In today’s divisive social and political climate, brands face unprecedented challenges when engaging with consumer audiences on social media. It’s true that speaking out has always been a gamble, but social’s ubiquity, vast reach and viral nature puts brands under a new global microscope. As hot-button issues dominate headlines, many brands have struggled to navigate today’s biggest, and sometimes most controversial, conversations.
This uncertainty is warranted. In the wake of unsuccessful campaigns like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, brands understand all too well how volatile consumer opinion can be. Yet, for every Pepsi of the world there’s a Heineken or GoldieBlox, giving brands hope that they too can forge connections with their communities around meaningful social conversations and ideally, real change.
The question is, how? Brands have an invitation from their audiences to get involved and the space to do it via social, but lack an understanding of how to take strategic stands that avoid backlash.
Bridging this gap must be top priority for stakeholders because, according to new research from Sprout Social, brands that take a stand in the right way can turn potential risks into business opportunities. People actually want brands to engage in these conversations and communicate their values. What’s more, they want brands to do it on social media. While hearing from brands won’t always change long-standing beliefs, businesses can use their platforms and resources to do what individuals cannot: inspire change at scale.
As it turns out, brands have more to lose in silence than in speaking out.
To unpack today’s complex social media landscape, Sprout Social surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. consumers to better understand how people want brands to communicate their position and engage in conversations on political and social issues. Findings from the Championing Change in the Age of Social Media study create a blueprint for how brands can responsibly and effectively take part in social conversations to become better brands and build lasting relationships with customers.
People are eager to hear from brands about more than just products and services, but the key findings of Sprout Social’s survey indicate that brands still walk a fine line when speaking out on social media:
- People want brands to take stands on important issues, and social media is the place for it. Two-thirds of consumers (66%) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues, and more than half (58%) are open to this happening on social media – the top channel for consumer receptivity.
- Brands can’t change minds, but they can effect change. Sixty-six percent of respondents say posts from brands rarely or never influence their opinions on social issues. Rather, respondents believe brands are more effective on social media when they announce donations to specific causes (39%) and encourage followers to take specific steps to support causes (37%), such as participating in events or making their own donations.
- Liberals are galvanized by brands that take stands, while conservatives are indifferent. Seventy-eight percent of respondents who self-identify as liberal want brands to take a stand, while just about half (52%) of respondents who self-identify as conservative feel the same. Likewise, 82% of liberals feel brands are credible when taking stands, compared to just 46% of conservatives.
- Relevance is key to reception. Consumers say brands are most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers (47%), employees (40%) and business operations (31%).
- Brands face more reward than risk. Consumers’ most common emotional reactions to brands taking a stand on social were positive, with intrigued, impressed and engaged emerging as the top three consumer reactions. Likewise, when consumers’ personal beliefs align with what brands are saying, 28% will publicly praise a company. When individuals disagree with the brand’s stance, 20% will publicly criticize a company.
Meaningful social conversations require leg work. While it’s impossible to know how people will feel about and react to every social or political stance taken, brands can insert themselves into only the right situations to prevent unnecessary backlash.
Here, “right” doesn’t have just one definition. Rather, it’s up to brands to strategically pinpoint when social media provides the opportunity to engage relevant audiences on issues they care about, invest in or are specifically affecting their business at the moment. To better understand when and how brands should take a stand, here’s a closer look at what drives consumer receptivity.
Relevance Is Key to Reception
Relevance is nothing new in the world of customer engagement; however, brands typically think in terms of making outreach and communications more relevant based on consumers’ unique preferences, purchasing histories, demographics and so on. To be more credible when sharing a stance, brands must take a long view and consider how they relate to the world around them.
The good news is two-thirds (67%) of respondents already feel brands are credible when speaking out on social and political issues on social media. To boost this number, brands must think critically about the questions people will be asking: Why is this brand commenting on this issue, and is it sincere or just hopping on the bandwagon?
The most important question for consumers when brands comment on these issues: Why should I care?
Ultimately, people are looking for a direct connection between brands and the issues to which they are lending their voices.
Without this link, individuals may find it hard to believe a brand’s goals are altruistic and may call into question its motivations. This uncertainty and mistrust can overshadow what brands are trying to accomplish via social outreach in the first place. With only one in five consumers believing brands don’t need a specific reason to take a stand on social and political issues, brands should err on the side of relevance – weighing in on issues most important to their businesses and customer communities.
