Tuesday, May 15, 2018

If exposure to social media messages can affect human moods & more, what responsibility do digital marketers & organisations hold?

There's a lot of evidence available now that the emotional tone of the messaging that people are exposed to on social media goes on to affect their mood, posting behaviour, and aspects of their health and actions.

A study by Facebook and Cornell University in 2012 (published in 2014) that involved modifying the emotional valance of posts on 689,003 users' Facebook News Feeds, putting aside the ethics of experimenting unknowingly on their users, evidenced a strong link between what people saw in their Feed and the emotional valance of what they posted afterwards.

The study postulated that 'emotional contagion' was very strong in social media channels, with the capability for peoples' moods and behaviours to be significantly altered through exposure to messaging that expressed certain tones or viewpoints.

Other research has validated connections between the emotional tone of the social and digital media we consume and the behaviours we exhibit - which really should not come as a surprise as it is the basis of the advertising, propaganda and marketing industries (using emotional triggers to stimulate behaviour change) and is readily visible in the mood swings evident in forum, Facebook and Twitter conversations over time.

So if we can be fairly confident that emotional tone is 'contagious', and that emotions then influence behaviours, what is the responsibility of communicators and marketers when using digital and social media to engage audiences at scale to 'set' the right tone?

I've long been a proponent of having clear community guidelines for communities that government agencies and companies establish in order to set the appropriate context and tone for conversations up front. Failing to do this can lead to communities rapidly moving beyond the influence of the establishing organisation and having conversational tone going to places that are undesirable or damaging.

However even when posting or promoting material through general digital channels there can be a significant impact on audience mood and behaviour depending on the approach taken by the organisation - even for 'emotionless' statements of fact that could be perceived in negative or positive ways.

Simply stating the facts and taking no responsibility for the audience's emotional reaction is a common, but flawed strategy, when it is used as a way to justify that the organisation is blameless as to how others react (and I have to admit that I've used this to 'excuse' myself in personal conversations as well).

While it isn't always possible to predict how a group, or particularly how an individual, will react to a given message, we can design and test our messaging to bias toward a particular emotional and behavioural response.

This could be seen as manipulative, but arguably is no more manipulative than dropping unpleasant information in a factual manner and then blaming the negative reaction on the 'receivers'. Whenever we communicate we are aim to have an impact, so it only behooves us to strive to minimise any harm that could come from our communications as far as is possible.

So when participating or advertising online, digital marketers need to develop a sound understanding of their audiences and be mindful of the impacts of our communications - much as how newspapers now provide support line contact details at the end of disturbing articles.

When emotional contagion takes hold and amplifies an emotional or behavioural response - whether for good or ill, the impacts can be enormous - and digital marketers and communicators need to own their contribution in these cases.

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