Just Think About It: Identity Shift and Online Brand Engagement
You open Facebook, see a post from a familiar brand, and your thumb hesitates over the “Like” button. You decide to keep scrolling. Did you just engage with a brand? Did thinking about this post on social media impact you as a consumer?
Brands increasingly use social media platforms to engage with their consumers, promote their products, and improve brand attitudes. However, not much is known about the impact social media posts like these have on brand attitudes and consumer behaviors, especially in terms of how consumers interact with the post, whether it’s a thought, a like, or a retweet.
Benjamin Johnson, Advertising associate professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and Judith Rosenbaum from the University of Maine, addressed this gap in research in a recent publication on identity shift and online thoughts versus behaviors. The authors conducted two experiments that tested the theory of identity shift, which suggests that the way people present themselves through social media activity impacts their self-concept.
In their first experiment, the researchers tested the impact of behavioral commitment on brand attitude on Facebook. They compared the act of liking or sharing a post versus the mere thought of the act. Interestingly, they found no difference between thinking about liking or sharing a brand’s Facebook post and actually engaging in these behaviors online; however, the effect on brand attitude for both thought and behavior remained small. In application to identity shift theory, this means that a public behavior (e.g., liking a Facebook post) does not impact or shift attitudes about a brand any more than thinking about the same behavior.
In the second experiment, the researchers examined the conditions in which identity shift may or may not happen, adding Twitter as a second platform and testing for various personality traits. Facebook shares and Twitter likes resulted in the most positive brand attitudes for consumers. In addition, the researchers found that people who reported higher extroversion, a personality trait, reported less positive shifts in brand attitudes after sharing or liking a post. The authors explained that this could be due to extroverted individuals being more particular about what they place on their social media content.
These studies not only expand theoretical understanding of identity shift and online behaviors but also provide practical insights for brand managers. The results of both experiments reveal that the publicness of brand engagement may not play as large a role as theorized. A mere private thought can have the same impact as an actual public behavior. Social media content that gets people reflecting on or imagining their life with brands can be just as valuable as content that boosts likes. The context does matter as the researchers found significant differences among platforms, perceptions, and personalities. For brand managers, this means tailoring posts to specified forms of engagement and personalities can help improve brand attitudes for consumers.
The authors note that future research should examine these effects on brand attitudes over time to see if the impact of thought versus behavior changes after an amount time. This would allow researchers to examine whether feedback from others affects brand attitudes from online engagement. Overall, this study provides significant insight into how participation in online activities, whether it’s a thought, a like, or a share, impacts brand attitudes.
Authors: Benjamin Johnson, Judith Rosenbaum
The original article, “Sharing Brands on Social Media: The Roles of Behavioural Commitment and Modality in Identity Shift,” was published in the May 2023 issue of International Journal of Consumer Studies.
This summary was written by M. Devyn Mullis, Ph.D. 2021.