OXFORD: Brands on social can come across like a man trying to sell life assurance at a party, according to academic research which has found negative reactions to Facebook advertisers who flout social media conventions.

In a paper, Is It What you Say or How You Say it? How Content Characteristics Affect Consumer Engagement with Brands on Facebook, researchers analysed 4,284 Facebook posts made during an 18-month period by nine brands from four industries – consumer-packaged goods, restaurants, retail and sports.

Professor Stephen, L'Oréal Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and his co-authors, Michael R. Sciandra, Dolan School of Business, Fairfield University, and J. Jeffrey Inman, Joseph M Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh, matched the posts to a list of 14 content characteristics covering aspects of what brands say and how they say it, and examined users' responses, whether in the form of likes, shares, clicking through to the website, or writing positive or negative comments.

"Consumers expect people and businesses using social media to conform to the norms of social behaviour, and either ignore or respond negatively to those that don't," reported Stephen.

"They shun posts that tell them to enter competitions, talk about price, or contain polished soundbites, much as you might avoid the person trying to sell you life assurance at a party," he added.

Posts that communicated very clearly expressed messages were not liked as much as those which were more conversational and less clear in tone.

Consumers are more likely to engage with content that is "informal and a bit woolly, as that is how they expect people to communicate on Facebook," Stephen explained.

Two widely used practices were found to have no effect at all: linking posts to holidays – whether traditional holidays such as Christmas or pseudo-holidays such as International Talk Like a Pirate Day – and including rich media elements such as images or videos.

"In general, it seems that much of what social media marketers do is either ineffective or, worse, backfires on them," said Stephen.

He pointed out that brands on social media were mostly communicating with consumers already relatively highly interested in them and who could be offended by the impersonal tone of much advertising content and also by the notion that they are being sold to.

Data sourced from University of Oxford; additional content by Warc staff