Word-of -mouth (WOM) communication is ubiquitous. Consumers discuss favorite restaurants, where to buy a car and complain when a brand’s customer service falls flat. These conversations, both positive and negative, have an impact on consumer behavior. In fact, WOM conversations generate more than 3.3 billion brand impressions each day (Keller & Libai, 2009). WOM has been shown to increase movie sales (Liu, 2006), the adoption of social platforms (Trusov, Bucklin and Pauwels, 2009) and the success of television programs (Godes and Mayzlin, 2004).
WOM is best described as “informal communication directed at other consumers about the ownership, usage, or characteristics of particular goods and services or their sellers” (Westbrook, p. 261, 1987). As a model, WOM consists of the message, communicated by the source or sender, through a communication channel to an audience. When successfully leveraged, WOM is seen to have a stronger long-term effect than traditional media (Trusov, Bucklin and Pauwels, 2009). Evidence suggests we are exposed to an average of 3,000 brand messages each day (Wipperfurth, 2005). Furthermore, if advertising is not an option, the recommendation from current customers may be a better mode of persuasion (Nielsen, 2011). According to Balter (2005), approximately 70 percent of all purchasing decisions are influenced by WOM communication. WOM is seen as a more trusted referral mechanism and is a better method for targeting interested consumers (Berger, 2013). WOM can be highly targeted, in that individuals often look to others they feel are like them and are more likely to trust a recommendation from someone similar to them (Nielsen, 2011; Schmitt, Skiera and Van den Bulte, 2011). Much of the above research has led marketing scholars and practitioners to call for the need to “harness” and “capture” the power of WOM.
While much of the current literature focuses on the consequences and behavioral mechanisms of WOM, little research has explored why people share their experiences with products or services (Berger, 2013). Lovett, Peres and Shachar (2013) argued that consumers are driven to engage in interpersonal communication through three drivers: social, emotional, and functional. Each driver is underlined by certain motivations (Lovett, Peres and Shachar, 2013). Developing a more comprehensive understanding of these motivations and subsequent psychological drivers may help marketing managers craft stronger WOM campaigns.
Furthermore, with the evolution of web-based communications, consumers are now presented with the ability to share their opinions to farther reaching audiences. Social media sites like Facebook offer an opportunity to explore online word-of-mouth in more detail. Facebook has more than 1.3 billion users and users are sharing 20 million links every 20 minutes (statistic brain, 2014). Not only does the amount of access to conversations make it a fertile environment to study WOM, but the ability to observe the phenomenon as it occurs offers an additional method to study consumer behavior (Trusov, Bucklin and Pauwels, 2009). Not only has this changed how and why consumers share their opinions, but how consumers seek product information. Information that is shared online has the ability to affect consumer perceptions (Dellarocas, 2003), attitudes (Bickar and Schindler, 2001), purchase intentions (Davis and Khazanchi, 2008) and behavior (De Bruyn and Lilien, 2008). As consumers continue to find new ways to share opinions and gather information, understanding WOM as it occurs online is important from a management perspective. It is for this reason that academics are beginning to focus their efforts on understanding what motivates consumers to perform electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) (Balasubramanian and Mahajan, 2001; Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004).
The purpose of this project is to develop a comprehensive understanding of what consumers are posting in a given online environment. To understand what motivates consumers to perform WOM on Facebook, a systematic, observational approach to document what consumers are posting must be employed. The Vans Shoe Company’s Facebook page has been chosen to explore and categorize the performance of eWOM. Not only do millennial shoppers turn to Facebook to make purchase decisions, but user-generated content plays an ever-increasing role in the decision making process (Bazaarvoice 2012; 2013). Similarly, within retail 60 percent of consumers learn about a retailer through a Facebook or Twitter post (Nielsen, 2011b).
According to Berger and Schwartz (2011), “WOM provides a fertile domain to integrate consumer psychology and marketing science. The emergence of social media and online WOM has provided a wealth of data on what consumers say, share, and do. While analyzing this data correctly requires an appropriate toolkit, it provides an opportunity to address a rich set of behaviorally and managerially relevant questions” (p. 878).
This project will provide an additional perspective on this rich, yet untapped domain of literature and address the question of what drives consumers to discuss their experiences with a product or service. In one sense it is important to move away from the consequences of WOM, and from a marketing perspective, develop a better understanding of why people talk. Berger (2013) wrote: “…but while quantitative research has demonstrated a causal impact of word-of-mouth on behavior across a host of domains, less is known about what drives word-of-mouth and why people talk about certain things rather than others” (p.2). Lovett et al. (2013) echo Berger’s sentiment and call for a better understanding of WOM behavior at the individual level. They found that “product type (search, experience, and credence) may play a more complex role” in the generation of WOM. To better understand the role product type plays, a more thorough understanding the drivers of WOM is needed. Similarly, De Bruyn and Lilien (2008) wrote that there is still much uncertainty around how WOM is driven. Finally, Berger and Iyengar (2013) discuss the importance of how the medium may shape WOM: “While it is clear that word of mouth is frequent and has an important impact on consumer behavior, little is known about how the medium consumers communicate through affects the products and brands they mention” (p. 576).
