The Science Behind Social Media

At what time of day should firms post new online content?

WHEN SHOULD FIRMS post information on their social media accounts to draw the most attention from consumers? New research suggests that if they capitalize on the sleep-wake cycles of their customers, firms could increase social media traffic to their websites and boost digital ad profits by at least 8 percent.

Research also shows that consumers’ engagement with content varies by time of day and content characteristics, say Vamsi Kanuri, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana; Yixing Chen, a doctoral student in marketing at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School in College Station; and Shrihari Sridhar, an assistant professor of marketing at the Mays School.

More specifically, Kanuri says, in the morning consumers are more likely to engage with posts that spark high-arousal negative reactions such as anger, stress, anxiety, or fear. In the afternoon, he says, they are more likely to engage with “boosted” posts—that is, paid content— as well as posts that require higher cognitive processing, such as op-eds or scientific material.

Kanuri explains that these differences occur because people’s working memory capacity is highest when they wake, lowest in mid-afternoon, and moderate in the evening.

“Higher working memory makes us feel alert and curious, meaning consumers are more likely to devour content in the morning,” he says in an article on Mendoza’s website. “When working memory is resource-deprived, the brain prioritizes information to remain efficient and will better respond to boosted content, which legally must look different to consumers. The different look signals to the brain the information is important, thus, boosted content is most effective in the afternoon as working memory lowers.”

When the team interviewed social media managers from several major content platforms, as well as examined a year’s worth of Facebook posting and boosting data from a West Coast newspaper, they found that managers relied on gut feelings when deciding what to post, but gave little thought to how readers’ emotions might come into play. “The fact that firms can increase their engagement without spending an additional dime is jaw-dropping for most managers we interviewed,” Kanuri says.

Kanuri, Chen, and Sridhar developed an algorithm to help social media managers know when to post content and which posts to boost, so they don’t need to rely on “general rules-of-thumb posted on various blogs all over the internet.”

“Scheduling Content on Social Media: Theory, Evidence and Application” is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing.