How to engage social media audiences

Christian Fieseler

Is it the end of the numbers game in social media? We present four strategies to engage social media audiences.

For years, the number of fans, followers and likes as well as the acquisition rate of new followers have been key performance indicators in social media communications.

However, as recently observed by the Wall Street Journal, some organizations with large fan and follower bases today are disillusioned as they realize that racking up fans and likes is not the same as actually minting sales. An increasing number of practitioners voice their concern that investments into building strong social media presences have failed to deliver the ex-pected returns in the form of increased loyalty, turnover or share of wallet.

Today, half a decade into the pioneer phase of social media, twitter, facebook and co. may not be the panacea that the industry once had hoped for.

Audience engagement is key
Most social media audiences behave in fact rather passively: A recent study by Gallup, a consultancy, revealed that for 62% of users, social media have no impact on their purchasing deci-sions at all and that 94% of users almost exclusively use Twitter, Facebook and the like to engage with family and friends – and not with organizations and brands.

Against this background, some commentators predict the end of the rather short-lived social media hype. Others call for a more nuanced approach to social media strategies and goal set-ting. They argue that instead of focusing on quantity of fans and followers, organizations should focus more on the quality of audience engagement as a means to better understand customers and their needs.

In this light, social media communications may become less of a numbers game and more of a chess game where one has to intimately know and observe the moves as well as understand the drivers and motives of one’s fellow player.

Consumers, Collaborators or Ambassadors
Social media offer organizations an authentic and real-time glimpse into the minds of their most active and engaged stakeholders. One should be sensitive to the fact that also in social media, the smaller audiences are often the more homogenous ones and form stronger commu-nity-ties than the larger and more heterogeneous audiences.

Depending on how strongly an audience identifies with an organization, they may offer differing degrees of stakeholder insight.

Organizations generally have:

(1) Consumers (low identification) who voice their opinion and give feedback on various products or services.
(2) Collaborators (medium identification) participate in organizational processes such as idea-tion or design initiatives
(3) Ambassadors (high identification) are taking it upon themselves to actively promote the organization or brand.

Organizations may engage with their audiences either by listening closely to their conversations (harness consumer engagement), by asking them for feedback on products and services, by letting them participate in organizational processes such as ideation or design projects (harness collaborator engagement) or by asking them to become a part of the extended organiza-tion (harness ambassador engagement).

Driving audience engagement
Engaged audiences do not come free, but have to be earned. The first step to spark and main-tain audience engagement is to understand what motivates audiences to act as either consumers, collaborators or ambassadors.

A given audience’s willingness to engage with an organization and to voluntary devote time and other resources to organizational projects depends on several intrinsic and extrinsic fac-tors.

At base level, audiences engage with organizations in order to access quasi-monetary benefits such as coupons or discounts, or more generally, to gain information which allows them to save money or profit from promotions.

Such monetary motives work, but they are obviously not suited to exclusively bind communi-ties as such incentives are easily copied. Basing community engagement on more intrinsic mo-tives is therefore desirable.

Four strategies of engagement

Communicators might therefore want to focus their efforts on one or several of the following strategies.

1.    Harnessing the Social Motive: Audiences often engage with organizations in order to form new social connections and ties, to be part of a community and to find company or companionship in other audience members. Engaging audiences over their sociability is very much about facilitating a platform for exchange, and enabling a space where audiences can enter into a conversation about goals, values and lifestyles with like-minded individuals.
2.    Harnessing the Hedonic Motive: Audiences tend to look for new and adventurous experiences. As such, they often engage with organizations out of curiosity. Here, games, competitions and other playful elements have a very low threshold for audience participation. Yet, in order to maintain audience engagement beyond this initial spark, organizations should address other motives besides the hedonic one as well.
3.    Harnessing the Learning Motive: Audiences engage with organizations because this gives them the opportunity to learn from new contexts and problems and to constantly refine their knowledge and their skills. Learning motives include the desire to expand one’s horizon, to keep current on nascent developments in technology and society and to learn from community members of different backgrounds. Organizations seeking to harness learning motives may ask the collaborators among their stakeholder-base for support on clearly defined tasks such as design, programming or ideation. Learning motives may be best combined with hedonic aspects such as competitions or playful rankings (e.g. most active collaborator, most creative contribution etc.) 
4.    Harnessing the Moral Motive: Moral motives are grounded in the notion that consumers feel a certain responsibility to engage with organizations and help them improve on their products and services for the benefit of the whole audience. Moral motives therefore include the will to “give back” to an organization that has contributed to a com-munity. In order for organizations to be able to harness moral motives, an organization has to make a real investment into the community first.

Harnessing the potential of social media
Today, social media are often misunderstood, as their real potential lies not just in opening up new customer potentials but in helping organizations to better understand and harness existing ones.

In this sense, successful social media communications may be less about acquiring as many followers as possible, but about fostering engaged social media audiences which offer real-time stakeholder insights, provide resources and ideas and offer access to social capital.

In order to actively foster such highly engaged audiences, organizations must take the indi-vidual motives for social media engagement into account.

Accordingly, organizations which manage to appeal not just to the monetary motives of their audience, but to the social, hedonic, learning and moral motives as well, will in the future hold the key – not just to winning the numbers game, but to ending it.


Associate Professor Christian Fieseler, Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School and Dr. Eliane Bucher, lecturer on Media and Communica-tions Management at the University of St. Gallen and Project Manager for the Federation of Migros Cooperatives (FMC) in Zurich, Switzerland.

Published 29. June 2015

You can also see all news here.