As such, the benefits of this project are twofold. First, this project will begin to add to the sparse literature concerning the psychological drivers of WOM. This addition is important because building a comprehensive understanding of what drives consumers to talk about brands and how consumers ultimately engage in this discussion should further help marketers develop WOM marketing strategies. Secondly, the research project will also provide a research experience that will mimic what the researcher hopes to do professionally. The methodology proposed will, in fact, grant the researcher experience in both creating a better understanding of how WOM operates and engage in a methodology constructed to better understand consumer culture.
Finally, this project has implications for both public relations and advertising practitioners. For public relations practitioners, understanding the context and emotional valence of eWOM may help to determine potential communication opportunities or potential threats for the future. For advertisers, social media platforms offer the ability to discover how consumers are integrating products and brand imagery into their “life projects” (McCracken, 1987).
Definitions of key concepts
Word-of-mouth is defined as the “informal communication directed at other consumers about the ownership, usage, or characteristics of particular goods and services or their sellers” (Westbrook, p. 261, 1987).
Electronic word-of-mouth is considered any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004, p. 39).
To investigate this topic the following section will explore the theoretical foundations of both WOM and eWOM. It is important to understand the development of both concepts, thus the extant literature will be reviewed for each. This section will then fully develop a framework that will operationally define the psychological drivers of eWOM. While some research may draw a distinction between the motivations of WOM and eWOM, the framework developed will adopt a traditional WOM approach to explore consumer motivations in an online setting. As Kimmel and Kitchen (2014) argued: “Given the pervasiveness of social media and the dynamic interplay between various social media platforms, the time has come for marketers to stop treating online and offline WOM as if they were separate distinct entities” (p.14).
Described as the “most important marketing element that exists” (Alsop, 1984), WOM has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in academia due to new modes of connectedness via online channels (i.e. forums, social media, online communities). Much of this interest can be attributed to the decreased effect of mass media advertising, the lack of trust in branded messaging and the romanticized notion that social media creates a “steroid-like” effect on interpersonal communications (Kimmel and Kitchen, 2014; Kitchen 2010; Edelman, 2008; Rusticus, 2006). These notions have also fostered an interest from marketing practitioners. In 2006, an independent research report said that marketers spend $1 billion on word-of-mouth marketing (McConnell, 2007). Kimmel and Kitchen (2014) wrote: “managers now recognize that their customers and prospects are more powerful and skeptical than ever before, with consumer-to-consumer influence at times taking precedence over purchasing and related behaviors previously shaped by the business-to-consumer marketing tools of advertising, public relations, promotion, direct mail and personal selling” (p. 5).
Technological advancements aside, WOM communication is not a new concept. The term “word-of-mouth” originally appeared in a Fortune magazine article by William H. Whyte, Jr. (1954). “The Web of Word of Mouth” detailed the diffusion process of air conditioning units throughout urban neighborhoods. In the article it was concluded that the power of interpersonal communication, or informal exchanges, could be an important driver of consumer markets. Similarly, Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) introduced the two-step flow of communication model to describe the role of opinion leaders in mass communication. Their model explained how opinions were passed from the mass media to opinion leaders and then to various friends and family members. It was Katz and Lazarsfeld’s work that led to influencer and brand ambassador marketing tactics and campaigns. Reingen and Brown (1987) helped to move the focus on the dyadic exchanges of Katz and Lazarsfeld’s model to one that explained the effect of social networks on consumer behavior. Reingen and Brown’s work helped to develop further insight into the behavioral mechanisms of WOM and to use social network analysis to measure and analyze online WOM.
In the popular literature, many authors concluded that products must either be inherently interesting or provide a surprising aspect to the messaging or the consumption of the product (Hughes, 2005; Sernovitz, 2009). As these authors were providing insight into the “triggers” of WOM (Rosen, 2002), three streams of literature had emerged: the consequences of WOM, the flow of WOM over a network of ties and the psychological drivers or motivations of WOM communication (Godes and Mayzlin, 2004). As Berger and Schwartz (2011) explained: “Consequently, while it is clear that WOM affects product adoption and sales, less is known about the behavioral process that drives these outcomes” (p. 870). Furthering consumers’ ability to communicate and connect, social media has fundamentally changed WOM theory. WOM theory has now evolved from a one-to-one model to a many-to-many network model (Kozinets et al., 2010). Thus, understanding how consumers perform eWOM has continued to become more important for marketers.
Henning-Thurau et al. (2004) defined eWom as “any positive or negative statements made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people an institutions via the Internet” (p.39). Many treat eWOM differently from WOM in that communication has the ability to travel more quickly because of the medium. eWom is also distinctly different because of its relative permanence. For example information seekers search product reviews because of their level of permanence regardless of the review is positive or negative.
According to Daugherty and Hoffman (2013) eWOM has three primary areas of academic interest. The first area understands the function and format eWOM assumes (Bickar and Schindler, 2001). Secondly, much attention has been paid to the function and purpose eWOM fulfills in online communication (Allsop, Bassett, and Hoskins, 2007; Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004). Finally, research focuses on the effect eWOM has on the recipient (Zhang and Daughtery, 2009).
