Social media’s impact on businesses far greater than believed

UAlberta research shows for the first time how organizations can deal with heightened online emotions effectively.


Businesses should confidently respond to upset customers expressing opinions online with equally emotive language that resonates with them, according to a Alberta School of Business study.

“Our research is one of the first to look at how information, ideas and emotions are expressed in social media platforms when a business is facing a dilemma of some sort, and how the online reaction to this dilemma by stakeholders affects organizations,” explained UAlberta business professor Madeline Toubiana.

“We found that emotions expressed on social media platforms like Facebook fuel the online mobilization of stakeholders. Importantly, when there is a major disconnect between the emotions of the online stakeholders and the organization, the situation can worsen and destabilize the organization.”

Speaking different emotional languages

Toubiana was studying an organization when a news event occurred and its members (the organization’s stakeholders) mobilized. She collected and analyzed more than 2,000 Facebook posts by members and the organization over two years, alongside media articles and interviews with employees from the organization.

“The organization was shocked by member’s responses. They’d never seen members so active around an issue, and they had no idea how to respond. Over time, a big disconnect emerged between members and the organization.”

When Toubiana systematically analyzed all the responses by their governing logic and associated emotional registers, she found that while members were coming from a care-logic that was emotional, the organization was coming from a science-based logic that was unemotive.

“Members were saying, ‘You need to care for us, we are suffering,’ and the organization was saying, ‘There isn’t enough peer-reviewed research at this stage,’” said Toubiana.

“These two parties were speaking past each other with different emotional languages grounded in the different emotional registers of the care versus science logic. As members became increasingly emotional, since their emotions were intensified in an online emotional echo-chamber, the organization’s rational and scientific response served to further intensify these negative emotions. And, when the organization continually responded dispassionately to these heightened emotions, members anger escalated, which continued to be amplified on Facebook.”

An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system, which in this study, was Facebook.

Toubiana said the organization was destabilized by the emotion-laden influence activities of shaming and shunning occurring online—all because members’ expectations of the organization’s action had been violated.

After two years, things only settled down when the organization started using the same emotional language as their members, said Toubiana.

“They started saying ‘We have concern and care for you,’ while continuing to also use their logical, science-based language. When that occurred, we saw a slow de-escalation of the conflict.”

Communicating effectively online

“If organizations don’t understand ways in which members are interpreting an issue and the emotional register, or language, that is associated with this perspective, they won’t be able to respond in a way that helps de-escalate an issue,” said Toubiana. “They’re going to add fuel to the fire.”

Toubiana offers the following tips for managing this newly identified organizational phenomena.

“A lot of organizations, not surprisingly, are rooted in a business perspective or logic. Those running these organizations are often trained to apply a rational, just-the-facts worldview.” This is an important logic to govern business activities, but in dealing with conflict situations online and with stakeholders potentially not coming from this perspective, organizations need to be able to adapt their response to reflect their stakeholders and draw on appropriate emotionality for their audience.

Hire or train ‘boundary spanners’

“The reason why the organization in our study was finally able to adapt was because it had people on staff who could relate to the members who were suffering,” explained Toubiana. She recommends hiring people on social media teams who speak more than one “emotional language” and understand multiple worldviews and perspectives. “You need boundary spanners, who know how to translate across emotional registers to find appropriate ways to connect the organization to its members.”

She added that the study findings don’t necessarily apply to only crisis or dilemma situations. “Organizations can certainly apply this approach when communicating with customers or the public on social media platforms in a preventive way.”

“The key,” she said, “is that organizations realize how quickly emotional contagion takes place on social media platforms. One angry person can ignite a group of angry people. And you need to be very cautious about considering how you approach and respond to the situation.”

Toubiana co-authored the study with Charlene Zietsma at York University’s Schulich School of Business. The study was published in the Academy of Management Journal.