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Saturday, September 27 • 14:36 - 14:55
"Users, not customers! On unintended consequences of Social Media-based attempts to 'customer integration' by commercial enterprises"

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Background: Commercial enterprises increasingly make use of Social Media in order to motivate their customers, or internet users in general, to participate e.g. in design contests, in company-run internet communities, or in mutual support platforms. Such “crowdsourcing” activities have in common that companies intend to utilize the generated work effort of internet users.  


Objective: The paper focuses on the unintended consequences of the efforts of commercial enterprises to utilize contributions of participating users and discusses its theoretical implications. Analysis mainly builds on empirical findings of an own research project – which operated from Nov. 2009 to Oct. 2012 and was funded by the [name of country removed for blind review] Research Foundation – analyzing the social practice of companies’ crowdsourcing efforts in [name of country removed for blind review]. 


Methods: The study is based on an explorative research design guided by the methodological principles of Grounded Theory. 22 qualitative panel case studies of company-run crowdsourcing platforms were conducted. The structure and content of the Social Media platforms and the ongoing web-based communication both among participating users and between users and operators were continually documented and analyzed, and complementary qualitative interviews with operators and selected participants were conducted. 


Results: Users do not necessarily act as “customers” or even “consumers” when participating in enterprise’s Social Media platforms, but also in other, “private” roles (e.g. product designer, discussant, consumer activist, or counselor to other participating users). Accordingly, users may follow their own distinct goals and not act as expected by the enterprise. 

Furthermore, the particular public quality, and permanent visibility of Social Media-based communication leads to unintended effects for the enterprises: Users refer to and communicate with each other, mobilize for issues important to them, approach the enterprise collectively as crowds or communities and often act adversely against the enterprise. If the operator of the platform attempts to suppress adverse communication, users move on to external Social Media sites to utter their complaints.


Conclusions: In order to refer to an enterprise’s products or performance, users do not depend on company-run platforms, but can also initiate their own sites, e.g. on Facebook, in order to mobilize (for or) against the enterprise. Thus, Social Media lead to a democratization of consumer-producer-relations by opening up new opportunities for consumers to “voice” (in Hirshman’s sense of the term).

For enterprises, internet users constitute a new form of social environment which they cannot address in familiar terms such as “customer relationship management”. Rather, enterprises have to develop new forms of “community management” in order to address the collectivity of the users adequately.


Frank Kleemann

Professor of Sociology, University of Duisburg-Essen

Saturday September 27, 2014 14:36 - 14:55
TRS 1-003 Ted Rogers School of Management

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