Consumer engagement within retail communication channels: an examination of online brand communities and digital content marketing initiatives

Jana Bowden (Department of Marketing and Management, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia)
Abas Mirzaei (Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia)

European Journal of Marketing

ISSN: 0309-0566

Article publication date: 22 January 2021

Issue publication date: 11 May 2021

8196

Abstract

Purpose

Brands are investing heavily in content marketing within digital communication channels, yet there is limited understanding of the effectiveness of this content on consumer engagement. This paper aims to examine how consumer engagement with branded content is created through consumer-initiated online brand communities (OBCs) and brand-initiated digital content marketing (DCM) communications. Self-brand connections are examined as an important antecedent to the cognitive, affective, behavioural and social dimensions of consumer engagement and the subsequent impact of engagement on loyalty is explored across these two channels.

Design/methodology/approach

A survey approach was used with two consumer samples for one focal retail brand, namely, a consumer-initiated OBC (Facebook) and email subscribers of the retail brand’s DCM communications. A multi-group analysis of structural invariance procedure was used to comparatively examine the formation of engagement for consumers within the OBC and DCM channels.

Findings

This study demonstrates the different ways in which engagement forms across different digital communication channels. Self-brand connection (SBC) was found to strongly drive behavioural, cognitive, affective and social engagement. The cognitive, affective and behavioural engagement was found to mediate the self-brand connection and consumer loyalty relationship. Overall, this relationship was most strongly and significantly mediated by affective and cognitive engagement within the OBC channel when compared to the DCM channel.

Research limitations/implications

The findings of this study should be interpreted with several limitations in mind. First, the research was conducted within the confines of one OBC, within one social networking site platform characterised by self-selected membership based on a passion and immersion with the brand. This means that consumers within the OBC were highly connected to one another and the retail brand and highly socialised in-group norms and mores. This type and intensity of connection may not be the case for all forms of OBCs. Second, this study was limited to one retail brand, from one brand category. Future research should examine OBCs across a range of utilitarian and hedonic brands to comprehensively contextualise the dimensions of engagement. Third, the data for this study was cross-sectional. The use of netnographic analysis and qualitative interviews across a range of OBCs would support the triangulation of the findings of this research, especially with regard to the narrative that consumers’ express when discussing how their SBC manifests through the dimensions of engagement. Fourth, this study explored a single antecedent of engagement, namely, self-brand connections. Future research may consider how SBC operates in conjunction with other complementary factors to enhance consumers’ affective, cognitive, social and behavioural engagement such as brand awareness, satisfaction and participation/interactivity. In addition, future research could examine an expanded array of engagement outcomes such as purchase intention, the share of wallet and reputation. Finally, future research should examine the operationalisation and validation of the dimensions of engagement using multiple competing scales to assess the suitability of these engagement scales across multiple brand categories and contexts.

Practical implications

Given the increasing investment in branding within social media and the fragmentation of brand communications across multiple communications platforms, the management of effective brand communications remains a significant challenge. This study found that the relationship between self-brand connections, affective, social, behavioural and cognitive engagement and loyalty was context-specific and moderated by a digital communication channel (OBC vs DCM email marketing), thus providing insights as to the effectiveness of OBCs and DCMs as two tools for enhancing consumer loyalty.

Originality/value

This study makes a novel contribution to the engagement literature by examining the antecedent role of self-brand connections in predicting consumers’ engagement; the moderating role of digital communication platforms (OBC vs DCM) on the formation of cognitive, affective, behavioural and social engagement; and the mediating effect of these dimensions on loyalty.

Keywords

Citation

Bowden, J. and Mirzaei, A. (2021), "Consumer engagement within retail communication channels: an examination of online brand communities and digital content marketing initiatives", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 55 No. 5, pp. 1411-1439. https://doi.org/10.1108/EJM-01-2018-0007

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Today’s consumers spend in excess of 7 h daily engaging with branded content online (DoubleVerify, 2020). Much of this engagement is created through dynamic exchange between brands and their consumers (Hollebeek et al., 2016). Given their inherent interactivity, online brand communities (OBCs) have been identified as an important avenue for facilitating consumer engagement (Islam et al., 2018). These communities which are “based on a structured set of social relations amongst admirers of a brand” (Muniz and O’guinn, 2001, p. 412) have fundamentally changed the way that consumers communicate by allowing consumers to directly engage with brands and with one another (Aral et al., 2013; Vivek et al., 2012). As enablers of engagement, they foster positive word-of-mouth, purchase intentions and loyalty (Islam et al., 2018; Bowden et al., 2017). Digital communications are, therefore, at the nexus of brand acceptance and engagement (Vohra and Bhardwaj, 2019; Peltier et al., 2020). Yet, research has found that 96% of consumers that discuss brands online fail to also engage with the brands’ social media profile (Smith, 2019). This represents a lost opportunity to more fully engage consumers across branded media touchpoints. While the strategic role of online brand communities is increasingly recognised (Bowden et al., 2017; Naidoo and Hollebeek, 2016; Harrigan et al., 2018; Naumann et al., 2017), empirical investigation examining how these communities support specific types of engagement is still nascent (Islam et al., 2018).

Given the need to support multi-channel consumer engagement, marketers also continue to invest heavily in other forms of digital content marketing (DCM), including more traditional one-way digital media. Digital content marketing is defined as cost-effective brand-related content that facilitates the perceived brand value, relevance and consumer engagement (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019; Lieb, 2012; Morhart et al., 2015). One specific form of content marketing is email marketing which has been identified as an economical method for consumer acquisition (Hartemo, 2016; Järvinen and Taiminen, 2016). Email marketing is the third most popular digital communication channel, behind social media and corporate websites (Content Marketing Institute, 2020). It offers brands the opportunity to establish, enhance and maintain current and prospective future consumer relationships through the creation of brand connection and engagement (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019; Denning, 2016). The strategic role of email marketing continues to be prioritised by marketers because of the benefits that it confers including; relevance (Morhart et al., 2015); education and entertainment (Lieb, 2012). Research conducted in the retail and e-commerce industry has found that brands earn an average of US$45 per dollar spent on email marketing campaigns (Total Retail, 2020). Yet within the retail category, only 18% of consumers open the brand-related emails that they receive (MailChimp, 2020). Increased engagement with mail marketing approaches has the potential to support even greater return on investment, however little is known about the drivers of consumer engagement within email marketing approaches and how the dimensions of engagement manifest in this context, thus warranting further research (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019).

To address these research gaps this paper examines how consumer engagement is created through firstly, consumer-initiated online brand communities and secondly, brand-initiated digital content marketing communications. While research has examined the nature of consumer engagement and its cognitive, affective, social and behavioural dimensionality (Hollebeek et al., 2014; Dessart et al., 2015; Vivek et al., 2014), there is a dearth of studies which have comparatively examined its operation by type of branded communication context. Understanding how engagement is facilitated within these communication channels offers strategic insight for marketing practitioners as it supports managerial decision-making and informed, proportionate investment in digital communication methods (Dessart et al., 2016; Vivek et al., 2012; Zhang et al., 2017; Hsu and Tsou, 2011).

To address these research opportunities, firstly, this paper identifies the differential impact of self-brand connections on the cognitive, affective, social and behavioural dimensions of consumer engagement. Secondly, this paper examines the varying effect of the cognitive, affective, social and behavioural dimensions of engagement on loyalty. Thirdly, this paper comparatively examines these interrelationships and their salience across two different types of brand communications for consumers of one focal brand, namely, consumer-initiated online brand communities and brand-initiated digital content marketing initiatives using a multi-group analysis of structural invariance technique.

