Social media has dramatically changed the way people interact with the business and brands they buy. Unhealthy ingredients, environmental impacts, gender issues and more can affect a brand more readily than in the past. Many business owners remain naive to the effect social issues can have on their sales, while others overestimate the impact. A recent study from  Sprout Social shows that consumers care about how brands handle social issues, but how that affects their shopping can vary by demographic.

To help understand how social issues affect shopping behavior, Sprout Social surveyed 1,000 consumers to get their feelings on the subject. The data shows that in an age of social media, there are times when brands can benefit from taking a stand on social issues.

According to the Sprout data, two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) say it's important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. While there are many ways for brands to take a stand, nearly three out of five (58 percent) respondents said they are open to this happening on social media, which was the top channel for consumer receptivity.

The study presents a sobering reality for marketers: "Brands can't change minds, but they can effect change." Two out of three (66 percent) respondents said posts from brands rarely or never influence their opinions on social issues.

This doesn't mean that it's useless for brands to post about social issues. Instead, brands can reinforce people who are already aligned with the social issue. According to Sprout, respondents believe brands are more effective on social media when they announce donations to specific causes (39 percent) and encourage followers to take specific steps to support causes (37 percent), such as participating in events or making their own donations.

To some extent, the effect social issues have on brand loyalty depends on the political ideology of the consumers. According to the Sprout Social data, three out of four (78 percent) respondents who self-identify as liberal say they want brands to take a stand, while just over half (52 percent) of self-identified conservatives feel the same.

Something to keep in mind about all of this is that brands can't just try to piggyback on a social issue that isn't relevant to them. Consumers can easily spot when a brand is just pandering to issue group. According to the Sprout survey, consumers say brands are most credible when an issue directly impacts their customers (47 percent), employees (40 percent) and business operations (31 percent).

Building credibility for social issue actions can be easier for brands that support issues that are often considered liberal causes. Based on how the Sprout survey respondents self identified their political leanings, four out of five (82 percent) liberals said they feel brands are credible when taking stands on issue, compared to less than half (46 percent) of conservatives.

The most important thing to remember about taking a stand on social issues is that a company needs to look inward before beginning any social campaign. Taking a stand on one issue may inadvertently shine light on a different area where the company isn't showing proper concern. A similar scenario was seen recently where many of the news outlets that were covering sexual harassment issues found themselves under fire when similar problems were discovered in their own organizations.

Regardless of the possible risks, the data shows that consumers are concerned about social issues and brands will sometimes have to take a stand. Marketers can use social issues to their advantage, but they need to be realistic about the effect it has. Being a social responsible company can help boost brand awareness and brand loyalty, but don't expect to piggyback on a hashtag to dramatically increase sales.

For more recent data that can help business owners and marketers, read this article on the shopping behaviors of consumers visiting a brand site for the first time.