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How Effective Is Social Media Marketing at Driving Brand Loyalty?

How Effective Is Social Media Marketing at Driving Brand Loyalty?

Lawrence A. Crosby

social media loyalty

It is common to think of social media marketing as a tool for attracting customers. However, few firms measure the effectiveness of social media precisely, and recent articles have even questioned the value of likes. I’d suggest that social media marketing should be evaluated through a customer engagement lens.

In a May 2013 Marketing News column, I defined customer engagement in terms of “active involvement,” suggesting it can lead to “deep commitment” through the customer’s progressive investments in the relationship. I believe that social media marketing should be held to a higher standard than conventional media given its ability to affect the entire engagement-commitment continuum.


People are drawn to social media sites by a common interest or a need that’s often neither product- nor brand-specific. The marketer’s challenge is to transfer some of that engagement to the brand. This is easier when the site is brand-affiliated, as in owner/user forums or company Facebook pages. In some cases marketers can pull the community together and can join the dialogue.

Perhaps the first step toward brand engagement via social media is engagement with brand-related content (consumer- or company-generated), which can be assessed by a variety of metrics: shares, comments, followers, subscribers, impressions, click-throughs and links. Ideally, social media marketing can also broaden brand engagement by stimulating interactions in other touch points, both online and offline. This might involve driving prospects to the company’s website, encouraging telephone contact or inspiring a store visit. This is all trackable today. A desired effect of this brand engagement is a stronger affinity for the brand, although it’s not always clear whether the referent of a like is the specific content or the brand itself. However, the same ambiguity exists in a consumer’s attitude toward an ad versus attitude toward the brand.

Trial is a necessary step toward behavioral loyalty. By virtue of its marketing intelligence function, social media can provide valuable guidance on how to convert prospects to customers. Marketers can assess the tone of the conversation about the brand, identify likes and dislikes and spot barriers to purchase by using tools such as sentiment analysis, text mining and pop-up surveys. As for triggering conversions, a recent edition of Harvard Business Review offers evidence supporting a pull/push approach whereby potential customers are drawn to social media on their own, possibly endorse the brand and then receive targeted digital advertising and offers.

Many equate loyalty with repeat purchasing. In this regard, social media has a key role to play in dealing with customers who are “negatively engaged.” Not everyone on social media who is posting, commenting, retweeting or rating the brand is a happy camper. While it is important to track user ratings when they are provided online, it is critical to address the actual problems and complaints that customers express.

The 5 P’s of Social Care 

Perhaps it’s useful to think in terms of the five P’s of social care. The first is to participate in social media by listening for customer issues and offering solutions and help channels (e.g., websites, forums, YouTube videos, phone, e-mail, chat, etc.). This needs to be supported by a platform—the second P—that integrates social media with those other channels and, as customer service software company Zendesk suggests, is capable of turning conversations into customer service tickets. But that also requires the third P—prioritization—to know when urgent action is required and escalation should occur. The fourth key ingredient is people who are comfortable with social media, have the necessary technical and soft skills and are trained in problem resolution. Above all, there needs to be a well-thought-out and closely followed customer service process, the fifth P.

After repeat purchasing, the most commonly cited loyalty behavior is referral, which acknowledges the power of social influence and word of mouth. Net promotor score, which measures a consumer’s willingness to recommend a product or brand, is a popular customer loyalty metric. This is an area where we would expect social media to really shine. There are many examples of referral marketing programs that have been enabled by social media, including Airbnb. Success requires a trusted source who uses the product, is cognizant of the recipient’s interest and needs and is incentivized to make the recommendation.

But there are also examples of less-orchestrated viral campaigns—like the Dollar Shave Club—that mainly include a clever idea coupled with an eminently shareable video. Consider the recent groundswell of interest in The Baby Box Company. Inspired by a 75-year tradition in Finland (which has one of the lowest rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), the product concept is a simple cardboard box, mattress and fitted sheet that becomes the newborn’s crib for the first six months. Shareable content includes news coverage of The Baby Box Company’s partnership with hospitals to give the boxes to new parents for free. Of course, it is possible to buy the product online, perhaps as a gift. In this case, the referring sources don’t need to be users themselves; a concerned grandparent will do.

There are numerous other loyalty behaviors that social media can positively influence. A firm faced with a product recall might use social media to reach out to unregistered owners to bring their product in for repair. In terms of inducing customers to “buy more,” social media might be used to illustrate novel features of the product or service. The notion of collaborative behavior whereby customers are encouraged to join product development discussion groups or to relay improvement suggestions is heavily touted. And one of the greatest ways to stretch the marketing budget is by leveraging user-created content. My personal favorites include YouTube videos providing instruction on my software programs and technical devices. It behooves marketers to catalog such user-created content and provide links to the most accurate and helpful material.

While I’m not a digital native, I have come to appreciate what social media marketing brings to the table. By properly leveraging these interactive, user-controlled platforms, marketers can establish and cement long-term customer relationships. With social media marketing expenditures in the U.S. expected to surpass $17 billion by 2019, it is reasonable to hold these efforts accountable for producing measurable results.

Lawrence A. Crosby is the retired dean of the Drucker School of Management. He is the chief data scientist at the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, a part of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.