The paper proceeds as follows. We next review the nature, characteristics and dimensions of consumer engagement and self-brand connections providing the basis for the development of the conceptual model. An examination of online brand communities and digital content marketing approaches is then presented. We next outline the research method, followed by our data analytical procedures and findings. The paper then concludes with an overview of key theoretical and managerial implications arising from the study.

Literature review

Consumer engagement

Consumer engagement is no longer a simple dyadic exchange between buyers and sellers, instead of its involve an “ecosystem” perspective that takes into consideration the impact of consumer networks and the way in which these contribute to the creation of value (Vargo and Lusch, 2008; Chandler and Lusch, 2015; Anderson et al., 2013; Jaakkola and Alexander, 2014). Consumer engagement is defined as a “consumers’ positively valenced brand-related cognitive, emotional and behavioural activity during or related to focal consumer/brand interactions” (Hollebeek et al., 2014, p. 154). It represents a manifestation of the consumer’s investment in a service organisation’s offerings (Brodie et al., 2011; Hollebeek and Chen, 2014; Vivek et al., 2012) and it has been linked to increased retention, loyalty and profitability (Sashi, 2012; Bowden, 2009; Hollebeek et al., 2016). In terms of referral, an engaged consumer’s recommendation has been found to be 20 times more impactful than the same message delivered by a marketer (Goh et al., 2013).

Consumer engagement is widely accepted in the literature to be multidimensional in nature (Hollebeek et al., 2014; Dessart et al., 2015; Vivek et al., 2012; Naumann et al., 2020; Harrigan et al., 2018). Dessart et al. (2019) note that it is important to consider all engagement dimensions to accurately assess consumer engagement. This includes a consumer’s positively valenced brand-related cognitive, emotional and behavioural activity during or related to, focal consumer/brand interactions (Hollebeek et al., 2014).

We adopt the engagement conceptualisation of Hollebeek et al. (2014) and Dessart et al. (2019), who suggests that engagement is multidimensional and context-specific in its manifestation. The cognitive dimension of engagement combines an individual’s experiences, interest and attention towards a focal engagement object (Hollebeek et al., 2014). The behavioural dimension of negative engagement is commonly expressed as the active, deliberate and purposeful actions taken towards the engagement object (Naumann et al., 2020). The affective dimension relates to the consumer’s degree of brand-related affect brand interactions (Hollebeek et al., 2014). In addition to the tripartite modelling of consumer engagement, social engagement, proposed by Vivek et al. (2012) relates to the interactive and reciprocal relationships that are given meaning and nurtured through a network of social connections. We extend our conceptualisation of engagement to incorporate Vivek et al. (2012) dimension. In sum, consumer engagement is, therefore, the consumers’ voluntary contribution of resources to a brand experience which extends beyond transaction (Pansari and Kumar, 2017). Table 1 provides an overview of selected multidimensional conceptualisations of consumer engagement and their outcomes.

Dessart et al. (2019) note that understanding the differential impact of the dimensions of engagement on important outcomes such as loyalty is of critical interest as:

[…] the relative importance of the cognitive, emotional and behavioural community engagement dimensions may vary with the specific set of situational contingencies under which community engagement is observed, thus permitting differing levels of community engagement intensity and/or complexity to emerge. (Brodie et al., 2011, p. 260)

A number of studies suggest the importance of specific dimensions of engagement in strengthening brand-relationships and loyalty (Schivinski and Dabrowski, 2016). Hollebeek et al. (2014) find that effect and activation have greater salience than cognitive engagement in determining user intent. Dessart et al. (2019) find that affective engagement followed by behavioural engagement were the strongest determinants of loyalty, and that cognitive engagement had low potency within online brand communities. The dimensions of engagement are, therefore, not uniform in their impact upon consumer loyalty, they are instead highly context-dependent (Hollebeek et al., 2014).

A number of antecedents to engagement have been explored in the consumer engagement literature including satisfaction, and consumer involvement (Hollebeek et al., 2014; De Vries and Carlson, 2014; Dwivedi, 2015; Hollebeek et al.,2014; Vivek et al., 2012). Self-brand connections (SBC) have also been identified as an important driver of engagement (Kirmani and Dretsch, 2014). The links that consumers establish between a brand and their own self-identity are described as self-brand connections (Escalas, 2004) yet limited research has examined the way in which SBC determines consumer engagement, and specifically its dimensions.

Self-brand connections are defined as “the operationalisation of the self-congruity mechanism in a framework in which the union between the consumer’s identity and the brand’s personality or image is determined” (Moliner et al., 2018, p. 389). Consumers acquire brands not only for their utilitarian benefits but also for their emotional value (Hosany and Martin, 2012). Self-verification theory suggests that consumers are motivated to verify, confirm and maintain their self-identity (Elbedweihy et al., 2016). This is achieved through approaching consumption situations that confirm the self-concept (Moliner et al., 2018). Brands which have a strong narrative that the consumer can readily relate to are not only evaluated more positively but they are also more likely to be purchased when compared to those brands with fewer self-brand connections (Harrigan et al., 2018).

Despite the importance of self-brand connections to brand performance, limited research has explored how SBC motivates engagement (Kirmani and Dretsch, 2014). Self-brand connections have been strongly connected to engagement as they engender increased cognitive processing, as well as higher levels of affect and purchase intention (Ren et al., 2012). They also contribute to the development of social assimilation and in-group belonging, as they represent a “merging” of identity with others (Schmitt, 2012; Goldstein et al., 2008; Simon et al., 2016) making SBC a key mechanism for enhancing consumers’ psychosocial needs (Roy and Rabbanee, 2015). This, in turn, motivates consumers’ willingness to maintain loyal relationships with focal brands (Simon et al., 2016). Kirmani and Dretsch (2014) found that consumers with high self-brand connection expressed greater brand engagement intentions. Social exchange theory suggests that self-brand connections are, therefore, critical to engagement, as consumers will only engage in cognitive, affective and behavioural investment when it creates value for them. This study, therefore, addresses calls for research to examine the specific interrelationships between self-brand connection and the dimensions of engagement (Kirmani and Dretsch, 2014), as well as the impact of the dimensions of engagement on loyalty. Our research model is presented in Figure 1.

Hypotheses development

In line with self-schema theory (Van Doorn et al., 2010; Sprott et al., 2009), self-brand connections are modelled as a key driver of consumer engagement and brand loyalty is adopted as a consequence of consumer engagement in the model. This section discusses our research variables and their hypothesised relationships.

Cognitive engagement

Brands that have developed clear narratives that consumers can easily relate to through both direct and vicarious experience have been found to be evaluated more favourably and they have an increased likelihood of selection (Harrigan et al., 2018; Escalas and Bettman, 2005; Ren et al., 2012). This is because consumers are more readily able to ascertain and recall key elements of the brand narrative and to connect these to their cognitive schemata through cognitive brand-related thought, processing and rational elaboration (Naumann et al., 2020; Hollebeek et al., 2014). The stronger the self-brand connection, the more likely the consumer is to invest in information processing, “attention” and “immersion” (Harrigan et al., 2018; Mollen and Wilson, 2010; Scholer and Higgins, 2009). This paper proposes that self-brand connections are positively related to cognitive engagement to the extent that strong self-brand connections, are likely to result in enhanced brand information processing and evaluation, therefore we propose that:

H1.