What counts for credibility? The data demonstrates that people find brands’ voices most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers, employees or business operations.
For an in-depth look at what drives relevance on social media, consider the following breakdown of how consumers’ desires change by social and political issue. Brands will want to revisit these trends when weighing whether or not it’s worth the risk to join a conversation.
Companies engaged in civil rights are prime examples of brands taking stances on issues that are important to their employees and customers.
In the midst of LGBTQ conversations, brands like the Gap are emerging as examples of how retailers can successfully weigh in on these issues. This year, Gap partnered with major advocacy group, GLAAD, to bring awareness to LGBTQ bullying. Gap encouraged both its global headquarters and store teams to “go purple” in solidarity with GLAAD’s #SpiritDay, in partnership with the hundreds of other national organizations, businesses and celebrities elevating anti-bullying efforts to a global stage.
To bridge “the Gap” even further, the retailer signed the United Human Rights office’s new set of global standards, which are designed to counter LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace. Other companies committing to the UN’s five standards include Coca-Cola, IKEA, Microsoft, Spotify, and Accenture, with representation across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Gap also donated 30% of sales from its branded Pride t-shirt to the UN Foundation’s Free & Equal campaign – the type of financial effort people want to see.
Brands Face More Rewards Than Risks
Given how emotionally and politically charged social media has become, brands are right to be apprehensive about wading into controversial waters. Fortunately, the data shows that brands face more rewards than risks when it comes to sharing their positions.
Instinctively, people’s reactions are stronger when their own values align with what brands are saying than when they don’t. A greater percentage of consumers will show brand loyalty in times of agreement than will boycott a company in times of disagreement. The same pattern holds true for publicly praising versus criticizing companies.
These findings are supported by the fact that people are more likely to have positive emotional reactions than negative ones after brands share a stance on social media. In fact, three of the top five emotional reactions people say they are likely to have in response to a brand taking a stance are positive. Emotion is a top driver of building long-term loyalty, and what brands say online can sway whether or not their communities get involved, too. Again, brands have a reason to speak out: the chances of encouraging someone toward purchase are higher than pushing him or her away.
On social media specifically, brands face more rewards than risks when speaking their minds. Even when brands do risk lost sales, the chances of earning greater revenue are higher. While 17% of respondents have joined a product boycott as a result of a brand speaking out on social, 24% have gone on to purchase a product from that brand. Overall, consumers’ most common reaction to brands speaking out on a social or political issue on social media is to do further research (36%).
People are also more likely to engage on social media when they agree with what brands are saying on these networks. Twenty-six percent of consumers will share a post they agree with, and 21 will leave a positive comment on the post. Conversely, 34% will unfollow a brand after, and 14% will leave a negative comment, after seeing a post they oppose.
Notably, people are more likely to post something themselves when they agree with what brands are saying on social media than when they oppose a stance. Simply put, people are more likely to reward than punish brands for taking stands.
Brands Can’t Change Minds, But They Can Impact Change
Most individuals already have firm beliefs about today’s most controversial social and political issues. So, despite brands’ best efforts, they aren’t likely to change anyone’s minds by speaking up. In fact, 66% of respondents say their opinions are rarely or never influenced by what brands post on social and political issues.
What brands can do is use their financial resources to impact the causes their communities care about. When asked about the most effective ways for brands to take stands on social and political issues on social media, consumers want brands to do what they cannot do alone—impact social and political change through significant donations, or to use their substantial platforms to encourage others to do the same.
However, many people do have a point of saturation, even when brands are supporting the causes they care about. Sixty-three percent of respondents want brands’ social posts to pertain to social and political issues 10% of the time or less, with the greatest number designating 1-5% as the sweet spot.
Regardless of industry or topic, brands can point back to this threshold as an easy way to avoid unnecessary risk when interacting on social media. Likewise, brands will get the most out of this limited real estate by crafting posts highlighting their financial actions first.
Consumers are also wary of brands engaging with politicians on social media. Half (49%) of respondents believe brands should never engage directly with politicians on social media, while a third (32%) say they should, but only in response to a politician’s social media post. Again, the more effective route for brands is to dedicate resources to the associated cause.
