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Schopenhauer was a Social Media Expert?

Janice Landry

Optimize Your Word Impact and Business Message

Featuring Dr. Ethan Pancer, Assistant Professor of Marketing


He is a marketing expert who rigorously studies social media, yet this esteemed professor admits he does not have a Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn or Instagram account. The lack of social media involvement is strategically by his own choice.

Dr. Ethan Pancer, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Sobey School of Business, occasionally posts on Facebook, but that’s about it when it comes to scrolling and surfing the web for entertainment. The published researcher also enforces a stringent ban on the use of laptops and cell phones in his classroom, unless a student needs either, or both, due to a learning disability or for another legitimate purpose.

Why does Dr. Pancer deliberately avoid or block his area of expertise—the very field of study which he probes and dissects with such passion, conviction and commitment? “I’ve seen the black hole it (social media) becomes for some people,” says Dr. Pancer, “I try to be away from screens as much as possible, unless I am writing.”

Dr. Pancer has just completed a new study with a resulting academic paper currently under review. The presence of familiar words drive social media likes, comments and shares is co-written by Dr. Vincent Chandler, Assistant Professor of Economics, Sobey School of Business, and Maxwell Poole, a Saint Mary's master’s student.

The team’s groundbreaking research has found that consumers spend, on average, 50 minutes per day, reading 300 Facebook posts. They have also discovered that Twitter users browse that site for far less time, but end up consuming and being bombarded by far more information: 14 minutes daily and 1,000 tweets.

“I am fascinated by why people are on it (social media) so much; not just consumption, but by sharing and posting information…I am looking at what specific types of content drive interactions. Can you actually boil it down to simple theories of why people are online and engaging with content?” Pancer asks.

According to his research - yes, you can.

Dr. Pancer, Dr. Chandler and Poole “mined” more than 4,000 Facebook posts, over a three-year period, from Humans of New York, (HONY), a popular social media blog with more than 18-million followers.

HONY was chosen, according to Pancer, for several factors: “They have a massive following. They post regularly, so we could get a sizeable amount of data. The information is engaging…They have a variance in their storytelling. The people telling the stories come from varied places, backgrounds and educational levels. The content is always changing.”

Humans of New York Website Screen shot

The researchers ran the 4,000 posts “…through a formula in natural language processing.” Similar formulas can be found online for free, or for minimal cost. The formula uses an algorithm examining each word in a post, passage or written text, examining “readability.” It highlights or underlines words readers and consumers may not easily understand or be familiar with, which, Pancer and team have discovered, directly impacts how, or even if, people will respond to what they are reading.

The researchers have concluded that word familiarity, “…plays an important role in driving consumer interactions on social media.  … we find that online posts with a higher ratio of familiar words are more liked, commented on, and shared on social media,” said Dr. Pancer.

Word length has been studied—at length. Research has been done indicating shorter words may be easier to digest, in some instances, but now, the Saint Mary’s researchers have found that smaller words may not always have the biggest impact.


The famous quote by German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, strategically appears as a message conduit in their paper under review. Schopenhauer said, “One should use common words to say uncommon things.” That practice has now been proven true, by Dr. Pancer and the Sobey School team.

Schopenhauer said, “One should use common words to say uncommon things.”

How to apply the findings

What do their research and findings mean, in practical terms, for managers, business leaders and policy makers? How can you apply what they have discovered about word familiarity - to help drive your business and engage consumers?

“One of the cool things that we have found is that the average [HONY] post is [written at] a grade four level. But, if you drop it down to a grade three level, it’s stimulating a lot more [social media interactions]. So, making it very, very accessible seems to be very important,” said Pancer.

To be clear, their finding does not mean you should “dumb down” your message or speak down to your respective audience(s). Dr. Pancer’s social media study pointedly concludes that managers should be using common and familiar language, that most people recognize and can easily digest.

Using complicated terms to disseminate information can have the opposite effect that you are seeking. Pancer believes it leads to less interaction and reduced impact. Consumers may stop listening and reading what you and your business share. For example: why use the word “disseminate” at the start of this paragraph? A more effective way is to write: “Using complicated terms to convey information…”

Use familiar words precisely, and in a way that's novel.

“One of the things a lot of managers don’t do, or social media communication managers don’t do, is to vet their posts to ask, ‘How easy is this too read?’ In terms or readability, there’s tons of software out there. There’s a website, www.readable.io, which measures readability of passages,” Pancer said, “It will spit out different scores for how complex it (each passage, no matter length) is and how familiar it is,” said Pancer, who urges managers to start using some form of this tool.

Pancer also advises managers to be careful about their word choice; do not be tempted to use complicated words, unless precision is required. The Sobey School researcher recognizes there are many industries and areas of expertise where jargon is unavoidable so clarity and conformity are maintained: all levels of government, the legal world, medical documents, et cetera.

Whenever possible, he advises business leaders, and everyone for that matter, to use words that most people can digest and recognize. “People have this lay theory that, to look like they’re smart, ‘I need to use longer words and words that I don’t really know.’ Use words that you know, so people will actually get it, but, structure them in a way that’s actually novel and profound.” That is easier said than done, but nonetheless, Pancer’s call-to-action will assist many writers, speakers, leaders and communicators, in business and beyond.

Final advice

Another key philosophy and piece of advice: Dr. Pancer also urges managers to start with the consumer and build your messaging backward. “What managers should always do is—put the consumer first. (Using familiar language) is going to help consumers. Consumers are going to drive engagement, which eventually helps managers, because they’ve started developing more relatable content."

"Engagement tends to be an early predictor of later purchase behaviours and attitudes about the firm."