Self-brand connection has a positive impact on cognitive engagement.

In addition, extant literature supports a strong relationship between consumer engagement and a number of positive outcomes including satisfaction, loyalty and brand advocacy (Bowden et al., 2017; Hollebeek et al., 2017; Hollebeek and Macky, 2019; Naumann et al., 2020; Harrigan et al., 2018; Brodie et al., 2011). Engaged consumers create value for brands through, for example, favourable purchase behaviours and positive attitudinal responses such as enhanced trust, satisfaction and commitment which support brand loyalty. Hollebeek et al. (2011) and Esch et al. (2006) also argue that these “approach” factors foster the development of sustained psychological bonds that enhance brand loyalty. In addition, cognitive engagement has been found to lead to increased attention paid to brand communications, time spent reflecting about past brand encounters and seeking information about a focal brand (Vivek et al., 2014; Dessart et al., 2015; Sim and Plewa, 2017). Therefore, it is proposed that a mediating effect exists whereby:

H2.

Cognitive engagement positively mediates the impact of self-brand connection on loyalty.

Affective engagement

Self-brand connections are inherently effectively driven, self-definitional processes (Escalas, 2004). Consumers displaying strong connections are more likely to display greater levels of positive emotions in response to the brand (Hosany and Martin, 2012); emotional identification with the brand; and engagement in declarations of connection to the brand (Ahuvia, 2005; Dessart et al., 2015). Consumers who identify closely with a brand and who interact with the brand in a focused manner, have also been found to experience feelings of positive moods and very strong effect through specific emotions (Schmitt, 2012; Carroll and Ahuvia, 2006; Chaudhuri and Holbrook, 2001). Batra et al. (2012, p. 2) argue that these then synthesise into an emotional prototype of the brand experience that can be drawn upon during consumption decisions. Therefore, it is proposed that:

H3.

Self-brand connection has a positive impact on affective engagement.

As effective engagement reflects the consumer’s degree of positive brand-related connection, emotion (Hollebeek et al., 2014; Bowden et al., 2017), including “enthusiasm” (Vivek et al., 2012), “dedication” (Dwivedi, 2015) and “passion”, positive affective engagement has been closely linked to positive brand evaluations (Naumann et al., 2020; Hollebeek and Macky, 2019). It results in outcomes such as an increased propensity for attitudinal and behavioural loyalty, as well as positive referral and recommendation (Dessart et al., 2019; Hollebeek et al., 2014; Brodie et al., 2011; Hollebeek et al., 2016). It is, therefore, proposed that a mediating effect exists whereby:

H4.

Affective engagement positively mediates the impact of self-brand connection on loyalty.

Behavioural engagement

Self-brand connections are formed through repeated interactions and experiences, both direct and vicarious with the brand (Escalas, 2004). Repeated exposure to brand stimuli that elicit positive brand interactions strengthen connections to the extent that consumers begin to see themselves mirrored in their brands (Ferraro et al., 2013; Kirmani and Dretsch, 2014). Strong connections precipitate further brand-related interactions, which, in turn, provide additional opportunities for consumer participation and interaction with the brand (Moliner et al., 2018). Behavioural “activation” (Hollebeek et al., 2014) reflects the consumers’ intentions to engage in specific brand-related actions and has been variously described as “vigour” (Patterson et al., 2006) and a consumer’s level of energy, effort and time dedicated towards an engagement focus, beyond purchase (Dessart et al., 2015). We propose that positive self-brand connections may act to enhance consumers’ propensities to partake in behavioural engagement, through, for example, expending effort engaging in positive recommendation and co-creation and collaboration (Van Eijk and Steen, 2014; Hollebeek et al., 2016; Vargo and Lusch, 2016). It also encourages consumers to engage in specific non-transaction behaviours (Hollebeek et al., 2017; Shau et al., 2009). It is, therefore, proposed that:

H5.

Self-brand connection has a positive impact on behavioural engagement.

In addition, the increased energy, effort and time dedicated towards an engagement focus contributes to enhanced customer retention, loyalty and profitability (Naumann et al., 2020; Dessart et al., 2019). Piehler et al. (2019) find that activation through usage intensity increases brand loyalty. It is, therefore, proposed that a mediating effect exists whereby:

H6.

Behavioural engagement positively mediates the impact of self-brand connection on loyalty.

Social engagement

Self-brand connections are socially construed in that they are considered a social tool with which to construct one’s identity (Vernuccio et al., 2015; Sprott et al., 2009). The stronger the self-brand connection, the more likely consumers are to feel a sense of belonging and partake in social-interactive forms of engagement (Vernuccio et al., 2015; Moliner et al., 2018). This reflects Heidegger (1962) original proposition that “the world is always the one that I share with others”. Self-brand connections have, therefore, been found to influence group identification and strengthen social ties with focal brands (Simon et al., 2016; Kirmani and Dretsch, 2014).

Social engagement itself relates to the extra-transactional value extracted from the relationships formed between stakeholders during social interactions (Van Eijk and Steen, 2014; Vargo and Lusch, 2016). As Vivek et al. (2012) define social engagement as an interactive, reciprocal relationship that is given meaning and which is nurtured within a network of social connections, it is necessary to account for the way in which engagement is interactively enhanced between consumers, as well as between consumers and their brands (Roy and Rabbanee, 2015; Dessart et al., 2015). When consumers perceive a positive alignment between their brands’ social persona and their own consumption objectives, they are more likely to display heightened levels of brand-related social engagement (Dessart et al., 2019). We propose that:

H7.

Self-brand connection has a positive impact on social engagement.

In addition, social engagement has been found to be strongly linked to enhanced feelings of belonging, especially in consumption contexts where engagement generates social benefits, as opposed to private benefits (Dessart et al., 2016; Naumann et al., 2020). Social relationships between consumers are noted to strengthen the brand relationship and enhance loyalty outcomes (Fournier, 1998; Bowden et al., 2017). Through reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships, social engagement enhances the value for participants and supports loyalty intentions (Vivek, 2009; Vivek et al., 2012). It is, therefore, proposed that a mediating effect exists whereby:

H8.

Social engagement positively mediates the impact of self-brand connection on loyalty.

The moderating role of digital content marketing and online brand communities.

Social media networks as an enabling architecture for exchange, are central to the achievement of consumer engagement (Storbacka et al., 2016). These environments contain interfaces that allow organisations to co-create value with their customers (Storbacka et al., 2016) and they offer opportunities for “authentic” brand socialisation (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2013; Sashi, 2012). As brands increasingly invest in the development of their social media presence, it is critical to be able to evaluate the impact of this investment on consumer engagement and loyalty (Keegan and Rowley, 2017).

However, despite this, there remains a paucity of research exploring the effectiveness of specific types of digital communications in establishing the dimensions of consumer engagement (Dessart et al., 2019; Hollebeek and Macky, 2019). The present study seeks to close this the gap by comparatively examining the moderating effect of consumer-initiated online brand communities versus digital content marketing, in this case, brand-initiated direct email communications, on the interrelationships between self-brand connection, consumer engagement and loyalty.

Digital content marketing (DCM) is defined as the creation and dissemination of relevant, valuable brand-related content that facilitates the development of favourable brand engagement (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019). Digital content marketing initiatives are targeted at enhancing consumer appreciation of brands through added value (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019). They include brand-initiated content through; e-newsletters, ebooks, quizzes, blogs, vlogs and podcasts (Järvinen and Taiminen, 2016), as well as the incorporation of user-generated content (e.g. imagery) that is then shared by the brand within their digital communications (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019).

