Businesses and marketers need to evaluate the reliability of social media data and ensure that user privacy and protection are always prioritized.

Governments around the world implemented strict social distancing measures when the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago, with a consequence that more people – exposed to information that were sometimes questionable and which could not be verified – becoming skeptical about what they share online. How much of the skepticism and change in behaviour has become common and impacting how businesses communicate with users?

Research conducted across 497 respondents from Facebook and Instagram users by the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business, in collaboration with researchers Teagen Nabity-Grover of Boise State University and Jason Bennett Thatcher of the Temple University, explored how consumer behaviour on social media altered due to the pandemic and was recently covered in Martech Asia.

“There was a drastic increase in the amount of time users spent on social media and also a shift in what they shared online – their online self-disclosure. Our study aimed to understand these changes better and provide recommendations on how policy makers and businesses can leverage these findings to find more effective ways to engage with online audiences,” shared Professor Christy Cheung, Department of Management, Marketing and Information Systems, Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business.

Martech Asia recently caught up with Professor Cheung to find out more about the implications of the changes and get advice for business managers and marketers on what they should heed as we adjust to the new normal.

The report shares that during the pandemic, social factors have become the primary drivers of online disclosures, with community trust and privacy concerns being less significant. Do you see these changes as something that is temporary or likely to remain?

You can say that as a response to the pandemic, while the amount of time users spent online increased, there was simultaneously a rise in reported social shaming of what would have previously been deemed as socially acceptable behaviour in pre-pandemic times.

Factors like self-presentation, self-enhancement, platform trust, and community trust and privacy concern – was no longer a significant calculus for driving online disclosure behaviour. Social factors such as utilitarian value, fear and social capital more significantly influenced the type of information users shared online.

Since pandemic restrictions have been lifted, some user behaviour has returned to pre- pandemic norms – users are focusing again on community trust and privacy concerns. But at the same time there are still some changes that are here to stay.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of uncertainties about how and what we should do to protect ourselves. In the moment of life and death, people may put privacy in a lower priority. But I see trust and privacy concerns as remaining important.

Should businesses be concerned by the declining trust among users?

During the pandemic, people disclosed more information than they commonly do (e.g., vaccination records or health status). It does not mean that they trust or do not trust people more – it only implies that they are less concerned about trust when they share their personal information.

However, on the other hand, there is more awareness amongst users about data leakage and data privacy issues from social media platforms. Given the potential of increased data leaks and surveillance, social media platforms and their ability to attract user-generated content might also be affected.

Recently, for example, BBC encouraged all their employees to delete TikTok from company mobile phones after the UK government banned the app on government devices over fears of data privacy. Such changes in policy can greatly impact app usage and reputation. There are also more phishing scams on social media platforms.

Social media users being cautious about sharing personal information on platforms is not new. This can make it challenging for businesses to collect user data and use it to inform their marketing strategies. Overall, businesses can consider placing greater emphasis on transparency and authenticity in the way they engage with end customers, with actions to reduce or remove misinformation, thereby building or maintaining customer loyalty and trust.

Professor Christy Cheung discusses social media privacy.
Professor Christy Cheung, Department of Management, Marketing and Information Systems, Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business

From a business perspective, what are some examples of topics that were previously frowned upon but more openly shared now on social media?

The “Outside-In” and “Inside-Out” phenomenon: social media users are more aware now of how their online behaviour and shared content can affect not just themselves but others as well.

Some topics include –

  • Mental Health: Social media users were more open about their  mental health journey online during the pandemic and this trend has continued as the world returns to normal. For businesses, this means they can have deeper consumer insights and also better understanding of their employees’ needs and struggles.
  • General health and hygiene: The pandemic naturally brought about an increase in conversations around general health and hygiene. Many people disclosed information like existing health conditions.
  • Alternative lifestyles: With the rise of work – from-home and an increase in embracing the digital nomad lifestyle – more users are sharing lifestyle choices that differ from the previously ‘normal’ 9-5 routine.
  • Personal challenges: During the pandemic, with social distancing, layoffs and increased feelings of isolation, people turned to social media to post about their struggles. There was an increase in acceptance in such kind of information which has continued even ‘post-pandemic’.

What are some of the business and policy implications from the findings? How can businesses leverage them to find more effective ways to engage with their customers and audiences?

The implications from the research include:

  • Social media apps tracking location data need to evaluate what information they readily share with authorities as users today are more conscious of data privacy and protection rights.
  • During the pandemic, specifically with the introduction of contract tracing, people became more skeptical about what and how much they shared online. To earn and keep the trust of users and to continue to attract more user- generated content, social media apps need to prioritise user privacy protection and should be encouraged to openly disclose what information they share with authorities.
  • Changes in social media usage policy can greatly impact the relevant app usage in reputation, such as banning apps from the devices of its employees.
  • In the post-pandemic era, the study suggests that business managers and marketers need to observe whether users have resumed ‘normal’ online sharing behaviour. These observations are important to consider when re-evaluating and formulating new marketing strategies based on social media data analysis. In the same vein, another long-term consideration suggested by the research is to assess and account for these data fluctuations when training algorithms and automating processes.
  • The work-life status-quo that advertisers could count on, completely changed when the pandemic hit. And now as the world reopens, this change has triggered a fundamental shift in how people spend time online.

Businesses can effectively engage with customers and audiences by:

Firstly, using social listening tools to monitor conversations and sentiment as people have become more vocal about certain topics and experiences. Customer feedback and insights can help identify areas for improvement and indicate what businesses need to do to address evolving customer needs.

Secondly, they can emphasise authenticity in their messaging and content.

What advice can you give to businesses in evaluating the reliability of social media platforms?

Businesses need to choose platforms that comply with data privacy ordinances and have clear data privacy protection guidelines for their users. They need to assess decisions and stay compliant in light of changing regulations so as to minimise the risk of harm to reputation

Social media platforms are a popular avenue for businesses to advertise their products or services on. However, if users do not trust the platform, they may be less likely to engage with the ads or may even actively avoid them. This could impact the effectiveness of advertising on social media platforms and advertising budgets.

How can businesses protect themselves when formulating their marketing strategies?

In today’s world, where the business environment is highly competitive and the consumer behaviour is constantly changing – businesses and marketers need to stay ahead of the curve and formulate strategies that keep them prepared. There is a need to stay tuned into what customers want and how to best reach them, and effectively earn customer trust.

Sudden shocks like the pandemic can have unexpected consequences and businesses need to ensure they are prepared to deal with them. Businesses should embrace tech adoption in their operations to become more agile and better prepared to tackle any similar crises in the future. Businesses need to choose a platform (their marketing channel) with care. Particularly, they must ensure that the platforms they use comply with the data privacy ordinates and have clear data privacy guidelines for their users/customers (e.g. providing the opt-in or opt-out option for their customers)