Transparent Marketing: Research into social media marketing reveals surprising consumer discovery


If you’ve read MarketingExperiments for any amount of time, you’ve seen how clarity trumps persuasion. Instead of trying to sell in marketing emails or on landing pages, help your customers clearly understand the value they will get from your conversion objective.

That’s why I was so surprised by some research I recently came across about sharing promotions on social media, a medium where selling is particularly frowned upon.

You can watch the interview with Dr. Lauri Baker, Assistant Professor in Agricultural Communications at Kansas State University and co-creator of the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement, where we discuss this specific research along with other social media marketing tips. Below the video, I’ll give you my take on the subject.


Social media is a great channel for transparent marketing.

“There has been a lot of research done on transparency,” Dr. Baker told me. “Everybody wants to see that product from start to finish. They want to see that farmer aspect; they want to see that created in an authentic environment. A lot of that happens from just stories. Highlighting the people that are producing this food or this product, and show the places that it’s coming from. Those are the things that customers are really connecting with and wanting to see.”

And many brands use social media that way. From McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions.” content to Jimmy John’s customer service.

Image via Hult Marketing


But here’s where it gets really interesting …

Selling on social media

There has been much marketing blog virtual ink spilled encouraging brands not to sell on social media. And we’ve done it as well.

There’s good reason for this advice. In the early days of social media, and even today, some companies saw social networks as a free outlet to constantly blast an audience with sales messages and abused the practice.

But you can go too far in the other direction as well. Research conducted by Dr. Baker and Scott Stebner, Managing Director, Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement – “Green Growth: An exploratory study of metro and non-metro garden centers use of new-media marketing” – highlights this point.

They discovered that some garden centers had been hesitant to sell too hard on Facebook.

“All of the [garden center] employees and owners I interviewed said they were very hesitant to talk about sales, prices or direct advertising on their Facebook pages. In fact, they attributed this to ‘consultants’ telling them to never sell on Facebook,” Scott told me.

However, customers were upset that other people knew about a discount that they, as a follower of the brand on Facebook, did not. Customers said, tell me about the discount.

“While they did not want to be inundated with advertisements, they did want to be ‘in the know.’ One of the respondents even mentioned that she had talked to a friend who purchased an item on sale during an event and expressed frustration that the business didn’t advertise that event on Facebook. She missed the event and sale. For her, liking Facebook pages meant that she’d be kept ‘in the know,’” Scott said.

This finding correlates with research from MarketingSherpa (sister publishing brand to MarketingExperiments). According to the 1,176 social media users we asked for what reasons they follow brands, “I want to get regular coupons/promotions” was the top reason to connect with brands on social media, with 56% of respondents responding as such.

Even better, according to the Green Growth study, consumers may be willing to help the company promote its discounts on social media. From the study: “Cassie (a study participant) also discussed wanting to share a post that contained a discount or sale item. She mentioned, ‘If it’s something that is a pretty good deal, I’ll share that.’”


What you can learn from this research – Price discrimination transparency

Coupons, promotions and discounts are a form of incentive. They are the tactic marketers use (and abuse) to encourage a conversion action from the customer.

But that’s a marketing perspective. From an economics perspective, discounts are a form of price discrimination. Customers have a varying willingness to pay. Some will pay full price due to high levels of motivation or simply because they value time more than money and would rather pay money than pay the time to go through the hassle of using a discount.

Many consumers, however, will go through varying levels of difficulty (from cutting out a coupon in the newspaper to signing up for SMS alerts) in exchange for a lower price.

Price discrimination can be controversial. Many customers do not like the idea of paying more than someone else. Coupons available in newspapers or publicly stated senior and student discounts are a way to add pricing transparency, while still engaging in price discrimination. This balances many companies’ interest of selling as many products as possible while selling them at as high a price as possible.