Digital content marketing offers brands the opportunity to engage in consumer communications which are genuine and authentic, and which are aimed at supporting the consumer’s lifestyle (Denning, 2016). It is designed to establish, enhance or maintain current and prospective future consumer relationships through the creation of brand connection and engagement (Hollebeek and Macky, 2019). It has also been found to confer a number of benefits on brands including; cost-effectiveness (Bicks, 2018); relevance of content (Morhart et al., 2015); brand education and entertainment and increased perceived value (Lieb, 2012). Hartemo (2016) notes that digital content marketing via email marketing is 40 times more effective at consumer acquisition when compared to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This is in part due to the ability of digital content marketing to engage consumers’ personal and intrinsic motives (Prentice et al., 2019). Intrinsic motivations play a greater role in establishing self-brand connection and engagement than external business-driven efforts to incentivise consumers (Prentice et al., 2019). Digital content marketing supports the dispersion of brand-related product and usage information (cognitive engagement) (Morhart et al., 2015) and fulfils consumers’ emotional needs through entertainment, diversion and transportation (effective engagement) (Lieb, 2012). This suggests that email is considered effective and will not be abandoned as a channel despite the shift towards more interactive and mutually co-creative media.

Digital content marketing has, however, received increasing criticism. While brand-initiated email communications have been found to enhance consumers’ propensities to open and view emails (behavioural engagement), view rates have not been found to equate to heavy purchase (Zhang et al., 2017). In addition, emails are declining in effectiveness, as they are often considered intrusive (Heinonen and Strandvik, 2007) and are frequently blocked by consumers using spam filters (Pavlov et al., 2008). Hartemo (2016, p. 222) notes that from a “marketer’s point of view e-mail marketing is usually economical and effective and from the consumer’s viewpoint often irritating and irrelevant.” Research is, therefore, required to explore the effectiveness of firm-controlled, one-way mass media digital content marketing initiatives given that consumers have access to more personal and networked media forms such as online brand communities (Bacile et al., 2014).

Advances in digital technologies have introduced new platforms for consumer interaction (Islam et al., 2018). Online brand communities which have proliferated on a range of social media platforms (Islam et al., 2017), enable consumers to join brand-related groups and openly express their positive and/or negative feelings and thoughts about a brand (Bowden et al., 2017). Defined as “specialised, non-geographically bound communities, based on a structured set of social relationships amongst admirers of a brand” (Muñiz and O’Guinn, 2001, p. 412), members of online brand communities form close, mutually beneficial relationships. These relationships arise from the sub-processes of collective learning, sharing, co-developing, advocating and socializing (Brodie et al., 2013). Kumar and Nayak (2019) also note that engagement within online brand communities can occur in the absence of ownership of the brand. That is, consumers merely need to perceive that the target of ownership, material or immaterial, is a piece of them (Kumar and Nayak, 2019). online brand communities, thus, offer brands an opportunity to authentically shape consumer engagement (Fournier and Lee, 2009; Laroche et al., 2012). However, to increase online brand communities’ return on investment (ROI), marketers require a deeper understanding of how online brand communities create consumer engagement (Hollebeek and Solem, 2017).

Prior research has found that online brand communities have a broad and deep effect on consumer engagement, especially where the community is consumer-centric – that is, initiated by consumers, maintained by consumers and managed for consumers (Bowden et al., 2017). Within online brand communities, consumers act of their own volition and are equally and mutually empowered, jointly contributing towards value co-creation for both the brand, as well as for other consumers of the brand (Wirtz et al., 2013; Fournier and Lee, 2009). A sense of shared rituals, traditions and behavioural norms motivate members to stay together (Laroche et al., 2012). Online brand communities have also been found to enhance consumer engagement with focal brands (Dessart et al., 2019). For example, increased cognitive engagement occurs through the sharing of information, stories and brand history that impacts upon consumers’ brand-related cognitive schemata (Bowden et al., 2017; Naumann et al., 2020; Zaglia, 2013). Online brand communities also enhance social engagement, as these communities often contain consumer written narratives or user-generated imagery which are considered authentic, trustworthy and honest by other consumers thereby enhancing the strength of connection with the online brand community (Vivek et al., 2012; Vivek et al., 2014; Harrigan et al., 2018). With regard to effective engagement, Molinillo et al. (2019) and Dessart et al. (2019) suggest that online brand communities allow for the creation of common bonds amongst a network of like-minded constituents which engender emotional engagement. Kumar and Nayak (2019) note that value-congruity enhances emotional brand engagement. In addition, a sense of brand identification and connection has been found to strengthen consumers’ attachment to the community itself (Brodie et al., 2013; Ren et al., 2012). Finally, online brand communities also enhance behavioural engagement through intention to participate where consumers feel a strong sense of involvement (Leung and Bai, 2013). Through engagement, online brand communities have been found to enhance loyalty (Fernandes and Remelhe, 2016, p. 314). Harrigan et al. (2018) found that highly engaged consumers exhibited higher levels of loyalty through usage intentions. Brands, therefore, have the opportunity to create deeper and more holistic connections with consumers through online brand communities (Panigyrakis et al., 2019; Dwivedi et al., 2019).

From the consumer’s perspective, both digital content marketing channels of communication and online brand communities offer a number of benefits including efficiency, convenience and access to rich information (Tiago and Veríssimo, 2014). They each also, however, have their critics. Digital content marketing, through email communications, is favoured for their ability to directly inform and persuade (Hartimo, 2016). However, Berthon et al. (1996) view digital content marketing such as email marketing, as a static advertising tool that merely shapes consumer browsing behaviour rather than as a medium that facilitates mutual interaction. Online brand communities on the other hand are favoured for their ability to enable consumers to communicate proactively by seeking out opinions and sharing peer judgements (Berthon et al., 2012). Online brand communities demonstrate, therefore, the persuasiveness of consumer-led information over organisation-led promotion (Tiago and Veríssimo, 2014). However, as Bowden et al. (2017) and Naumann et al. (2020) suggest, online brand community communications may not always be positive, as communities are not always under the direct control of brands.

As marketing communications become increasingly integrated with the digital environment, it is important for marketers to accurately assess the ROI and effectiveness of digital marketing initiatives. The question is no longer whether consumers acquire information through digital channels of communication; the question is comparatively how effective those channels are at creating consumer engagement and loyalty. While all efforts should, of course, be focused on an enhanced consumer-brand relationship and increased positive engagement, research is required to examine the comparative effectiveness of DCM-based initiatives versus OBC-based initiatives on enhancing consumers’ self-brand connections, engagement and ultimately loyalty. This study aims to address recent calls for research to provide insight into this issue relative to consumers’ engagement (e.g. MSI research priorities 2018–202; Hollebeek and Macky, 2019).

This study proposes that the interrelationships between self-brand connections, engagement and loyalty will be positive within both an online brand community and digital content marketing communication context, but that as suggested previously, differences may exist in the salience of these interrelationships arising from the moderating effect of the channel. It is, therefore, proposed that;

H9.

OBC versus DCM channel more strongly moderates the self-brand connection – engagement dimension relationships.

H10.

OBC versus DCM channel, more strongly moderates the mediating effect of the self-brand connection, engagement, loyalty relationship.

