Establishing and maintaining relationships online is becoming ever more important in the expanding global knowledge economy. But what happens to the relationship between business and consumer when a user “unfriends”? Writing in the International Journal of the Business Environment, Christopher Sibona and Steven Walczak of The Business School, at the University of Colorado Denver, USA, have found that there are many online and offline reasons why a person might “unfriend” another party.
The team has examined these factors and offer insights into how virtual business relationships might be sustained and promoted. They point out how transient online relationships can be, how easy they are to terminate and in most contexts do not carry the social ramifications of the end of an offline relationship. As such, it is, they suggest, important for organizations that use online social networking to learn how to reduce attrition, loss of “friends” or “followers” and also to consider how employees might be frustrated by the volatile nature of online relationships.
Facebook remains a significant player in the online social media network with much research focused on this system. Despite the occasional proclamation of the death of Facebook, there remain more than one billion or so users across the globe and a large proportion of them are highly active on the site and on mobile. Recent media attention claiming that young users were abandoning the site in droves proved flawed when a typographical error in the original research paper was revealed!
The use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms while initially seen by the corporate world as an annoyance, and then an extension of traditional marketing has now evolved for many, into a real-time and highly engaged approach to customer relationship management. Some companies, not-for-profits, and other organizations have recognized its potential and adapted to it more eagerly and more efficiently than others. Many have tried to game the system or exploit it purely for their own ends with no respect for the consumers or the community as a whole only to be forced to make embarrassing apologies when they are shown the error of their ways.
“In addition to providing increased consumer satisfaction, social networking sites have the potential to also enhance intra- and inter-organizational knowledge sharing (especially with the growing presence of dynamic and geographically separated teams) and serve as an expertise locater within the organization,” the team explains. Moreover, it is important for organizations to recognize that the digital natives that are their new and future employees expect social networking and social media to be a significant part of their employment and expect to have access as part of their job.
The team has factored politics, religion, sex, bigotry, use of expletives, misdeeds, loss of trust, personality, incompatibilities, promotions, breakdown of offline relationships and many others as reasons for unfriending. They have carried out a statistical analysis of more than 1500 English-speaking individuals surveyed.
They found that there are two broad reasons for unfriending: offline and online. The offline reasons follow more traditional bonding social capital influences and are affected by all three friendship issues: interdependence, effort and value. Online reasons are affected by both bonding and bridging social capital relationships, they explain.
They offer several fundamental conclusions as to how business can avoid being unfriended:
Businesses should avoid posting too frequently as this requires more effort on the part of the user and can be perceived as unacceptable behavior. They should ensure they are committed to relationships at the individual user level to make the social ties stronger. They should also generally avoid controversial and taboo subjects as these often polarize followers. In terms of employees, management should ensure their staff have separate business and personal accounts and keep the two fairly separate. Management and staff need to adhere to predetermined policies. How organisations will cope with the recent acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram remains to be seen.
“Unfriending on Facebook: factors affecting online relationship termination in social networks and its impact on business” in Int. J. Business Environment, 2014, 6, 199-221