By Daniel Hunter

A new survey from database marketing firm GI Insight indicates that the vast majority of consumers view social media as a no-go zone for brands and companies — on the surface, at least — as 82% of those who belong to at least one of these networks reject the idea of the sites they use being ‘invaded’ by advertising or commercial messaging.

But the research also confirms that, while consumers’ gut reaction towards advertising on social media sites appears to be overwhelmingly negative, their actual behaviour demonstrates much more of a willingness to engage with brands.

The survey of more than 1,000 British consumers revealed that 64% of the respondents who use social media sites admit to having, in fact, ‘liked’ or ‘friended’ social media pages run by brands or companies, and 68% of those who have done so admit they are happy to receive advertising or personalised commercial messages from the brands or companies with which they have established a relationship.

Nevertheless, the research, which was representative of Britain by age group, gender, region and social class, also underscored the fact that brands need to move very carefully in this area, as 49% of consumers who have endorsed brands on social media say they have also ‘unfriended’ or ‘unliked’ a company or brand after receiving ‘an annoying level of messages’ from it. Additionally, 81% of all consumers using social media say it would seriously put them off a brand if it contacted them directly with commercial messages rather than posting updates via their newsfeeds.

“Overall, the results show that the vast majority of British consumers are extremely wary of commercial messaging via social media and are keen to retain control over how and where they are exposed to it,” Andy Wood, GI Insight’s managing director.

“This is an area in which companies and brands need to tread with a great deal of care. It is very easy to spook the consumer on social media by making uninvited overtures or getting heavy handed with too many sales pitches.”

Other findings in the survey included:

– 75% of consumers say they belong to at least one social media network, with nearly 90% using social media once a week or more

– 86% of social media users say it would seriously put them off a social media site itself if it allowed businesses to send advertising and commercial messages directly to them, rather than simply delivering information through their news feeds

– 92% of users of social media channels want these networks to keep advertising ‘very separate’ from ‘real chat’ and never allow the two to become mixed up

The research also indicates differing attitudes between the sexes, as 87% of female respondents who belong to at least one social media network object to these sites being ‘invaded’ by advertising and commercial messages, compared to only 76% of their male counterparts. Nevertheless, women are more willing to engage actively with a brand or company by ‘friending’ or ‘liking’ its page, with 68% of female social media users having done so, compared to just 58% of men.

The results also show, unsurprisingly, that social media usage declines steadily with age, with the 18-24 age group being the heaviest users, at 90%. Yet, the young are the most outwardly hostile to commercial contact via social networks, with 88% of 18-24s on social networks deeming it an unwelcome intrusion, while older social media users are less averse to it, with only 75% of respondents aged between 45 and 54 and 81% of those in the 55-plus age bracket saying they do not want to see it on social networking sites.

When they are interested in a company or brand, however, the younger the consumer, the more willing they are to engage with it themselves through social networking: 72% of 18-24s using social media have ‘liked’ or ‘friended’ a brand’s page, while at the other end of the spectrum just 59% of those respondents aged 55 or older have done so.

“The research reveals social media to be a channel with tremendous potential as part of a more broad-based marketing strategy that involves traditional direct channels — email, post, SMS, telephone — and other activities aimed at building customer relationships, including loyalty schemes,” Wood said.

“But if a brand wants to talk directly in a highly tailored and personalised way to a consumer, a social media network is not the way to do it at the moment. This is a highly personal space for the vast majority of consumers and they want to be in complete control of it — plus the mechanisms and data necessary for real and productive customer dialogue are just not available.”

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