Research methodology

Sampling and data collection

This study used a survey method to collect data. A questionnaire was designed using well-accepted scales to measure the constructs in the model. Data was collected from two samples: a Facebook brand community and a direct email consumer database (DCM) for one focal retail brand. For group one, surveys were placed within a post within the brand’s online brand community and for group two, surveys were emailed to respondents. All respondents were current buyers of the selected Australian children’s retail brand. A total sample of 820 respondents was collected consisting of 409 respondents from the online brand communities and 411 respondents from the digital content marketing channel. The distribution of age group was consistent across the groups, with 39.9% and 46.5% of respondents between 26 and 33 years of age and 34 to 40 years of age in the online brand community and 38.4% and 45% of respondents between 26 and 33 and from 34 to 40 years of age, respectively, in the DCM group. Table 2 provides further details on the sampling frame. Following Armstrong and Overton (1977), a non-response bias test was conducted, comparing the means of the first half of completed surveys with the second half based on the time of completion. Using independent sample t-test, comparing the responses of all survey items across the two groups (first half vs second half) we found no systematic differences which suggest a no non-response bias.

Measures

The questionnaire contained six constructs: self-brand connection, cognitive engagement, affective engagement, behavioural engagement, social engagement and loyalty. The self-brand connection construct was measured using scales adapted from Hollebeek et al. (2014). The components of the consumer engagement construct (cognitive, social and behavioural) were measured using Likert-scale type questions adapted from Vivek et al. (2014) and the affective dimension was measured using scales adapted from Hollebeek et al. (2014). Customer loyalty, as the dependent variable was measured using Likert-scale type questions adapted from So, King, Spark (2014). The hypotheses were tested using SEM, multiple group analysis of structural invariance testing.

The psychometric properties of each measure were tested through CFA using AMOS 22. Analysis of the measurement model showed a good fit to the data: χ2 (256) = 727.60, p =0.00; comparative fit index [CFI] = 0.966; normed fit index [NFI] = 0.949; Tucker–Lewis index [TLI] = 0.961; incremental fit index [IFI] = 0.967; root mean square error of approximation [RMSEA] = 0.047. As shown in Table 3, Cronbach’s α of constructs were between 0.83 and 0.90, exceeding the threshold value of 0.70, therefore demonstrating good reliability. Convergent and discriminant validity of the scales were also tested. All AVE estimates were above 0.50. CR values were between 0.83 and 0.94, all above the recommended value of 0.70. Discriminant validity was also demonstrated, as the AVE of each construct was greater than the squared correlations between any pair of constructs. These results indicated that the measurement model satisfied all the psychometric property requirements. Table 3 provides a summary of constructs, measures, Cronbach’s alpha, corresponding average variance extracted (AVE) and composite reliability (CR).

To reduce the occurrence of common method bias, all respondents remained anonymous in the data collection phase and the order of the survey items was randomised in the questionnaire. Moreover, the common method of bias was tested statistically. To examine common method bias, following Podsakoff et al. (2003) and Scheinbaum et al. (2019), confirmatory factor analysis was estimated, restricting all indicators in the model to load on a single factor. The results of the test showed a low model fit (e.g. NFI = 0.57; GFI = 0.58; RMSEA = 0.155), demonstrating that common method bias did not pose a problem.

In the subsequent stage, measurement invariance of the model was examined across the two channels, OBC and DCM. A set of multi-sample CFA was conducted to test the hypotheses of invariant factor patterns (configural invariance) and invariant factor loadings (metric invariance). Results showed that the computed fit indices provided strong support for two invariance hypotheses (configural invariance: χ2 (512) = 1,363.23, p = 0.00; comparative fit index [CFI] = 0.94; normed fit index [NFI] = 0.91; Tucker–Lewis index [TLI] = 0.93; incremental fit index [IFI] = 0.94; root mean square error of approximation [RMSEA] = 0.04; and for metric invariance: χ2 (535) = 1,390.093, p = 0.00; comparative fit index [CFI] = 0.941; normed fit index [NFI] = 0.91; Tucker–Lewis index [TLI] = 0.93; incremental fit index [IFI] = 0.94; root mean square error of approximation [RMSEA] = 0.04. The chi-square difference test results [Δχ2 (23) = 27; p = 0.256] provide the support that the two models are not significantly different, therefore the configural and metric invariances were achieved.

Results

Hypotheses testing

A structural equation modelling approach was used to test research hypotheses. The model established an acceptable fit, with χ2 = 1,213.959.39, (df = 306; χ2/df = 3.96, p = 0.00), CFI = 0.945, NFI = 0.93, TLI = 0.937, RMSEA = 0.06. All hypotheses H1, H3, H5 and H7 (the impact of self-brand connection on the dimensions of customer engagement) were supported. As shown in Table 4, self-brand connection significantly increases the level of consumers’ behavioural engagement (β = 0.905, p = 000), cognitive engagement (β = 0.795, p = 000) and affective engagement (β = 0.682, p = 000). Thus, amongst the four dimensions of consumer engagement, behavioural and cognitive engagement followed by affective engagement is influenced the most by self-brand connection. The self-brand connection is also positively associated with social engagement (β = 0.597, p = 000). Moreover, it was found that the dimensions of consumer engagement have a mixed mediating effect on the self-brand connection and loyalty relationship, with the behavioural and affective dimensions of customer engagement having the highest mediating impact on the self-brand connection and customer loyalty relationship. In the next section, we provide a detailed analysis of the results by conducting a multigroup analysis of structural invariance to compare the findings across our two selected digital channels, namely, an OBC and DCM (direct email) for the one focal retail brand.

Multigroup analysis: the moderating role of online brand communities vs digital content marketing (via direct email)

To examine whether the findings were consistent across the chosen online brand communities and DCM, a multigroup analysis of structural invariance test was conducted. To examine the path coefficient difference across the two groups, OBC vs DCM, we compared the nested groups, conducting group analysis, constraining each path across the two groups to be equal. Multigroup and path analysis enabled us to compare the differences in variable interactions. The results show that the model is significantly different across channels, with a chi-square difference of 49.94 (df = 30, p <0.01).

The self-brand connection has a significantly high impact on all dimensions of customer engagement. The impact of self-brand connection on behavioural engagement for the online brand community was 0.959, compared to 0.925 for the digital content marketing channel(direct email). Similarly, the impact of self-brand connection on cognitive engagement for the OBC (β = 0.766) was slightly stronger than such impact within the digital content marketing channel (β = 0.683), however, this difference was not significant. The effective engagement was also greater for the online brand community (β = 0.758) compared to the digital content marketing channel (β = 0.617). An almost 20% stronger association between self-brand connection and affective engagement was identified within the online brand community. It was also found that the association of self-brand connection and social engagement is consistent across the two channels with insignificant coefficient differences. While the impact of self-brand connection on the engagement dimensions was higher for the online brand community channel when compared to the digital content marketing channel, the coefficient differences were not significant, thus H9 (the moderating role of OBC versus DCM channels on self-brand connection – engagement) was not supported. Table 5 provides further details on the path coefficients and the bootstrap confidence intervals of coefficients.

Mediating effects

Standardised indirect effects of mediators.

To examine the mediating impact of the consumer engagement dimensions on the SBC- loyalty relationship, a full mediation test was undertaken comparing the fully mediated model against the partially mediated model. As the associations between self-brand connection and consumer loyalty were significant with and without adding mediating factors, namely, cognitive, affective, behavioural and social engagement, none of the mediators was found to fully mediate the impact of self-brand connection and consumer loyalty. Therefore, a partial mediation effect was supported.

