Why are consumers following you?

People are eager to tell you who they are, even though they may not realize it.

What we consume says a lot about how we feel and think about ourselves. The bag you carry, the restaurants you frequent, the car you drive – each move consumers make offers some sort of psychological reward.

Our consumer-based activity on social media is no exception. People construct and curate their identities carefully, and which brands they follow and engage with is a large part of creating that persona. So why might your customers be following you, and what are their psychological rewards for engaging with you?

Brands as a creation of self

From a psychological perspective, the identification with certain brands may be a way we establish identity for ourselves and communicate it to others. As our identities grow and change over time, so do the brands with which we affiliate. Consumers generally choose brands that have a personality with which they deem positive. Take an iconic brand like Nike, for example:  wearing the shoes is about more than fashion or fit, it’s also about aligning your identity with theirs. To wear their shoes means you find value in what they stand for – hard work, excellence, winning, being a champion.

Researchers Sharon Schembri, Bill Merrilees and Stine Kristiansen interviewed several people about their brand choices at a car dealership, and found evidence to support the idea that consumers often choose certain brands and products to reflect who they are to the outside world. They identified three types of interrelationship:

Symbolic: This type of interrelationship occurs when consumers use a brand or a product as a symbol of something else. This often happens with luxury brands. By using that product, one feels they’re exuding the traits of that brand, whether it be high-class, innovative, refined or forward-thinking.

Iconic: This type of interrelationship occurs when the product resembles or stands for a much larger entity, and using the product aligns the person with that larger entity, usually in a show of pride or support. Fan memorabilia, like sports jerseys, are a great example of this. Cowboys fans wear team jerseys because they’re not only proud of the team, but they also take pride in being a supporter of the team and being part of the movement.

Indexical: This type of interrelationship builds on a real tie between the person and the object. This often happens with food and drink. People may associate a certain drink or type of food with good times or happy memories, and therefore have an affinity for them.

The experience of a brand matters, and often times, the meanings that people assign to them can be multiple and overlapping (e.g. a Cowboys fan could wear a jersey because they love the team (iconic) and because they’re from Dallas (indexical). Schembri, Merrilees and Kristiansen argue that brands have a meaning beyond what is written on the label, and that meaning can make the difference in whether a person takes up with that product or not.

Why customers follow brands online

Construction of the self is still very much at work on social media, and interaction with brands is a part of that narrative.

Sometimes people interact with brands on social simply as another way to confirm their identities for themselves. Researchers Radu Dimitriu and Rodrigo Guesalaga argue some visit fan pages or follow brands for news and updates just as a way to reaffirm the type of person they are. Conversely, people can display brand exhibiting behaviors, which include sharing information about the brand, making positive brand comments, or talking about their own experience with the product or brand. These behaviors are a way for people to meet symbolic needs such as self-enhancement, or the desire to align with a particular self-image or social group. In addition, people can be brand patronizing, using social media to make negative comments about the brand or report a negative experience, or brand deal seeking, or following brands in order to access free or exclusive products or perks. So while people might be sharing about a brand as a functional way to share information, research shows it’s often motivated by a desire to influence how others see them (e.g. as someone in the know, as someone who is an early adopter, as someone who is a trendsetter, etc.)

Dimitriu and Guesalaga found that these motivators produce six consumer segments on social media: brand content seekers; brand observers; brand deal hunters; brand hard-core fans; brand posers; and brand patronizers. Brand content seekers often have a rather covert relationship with a brand, simply following to indulge in brand consumption. Brand observers show little actual involvement with the brand and are usually following only for entertainment purposes. Brand deal hunters are interacting with brands only to score free items or perks. Hard-core fans are devotees, creating content about the brand and offering regular interaction – they have the highest levels of brand attachment. Brand posers often do significant brand exhibiting, often to try and get deals. Brand patronizers make demands of brands and expect them to listen and comply in return. Brand patronizers often engage in this behavior in order to increase their own self-worth.

Business owners can use these consumer segments as a guide – depending on the behaviors followers are exhibiting, brands can tailor their own content to allow followers to help build the brands. Hard-core fans and posers are ready and willing to talk about brands, yet hard-core fans also need some positive reinforcement in return – direct brand communication or access to brand promotions to help hard-core fans feel like they’re in the fold. Making sure that content is shareable is crucial for the poser segment, and keeping engaging content flowing is crucial for the brand seeker, as they want to “live the brand”, and for brand observers. Deal hunters are just there for the free stuff, and should not be pursued for brand loyalty. Perhaps most importantly, patronizers should be monitored for risk, as their negativity could taint the brand image.

People want to connect with brands, as there are psychological rewards when they do. Watch the behaviors of your followers on social media— it may just be the key you need to create the social media content that spreads word of your brand online.

Written by Angela Patterson

Angela Patterson has 14 years experience in journalism, public relations and corporate communications. A former newspaper reporter, she worked in all facets of corporate communications for Fortune 500 companies, including media relations, digital media, corporate social responsibility and internal communications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi, a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University, a master’s degree in media psychology from Fielding Graduate University and will complete a Ph.D. in media psychology from Fielding in 2020. A small business owner herself, she is passionate about helping small business owners present their best selves, both on and offline. Angela is a native Texan, and lives in Dallas.

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