Social Media Marketing

Let's talk about sex branding gurus

“It’s possible we can make a good guess at the gender of an author of a social media post just by the words used and subjects at hand. This means that our existing biases may colour our perception of that post, even when the post is anonymous,” says Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester University’s Business School.

Cooper - who is also President of many things, including relationship counselling provider Relate, HR and personnel development body the CIPD, the British Academy of Management and the Institute of Welfare - was commenting on recent research by Artios, a London-based artificial intelligence company. The study, which presented 1,000 UK adults with “plain text, anonymised posts from a selection of popular accounts”, found that when we don't know who the author of the post is, we're most likely to respond positively to posts written by members of the opposite sex.

Men were five per cent more likely than women to respond positively to content written by a woman, and women were two per cent more likely than men to respond positively to content written by a man, apparently. Women were also 11 per cent more likely to feel positive about content coming from brands and were six per cent more likely than men to respond positively to content from politicians.

OK, so what does this all mean? Clearly, as Cooper suggests, our traditional social attitudes, prejudices and insecurities are just being reflected online. But how does this work in terms of trusting content? Are we saying that if we de-gendered content it would work better?



Cooper agrees that “it may be easier to feel positive about content delivered with authority when it is degendered”, but it’s not as simple as that. It also comes down to which social media platform is being used, even if the communication is not from an individual but representing a brand. It’s a quandary for brands of course that have piled heart and soul into social media over the last few years, many of which have also used personal accounts to broadcast their messages.

Andreas Voniatis, data science lead at Artios, says that the idea behind the research is to see what happens if biases are removed. Reactions to social media content can “very easily be clouded by an author's appearance, ethnicity, gender or how they self-identify,” he says.

“We often read a person's biography before finalising our reaction to their post. Reactions can even be coloured by context, such as the channel on which content is consumed or by news stories that may be trending at the time.”

It suggests a certain fickleness. People want to look good and informed… well, men do anyway.

“Men will naturally try to speak with authority, so this may come through in their words on social media, which could elevate the trust and positivity people feel when reading it, even for women,” says Cooper.

It could also come across as bumptious. How many times have you ‘Liked’ or shared content without actually reading it?

So what about brands? How do they perform and on which platform? How can they makes sense of all this?

One tweet by retailer John Lewis was considered trustworthy by only four per cent of people. An Instagram post by slimming products company Protein World was apparently regarded as most approachable and a Lloyds Bank Facebook update was the most trustworthy. Hang on… Protein World?

“Protein World, which experienced a lot of negative responses last year during its beach body ready campaign, received a positive response from 58% of people for a post about weight loss goals,” says Voniatis. Ah yes the same Protein World that has recently been accused of trade description breaches, surely supporting the accusations of consumer fickleness on social media.


In (some) social media we trust

While the study also found that Twitter was the least trustworthy and least approachable platform for brand communication, Facebook was the most trustworthy, with 55 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women saying they found the content trustworthy above anything else. Men are also more likely than women to find corporate social media accounts untrustworthy.

A study in the US recently looked at Facebook and the language of gender and concluded that women use gentler and warmer words than men in status updates but they are no less assertive than men. It’s interesting that brands adopt a similar approach. Cooper says that “brands tend to foster a friendly and approachable social media persona, which may explain why their content was better received by women.”

So it’s all about semantics, perception and of course, sex. But hasn’t it always been, at least in the brand advertising world? Some things never change. Men really are from Mars and women from Venus.


Also read:

Facebook’s trending news controversy is a tipping point

Social media giants crack down on hate


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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