In 2001 Bickart and Schindler argued that OWOM is more effective than WOM as it involves personal experience and opinions expressed through written words because people can seek information at their own pace. According to Marshall McLuhan (as cited in Griffin, 2003),According to Marshall McLuhan (as cited in Griffin, 2003), “written communication is also more logical than oral communication, as letter follows letter in an orderly line in writing, and logic is modeled on that step-by-step linear progression.”
New media technology has changed the form of classic interpersonal communication (sender-message-receiver) by introducing a new form of communicator, a forwarder or transmitter (Gumpert & Cathcart, 1986).
Compared to traditional WOM, online WOM is more influential due to its speed, convenience, one-to-many reach, and its absence of face-to-face human pressure (Phelps et al., 2004). Moreover, by using search engines one can seek out the opinions of strangers. This seldom happens in conventional interpersonal contexts where opinion providers are embedded in social networks and well-known people may be more credible.
Traditional WOM communication has received scholarly attention in the research areas of opinion leadership, interpersonal influence, and diffusion of innovation. WOM involves unpaid interpersonal communication between people connected through a communication channel (Godin, 2001; Reingen & Kernan, 1986). Studies have found that WOM communication is more influential in a person’s decision to adopt an innovation, while mass communication is more important in increasing people’s awareness of innovations (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955; Rogers, 1995; Williams, Strover, & Grant, 1994).
WOM communication is likely to be perceived as more persuasive because information from personal sources is considered more credible than information from mass media or marketing sources (Bickart & Schindler, 2001; Brooks, 1957). Information from personal sources is both custom-tailored and independent of the intention of an organization to sell something (Silverman, 2001). All of the above factors may contribute to the trustworthiness of WOM communication channels, although consumer comments posted on an independent online forum might not be more persuasive than those posted on a corporate website (Xue & Phelps, 2004).
Some researchers regard WOM as a driving force behind actions while others consider it to be an outcome of past experiences (Godes & Mayzlin, 2004).
WOM communications have been shown to exert a strong influence on consumers’ judgments of products (Herr et al., 1991). This influence is particularly prevalent when considering the purchase of a new product or service (Brown and Reingen, 1987; Scott, 2003). As such,WOM can have a strong bearing on a purchase outcome. Prior research on WOM has focused on interpersonal (or face-to-face) influence (Anderson, 1998; Bearden and Etzel, 1982; Rogers, 1983) and has largely neglected OWOM.
Consumers are increasingly turning to computer-mediated communication for information to use in their decision making process (Kozinets, 2002). Since the late 1980s, virtual communities have emerged, highlighting the importance of connections that are created when people interact with each other online. One such example is that of ”The Well” – a well known, vibrant and engaging online community of leading-edge thinkers that interacted with each other through the postings on its electronic discussion board (Hagel III and Armstrong, 1997). Over time, these accumulated postings became a wealth of information with a captive audience which was active in commenting and contributing to the cumulative knowledge. Other examples of such virtual communities have since flourished on the Internet and researchers are increasingly recognizing that consumers partake in such discussions to inform and influence fellow consumers about products and brands (Kozinets, 1999; Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001).
Traditional (offline) word-of-mouth has been shown to play a major role for customers’ buying decisions (Richins & Root-Shaffer, 1988). The advent of the Internet has extended consumers’ options for gathering unbiased product information from other consumers and provides the opportunity for consumers to offer their own consumption-related advice by engaging in electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM). Given the distinct characteristics of Internet communication (e.g., directed to multiple individuals, available to other consumers for an indefinite period of time, and anonymous), eWOM deserves the serious attention of marketing researchers and managers.
However, only limited research on consumers’ eWOM communication has been publishedto date. Existing publications tend to be predominantly practice oriented and deal with what is often referred to as “viral marketing” (i.e., using consumer communication as a means of multiplying a brand’s popularity through customers spreading the brand name of a product or name of a company). However, online community research typically focuses on either the managerial aspects of such communities (Armstrong & Hagel, 1996) or on the sociopsychological aspects of the formation and existence of online communities (e.g., Fischer, Bristor, & Gainer, 1996; Granitz & Ward, 1996). Online community research has not yet analyzed the product-related communication behaviour between community members nor the resulting marketing implications.
eWOM communication can take place in many ways (e.g., Web-based opinion platforms, discussion forums, boycott Web sites, news groups). In this study, we focus on eWOM communicated via Web-based consumer-opinion platforms for the following reasons. First, Webbased opinion platforms are the most widely used of the existing eWOM formats. World
wide, approximately nine to ten million productor company-related comments from consumers are available to Internet users on Web-based consumer- opinion platforms (e.g., epinions.com, consumerreview.com, and rateitall.com),1 which provide consumers with the opportunity to read other consumers’ consumption opinions and experiences as well as write (i.e., publish) contributions by themselves.
Second, eWOM communication articulated on Web-based consumer-opinion platforms can be expected to exert a stronger impact on consumers than eWOM published through other means because unlike news groups, such Webbased consumer-opinion platforms are relatively easy to operate and require less Internetrelated knowledge on the part of the consumer to obtain information.
In this social 3D Internet environment
the avatars are involved in spreading the Word-of-Mouth
(WOM) about both real and purely virtual brands. Word-of-
Mouth is “informal, evaluative (positive or negative) talk
between two or more people, online or offline, about an organization,
brand, product, or service, which may or may
not include a recommendation” . These article is focused
on analysizing the nature of spreading WOM about real
brands within virtual worlds, this means that the subject of
examination is purely digital WOM (WOM in virtual
world: vw-WOM). The empirical data presented in this article
was obtained from the largest social virtual world for
adults – Second Life.
