Specializing in the fields of social media marketing and sustainability alongside analyzing consumer behavior, Yang Gao is an assistant professor of marketing here at Binghamton University. Pipe Dream interviewed Gao to learn more about her background, research interests and to hear her advice for those interested in marketing careers.

Q: What are your main research interests in the business field?

A: “I identify myself as a Consumer Behavior scholar. My professional life is about understanding consumers’ mindsets so as to improve their well-being and simultaneously help businesses do better in marketing. I believe in the power of effective marketing messages in changing the world by shifting consumer choices to more eco-friendly options and/or more inclusive options.

Most of my research topics focus on solving big social issues from a marketing perspective. For instance, I study why consumers like a sustainably-manufactured product more than a sustainably-sourced product, and when such a preference disappears. Relatedly, I study when consumers would support firms planting trees to offset their carbon emissions and when consumers would support firms adopting clean renewable energy to reduce their carbon emissions. I am also interested in how gender fluidity may reduce consumer choices driven by gender stereotypes.”

Q: What motivated your interest in social media marketing?

A: “Because it is super fun! I see social media marketing as a wonderworld with a lot to explore! I, myself, love graphic design. So, I am mainly interested in how consumers perceive graphical objects (e.g., emojis, images, colors and motions) and how to utilize this knowledge in marketing messages on social media to improve marketing efficiency. Social media also allows many pop cultures to be accessible to more people. So, I’d be interested in how brands may adopt pop cultures to satisfy niche markets and [whether] this type of culture adoption by brands brings a more inclusive marketplace. Lastly, it is undeniable that we all see a lot of ads on social media every day. So, I am also interested in how social media ads may improve consumer happiness by providing entertaining content.”

Q: How do you view the current landscape and future of social media marketing?

A: “This is a big question that I don’t quite have sufficient knowledge to respond to. However, from my own perspective, I see the current landscape of social media marketing has three major components — optimizing multichannel marketing efficiency within an organization using machine learning techniques, understanding consumer future demands through social media data and maintaining customer-brand relationships through content marketing and AI-enabled customer service tools.

In the future, I believe it is urgent for us to think deeply about social media’s role in protecting everyone’s well-being in the digital world under the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Given the current phenomena, such as AI social media influencers, Metaverse and NFTs, numerous social issues would arise sooner or later. For instance, what we read and watch online may be designed by algorithms, which always send us what we want to (vs. ought to) hear to make us stay longer on a site. This AI-enabled content delivery makes [it] harder to get access to new and different ideas, and the audience may be less likely to generate critical thinking in the long run. Additionally, more AI-generated fake content, such as fake company web pages and fake brand official social media accounts, would be harder for consumers to detect. For example, imagine if a social media ad created by a fake account delivers consumers to a fake brand web page to make a purchase. In this scenario, consumers will disclose their personal-identifiable information and probably get nothing after paying via that fake web page. How would this impact the real brand? Indeed, both consumers and brands would be harmed if this happened.”

Q: Why do you think marketing is an important tool for a business?

A: “We are in a world full of good options! So, how can a brand [stand] out in such a crowded marketplace with many close competitors? It is marketing’s job to let brands be unique! From my perspective, marketing is the art of brand communications. If brands communicate their values in a way that matches the needs and wants of their targeted consumers, it would be hard for brands to fail as long as their offerings are good. But, without efficient marketing strategies, consumers won’t be aware of brand offerings, as we receive too much information every day. Even if consumers are aware of a brand offering due to heightened needs, they won’t be persuaded to make a purchase if the ad message does not fit their identities or beliefs. So, without strategic marketing plans in this new century, businesses would be hard to survive due to fierce competition and ever-changing consumer demands.”

Q: Do you have any advice for students who want to enter the marketing field?

A: “I believe many people underestimate the requirements for being a good marketer. They may watch movies or TV series and feel that making a deal with customers is easy. But those are dramas! Marketing is much more complicated in the real world, especially in the digital age.

I’d recommend that each marketing student figures out how to do self-branding as an individual. This is because you are the one who knows your strength the best, so you should at least be able to market yourself well and convince others of your ability in a certain field. For instance, if people look at your LinkedIn page, they should be impressed by the tailored message and images you provide to brand yourself.

The second thing would be to read broadly. If you can learn knowledge in various fields, it would be easier for you to be creative and better understand different consumers with different hobbies, habits, cultural backgrounds and living conditions — what they like, how they talk to others, what taboos you should avoid, etc. Of course, each of us may have a few favorite niche areas to explore and be an expert in — those make a marketer stand out.

The last piece of advice is to be considerate as a human being. Even though [a] marketer’s main objective is to help a business make more money, it doesn’t mean markets should care less about the well-being of consumers. On the contrary, consumers can sense our good heart and be reciprocal if our advertising message is genuine.”