Consumer engagement on social networking sites – the influence of culture

I’ve recently read Stephan Dahl’s writing on engagement in the context of social media marketing and it got me thinking: to what extent is consumer engagement culturally dependent? Dahl writes about the influence of social norms on behaviour, as well as the importance of online communities, which are themselves socially motivated to a greater or lesser extent.  So what happens to engagement when the social norms are different?

We live in a global society, and, by extension, commerce is also now global thanks to the internet.  It’s really easy to lump everyone together as part of the global market, but actually, there are countless differences from culture to culture, and it is particularly easy to see this in the interactions between consumers and brands on social media.

China is especially interesting as, with the likes of Facebook and Twitter inaccessible, it has produced a range of home grown social media platforms such as Weibo and Renren.  These are far more overtly linked to money and commerce than Western sites, with deep integration of payment systems allowing everything from product purchase to bill paying via a social platform.  See here for a really fascinating post on Chinese social media in 2016.

In 2014 Tsai and Men looked at the differences between Chinese and US consumer engagement.  They found some significant differences, including:

  • Chinese consumers have a higher need for relationship building and trust, meaning that, through SNSs, brands can build up a personalised ‘friendship’ with consumers
  • Brands in the US use hard sell approaches when posting on SNS. Chinese consumers respond much better to a soft sell approach, including a personal tone and content not directly related to the brand
  • Relationships between users on social networking sites in China tend to be longer lasting, more respected and more valued than those in the West. They also tend to be more aware of the importance of the community as a whole.  This would suggest they have a greater level of identification with online brand communities.

Chen et al last year (2016) also highlighted the influence of the cultural dimension, particularly individualism/collectivism and power distance*

*power distance is how power is distributed among members of a society – high power distance = accepted inequality in power and status among members of a culture, low power distance = a culture which intervenes to create equal distribution among its members, and also emphasises the right of the individual to hold their own opinion.

They found collectivist cultures (such as China) required higher levels of trust (much as Thai and Men found) and that high power distance cultures (again such as China) tended to follow influencers.  This has implications for social media marketing and the ways products are presented (use of the community voice, endorsement etc.).  Turn it around and look at a low power distance culture (Germany for example) – in order to engage consumers here, you would need to present your product as the choice an individual would make.

In summary: social and cultural norms deeply affect brand engagement, both on social networking sites and online communities.  Societies which value trust and social ties require different marketing approaches to those which emphasise the individual and social mobility.


Chen, Y et al. 2016. Social Media and eBusiness: Cultural Impacts on the Influence Process in Consumer Communities. IOP Conf. Series: Materials Science and Engineering (142), pp.1-10

Dahl, S. 2014.  Social Media Marketing: theories and applications. London: Sage

Flemming, S. 2016. The state of Chinese Media in 2016: What you need to know. Advertising Age. [Online]. [Accessed 20th February 2017]. Available from:

Tsai, W and Men, L. 2014. Consumer engagement with brands on social network sites: A cross cultural comparison of China and the USA. Journal of Marketing Communications. 26(1), pp.1-20


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