Social media is a widely used channel for companies to connect with consumers. Approximately 83% of Fortune 500 companies have used some form of social media by 2011 (Naylor et al., 2012), which have increased even more by now. Many consumers use these social media platforms to get deeper knowledge about a brand and who affiliates with it. This is useful because consumers reaction to a brand may be affected if they know who other users are (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel, 1989; Berger and Heath, 2007). Via these platforms, consumers have the possibility to see other people who affiliated with the brand. This passive exposure to a brand’s supporters is identified as ‘mere virtual presence’ (MVP). This research tries to answer what the effect are of the different types of MVP on brand evaluation and purchase intentions, as there is still little know about the subject.
Consumers find more affinity with a certain brand if they see that similar others support the brand (Berger and Heath, 2007; Escales and Bettman, 2003). Because of this, it is expected that individuals who deal with similar MVP with the brand’s user base will experience high levels of inferred commonality. Therefore, they positively evaluate the brand. On the contrary, if the consumer experience a dissimilar MVP, they will evaluate the brand downwards. Another research suggests that when there is no information available about others, consumers anchor on the self and assume that those others are like them (Naylor, Lamberton, and Norton, 2011). Thus, probably a more safe decision is not displaying pictures of others at all, which is called ambiguous MVP. This ambiguous MVP results in that consumers will project their own characteristics on the brand’s user base, hence higher affinity with the brand. However, a brand’s user base cannot be completely similar to a consumer and is more heterogeneous. Therefore, the last form of MVP this research investigate is that consumers evaluate a brand more positively if they are confronted with a small proportion of similar individuals in a large heterogeneous group.
Findings from this study have the following implications for positive brand evaluations: (1) If the brand’s user base is homogeneous and similar to the target audience, reveal their identity. (2) Second, if the brand’s user base is heterogeneous, but includes users who are similar to the target audience, also reveal their identity. (3) However, maintain ambiguous MVP if the brand’s user base is dissimilar from the target audience. This will result in that consumers evaluate the brand the same as in the similar MVP context. (4) Lastly, results indicate that when brands are jointly evaluated with other brands similar MVP yields better performance than ambiguous MVP. This positive brand evaluation consequently results in higher purchase intentions.
This study contributes to the literature how firms can best manage their social networks in meeting strategic objectives and enhance their brand evaluation. Moreover, this research help to guide brand managers when it is useful to reveal the identity of their online supporters or to remain an ambiguous MVP. Thus, managers are informed which social media platform they should choose because some control over specific fan base is necessary (similar consumers in heterogeneous population). These results are furthermore most useful for new brands to establish a larger supporter’s base. And to manipulate MVP and find similar consumers, firms can target consumers based on demographics. For example, Facebook displays advertisements mostly to certain demographic groups, thus emerging tracking and targeting tools can be used to do this. Because of this tracking marketers know where their new supporters came from so that they can adjust their MVP and target consumers that fit this demographic profile. This will help brand managers to decide whether to display the brand’s user base or remain ambiguous.
Bearden, W.O., Netemeyer, R.G. and Teel, J.E. (1989) ‘Measurement of Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence’, Journal of Consumer Research, 15: pp. 473-481.
Berger, J. and Heath, C. (2007) ‘Where Consumers Diverge from Others: Identity Signalling and Product Domains’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95: pp. 593-607.
Escales, J.E. and Bettman, J.R. (2003) ‘You Are What They Eat: The Influence of Reference Groups on Consumers’ Connection to Brands’, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 13, 3: pp. 339-348.
Naylor, R.W., Lamberton, C.P. and Norton, D.A. (2011) ‘Seeing Ourselves in Others: Reviewer Ambiguity, Egocentric Anchoring, and Persuasion’, Journal of Marketing Research, 48, 6: pp. 617-631.
Naylor, R.W. Lamberton, C.P. and Norton, D.A. (2012) ‘Beyond the “Like” Button: The Impact of Mere Virtual Presence on Brand Evaluations and Purchase Intentions in Social Media Settings’, Journal of Marketing, 76, 11: pp. 105-120.