Amongst the four mediating dimensions of consumer engagement, behavioural and affective engagement had the greatest impact on loyalty. In particular, the mediating impact of behavioural engagement on the self-brand connection and loyalty relationship was 0.395 in the online brand community condition and 0.255 in digital content marketing condition, however, the coefficient difference was not significant across the two channels. The impact of self-brand connection on loyalty was also partially mediated via affective engagement within the online brand community (β = 0.31), which is significantly greater than its mediating effect in the digital content marketing channel (β = 0.207). This shows that effective engagement has a 50% stronger mediating impact within the online brand community when compared to the digital content channel.

It was found that cognitive engagement had a positive mediating effect on the SBC-loyalty relationship within the online brand community (β = 0.255) which was significantly greater than its impact within the digital content channel (β = 0.205). Our findings also show that social engagement had the lowest mediating impact on the self-brand connection and consumer loyalty relationship, consistent across the two channels. Overall, H2, H4 and H6 (the mediating role of cognitive, affective and behavioural engagement dimensions on the self-brand connection and customer loyalty relationship) were supported, however H8, (the mediating effect of social engagement) was not supported. Across the two channels, it was found that the online brand community (compared to DCM) significantly moderated the mediating effect of cognitive and affective engagement on self-brand connection –customer loyalty relationship, supporting H10 for the two dimensions of engagement (cognitive and affective). However, such a mediating effect was not significantly different for behavioural and social dimensions of engagement across the two channels. These results are presented in Table 6.

Discussion

Digital technologies and innovations have necessitated a closer exploration of the way in which engagement is created, facilitated and sustained across brand-related channels of communication. Different channels may contribute to consumers’ engagement in different ways depending on the characteristics and nature of the platform in question. In this sense, technology is co-constitutive and necessary for the engagement to occur (Morgan-Thomas et al., 2020). Yet, to understand the contributing role of digital communications to engagement, it is first necessary to examine how various platforms foster self-brand connection and the impact of this on the specific dimensions of engagement, an area which to date, has not been empirically explored (Peltier et al., 2020).

The primary objective of this study was to examine the role of self-brand connections, on the dimensionality of consumer engagement and its subsequent impact on loyalty within two comparative digital channels of brand communication, namely, online brand communities and digital content marketing through direct email marketing. This study, therefore, aims to address continued calls for research to expand and deepen an understanding of the operation of consumer engagement, its context-specific dimension manifestations, as well as its efficacy across digital platforms (MSI, 2018-2020 Tier 1 priority; Hollebeek et al., 2017).

To summarise, the study makes three broad contributions to the literature on consumer engagement and digital communications. Firstly, the role of self-brand connections in shaping engagement was explored. Prior research suggests that brands which establish persuasive narratives through utilitarian and emotional value (Hosany and Martin, 2012) are more likely to facilitate consumers’ identification with the brand and achieve more favourable consumer engagement evaluations (Islam et al., 2018; Dessart et al., 2019). In addition, Rabbanee et al. (2020) note that digital communications empower consumers to communicate their sense of self through engagement behaviours. While these studies emphasise the general importance of integrating the consumer’s self-concept with the brand, they do not examine the salience of the relationship between self-brand connections and the individual dimensions of engagement. Our model advances this literature by providing insights into the role of self-brand connections on the specific dimensions of affective, social, behavioural and cognitive engagement, thus supporting marketers to identify the importance of consumers’ brand identification and assimilation within their self-schemas.

We also examined the mediating impact of affective, social, behavioural and cognitive engagement on self-brand connections and loyalty. Research concerning the interplay between various antecedents and consequences of consumer engagement has advanced significantly in the past decade (Bowden, 2009; Hollebeek et al., 2011; Brodie et al., 2011; Hollebeek et al., 2014; Naumann et al., 2020) enabling a movement from conceptualisation of engagement to empirical validation of those models. However, to date research has tended to focus on the overall operation of engagement on consequences such as recommendation (Naumann et al., 2020), brand loyalty (Islam et al., 2018) and intention to purchase without examining the differential roles of each dimension of engagement on these outcomes. This is an important gap in the literature, as Dessart et al. (2019), Hollebeek et al. (2014) and Harrigan et al. (2018) note that the expression of individual dimensions of engagement is context-specific. Understanding how the four engagement dimensions individually operate in relationship to self-brand connections and loyalty provides marketers with a clearer way forward to encourage identification with the brand; tailor the brand experience and support repurchase behaviour.

Thirdly, this study also examined the comparative moderating role of two digital brand communication channels, namely, online brand communities and digital content marketing via direct email, on the relationship between self-brand connections, affective, social, behavioural and cognitive engagement and loyalty. Given the increasing investment in branding within social media (Enberg, 2019) and the fragmentation of brand communications across multiple communications platforms (Smith, 2019), the management of effective brand communications remains a significant challenge. Research has not yet explored the comparative effectiveness of online brand communities and digital content marketing channels to engage consumers despite calls for contextual research (MSI, 2018-2020 research priorities; Higgins and Scholer, 2009; Brodie et al., 2011). A comparative understanding of the role of the dimensions of engagement is essential for scholars and managers who are seeking to enhance and enrich consumers’ connections to brands in different digital communication channels. Our theoretical findings arising from the study are outlined next.

Theoretical and managerial implications

The importance of self-brand connections has been acknowledged in prior research (Escalas, 2004; Harrigan et al., 2018). Loureiro et al. (2017), for example, found a positive influence of self-brand connection on online consumer engagement. Brands, therefore, need to consider a self-brand connection to fully activate consumer engagement (Peltier et al., 2020). However, the role of self-brand connections on the individual dimensions of engagement has remained under-researched. Our model advances engagement theory by providing insight into the initiating role of self-brand connections on the manifestation of engagement. Self-brand connections were found to have a significant and strong impact upon the establishment and maintenance of effective, social and behavioural engagement, thus representing a novel contribution to the literature. These findings suggest the importance of maintaining and enhancing a consumer’s engagement with a brand through the communication of a clear, strong and unique narrative so that consumers are more readily able to assimilate the brand story into their self-schema. Consumers who achieve this display a greater propensity to feel positive emotions towards the brand, engage in positive evaluations of it, dedicate time to interacting with the brand and engage in extended social interactions with other consumers of the brand (Simon et al., 2016). This, in turn, motivates consumers to continue to connect and engage with the brand (Schmitt, 2012; Peltier et al., 2020).

The central importance of self-brand connections is evidenced through the strong and positive relationship found between self-brand connections and affective and behavioural engagement, as well as the moderate relationship with social engagement. From a managerial perspective incorporating consumers’ values, desired identities and experiences within their brand narrative lead to enhanced identification. For example, Heineken has used social media to communicate core values concerning responsible drinking, leading to higher brand recall and a positive assessment of the brand’s values. Fitbit has actively focused on physical and mental health within their digital communications and they have encouraged consumers to engage with the brand community by sharing their exercise goals and performance outcomes. Brand narratives within social media can be used to strengthen the relationship between consumers and the brands that they engage with (Schmitt, 2012; Goldstein et al., 2008; Simon et al., 2016). Given our findings, marketers should also focus on facilitating affective and behavioural of engagement. The development of targeted content is advantageous to fostering multidimensional engagement with the brand. In brand categories where purchase decisions are emotionally determined, a self-brand connection will play a greater role in generating consumer engagement. The more contextual information that is provided about the brand and the “richer” the brand narrative and dimensions, the more likely consumers are to become engaged.

