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Five Things to Know About Digital Consumer Behavior

From Naa Amponsah Dodoo, Assistant Professor of Marketing Communication

As told to and shared by Sam Goodman ’23

In the advertising, psychology, and tech industries, the term “digital consumer behavior” covers a lot of ground across the Interwebs. It refers to how customers and potential customers interact with brands in their social media use, website visits, browsing and shopping, and ad engagement—wherever businesses seek our attention and sales.

Often monitored through cookies— small units of code that we pick up through browsing— consumer behavior is studied to better understand how users  think, feel, react, and respond to brands and products and the many factors influencing engagement.

Naa Amponsah Dodoo
Naa Amponsah Dodoo

This multifaceted concept has been the focus of Naa Dodoo’s research since beginning work on her Ph.D. in Mass Communication/Advertising at the University of Florida. Originally inspired by a project that explored how consumers are drawn to following brands on Facebook, Dodoo has continued to examine how consumers are influenced by various methods and contexts of communication in the social media realm. Centering her research on psychology and human behavior, Dodoo hopes her findings can guide marketers in developing consumer-centric strategies and services. 

A prolific researcher, Dodoo has produced an impressive list of studies in her early career, which began at Emerson in 2017. In her three most recent projects— published in 2021 in the International Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Advertising, and the Journal of Consumer Behavior— Dodoo analyzed topics in both on- and offline consumer behavior, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in marketing and advertising, the role of nostalgia in brand attachment, and the efficacy of various campaigns to promote mask-wearing during the pandemic.

For this first post in a new Emerson Today series, we asked Dodoo to share five findings of her work.

1) Advertisers use nostalgia to attract a loyal consumer base.

There is a certain feeling we all get when we stumble across our favorite brands. We see an ad for a toy company and are immediately brought back to our happiest memories, or hear a jingle for our favorite snack and suddenly reminisce about the joys of childhood.

This nostalgia is one of the primary ways advertisers build a relationship with the consumer. Companies and brands use nostalgia to evoke whimsy, offset anxiety, and ultimately make the sale. For some customers, their nostalgic associations with a product are linked to a stronger brand attachment—think of those who buy only Ford vehicles, or Nike shoes, or Apple whatever. 

“Having a strong brand attachment,” Dodoo explains, “means that you have a deep emotional connection to a brand, which in some instances could translate into having a top-of-mind awareness and preference for that brand which can translate into loyalty for that brand.”

2) Brand attachment is individualized.

Even though brand loyalists may share similar feelings of joy and nostalgia, each attachment will be individualized based on different backgrounds and experiences. Therefore, advertisers must create a variety of content— utilizing nostalgia as their foundation— that appeals to differing levels of loyalty and attachment.

Dodoo clarifies that cool, engaging content alone doesn’t do the job. “If the brand is completely new to us, we’re unlikely to form an attachment based on the content that we are exposed to… I would argue that what already exists— that strength or level of attachment— may be shaped by what we come across, but the actual impact is still unclear.”

3) Consumers have little (or no) say in how they are impacted by artificial intelligence technologies.

Dodoo’s research also explores artificial intelligence, a rapidly growing technology that has been working its way into the heartbeat of our digital existence  for over a decade. Built right into our pockets— they’re called “smart phones” for a reason, after all— AI is used by advertisers to collect data in order to better serve the user’s needs and interests. This collection and analysis of data is why ads for our favorite or recently-visited brands show up in our Google searches, Facebook feeds, and even online magazines and newspapers.  Not surprisingly, many users feel such methods are invasive, secretive, and culpable in the production of biased content.

Despite the increased and controversial use of AI, the public has been largely left out of the debate between tech companies, advertisers, lobbyists, and government officials surrounding the extent AI should be incorporated into our technology.

“The average consumer’s understanding of AI’s integration into marketing is very limited,” Dodoo says. “The content or ads we are exposed to varies, but the average person probably doesn’t know  specific factors marketers use to create ads. We don’t see what’s going on in the back end.We only see what is delivered to us.”

4) Too much content can be an obstacle for consumers.

Social media users are all too familiar with the pain and frustration of losing your favorite meme or scrolling through feeds to find that one news story. Dodoo notes how the overwhelming amount of content and content creators poses a challenge for the consumer looking to curate their experience. 

“People may be exposed to content that confirms what they know. But with the ever-changing nature of social media, you see something, it’s gone, and you have no opportunity to follow up. People rarely go back for updated information,” Dodoo said. “There’s so much content given the number of people we follow so that’s a challenge in terms of how people form their opinions.” As a result, she says, that challenge translates to marketers seeking ways to stand out among the content. 

5) Consumers can still drive their own experience.

Despite the many challenges and obstacles and continuous changes that consumers encounter in the digital realm, they still have the freedom to choose their own adventure and find ways to access the content and information they most want to see. 

“Marketers and brands understand the nuances that exist in the current digital space and have different strategies to deal with them,” Dodoo said.  “But as consumers, we also have tools that help us in terms of how we are exposed to content. We can certainly be more proactive in getting more information. Regardless of what you believe or understand, you can always learn more.”

“5 Things to Know” is a new series on Emerson Today, showcasing the scholarship, expertise, and smarts of Emerson faculty—shared (hopefully) in ways the rest of us will understand.

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