Beyond the â€œLikeâ€ Button: The Impact of Mere Virtual Presence on Brand Evaluations and Purchase Intentions in Social Media Settings
A common convention in social media is to display the images or identity of people who belong to that community on the page. These identities are considered to be part of a Mere Virtual Presence, or MVP. In this paper, the authors, Naylor, Lamberton and West, quantify the impact of MVP on brand evaluation and purchase intent. The results have managerial applications for both social media optimization, website morphing, and personalization.
There are different types of Mere Virtual Presence, or MVP. In certain social optimization technologies, the machine knows certain facts about you, like age and gender. The machine may be programmed to display different pictures depending on that criteria about the consumer visiting the page. It may decide to show a consumer people who are similar to themselves, that is, people who are of the same age and gender. It may decide to show people who are dissimilar to them. It may show people whose identities are ambiguous, either by hiding their photos or not showing any fans at all. And, the machine may present a mix of people, which is a heterogenous group.
Do people who are like you, who like a brand, cause you to like that brand more?
To unpack that just a bit: assume the consumer visiting a Facebook page is a 21 year old male. An ambiguous MVP would be if he was shown no pictures. A similar MVP would be if he was shown six photos of 21 year old males. A dissimilar MVP would be six photos of 67 year old males. A heterogeneous MVP would be six photos, a 38 year old female, a 67 year old male, a 45 year old female, a 21 year old male, a 44 year old male, and a 77 year old female.
The authors set up experiments to evaluate the impact of MVP on brand evaluation and purchase intent. They produced different versions of Facebook pages of real brands and a survey instrument. To control for branding, the authors deliberately chose two brands likely to be unfamiliar to American undergraduates: Roots and Asos. They excluded those familiar with the brands. They controlled for the attractiveness of the photos presented. They showed different groups of students different sets of MVPs: similarity, dissimilarity, ambiguity, and heterogeneity. The dependent variable was brand evaluation and in one test, purchase intent.
They found that ambiguous MVP and similar MVP are equally effective in influencing brand evaluation and purchase intent. Ambiguous MVP generates better brand evaluation than dissimilar MVP. Dissimilar MVP generates the worst brand evaluation and purchase intentions. Similar and ambiguous generate the best. And, a certain amount of heterogeneity performs as well as ambiguous and similar MVP. This last point is nuanced because the degree of heterogeneity is a continuum.
Returning to the example, if we were to show our 19 year old consumer no identities, he would be likely to like the brand. If we were to show him six similar identities, he's likely to like the brand just as much. If we were to show him six dissimilar identities, he would be less likely to like the brand. If we showed him one similar identity and five dissimilar identities, he'd be likely to like the brand a bit more. Show him four similar identities and two dissimilar identities and he'll like the brand even more than if he had just seen one similar identity.
This evidence informs four managerial heuristics:
- If the fan base is homogenous and similar to the target audience, then reveal the identity of the fan base.
- If the fan base is heterogenous but includes fans similar to the target audience, then reveal the identity of the fan base, but only show the identities of those who are similar to the target audience.
- If the fan base is homogenous and different from the target audience, then maintain the ambiguity of the fan base.
- If the fan base is heterogenous and includes no fans similar to the target audience, then maintain the ambiguity of the fan base. (p. 117)
Good optimization, in marketing, is progressive hypothesis testing informed by a model. Great optimization is systematically identifying reinforcing variables and exploiting them. MVP is a reinforcing variable. It could be exploited.
People self-segment. People tend to be attracted to people who are like them. This has been quantified time and again. This paper gives an excellent bibliographic overview for those interested in becoming convinced.
The very essence of consumerism is the motto: "I consume, therefore I am”. It follows that you are what you consume. The combination of self-identification (personal branding) with self-segmentation gives rise to a reinforcing variable. Mere Virtual Presence is a reinforcing variable.
The potency of this reinforcing variable likely varies by the intensity that a given segment self-identifies with brands, or, self-segments into groups. Certain categories of consumer goods are likely to have a higher MVP effects. The suitability of adjusting MVP will vary. It's up to the digital analytics professional to put it into the right context.
At time of the time of writing, November 2012, neither Facebook nor Twitter nor G+ offer extensive functionality for adjusting MVP by way of the interface. That does not preclude the possibility that technology already exists to affect this factor, nor, does it mean that technologies could not be developed to exploit this tendency. For instance, some brands make use of a 'Fan of the Day' or 'Fan of the Month' marketing tactic. The authors themselves point out different degrees of MVP make a difference in this specific context.
I recommend members of the DAA read this paper.