Secondly, this study confirmed the significance of the individual dimensions of engagement upon consumer loyalty. This research validates the multidimensional nature of engagement as consisting of affective, social, cognitive and behavioural dimensions (Hollebeek et al., 2014; Vivek et al., 2012; Bowden et al., 2017). While prior research has identified the variation in salience of individual dimensions of engagement (Harrigan et al., 2018; Dessart et al., 2019) our findings further advance engagement theory by identifying the interplay of consumers’ self-brand connections with specific dimensions of engagement and the interrelationships of these constructs within two discrete digital settings. Self-brand connections were most strongly mediated through consumers’ behavioural engagement, and therefore the extent to which consumers interacted with the brand. That is, the stronger the sense of belonging and personal connection consumers had with the brand in both an online brand community and digital content marketing context, the more discretionary time consumers spend engaging with the brand. Behaviourally engaged consumers were found to identify closely with the brand and to use the brand to communicate their identity in social situations to others.

Marketers should, therefore, seek to engage consumers through “participative” activities and promotions. Given that self-brand connections are facilitated through intrinsic ownership of the brand narrative (Rabbanee et al., 2020; Roy and Rabbanee, 2015), marketers could ask consumers to participate by contributing user-generated content online (e.g. online brand communities, reviews, images, videos, blogs, vlogs). User-generated content is a “vital resource for audience engagement and empowerment” (Wahl-Jorgensen et al., 2010, p. 177) and fosters value creation through consumer-led creativity. Dhaoui and Webster (2020) note that understanding how brands can influence engagement through digital media is important, as “chatter matters”. Offline, brands could focus on enhancing interaction opportunities through direct response communications, in-store loyalty events, redemption-based gifts and promotions. The objective being to shift consumers out of a passively engaged state with the brand, to an active, behavioural interaction with the brand to foster greater loyalty.

Consumer loyalty was also found to be driven by a sense of pride and positive emotional disposition towards the brand. This highlights for marketers the importance of fostering a strong emotional connection between the brand and the consumer which offers exchange value beyond mere transaction (Van Eijk and Steen, 2014; Hollebeek et al., 2016; Vargo and Lusch, 2016). Positive affect can be supported through “feel-good” factors offered via consumer recognition and acknowledgement programmes, for example, special treatment rewards for spending, free gifts with purchase, benefit programmes such as exclusive offers and first-to-market information on brand releases. It can also be fostered through a concerted focus on deepening the intrinsic relational connections formed between, with and amongst consumers via interactive dialogic communication, consumer socialisation and recognition of consumer-generated content.

This study also contributes to the engagement literature through an empirical examination of the comparative and moderating role of digital brand communication channels, namely, online brand communities and DCMs. Unlike prior studies of engagement which have investigated the role of engagement within specific single digital platforms (Hollebeek et al., 2014; Harrigan et al., 2018; Dessart et al., 2019; Islam et al., 2018), this study advances a theoretical understanding of the way in which self-brand connections, engagement and loyalty form under different communication channel conditions. These results suggest that a stronger relationship between self-brand connections and affective and behavioural engagement exists within online brand communities when compared to digital content platforms. This research provides a more nuanced assessment of how specific engagement dimensions are built within digital communication environments.

The findings suggest that online brand communities play a significant and enhancing role in influencing the relationship between self-brand connections and engagement when compared to digital content marketing via email. Members of online brand communities displayed a greater propensity to engage with brands affectively and cognitively. They were also found to be more cognitively engaged, suggesting that they spent more time thinking about the brand and voluntarily learning about it when compared to their non-OBC counterparts. Marketers should leverage online brand communities to enhance the brand experience as consumers identify more closely with brands within online communities. They should also use online brand communities to meet consumer needs concerning the expression of self-concept and self-identity. This can be achieved through the provision of brand-sponsored personalised benefits such as status benefits and online badging recognition (e.g. top follower, top fan and top supporter digital badging). Marketers may also wish to foster online brand community identification through the recruitment of within-OBC consumer “brand ambassadors” to promote the brand within the online brand community, a strategy which is effectively used in apparel retail settings to enhance the authenticity of marketing initiatives. Brands may co-opt consumers within online brand communities to engage with them through free brand product, and they may also request ambassadors to post user-generated content featuring the brand within the online brand community. This content may then be repurposed for offline brand communications and can increase affective engagement with both the brand and the brand community. As Giakoumaki and Krepapa (2020) demonstrate, consumer-generated communication often plays an important role in subsequent engagement. Given that identification effects play an essential role in fostering consumers interest in joining and remaining with online brand communities, such an approach may support consumers’ future commitment to the community, as well as their purchase intentions.

It is also important that brand management recognise that seemingly “passive lurker” consumers within online brand community brand pages may, in fact, be extensively engaged in the wider brand community even if they are not visibly engaging within it. Online brand communities have the potential to do more than to simply raise brand awareness (Laroche et al., 2012), they act as a pivotal source for encouraging engagement with the brand. Marketers should, therefore, attempt to encourage consumers following the brand via a digital content marketing email subscription, to also follow the brands’ digital channels of communication (both formal and where feasible, informal), as online brand communities engender deeper consumer engagement. This is because the self-brand connection is developed and enhanced out of awareness, knowledge and attachment across multiple touchpoints (Delgado-Ballester and Luis Munuera-Alemán, 2001).

In summary, effective approaches to consumer engagement remain an ongoing challenge for most global brands (Macnamara, 2016). Given the increasing investment in social media marketing approaches, as well as the proliferation and fragmentation of channels for digital brand communication, it is necessary for organisations to develop an in-depth and ongoing understanding of dynamics of consumers’ engagement with online brand communities and DCM communications. Consumers’ engagement expressions can then be leveraged upon to further enhance engagement and ultimately purchase behaviour.

Limitations and directions for future research

This research was undertaken to explore the idea of consumer engagement as a complex, multidimensional concept which may develop differentially based on the digital communication channel. Our study makes an important contribution to the literature on engagement and specifically the contextual nature of engagement. This study suggests that rather than focus on a single channel of engagement, engagement within each focal channel must first be clearly understood, prior to the development of specific engagement initiatives designed to foster self-brand connection and loyalty. Overall, this study provides insight into the utilisation of online brand communities and digital content email marketing as two tools for enhancing consumer engagement and strengthening the consumer-brand relationship.

The findings of this study should be interpreted with several limitations in mind. Firstly, the research was conducted within the confines of one online brand community, within one social networking site platform characterised by self-selected membership based on a passion and immersion with the brand. This means that consumers within the online brand community were highly connected to one another and the retail brand and highly socialised in-group norms and mores. This type and intensity of connection may not be the case for all forms of online brand communities. Secondly, this study was limited to one retail brand, from one brand category. Future research should examine online brand communities across a range of utilitarian and hedonic brands to comprehensively contextualise the dimensions of engagement. Thirdly, the data for this study was cross-sectional. The use of netnographic analysis and qualitative interviews across a range of online brand communities would support the triangulation of the findings of this research, especially with regard to the narrative that consumers’ express when discussing how their self-brand connection manifests through the dimensions of engagement. Fourthly, this study explored a single antecedent of engagement, namely, self-brand connections. Future research may consider how self-brand connection operates in conjunction with other complementary factors to enhance consumers affective, cognitive, social and behavioural engagement such as brand awareness, satisfaction and participation/interactivity. In addition, future research could examine an expanded array of engagement outcomes such as purchase intention, the share of wallet and reputation. Finally, as recommended by Ferreira et al. (2020) future research should examine the operationalisation and validation of the dimensions of engagement using multiple competing scales to assess the suitability of these engagement scales across multiple brand categories and contexts.

