see how Facebook users respond better to updates and photos rather than links and videos. The findings also provides some empirical evidence to support an assertion by many social media practitioners – hard-selling may not work well on social media; internet users prefer to have a “conversation” with companies. I believe companies should re-evaluate the effectiveness of their direct-sales and marketing effort on Facebook to better develop digital evangelists.

Readers may visit http://cqx.sagepub.com/content/54/1/84 for full access to the report.

4.    What suggestions do you have for companies who want to engage in ongoing conversations with their customers?

First and foremost, I suggest companies must change the mind set of using Facebook and other social media websites as a sales and marketing tool. Rather, social media need be seen as a communication platform even though marketing communication could be a big component. When initiating a conversation, companies must keep “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?) in mind. Here, “me” means the audience.

Accordingly, an engaging message should address the question of what value I bring to social media users rather than what revenue I may generate on social media. Revenue will follow when a loyal relationship is built on social media and digital evangelists help spread the message. In addition, companies may take the following suggestions into considerations when using Facebook:

(a)  Use the eye-catching keywords (as listed in the research study) to write a social media message.

(b)  Focus on sharing status and photos rather than links or videos.

(c)  If videos and links are shared, make sure to write a short description about content so that Facebook users may know what the links and videos are about as an update. They may then choose to click on the links or videos. .

(d)  Use a series of photos to “tell a story” for continuous conversation with Facebook friends.

(e)  Engage with Facebook users with conversational messages rather than just selling or promoting a product, service, or the company.

(f)    Learn from the best examples. In my study, I have found Starbucks and Chick-fil-A did a better job than other restaurant chains in converting Facebook users to their fans (measured by the ratio of Facebook fans to annual sales volume).

5.    In the next 18-24 months, how do you see social media continuing to change the nature of product marketing?

I believe social media will become a stronger platform for business communications of all forms (including B2C, B2B, C2B, etc.). Being able to build a strong relationship with customers and other businesses/organizations on social media will become the critical for success. For example, stakeholders will find it easier to participate in product development on social media. With the right tools and strategies, companies will be able to develop new business concepts or ideas by analyzing customers’ feedback and comments on social media.

When testing a new product or service, companies will be able to solicit feedback from customers on social media to refine the product. Loyal social-media customers (e.g., Facebook fans) will then feel excited about the new product or service because they have been engaged in the process. They can then be given the privilege of trying out the new product/service before other customers. The conversation will continue when companies listen to customers, further solicit feedback, and identify new business opportunities.

When customers and clients can have their voice heard, businesses can develop new products/services that better fit customers’/clients’ expectations. A tight and a win-win relationship will be established. Sales will flow in.