Audience Size Affects What People Share

People are more likely to share useful information including product recommendations with single individuals, and more likely to talk about themselves when addressing large groups, according to new research published in the June issue of American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research. That’s because their focus is on the other person in one-on-one interactions, but on themselves in interactions with groups.

The article, titled “Broadcasting and Narrowcasting: How Audience Size Affects What People Share,” notes that we human beings tend to be a rather self-absorbed, narcissistic lot: “People have a strong default tendency to focus on the self. Decades of research on egocentrism have shown that people disproportionately attend to their own opinions and interests….” Furthermore, “This natural propensity toward egocentrism can also be observed in what people share… more than 60% of daily speech consists of one’s personal experiences and relationships… This percentage is even higher in social media, in which 80% of users focus on the self.” 

The authors theorize that these tendencies are reinforced when an individual addresses a group of people, because the individual’s primary concern is avoiding communicating anything that will make him or her look bad in front of the group. By contrast, when the individual is addressing another individual, their focus shifts to the other person and they are more likely to try to communicate something useful or helpful to that person -- even if it contains potentially embarrassing information about themselves (for example, making a bad product choice).

To test this theory the researchers conducted a number of experiments investigating the effect of audience size on the individual’s focus when communicating. In one study, they asked 192 subjects describe an imaginary day, including some embarrassing events, to an individual and a group via email; when addressing a group the subjects were indeed more likely to edit out or “reframe” the embarrassing events to avoid making themselves look bad.

In another study the researchers asked 170 student subjects to talk to other students who they didn’t know, as individuals and groups, about a restaurant experience. Here, subjects speaking to a group of strangers were less likely to use negative language to describe the experience, and more likely to give “honest” opinions to individuals. Four other studies looked at variations on these themes, including communication with individual friends and groups of friends (showing that self-focus isn’t, say, simply a reaction to meeting strangers).

Discussing these results, the authors conclude that the research has a number of important implications for consumer welfare. For example, “Because social media posts make others’ lives look so fantastic, using social media can decrease well-being and one’s own life seem worse by comparison…Our results suggest broadcasting may be unrepresentative of everyday life…”

Turning to marketing, the authors note there are implications for word-of-mouth marketing in different categories. For example, “Companies that sell useful products (e.g., health care) may benefit from providing web forms that allow for narrow, personalized messages. Conversely, companies that sell products related to self-presentation (e.g., designer clothing) may benefit from facilitating easy broadcasting (e.g., one-click posting on social media).”

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