Tsai, Wan-Hsiu Sunny, and Men, Rita Linjuan (2018). Social messengers as the new frontier of organization-public engagement: A WeChat study. Public Relations Review, 44(3), 419-429. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.04.004

Mobile-based social messengers have overtaken social networking sites as the new frontier for organizations to engage online stakeholders. Focusing on WeChat, one of the world’s most popular social messaging apps, this study examined whether and how 1) social messenger dependency, online privacy concerns, and perceived privacy of social messengers drives organization-public engagement (OPE) on WeChat, and 2) how public engagement influences organization-public relational outcomes. Results indicate that publics who see WeChat as an indispensable part of their life are more likely to capitalize on the various features of WeChat to engage with companies at a deeper level.

As a distinctive attraction of social messengers lies in the private communication environment, results revealed that OPE is fostered by the perceived privacy settings of WeChat as compared to other popular social media that are more public in nature. However, the effect of online privacy concern did not significantly impact OPE. Moreover, users who are more engaged with organizations via WeChat trust the organization more, are more satisfied with, and committed to the relationship with the organization. In sum, the strong positive effect of OPE via social messengers on organization-public relationship highlights the imperative of integrating the new platform into the corporate communication arsenal.

A Web survey was conducted in October 2016 with a random sample drawn from Chinese online research panels maintained by an international marketing research firm. The final sample included 859 WeChat users from diverse demographic groups. To participate in the online survey, respondents were first instructed to review their WeChat activities to identify and provide a company’s WeChat account that they had recently interacted with (e.g., browse, comment, share, exchange text/voice messages). They then answered questions regarding their privacy concerns, perceived privacy of WeChat, engagement activities with the company via WeChat, and relationships with the company.

Key Findings

  • Around 75 percent of respondents followed more than three companies on WeChat, including 23 percent who followed more than 10 companies.
  • Publics were predominantly engaged with companies on WeChat via one-way message reception and consumption activities, and did not fully utilized the two-way interpersonal features to exchange text, voice, or multi-media messages directly with the company.
  • The users who were more dependent on WeChat were more likely to engage with companies through browsing messages from the company, replying the company’s posts and other users’ comments on its official account, and chatting with the company’s WeChat representative via private messages.
  • Users who believed WeChat to be a more private platform than other social media (e.g., Renren or Weibo) were more likely to engage with companies via WeChat.
  • Organization-public engagement via WeChat demonstrated strong positive effects on the key relational outcomes of trust, satisfaction, and commitment.

Implications for Practice
This study attests to the advantages of social messengers for organizations’ digital engagement and relationship building efforts. Given that social messenger dependency drives the level of public engagement, users’ dependency intensity constitutes a key segmentation criterion as organizations adjust the direction and focus of their engagement efforts to meet the demands of the constantly evolving media landscape.

Organizations should also capitalize on the private, intimate design of social messengers by developing interpersonal-oriented, one-on-one communication strategies. To stay true to the private conversational setting, organizations can adopt interpersonal communication strategies, such as personifying themselves with the aid of popular emojis and stickers, to engage publics and thereby humanize the corporate brand to build a deeper bond with users.

Article Location
The full article is available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0363811117300838

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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