Contextually, eWOM is employed through two different modes (Wang and Rodgers, 2010). The first is geared toward information seekers. These are usually in the form of product reviews on Websites or online forums. In this context, the information presented is primarily focused on the product and its performance. The second type is found on social media sites and within online communities. Users tend to employ communication focused on feelings and emotions. Wang and Rogers (2010) call this context emotion-oriented and this type tends to focus on broader experiences with the brand or product.
Due to the pervasiveness of social media and the amount of product and service experiences consumers share with others, eWOM offers a rich opportunity to explore WOM in context and as it occurs. Similarly, with more and more individuals trusting their network of peers to make purchasing decisions, eWOM will continue to have implications for marketing managers.
Psychological Drivers of WOM
While most WOM communication research has focused on the consequences of WOM (i.e. increase box office sales, more product reviews), there is still much to learn about what drives people to share their experiences with a product or service.
As reported by Berger (2013), “existing theoretical perspectives suggest WOM is driven by motivation” (p. 870). Ernest Dichter (1966) provided a motivational analysis of positive WOM advertising. One component of the study was to examine the motivation behind a person discussing a positive experience concerning a service or product. Dichter found that there are four motives that drive conversation. Those drivers were product-involvement, self-involvement, other-involvement, and message-involvement. Product involvement can be viewed as a form of social currency. An individual shares an experience with a product or service to fulfill a certain emotional need. Product involvement is defined as experience being so pleasant one must share that experience with others. Other-involvement meets the needs of the receiver. “HOW” Message-involvement refers to WOM generated by advertisements, commercials or public relations (Dichter, 1966).
Engel, Blackwell and Miniard (1983) extended Dichter’s work by refocusing each category and creating an additional category, dissonance reduction. This motive moved away from solely viewing WOM as a positive mechanism and examining the consumer’s desire to engage in negative WOM. Similarly, Sundaram, Mitra and Webster (1998) identified both positive and negative motives for WOM communication. Based on 390 Critical Incident interviews, Sundaram et al. defined four motives for positive WOM: altruism, product involvement, self-enhancement, and helping the company. Negative WOM was extended to include altruism (to prevent other from a bad experience), anxiety reduction, vengeance, and advice seeking.
Applying these existing theoretical frameworks to online channels, Hennig-Thurau, Gwinner, Walsh and Gremler (2004) extended Balasubramanian and Mahajan’s (2001) work on social interaction utility, and identified five motives for engaging in online WOM. The motives were called focus-related utility, consumption utility, approval utility, moderator-related utility, and homeostase utility. In brand-based computer-mediated communities, focus-related utility is based on the ability to add value to the community. Consumption utility relates to increased desire to contribute to product reviews and comments by a consumer through the viewing of other community members’ opinions and reviews. Approval utility describes the need to share opinions to gain the approval of others in the community. Moderator-related utility is derived from the relative ease a platform creates in consumer-to-consumer communication. The platform is seen as a way to air grievances with lowered financial and psychological risks. Finally, homeostase utility is based on Heider’s (1946) Balance Theory. No matter what kind of WOM communication that occurs (positive or negative), people tend to strive for balance. For instance, a consumer’s online venting may ease a negative purchase decision (Hennig-Thurau, Gwinner, Walsh and Gremler, 2004).
For the purpose of this project, the researcher will employ Lovett, Peres and Shachar’s (2013) theoretical framework as a guide to the data collection process. In their work, Lovett, Peres and Shachar (2013), identified three fundamental drivers of WOM: the social driver, the emotional driver and function driver. Each driver and its underlying motivations will be examined below.
The Social Driver
As Lovett, Peres and Shachar’s (2013) framework suggested, consumers seek products and services as ways to express themselves and fulfill certain psychological needs (Sirgy, 1982; Belk, 1988; Baumeister, 1988). These needs can be met through desire to converse (Rosen, 2002), self-enhance (Brown, Collins and Schmidt, 1988) or showcase one’s own uniqueness (Wojnicki and Godes, 2008; Berger and Schwartz, 2011).
According to Lovett et al. (2013), “the most fundamental social motive that can lead to WOM is the basic human desire to socialize, and thus converse, with others” (p. 7). As consumers enter social situations and struggle for conversation, they often reach for commonalities (Clark, 1996). Individuals may become more prone to discuss items that are visible or accessible, or cued by the environment (Belk, 1971). For a brand, becoming salient may increase WOM. Berger and Schwartz (2011) found that visibility drove immediate WOM. The more visible a brand was, the easier it was to use in conversation. Dubois, Rucker and Tormala (2011) observed the exact opposite. Consumers with less product certainty were less likely to share their opinions. Less certainty was seen to lead to lower accessibility. Accessibility also plays into conceptually related cues. Berger and Fitzsimons (2008) found that during Halloween season, Reese’s Pieces and orange colored soda were more heavily cued in people’s minds.