So while social media can be used effectively to add transparency to, for example, how a product is made, it can also add transparency to pricing options. Customers who have followed brands on social media have chosen to engage in a relationship with a greater level of intimacy than a general consumer. As part of that relationship, they expect price transparency in return.


What this research does not indicate – Abusing social media

So there is a role for organically sharing coupons, discounts and promotions on social media.

But be careful not to abuse that relationship. At the end of the day, focus on providing value to customers. If there is a generally available discount, or (even better) you can create a special discount for social media, most of your followers will likely value it as long as you don’t overdo it.

However, you should have “air cover” so to speak from many other social media updates that provide value to the customer without them buying anything, as well as using social media to interact with customers and help them. In the same study, Cassie also said, “For example, if the page had something on there about drought resistant flowers, I’d share that with people because it’s just good information to have.”

And if you don’t have special discounts for them, you should consider what special experiences you offer to your social media followers.

“Many fans join pages to get discounts. Some newer research, however, shows that the most successful pages (in terms of engagement) don’t offer discounts but instead run contests that are easy to attain with some effort,” Scott said.

I think the best summary comes from the study itself (emphasis is mine), “Garden center customers praised the garden centers for providing great customer service by posting on the Facebook page of the store. In addition, customers are actively seeking out information online related to gardening and will share relevant and useful content within their social sphere of influence. Furthermore, customers expect to see some level of relevant advertisements from the garden center provided they are useful and do not occur frequently.”


You can follow Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS Institute, @DanielBurstein.


You might also like

Resources on Transparent Marketing: How to earn the trust of a skeptical consumer

Content Marketing: 9 examples of transparent marketing [From MarketingSherpa Blog]

Transparent Marketing and Social Media: Twitter and Facebook are the new Woodward and Bernstein

Customer Centricity: How to use transparency to generate customer trust [MarketingSherpa Video]

Subscribe to MarketingExperiments to receive our most popular blog posts in your inbox

Yes, You Can Measure Facebook [From Rural Engagement]

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  1. Moshe Chayon says

    What do you think about running different campaign on each social media channel? Do you think that would offend customers? Or would you use it to grow your subscribers on each channel?

  2. Scott Stebner says

    @Moshe Chayon

    @Moshe Chayon

    Hello Moshe. While I cannot speak on behalf of a Marketing Experiments, I can give a little insight into what my research indicates. Each channel has different strengths, weaknesses, and cultures associated with it. Therefore, a product launch or promotion on Snapchat might not be 100% appropriate of feasible on Facebook or YouTube. Also, it may not be prudent to always blast the same campaign across all channels because that could discourage multiple channel following and ruin some of that personal nature your followers have with you on each platform.

    After speaking to customers and employees of small businesses, my recommendation would be to be 100% transparent in whatever you do and communicate it in a way that makes your followers feel special, part of your team, and “in the know”. Let them know that each social media operates differently and WHY. Want consistent weekly updates and previews into our latest events or sales? Sign up for our e-newsletter. Want random updates and be notified instantly on the latest happenings? Join our community on FB or follow us on Snapchat. Will you be at XYZ event? If so, make sure you follow #XYZ on Twitter for live updates and specials.

    You obviously don’t want to spread yourself (and your customers) too thin. But some differentiation can be good and fun both both parties. Just communicate the what and the WHY. Promotions and sales are just one piece to the puzzle. It’s the path to loyalty that’s the bigger picture. Whatever you do, it should be focused on building that loyalty.

  3. Hemang Rindani says

    Marketing is not just about marking your presence, it is about creating a brand value that encourages customers to communicate with you and ultimately give you the desired benefits. Marketing has its own Art and science, Art as in how to go about marketing and Science revolves around the expected benefits. Amalgamating them both is the right way to go. I have an article that talks about art and science of Marketing and how to increase ROI
    Yes market research is one of the very first step, where you identify the trends and search for the USP that your company can offer. It is about selecting the right set of audience and correct platform that buys your offerings

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