Published on October 14, 2021, at 3:21 p.m.
by Mallory Westry.
It is no secret that brands use their social media platforms to spread messages to their target audiences. Many brands even hire social media managers to ensure they are effectively communicating with followers. However, when it comes to social media messaging, it is important that a company’s communication align both verbally and nonverbally. While it is essential to find the most suitable words to use as a caption for a photo, it is equally as important to make sure that the other features of the post complement the message as well — this is where nonverbal communication comes into play.
The meaning of nonverbals
Angela Billings, senior instructor in The University of Alabama’s Department of Communication Studies, defines a nonverbal as “any aspect of communication other than words themselves.” Billings added that examples of nonverbals include facial expressions, gestures, clothing, voice and jewelry.
Typically, nonverbals are viewed within the context of face-to-face communication, but they also play a vital role in social media messaging. One example is emoji selection.
“In face-to-face communication, we resort to our facial expressions, our tone of voice or our gestures, but that is taken away from us when we are on our phones,” said Billings. “Emojis were one of the original ways that we made the transition from face-to-face nonverbal communication to nonverbal communication on an electronic platform.”
Joseph Daniel, a communication studies graduate teaching assistant at The University of Alabama, noted emoji usage in social media bios help companies “communicate who they are or what kind of brand they are.”
Nonverbal communication also factors into other aspects of social media, such as the photos displayed on a brand’s profile. Complementary to the saying “a picture can tell a thousand words,” photos that a company posts on its profile can help to nonverbally communicate who it is as a brand.
“I am able to tell a lot about a company just by who they choose to be on their Instagram. For me, something really big that I look for is [their inclusivity]. Are they telling me through their nonverbals that they are supporting minority-owned businesses?” asked Daniel. “Usually, we are going to be able to tell this just by looking at their profile.”
Examples of how brands can use nonverbal communication
One brand that uses nonverbal communication to convey messaging to its audience is Lululemon. Lululemon utilizes its social media to communicate the positive experiences associated with wearing its apparel.
In reference to Lululemon’s Instagram page, Susan Daria, advertising and public relations senior instructor at The University of Alabama, commented, “The first five pictures that I see immediately are people who seem athletic and excited.” The words “well,” “being well” and “wellbeing” are mentioned several times on its Instagram page. “The words that they’re using are intangibles, which is interesting. They’re a tangible product trying to sell you an intangible feeling,” said Daria.
Lululemon’s nonverbal communication in its social media posts emphasizes this idea of wellness. In fact, a number of the brand’s social media posts incorporate photos of people wearing its clothing while being active. As a result, Lululemon’s audiences associate the feeling of well-being with its brand.
Additionally, the brand uses its social media to spread the message that its apparel is not only for girls. Lululemon is a popular brand among women which may give some the impression that it only sells clothing for women. To counteract this misconception, Lululemon incorporates photos of men working out in its apparel throughout its Instagram feed. This tactic nonverbally communicates to audiences that the company caters to both men and women.
Another brand that communicates nonverbally is Rihanna’s makeup company, Fenty Beauty. Before Fenty Beauty released its products, many makeup lovers had difficulty finding makeup brands that catered to diverse skin tones and skin types. The makeup company’s website states that Rihanna began her makeup line “so that people everywhere would be included.” While Fenty Beauty verbally emphasizes that it is an inclusive brand made for all, its nonverbal communication on social media furthers this statement.
Rather than displaying photos of one specific skin color, race, gender or skin type on its Instagram, Fenty Beauty illustrates the diversity among the individuals who wear its makeup products.
“All of these photos are telling me that Fenty is celebrating beauty in general, and it can come in all shapes, all sizes and all skin tones,” said Daniel. “It’s very clear that Rihanna is trying to make it seem like anyone can take up a place in the beauty community.”
The importance of understanding nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication is exemplified on social media in varying ways that include filter choice, font choice, sentence structure, punctuation and spacing. For example, some filters may make a profile seem out of date, because so many brands are pushing more natural looking feeds.
“When you encompass everything that goes into nonverbally communicating who you are as a brand, you take all of these things into consideration, and if you do that, you have a return value and are reaching the people who you want to reach,” said Daniel.
Brands wanting to ensure that they are nonverbally connecting with their social media audiences need communications professionals or professionals with writing or journalism backgrounds, Daniel emphasized. These brands may also want to hire younger individuals with a firm understanding of social media.
“For people who are younger that have grown up with social media and are creating the rules themselves — its natural and they’re so good at it,” said Billings. “That’s why a lot of our students are very successful with jobs right out of college working with social media campaigns.”
As a whole, a balanced mix of verbal and nonverbal communication on social media profiles allows companies to both show and tell users who they are as brands. Incorporating good practices of nonverbal communication on social media platforms enables brands to further communicate their key messages to target audiences beyond words — thus helping them to build and maintain strong relationships with their following.