Building Social Capital To Convert Your Social Media Connections

Social media works by creating awareness of your brand among a broader audience and driving positive attitudes among this audience. This amplification of your message to new users, especially user-generated content (UGC) builds associations that promote recall, reinforce your message, build positive associations, and generally create positive feelings about your brand that help you convert new consumers. Yet, achieving these aims relies on generating engagement among your community. For most social platforms, engagement translates to shares, comments, and likes registered by users. Not only does engagement spread your message to broader social groups, but it also benefits your website by improving search rank (social media engagement is an influential element in the search algorithm used to determine your position in search results). So, your goal isn’t just to build a larger follower base but to create engagement among your followers which means building social capital.

social capital
Image courtesy of Marketing Profs

In traditional media, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines … media companies get paid to carry your message. So, when you wanted to offer a coupon to get customers to buy that overstock of frozen peas taking up space in your freezer case, you contacted media channels, paid them some money, and they told their readers or viewers about your special deal. In new media, we rely on word of mouth that involves regular folks to tell friends, relatives, and the crazy guy they met on the crosstown bus last week about your deal. And guess what????? Social networks are now the media of choice for many consumers who want to share their feelings, beliefs, and attitudes with others.

What is social capital?

Originally developed by scholars to represent the value derived from business relationships that make organizations work more effectively, the term now extends to non-business or quasi-business relationships between individuals that support goals. Consider your interactions with friends, family, and neighbors. You help your neighbor when they have a task too big for them to handle alone, such as planting a big tree. You offer a ride to a friend who needs to pick up their car from the shop. And, you attend events with family even ones you wouldn’t consider attending without the prompting of familial connections. These are examples of situations where you earn capital. You also earn capital through positive associations with your community, such as sharing coffee or lunch with a neighbor, offering support when a friend is having a hard time, or mediating a family conflict. That capital is called social since it comes not through wealth or access to resources but through your connections to others in your network and built through positive interactions with that network.

We can also talk about generalized capital where the interaction is less tit-for-tat but the notion of all for one and one for all. It’s this generalized notion, called general reciprocity, that makes society work.

This form of capital is a function of relationships between an individual and one or more social individuals or groups. In sociology, it commonly refers to the ability of group members to get things done, whether that’s organizing a fundraiser for a local charity, getting a law passed, or hiring a new minister for the church. In the sociological realm, trust, generalized reciprocity, and social norms build social capital.

social capital

In business, we tend to view social capital as belonging to individuals or small groups who use this capital to “get things done”. For instance, champions who help promote innovations within a company are thought to accomplish this task by spending their capital to gain collaboration.

This type of capital has been expanded to encompass online social networks, where it underpins the important notion of influence in these networks. Like any other type of community, online actors build capital by giving to the community (such as providing advice, emotional support, or even entertainment), being trustworthy in their exchanges, and being friendly. Businesses build capital online by operating blogs that provide valuable information or tools freely to the community, through supporting their community (both online and off), supporting shared values of the community, or other actions seen as benefiting the community like highlighting the actions of community members. This creates a valuable community where members feel rewarded and may want to give something back just like in our organizational example where the workers support the innovation advocated by a champion as a reward for all he/she did to support them.

When followers feel they’re part of a valuable social community, they’re more likely to act in ways to support the community. Since engagement is one easy way to “pay” for all you receive from a community, users are likelier to engage.

How social capital drives the consumer engagement engine

Above, you can see the customer engagement engine developed by researchers at Northwestern. Viewed as a set of wheels, with each node turning the wheels of the next node, this simple engine powers purchase behaviors in two ways. First, you have brand actions, which include:

  • social media posts
  • interactions with customers and prospects such as customer service, fast response to questions, etc
  • product attributes such as quality and performance
  • the value offered by your products
  • going beyond a simple transactional exchange, such as sending thank you notes and birthday wishes
  • supporting their workers and supply chain partners with a big pat on the back
  • showing their support for shared values. As you can see, these shared values alter how consumers spend their money.

