Lee, Nicole M. & Seltzer, Trent. C. (2018). Vicarious interaction: The role of observed online exchanges in fostering organization-public relationships. Journal of Communication Management, 22, 262-279. doi:10.1108/JCOM-11-2017-0129

This study introduces the term ‘vicarious interaction’ and explores how online interaction with an organization affects not only those users participating in the exchange, but also those who merely witness the interaction. Social cognitive theory (SCT) posits that an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be shaped through observing social interactions, including actions observed via media. This study suggests that SCT also applies to how individuals form attitudes and perceptions toward an organization based on its social media communication with other individuals. This is important because a large portion of social media users may not directly engage in online conversations with organizations but still passively follow brands and observe those brands interactions with active users.

This study utilized a mixed methodological approach. First, 20 interviews with social media users were conducted to explore their perceptions of two-way communication that they observed between organizations and other active users within social media spaces. An experiment then compared the effects of directly interacting with an organization via social media vs simply observing the organization’s interaction with other users.

Key Findings

  • Publics do not have to actively participate in two-way communication with an organization for an observed exchange to have an impact.
  • Participants shared positive appraisals of organizations that they observed engaging with publics.
  • Most respondents stated that organizations should respond to legitimate questions and concerns, but that general comments do not need to be addressed.
  • Strong offline relationships or increased identification with the individual with whom the organization was interacting resulted in a greater impact of the observed interactions on the interviewees.

Implications for Practice
This study has implications for the practice of online communication by organizations. Practitioners must consider how interactions impact those publics who are observing rather than only the few who are engaging. In the social media realm, priority should be given to followers posting legitimate questions or concerns. Responding to positive comments can also improve perceptions of the organization but is seen as going above and beyond what is required of the organization during its routine social media use.

Article Location
The full article is available at: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/JCOM-11-2017-0129

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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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