31 August 2020
But new research led by our colleague Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School, suggests we should cut it some slack. It seems it can have a warming effect on people who are mindful of their online appearance, and the mere presence of a friend who uses social media can be enough to prompt a donation to charity.
"A few years ago we discovered the 'chilling' effect of social media; Facebook users were self-censoring their day-to-day activities to avoid disapproval from online friends.
"Our latest research has revealed a flip-side, a 'warming effect', and this could prove crucial to the charity sector which faces an uphill struggle as people's incomes are dented by the Covid-19 crisis.
"We gave 349 US residents aged 18+ (half male, half female) a series of hypothetical situations. These people were all regular users of social media. They were asked to imagine an encounter with a representative from a fictitious charity providing clean water to children in developing countries. They were walking down the street, carrying $10 in their pocket.
"In one situation, they were called out by the fundraiser who requested a photo for social media, before asking for a donation. In another situation they had been walking around town for a friend when they came across the charity's stall and were called out by a mascot wearing a costume. Some were told that their friend had been taking pictures all day, posting some on social media.
"The responses to these situations revealed that when someone became aware of the potential for appearing on social media, they were motivated to behave charitably. The possibility of their behaviour being communicated online – the mere presence of a friend who had been taking pictures – was enough to trigger a positive response."
Laura Lavertu, research author and Business School PhD candidate in Marketing, explains the implications:
"The implication for charities is that if they allude to online audiences in their fundraising encounters they will drive a greater positive response. Charities should consider making it obvious that donations or other pledges of support will be communicated online. In face-to-face encounters, they should consider branded materials, so it is clear that an appearance on social media is possible or likely.
"Website designers should consider how to make positive behaviour more visible, making it quick and easy for website users to take action and get their reward.
"It offers food for thought for policymakers who want to use online audiences to change people's actions in reality. In our experiment we saw how simply being friends with someone who is active on social media is likely to lead to a warm response when approached by a charity. Policymakers looking to shift consumer behaviour (to eat healthily, take exercise, or fly less, for example) should consider the warming effect of social media when drawing up campaign plans."
Ben Marder is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School