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The Positive Power of Social Media: Engaging influencers is key to driving initial product adoption

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Manu Kalwani

The literature on diffusion of innovations is replete with examples that indicate getting a new idea adopted is difficult, even when it has obvious advantages. In a paper published in a special issue of the Journal of Marketing on “Better Marketing for a Better World,” researchers used a field study in rural China to evaluate alternative marketing approaches for the adoption of a new nanotechnology-enabled pesticide. 

The paper, titled “Social Media, Influencers, and Adoption of an Eco-Friendly Product: Field Experiment Evidence from Rural China,” was co-authored by Manohar Kalwani, the OneAmerica Professor of Management at Purdue’s Krannert School, Wanqing Zhang (PhD, ’17) of Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), University of London, and Pradeep Chintagunta of Chicago Booth School.

The advantages of the new product show that it is much less toxic and produces no chemical-residual pollution, is more efficient, has a high compatibility, and has an application method similar to existing pesticides. The barriers to the adoption of the new pesticide include concerns about supplier credibility and product authenticity, product “match value” to farmers’ specific crop and field conditions, and how to use the new technology for best outcomes.

The key research question set forth is can a low-cost approach, based on a widely available social media platform, be used to alleviate the three types of uncertainty and help increase new product adoption? In the field study, the researchers compared three alternative marketing tools for the adoption of the new pesticide:

  1. online social media platform,
  2. online social media platform with an influencer, “the eminent village personality,” who is respected by farmers but does not have product specific knowledge,
  3. traditional firm-initiated customized support, and self-experimentation based on receiving a free sample, which was also provided in (1), (2), and (3). In each condition, a free sample was provided to the farmers. 

The researchers find social media marketing led farmers to adopt the new pesticide at far higher rates than just receiving the free samples (46% versus 29%), and those in groups with an influencer posted even higher rates (59%).  The authors estimate the social media campaigns generated a 30% increase in product adoption compared with a control group (59% versus 29%), which translates to a potential 6% productivity increase and a 20% efficiency-driven drop in overall pesticide use. As Kalwani notes, “engaging customers (farmers) through a social media platform can help overcome barriers and facilitate new product adoption.”

The findings imply that if you want to create scalable growth, social media platforms are an efficient, low-cost way to do this. Marketers should analyze the purchase funnel for the product and understand where the bottleneck to adoption is occurring. In this case, this was overcome by non-expert influencers vouching for authenticity of the product. The social media platform facilitates learning among farmers.

“Seeing farmers in similar field conditions can improve new product ‘match value‘ and encourage a trial,” Kalwani says “Farmers unsure how to get maximum benefit or efficacy out of the product can reach out to others and learn how to use the new technology for best outcomes.”

Results from the study indicate that social media could potentially be used to help fight a range of social problems such as poverty, disease, and pollution. For example, it could be crucial to ensuring that everyone who needs information on communicable-disease prevention and management receives it, and the information could even lead to improved detection and treatment. Social media tools can be leveraged to amplify the first and potentially facilitate the second. 

It is possible to make very significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps, each well thought out, carefully tested, and judiciously implemented” Banerjee and Duflo (2011).

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* Zhang, Wanqing, Pradeep Chintagunta, and Manohar U. Kalwani (2021), “Social Media, Influencers, and Adoption of an Eco-Friendly Product: Field Experiment Evidence from Rural China,” Journal of Marketing, 85(3), pp.10-27.