Figures

Research model

Figure 1.

Research model

Selected multidimensional conceptualisations of consumer engagement

Author(s) Context CE conceptualisation Method Key finding(s)
Dessart et al. (2019) Online brand communities (Facebook) Tripartite. Individual dimensions including cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Quantitative Positive relationship between affective engagement as the strongest predictor of loyalty followed by behavioural engagement. Cognitive engagement did not significantly impact loyalty
Dessart et al. (2015) Online brand communities (Facebook and Twitter) Tripartite. Individual dimensions including cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Qualitative Positive relationship between all individual CE dimensions and loyalty. Dual object focus (brand and community)
Naumann et al. (2020) Social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) and social services Tripartite. Second-order construct containing cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Quantitative Positive relationship between CE and WOM
Kumar and Nayak (2019) Brand communities (physical) Tripartite. Single construct containing cognitive, affective and behavioural measures Quantitative Positive relationship between CE and brand attachment and purchase intentions
Islam et al. (2018) Online brand communities (Facebook) Tripartite. Second-order construct containing cognitive processing, affection and activation dimensions Quantitative Positive relationship between CE and loyalty
Vivek (2009) Online environs (Secondlife), retail and product usage Tripartite. Second-order construct containing enthusiasm, conscious participation and social interaction dimensions Quantitative Positive relationship between CE and extrinsic and intrinsic value
Hollebeek et al. (2014) Social networking sites (LinkedIn) Tripartite. Individual dimensions including cognitive processing, affection and activation dimensions Quantitative Individual CE dimensions of affection, activation and cognitive processing had a positive effect on user intent and SBC. Cognitive engagement did not significantly impact the intent
Dwivedi (2015) Mobile phones Tripartite. Second-order construct containing including vigor, dedication and absorption dimensions Quantitative Positive relationship between CE and loyalty intentions
Hollebeek (2011) Conceptual Tripartite construct containing cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Conceptual Positive relationship between CE, relationship quality and loyalty
Brodie et al. (2011) Conceptual Tripartite construct containing cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Conceptual Individual CE dimensions vary in relative importance depending on situational conditions generating distinct CE complexity levels
Harrigan et al. (2018) Social networking sites Tripartite. Individual dimensions including cognitive, affective and behavioural dimensions Quantitative Individual CE dimension of affection had the strongest positive effect on SBC. Cognitive processing and activation had a weak positive effect. All dimensions of CE determined purchase intent

Respondents characteristics across groups

OBC DCM email
Frequency (%) Frequency (%)
Gender
Male 4 1 2 0.5
Female 407 99 407 99.5
Age Group
18–25 years 16 3.9 14 3.4
26–33 years 164 39.9 157 38.4
33–40 years 191 46.5 184 45
41–48 years 37 9 47 11.5
49–56 years 1 0.2 3 0.7
57–64 years 2 0.5 4 1

Measures, sources and reliability of study constructs

Measures Items Cronbach’s α AVE CR
Self-brand connection (adapted from Hollebeek et al., 2014) The X brand reflects who I am
I can identify with the X brand
I feel a personal connection to the X brand
I use the X brand to communicate who I am to other people
I consider the X brand to be “me” (it reflects who I consider myself to be or the way that I want to present myself to other(s))
0.90 0.65 0.90
Cognitive engagement (adapted from Vivek et al., 2014) I like to know more about the X brand
I like events that are related to the X brand
I like to learn more about the X brand
I pay a lot of attention to anything about the X brand
I keep up with things related to the X brand
Anything related to the X brand grabs my attention
0.89 0.55 0.88
Affective engagement (adapted from Hollebeek et al., 2014) I feel very positive when I buy the X brand
Buying the X brand makes me happy
I feel good when I buy the X brand
I’m proud to buy the X brand
0.93 0.79 0.94
Behavioural engagement (adapted from Vivek et al., 2014) I spend a lot of my discretionary time considering the X brand
I am heavily into the X brand
I try to fit browsing the X brand into my schedule
I am passionate about the X brand
My days would not be the same without the X brand
I enjoy spending time considering purchasing the X brand
0.90 0.61 0.90
Social engagement (adapted from Vivek et al., 2014) I enjoy the X brand more when I am with others
The X brand is more fun when other people around me buy it too
0.84 0.75 0.85
Customer loyalty
So et al. (2012)
I would say positive things about the X brand to other people
I would recommend the X brand to someone who seeks my advice
I would encourage friends and relatives to do business with the X brand
I would do more business with the X brand in the next few years
0.88 0.67 0.89
Notes:

AVE = Average variance extracted; CR = Composite reliability; items were measured on a seven-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree)

Results of hypotheses

Standardised coefficient Bootstrap confidence interval
H1 Self-brand connection → cognitive engagement 0.795 (***) (0.735, 0.742)
H3 Self-brand connection → affective engagement 0.682 (***) (0.606, 0.738)
H5 Self-brand connection → behavioural engagement 0.949 (***) (0.905, 0.981)
H7 Self-brand connection → social engagement 0.597 (***) (0.531, 662)

Path analysis across two communication channels

H9
Paths OBC Bootstrap confidence interval DCM Bootstrap confidence interval Chi-square p-value
Self-brand connection → cognitive engagement 0.766 (0.656, 0.842) 0.683 (0.699, 0.846) 0.367 0.546
Self-brand connection → affective engagement 0.758 (0.693, 0.813) 0.617 (0.504, 0.702) 0.023 0.879
Self-brand connection → behavioural engagement 0.959 (0.910, 0.986) 0.925 (0.817, 0.979) 0.500 0.480
Self-brand connection → social engagement 0.552 (0.450, 0.641) 0.610 (0.508, 0.702) 2.386 0.122

Direct, mediated and total effects of self-brand connection on customer loyalty across communication channels

H10
OBC DCM
Direct effects Mediated effects Total effects Direct effects Mediated effects Total effects p-value
H2 Self-brand connection → cognitive engagement → consumer loyalty 0.300 (0.190, 0.402) 0.255 (0.182, 0.339) 0.555 (0.469, 0.628) 0.352 (0.228, 0.474) 0.205 (0.113, 0.318) 0.557 (0.488, 0.623) 0.001
H4 Self-brand connection → affective engagement → consumer loyalty 0.251 (0.163, 0.354) 0.311 (0.245, 0.377) 0.562 (0.482, 0.639) 0.356 (0.226, 0.472) 0.207 (0.120, 0.336) 0.563 (0.498, 0.633) 0.006
H6 Self-brand connection → behavioural engagement → consumer loyalty 0.173 (0.034, 0.342) 0.394 (0.279, 0.508) 0.567 (0.485, 0.649) 0.306 (0.153, 0.452) 0.255 (0.132, 0.398) 0.561 (0.490, 0.628) 0.237
H8 Self-brand connection → social engagement → consumer loyalty 0.521 (0.419, 0.635) 0.043 (−0.001, 0.097) 0.564 (0.485, 0.647) 0.499 (0.0409, 0.585) 0.061 (0.014, 0.121) 0.560 (0.483, 0.627) 0.332
Note:

Bootstrap confidence intervals have been provided in brackets

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Corresponding author

Jana Bowden can be contacted at: jana.bowden-everson@mq.edu.au

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