A new study gives even more credibility to the theory that engaged social media users who not only read messages, but also share them, are a brand’s best friend.

Elmie Nekmat’s study of how social media messages change people’s thinking was published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Nekmat found that messages were less likely to change a person’s thinking on a subject if they did not, in turn, share the message or express a similar sentiment. Nekmat, of the University of Singapore, was trying to determine if a similar concept in communications theory also applied to online messages.

“Findings show that... simultaneously receiving and expressing a message online as compared to being mere receivers of messages may impact thinking and learning of the message,” Nekmat wrote.

The study also found that messages expressing a viewpoint tended to fall into two, broad categories, rational-based and emotional-based, and were usually composed to include either personal experience or general knowledge. How a person composed a message in those categories depended largely on whether they were writing messages for an audience that generally agreed with them on a subject.

While the study used a relatively small sample to look at how people responded to messages about an anti-drunk-driving campaign, the research could mark an early foray into how marketers can increase influence among “fans” of their brand on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Birds of a Feather

People tended to write messages that were more emotion-based when writing for a group perceived as similar to them. Also, those messages were more likely to be shared when the recipients were similar to the person who sent the original message.

That could be the biggest hurdle for brands trying to find the sweet spot in social marketing. Your biggest boosters are the people who are most likely to spread your message in online social networks. But the people who are most likely to be receptive to those messages are similar to those people and may already be a supporter of your cause or a customer of your company.

“The proliferation of online communities of interests in social media (e.g. Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter followers) allowing individuals to create and disseminate more reliable information amongst people with relatively similar attitudes may further serve to reinforce existing attitudes,” the study read.

More Power from Loose Connections - Except When They're Being Sarcastic

As far back as 1955, social scientists have known the power of so-called "loose connections" in spreading a message through social networks, and Nekmat’s study adds further evidence to a growing body of research that suggest the same or similar rules apply to digital social networks as well. 

In short, acquaintances hold a surprising amount of sway on how we think and where we find information and opportunities. In one classic study, people were more likely to find a job through a friend of a friend or an associate of an associate than through a closer connection.

One area that Nekmat said should be the subject of further study is the use of sarcastic and cynical comments by these middle-person communications. Theoretically, you’re more likely to pick up on cynicism from someone you know well, but you may not pick up on the same sarcasm from someone who is only a loose connection when those comments are put online.