Limits of organic reach

According to the experts, organic reach, or your ability to reach social media users with original content, is really small and declining as you can see below.

social media reach
Image courtesy of Social Insider

Therefore, more organizations emphasize paid reach as a means to achieve their goals. But, paid reach, while much less expensive and highly targeted than when using traditional media, is still more than many businesses can afford on a sustained basis, especially small businesses. An alternative is to gain assistance from your community to help amplify your messages by engaging with them. The best form of engagement is UGC, which is 42% more effective in reaching users and achieves 6.9X higher engagement than your own branded content.

An alternative is something called earned reach. This reach is earned by creating content that users share with their own communities to spread your message. UGC is another form of earned reach whereby users create content related to your brand that they share on social platforms.


Here are some options for encouraging UGC,

  • You can try to find the most influential folks out there and pay them to share with their social networks, a marketing tactic called influencer marketing. This tactic is effective as long as the influencer sticks to the brand message, doesn’t do anything that goes against your values (think Ye and his embrace of neo-Nazi beliefs), doesn’t engage with competitors, and doesn’t become overly promotional to turn off your market. And, the best influencers cost a lot of money. For instance, each time Kim Kardashian shares a Tweet about your company, it costs $10,000 while an Instagram post starts at six figures.
  • You can create an intriguing campaign and pray it goes viral — like the Old Spice Guy — but most viral campaigns fail to generate much viral traffic (media virality on Facebook in 2022 was a mere 1.2%) and you might find creating these campaigns expensive. The average conversion rate for social media campaigns is a mere 3%.
  • You can host contests that offer prizes to users who create content that supports your brand.
  • On certain platforms, you might create types of content that encourages folks to build on your post, such as stackable content on TikTok.
  • Or, you can engage with your followers to build social capital. Users then reward you by engaging with your content and creating UGC based on the norm of reciprocity.

Unfortunately, some firms think of social media as just another avenue to transmit their message — just like TV or radio. Unlike TV and radio, users aren’t getting paid for your ads and messages with the programming they want. All your company does by spamming users on social platforms is interrupting the flow of conversions they came to the platform to enjoy without offering any value. That’s why experts recommend an 80/20 split between valuable content shared on social platforms with a small amount of promotional content. The options for creating valuable content include sharing information, entertainment, shared values, promoting causes, and other tactics that enrich users’ lives.

For instance, one year Pepsi took the money usually spent on Super Bowl ads and set up a website that allowed the community to determine how that money could help social causes by voting for projects proposed on the site. Projects that gained sufficient numbers of votes, received a portion of the money. Pepsi then had a number of posts announcing voting and how the money was distributed that provided value to their followers and was worthy of sharing. Purina supports shelters by donating food to abandoned animals when social media users share a post containing the required hashtag (donates a bowl of food) or create a blog post about the company using the required keywords(donates a bag of food). By supporting shared values, these companies not only generate UGC but gain other value from consumers, such as higher conversion rates.

Rewarding users who create UGC

It’s important to recognize users who create UGC that supports your brand. For instance, a TikTok user posted a series of videos about his commute to work on a skateboard because his car was broken and he couldn’t afford to fix it. Every day, he sang along his commute and drank Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. The content went viral. In response, Ocean Spray donated a truck and filled it with cranberry juice to the users. Of course, you don’t have to spend that much money. Simply resharing content created by a user or sending them a thank you message when they mention your brand is probably enough for most users.

You also must recognize when users generate negative content about your brand. The faster you respond to these negative posts, the more thorough your response (ie. taking ownership of the problem created and offering ways you attempt to keep it from happening again), and your efforts to “make the consumer whole” all go a long way toward negating the damage possible from these negative posts. The last thing you want to do is fight with the user (telling them that failure was their fault) or attempt to hide the negative comment. These efforts are likely to fail and may even encourage further negative comments or spread the negative posts further.


Sales conversion is a big funnel.  Although there are lots of strategies to help get more people to the bottom of the funnel, social media is best at putting more people into the funnel in the first place, so more naturally convert into sales. By earning capital from social media users through the types of content your post, the values you demonstrate, the tactics you use to encourage engagement, and the way you handle positive and negative content posted by others you extend the reach of your messages to create greater awareness of your brand. You also create a more positive image of your brand that helps encourage more engagement with users and helps convince consumers to make a purchase.

What are you doing to build social capital through the content you produce and share on social platforms? Do you find some things I forgot to mention work well for you? If so, please share your strategies with my readers to benefit everyone. Use the comment form following this post.

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