by Kristen Gramigna, CMO, BluePay

Social media has become a cost-effective and real-time means to engage customers in a two-way conversation, but often, there’s more telling information in what users don’t say on social media, than in the online chatter. Here’s a look at how and why it’s critical to structure campaigns in a way that cuts through both online noise and the “dead air.”

The news people don’t share. Communication scientists have coined the term “spiral of silence” to describe the human behavioral tendency to avoid voicing unpopular opinions on issues like politics or social matters. Though not sharing controversial political or social views in a workplace may be a simple matter of self-preservation, social media has transformed what “too much information” has historically meant. Now that online culture includes sharing “selfies” and divulging what one thinks, eats and does, in real time, it stands to reason that the spiral of silence would extinguish, but it appears that opposite it true.

In one study conducted by the Pew Research Center, researchers set out to measure the “spiral of silence” based on user’s viewpoints of the 2013 Edward Snowden security leaks. Though participants were nearly equally divided in their opinions, 86 percent of study participants were willing to have a face-to-face to conversation about the issue — but less than half (42 percent) would post about it on Facebook or Twitter. Though people are historically unwilling to be controversial in a personal setting, it appears they’re even more hesitant on social media.

The more they use social media, the less likely they’ll take a stand. It would seem that a frequent social media user would have a greater comfort level with his or her place in the social media world, but Pew’s study results point to the opposite. It found that the more typical the social media user (for Facebook, that means logging in once a day), the less likely the person is to share a potentially controversial opinion. When designing a campaign, don’t expect that heavy social media use translates into online influence — or a willingness to wield it.

Perception determines popularity. Despite what psychographic information may indicate about what prospects and customers are likely to believe, social media users rely on their perception of what their social media community believes when determining opinions that are acceptable to share. Even in cases where the social media user holds the “popular” viewpoint and/or or has access to a team of supporters who share their minority opinion, they base sharing on what they perceive as socially acceptable.

Don’t mistake going “viral” for brand engagement. Social media can deliver a message to a broad audience thanks to user sharing, but developing provocative content is relevant only to the degree that it delivers on marketing objectives for a given campaign. If increased brand exposure is indeed the goal, controversial may be the way to go — but social media activity isn’t necessarily a precursor to a predisposition for a brand, or an indicator of enhanced loyalty. Likewise, don’t expect that social media users will share a campaign if it violates (what they believe is) the collective belief of their audience.

People are more likely to speak up when they feel supported. Break through some of the silence by making users feel they’re part of a popular majority. As Pew’s study found, Facebook users were twice as likely to share their views on social media when they felt their online social community shared their sentiments. Earlier this year, the White House took built a sense of solidarity with its #GetCovered campaign, which encouraged those who had secured insurance through the Affordable Care Act to share their stories, using the hashtag. Despite the bad press surrounding the act itself and the cumbersome registration process, it communicated the popularity of the plan with social media images of celebrities like LeBron James, Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfus supporting the initiative and the hashtag. (The campaign was also recognized by ExactTarget as one of the most successful social media efforts of 2014.)

Social media marketing is often about incentivizing a relationship with an online community, but what your audience doesn’t say can be more indicative of the right approach to leverage for real results. By understanding how users think they will be judged on social media, you can create campaigns that appropriately ease user concerns, to ultimately increase engagement.