Sundar Bharadwaj
Sundar Bharadwaj

Firms today sell more than their products online. Starbucks sells community involvement. Patagonia sells sustainability. Dove soap sells female self-esteem. But while social media engagement has piqued the interest of marketers and scholars alike, new research from the University of Georgia is the first to examine which factors affect prosocial messages online.

“There are two reasons that prosocial messages are important,” said Sundar Bharadwaj, author of the study and the Coca-Cola Company Chair of Marketing at UGA’s Terry College of Business. “The first is that firms want to do good while they’re doing well for themselves. The other reason is that doing good will help distinguish them from their competition.”

That’s why prosocial messages, or altruistic brand statements that address societal concerns, are on the upswing. But it’s not enough for brand managers to tweet “We care about issues.” To effectively connect with consumers, these messages need to be congruent with the company’s ethos and their audience’s concerns.

“There are lots of problems in the world. Some get solved by the state, some problems get solved by the community, and some problems companies can do a good job of solving,” Bharadwaj said. “If you’re trying to do well for yourself while doing good for society, that’s the best you can do. And customers sometimes want brands to get involved in solving these sorts of problems.”

To determine what is effective in prosocial campaigns, Bharadwaj and Omar Rodriguez-Vila from Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business examined 762 instances of prosocial messaging on Twitter and Facebook. The results suggest that both motivation-related factors, such as posting mission-based goals and call-to-action efforts, as well as ability-related factors, such as brand-cause fit and responsibility attribution, significantly affect social media engagement.

According to the research, the four key elements of effective prosocial messages are:

  • Make sure the message fits your brand. Consumers react negatively to companies who suddenly take up a cause that seems to go against its corporate ethos. So make sure that your cause is congruent with your firm’s reputation.
  • Tout mission-based goals. Effective prosocial communication leverages big ideals as opposed to self-promotional product pitches or announcements of firm altruism.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. Traditional marketing uses repetition, but prosocial messages are more effective when they’re novel.
  • Have specific expectations of customers. Do you want them to come to your site? Is there a call to action? There’s a negative relation with calls to action, and the more you ask people to do, the less of a positive response you get.

To be truly effective, brand managers need to communicate prosocial messages in ways that don’t align with traditional marketing. The most engaging messages, the research says, promote mission-based goals.

“The classic example of this is by Melinda Gates,” Bharadwaj said. “She goes to Africa and sees that people in the rural areas don’t have paved roads, they live in mud-thatched homes, the have no electricity, they have no water and so forth. What’s the only thing they have? Coke is available. So if Coke can get to these remote, hard-to-access villages, we can learn from them how to deliver our vaccines. So now Coke says that they can get these vaccines from cold storage units all the way the neediest people. This is Coke doing what it does very well, but also doing good for society. It’s the difference between a company saying they’ll give money to a cause and a company helping society by doing things they are good at. So the mission aligns with the brand. It’s a good fit.”

The other counterintuitive aspect of prosocial messages is their novelty. Too much repetition clutters social media feeds and creates apathy among the target audience, Bharadwaj says. Instead, companies who want to harness prosocial messages need to spend more time crafting unique messages.

“Getting people engaged is not that simple,” Bharadwaj said. “There’s so much that people are seeing on social media, not just companies reaching out to them but also friends and family. So that’s another reason it’s more challenging to do this.”

Another challenging aspect is congruence. A firm with a reputation of using sweatshop labor may not drive engagement by promoting new worker-friendly policies, for example. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t find another cause that aligns with their identity.

“When firms share a prosocial message, they’re communicating to an external audience where they stand on a particular issue. So they need to manage impressions of who they are,” Bharadwaj said. “Many of us have attitudes about causes and products. We may like a product, but that might not mean we buy it. Buying a product is more important than just saying that you like a brand. The liking the brand may be a step to buying. Other times, you may buy without liking because you have no choice. But when you have both liking and aligned behavior, that’s the best state to be in.”