Expressing Certainty in Social Media Messages Engages Consumers

By Todd Pezzuti, Assistant Professor of Marketing, School of Business at the University of Adolfo Ibañez in Chile

It’s no surprise brands have been forced to pivot from traditional marketing tactics to digital ones due to physical restrictions during the pandemic. As COVID-19 lockdowns begin to ease, global digital immersion has become impossible to ignore – and social media has quickly become the lifeblood of every brand’s marketing strategy. The connection between social media success and online sales has never been clearer.  For example, Facebook drove 40% of traffic for e-commerce brands last quarter, and 66% of Instagram users seek interactions with brands on the app. To capitalize on this phenomenon, brands need to embrace digital agility and harness the power of data to captivate today’s rapidly evolving consumer.

So how can managers get more customers to like, comment on, and share their social media messages with others? To answer this question, I worked with my colleagues Caleb Warren from the University of Arizona and James M. Leonhardt from the College of Business, University of Nevada to analyze more than 15,000 brand messages posted to Facebook and Twitter. The results demonstrated that managers should express more certainty in the messages they post. Across social media platforms, consumers are more likely to like, comment on, and share messages that include certainty-expressing words like all, certain, commit, entire, everybody, guarantee, obvious, proof, and undeniably.

Managers can incorporate certainty in their social media messages in various ways. McDonalds, for example, posted a simple and short message to Facebook, “The complete package,” that resulted in 26,066 likes and was shared more than 1,000 times. Nike’s message, “Proof there’s nothing to prove” was liked 14,688 times and was shared over 2,000 times.

Not only did we observe a positive correlation between expressing certainty and consumer engagement among messages posted to social media, we also found the positive effect of expressing certainty in highly controlled experiments. For example, participants randomly assigned to see a message with high certainty (e.g., “Don’t let a computer crash ruin everything. Choose the absolute best in data storage”) were more inclined to like, comment on, and share the message when compared to participants randomly assigned to see a message with less certainty (e.g., “Don’t let a computer crash ruin things. Choose the best in data storage”).

Our research also explains why customers are more likely to engage with messages that express high levels of certainty. Powerful people speak with high levels of certainty (e.g., Former President Trump and the confidence he expresses in his statements). People, in turn, perceive those that speak with high levels of certainty as being more powerful. We found that this effect also applies to brands. Brands seem more assertive and powerful when they express certainty, and consumers want to interact with assertive and powerful brands on social media. Consequently, this results in messages that express high levels of certainty receiving more likes, comments, and shares.

We also identify a cultural component. The effect of expressing certainty on consumer engagement tends to be especially strong among consumers that accept and expect an unequal distribution of power among people, groups, and institutions. These consumers are more likely to engage with brands on social media when the brand projects an assertive and powerful image, for example, by expressing high levels of certainty. This expectation and acceptance of the unequal distribution of power among people and groups is prominent, for example, in certain cultures, often referred to as high power distance cultures, such as those in Latin America and Asia. Consumers interacting with high status, luxury brands may also care more about power, which suggests that expressing certainty in luxury markets may also be effective.

Takeaways of our research:

  1. If managers want to increase consumer engagement on social media, then they should write messages with high levels of certainty.
  2. Expressing certainty increases consumer engagement because certainty makes brands seem more powerful, and consumers want to interact with powerful brands.
  3. The positive effect of expressing certainty on consumer engagement should be especially strong among consumers in high power distance cultures, such as those in Latin America and Asia, and also among consumers interested in high-status products.

While the past year has been unprecedented for brands of every size, social engagement has provided a powerful opportunity for companies to better understand their target audiences. Social media has evolved in such a way that consumers can shop, chat live and effectively engage with the brands they love – and even discover new ones.

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