The Surprising Social Benefits of Digital Content Interactions

Interacting with others in social media makes people feel more connected to others, and recent research by George Washington University professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak shows that interactions with digital content can have a similar effect. That’s a very interesting finding for marketers, especially in light of their efforts to reach younger demographic segments whose earliest experiences involve content-focused digital environments.

Donna Hoffman will discuss the study, “Online Experience in Social Media: Two Paths to Feeling Close and Connected,” at MSI’s December conference on “Social Media and Social Networks.”

“Feeling close and connected to others through social interaction intuitively makes sense. Could using social media for content-focused pursuits create the same positive feelings of relatedness?” asked Hoffman. “That’s an important question as consumers spend more time interacting, not just with other people but also with the creation and consumption of content.”

In two web surveys—one of general Internet users and one of “Second Life” users, Hoffman and Novak investigated the interaction between users’ social media goal (social or content focused) and their motivations for engaging with digital content. Followup controlled experiments confirmed the basic effects and provided evidence of the underlying process.

“People may interact with digital content because they are inherently interested in doing so. For this kind of intrinsic motivation, pursuing a content behavior would not increase their feeling of connectedness,” Hoffman explained. “But users may also feel internal pressure to interact with digital content because they want to avoid feeling anxious, guilty, or bad about themselves, for example, ‘I need to read the news so I don’t look ill-informed to my co-workers’.”  

Hoffman and Novak theorized that this type of extrinsic, “introjected” motivation would interact with content-focused behavior to increase feelings of connectedness to others—a positive outcome for a “negative” motivation.

Both web surveys provided support for that idea. In a third survey, participants were asked to describe a single social media behavior corresponding to a goal that was important to them, to rate the behavior on the degree to which they were focused on people versus content, and finally, to rate the extent to which the behavior resulted in a feeling of “relatedness” to others.

These results suggested that higher introjected motivation led participants’ content goals to become more like social goals by “tuning” them toward a focus on others. Indeed, Hoffman and Novak found that introjectively motivated content goals led to feelings of happiness and satisfaction typically associated with social goals.

Overall, these findings suggest a number of marketing opportunities. For example, would tapping into introjected, rather than intrinsic, motivations be more effective in stimulating users to produce online reviews and other brand-related content? More broadly, is “relatedness” that results from negative (i.e., introjected) motivations as strong a change agent as relatedness from positive (intrinsic) motivations? 

As Hoffman puts it, this research offers evidence that digital content has a “social life.” By understanding how their consumers’ social and content goals interact, marketers will be better able to constructively engage with them on digital platforms.

Related links

Augment Me: Marketing Strategies for a Post-Social Media World (2011) [video]

Augment Me: Marketing Strategies for a Post-Social Media World (2011) [conference presentation]





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