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"It’s very rewarding getting to graduation and knowing that you finally made it!"

Every day, worldwide, millions of people tap away at their phones and tablets to search, find, like, comment and share.

In the past decade, the use of social media has rocketed beyond any initial thoughts that digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest may simply be a passing fad.

Today, with an estimated 75% of Australians alone logging in each day (or night), social media is more than just connecting with old friends: it’s also a crucial marketing tool for most businesses and organisations.

With an honours degree in commerce, Yolande Vandenberg was keen to find out more about how word-of-mouth advertising worked in the world of social media.

‘I was very interested in word-of-mouth marketing and how people talk about products, brands and services. I’ve always been fascinated how people can influence each other in their purchasing behaviour,’ she says.

As a social media user, Yolande looked at the growing trend of online recommendations and began to wonder about the influence of networking sites such as Facebook. Discovering a gap in the research literature, she then examined the possibilities of turning the concept into a PhD topic.

‘I’d just completed my honours [in the Deakin Business School] and it was some of my colleagues who suggested I pursue a PhD.  One colleague offered to be my principle supervisor and soon we were talking about the topic and associate supervisors,’ she says.

Choosing to focus her research on Facebook - the world’s most utilised social networking site with 1.18B daily users – Yolande began by building a profile of social media users.

‘I then took an in-depth view of heavy social media users and examined their methods of posting on Facebook. This allowed the research to understand and conceptualise word-of-mouth on social media specifically on this site,’ she explains.

While tackling PhD research is significant task for any candidate, Yolande faced the added challenges of moving interstate and adding two children to her family.

‘Being isolated from the university and raising a young family while completing the doctorate was the most challenging part of my studies,’ she reflects. ‘Time management was vital and while balancing my writing and family life was sometimes difficult, I know I have grown through these challenges.’

But with the challenges came many rewards and as well has making life-long connections, Yolande also had the opportunity to take her studies abroad.

‘I was able to attend a workshop in Italy where Robert Kozinets taught a netnographic course which was the methodology I used in my research. Participating in a small intensive class for four days with eight other PhD students from around the world was amazing,’ she recalls.

Yolande adds that the study-abroad opportunity stretched her skills, boosted her confidence and importantly, provided collegiate support.

‘The workshops allowed me to meet people who were using the same specific methodology as me, while the doctoral colloquiums enabled me to meet future colleagues and simply spend time with others in the same situation. This helped me get through the tough times when I wondered if I was ever going finish my thesis. Having the chance to talk to others also means opportunities to stumble on a new ideas … these opportunities are so important,’ she says.

Graduating in October 2016, Yolande says her PhD research will help marketers understand how consumers talk about brands, products and services on social media sites.

‘It allows the different brands to begin conversations with their consumers and build relationships. In a world that has a lot of marketing ‘noise’, relationship-building is very important,’ she explains. ‘This research gives brands insight into consumers’ behaviour and how to engage with them on social media – a platform that is increasingly integrated into every part of our lives.’

Now working as a commercial marketing consultant, Yolande is helping organisations launch their strategic marketing goals and social media presence.

She says completing her PhD – despite the challenges of juggling family responsibilities with PhD deadlines – has been immensely rewarding.

‘My personal experience was unique because I started a family while studying but this also shows that no matter what your dreams are, you can achieve them. Finding a supportive supervisor is key – someone who loves your research topic will help you get to the end. It’s very rewarding getting to graduation and knowing that you finally made it!’