Patagonia is a worthy example of one brand using its resources to encourage change. The company’s mission statement clearly lays out its stance on environmental conservatism: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
In direct support of this, Patagonia donates, at minimum, one percent of its annual sales to environmental groups. The brand even donates 100% of its Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental efforts. Patagonia continues to earn social media success with campaigns like #WornWear, which encourages shoppers to repair and/or purchase recycled clothing in the name of conservatism.
Patagonia is so committed to environmentalism that it replaced all traditional sales copy on its homepage with information about protecting at-risk public lands. The decision wasn’t just an attention-grabbing stunt; Patagonia built out an entire resource catalog with coverage on its own conservation efforts, education around public lands and next steps for website visitors also looking to take action. The retailer continues to encourage consumers to take action on these issues by both publishing and curating social content urging their audience to act, using hashtags like #StandWithBearsEars and #SaveGrandStaircase.
A brand’s identity is, in part, made up of the people who work for it. It’s no surprise then that CEOs and other top executives are using their social media influence to support the causes important to them. Scroll through the Twitter feeds of Lloyd Blankfein (CEO, Goldman Sachs), Mary Barra (CEO, General Motors) or Elon Musk (CEO, SpaceX) and it’s easy to see how top CEOs are treating social media as their personal microphones.
Although respondents are almost twice as likely to say they’d rather hear about social and political issues from a company than a CEO on social media (22% versus 13%, respectively), people still feel C-suite members have a duty to speak up. And they especially want CEOs to use their voices: 59% of respondents say it’s important for CEOs to engage with consumers and followers on social and political issues on social media.
Communication and marketing stakeholders’ natural instincts may be to caution an outspoken CEO, but consumers are open to CEOs having a voice independent from their brands. It’s true that 15% of respondents will equate CEO and company opinions shared on social media no matter what, and a quarter actually believe CEOs and companies’ opinions should always be aligned. However, the greatest number of respondents say CEOs are entitled to their own beliefs.
As with their companies, what matters most is how CEOs go about engaging in social media conversations. Consumers do not always find CEOs’ own opinions influential; however, they’re interested in hearing about these executives’ personal experiences.
#BrandsGetReal: United Technologies
CEOs alone can make an impact, but their voices reach even farther when they work together. Consider the dismantling of President Trump’s 2017 Advisory Board.
In reaction to race-related comments made by the President, as well as the administration’s overall agenda, CEOs from popular companies like United Technologies, Under Armour and PepsiCo took to Twitter to speak out.
Many CEOs left the 2017 Advisory Board specifically because they felt the actions of the group no longer supported the interests and values of their customers. United Technologies Corp. is a prime example of how Twitter can elevate such a message to the masses. The company’s chairman and CEO, Greg Hayes, drew his line in the sand in an official statement from August 2016. He explained, “It is clear that we need to collectively stand together and denounce the politics of hate, intolerance and racism. The values that are the cornerstone of our culture: tolerance, diversity, empathy and trust, must be reaffirmed by our actions every day.”
This is just one of many issues to which Hayes, as well as United Technologies, has added a voice. The company even has a separate Twitter account dedicated solely to its stances and efforts related to public policy.
About the Data
The Sprout Social Championing Change in the Age of Social Media study is based on a survey of 1,022 U.S. consumers. The survey was conducted online between Sept. 22-25, 2017, and has a 3.07% margin of error at a 95% confidence level.
*Note: Graphics are rounded to the nearest percentage so may not add up to exactly 100%.
About Sprout Social
Sprout Social offers social media management, analytics and advocacy solutions for leading agencies and brands, including Hyatt, SoulCycle, Microsoft, GrubHub and Dropbox. Available via web browser, iOS and Android apps, Sprout’s engagement platform enables brands to more effectively communicate on social channels, collaborate across teams and provide an exceptional customer experience. Employee Advocacy by Sprout Social, a platform for advocacy, empowers employees to share curated content across their social networks to further amplify a brand’s reach and engagement. Headquartered in Chicago, Sprout is a Twitter Official Partner, Facebook Marketing Partner, Instagram Partner Program Member, LinkedIn Company Page Partner and Google+ Pages API Partner.
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