WOM has a strong influence on product and service perceptions, leading to changes in
judgments, value ratings and the likelihood of purchase (Arndt, 1967; Fitzgerald Bone,
1995; Peterson, 1989). Martilla (1971) found that WOM was more important in the final
stages of the purchase process as it reassured consumers and reduced post-purchase
Other outcomes are also likely. Research has suggested electronic WOM (eWOM),
such as online customer forums, generates greater empathy, credibility and relevance,
than does information generated by the organisation itself, such as through a corporate
webpage, apparently because eWOM relates personal experiences and stories (Bickart
and Schindler, 2001).
In general, word-of-mouth is defined as informal, noncommercial,
oral, person-to-person communication about
a brand, a product or a service between two or more consumers
. WOM among consumers incorporates three
different activities. First, information is sought for immediate
use aimed at risk reduction. Second, information is
obtained and stored for future usage and, third, information
is shared in order to influence other people’s decisions
. WOM is used when buyers lack the information
necessary for a purchase or when they perceive the
risk associated with the purchase as high . Consumers
have been found to turn to personal contacts for reassurance
and to loose contacts for their expertise .
Since people are basically willing to heed the advice
of strangers, the anonymity of the WWW is by no means
an obstacle to the success of eWOM.
In general, consumers are influenced by and rely on
what others say about a product before they buy it . If
there is not enough information about the product available
from other sources and the risk involved for the
buyer is therefore high, the influence of WOM on
consumers’ purchasing decisions is also high .
However, product information provided by companies is
less influential among consumers than information
provided on consumer opinion sites or discussion boards
. Also, consumers consider negative WOM information
more helpful than positive information in distinguishing
between high-quality products and products of low quality
. To companies, eWOM may serve as a feedback
mechanism that helps them to improve the quality of their
products and to acquire new customers . Companies
may even offer consumer opinion forums on their own
Web sites to strengthen customer loyalty and reduce
service costs . The feedback companies obtain should
Arndt defines WOM as “… oral person-to-person communication between a receiver and a communicator whom the receiver perceives as non-commercial, regarding a brand, product or service.” (1967, p. 291) However, it is important to point out that WOM need not necessarily be brand, product or service-focused. It may also be organisation-focused. Neither need WOM be face-to-face, direct, oral or ephemeral. The electronic community, for example, generates virtual WOM which is not face-to-face, not direct, not oral, and not ephemeral (Buttle, 1998).
One of the most widely accepted notions in consumer behaviour is that WOM plays an important role in shaping consumers’ attitudes and behaviours. In an early study, Whyte (1954) investigated the diffusion of air conditioners in a Philadelphia suburb. He concluded, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, that the pattern of ownership could be explained only be the presence of a vast and powerful network consisting of neighbours exchanging product information. In a more formal study, Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) found that WOM was the most important source of influence in the purchase of household goods and food products. It was twice effective as radio advertising, four times as effective as personal selling, and seven times as effective as newspapers and magazines.
Subsequent investigations of the WOM phenomenon have confirmed the dominance of personal influence in choice decisions. Engel et al. (1969), for example, found that almost 60 percent of consumers cited WOM as the most influential factor regarding their adoption of an automotive diagnostic centre. Similarly, Arndt (1967) showed that respondents who received positive WOM about a new food product were three times more likely to purchase it as those who received negative WOM. More recent research is provided by Herr et al. (1991). They observed that WOM communication had a much stronger impact on brand evaluations than information from neutral sources such as the ‘Consumer Reports’ magazine.
The power of WOM communication stems from various factors. First, consumer recommendations are usually perceived as being more credible and trustworthy than commercial sources of information (Day, 1971). It is common to assume that another consumer has no commercially motivated reasons for sharing information (Engel et al., 1993). Also the discussions with either friends or family tend to be friendly and can offer support for trying certain behaviours. Second, the WOM channel is immediately bi-directional and interactive which allows for a ‘tailored’ flow of information to the information seeker (Gilly et al., 1998). The third strength of consumer WOM comes from its ‘vicarious trial’ attributes. Potential consumers of a product, for example, can gain some of the product experience by asking somebody who has an actual experience with the product.
WOM is of particular importance to the services sector. The typical characteristics of services such as intangibility, simultaneous production and consumption, perishability, heterogeneity and the need for the consumer participation results in the fact that suppliers are not able to present the product in advance of the purchase (Helm and Schlei, 1998; Zeithaml and Bitner, 1996). Services, therefore, are high in experience and credence properties which the consumer can only ascertain after purchase and use (Zeithaml and Bitner, 1996). As a consequence, consumers of services rely to a large extent on personal communication and the exchange of experiences with other customers since their experiences of serve as a ‘vicarious trial’ (Engel et al., 1993). Empirical support for the importance of WOM when purchasing services is provided by Murray (1991) who found that services consumers prefer to seek information from family, friends and peers rather than sponsored promotional sources.
Researchers and practitioners have long recognized the
importance of person-to-person WOM (e.g., Coleman 1966;
Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955; Rosenzweig and Foster 1995). The
use of the Internet for publicizing feedback and recommendations
on products and businesses has broadened the reach of
WOM and sparked an interest in re-examining the effect of
WOM in the digital age (Chen and Xie 2004; Dellarocas 2003;
Senecal and Nantel 2004; Zufryden 2000).
. Virtual communities can be considered word-of-mouth networks, i.e.,
consisting of multiple dyads.
The impact of word-of-mouth communication within virtual communities
depends on both the structural and the interactional characteristics of the
network . The structural characteristics include factors such as the size
of the network, number of connections between one person and all
others, and the number of actual relationships relative to the potential
number,whereas the interactional characteristics include tie strength and
degree of homophily among members of the network . The potential
impact of virtual communities is large; recommendations can bemade at
virtually no costs, and they can spread quickly within and outside the
virtual community network. Moreover, virtual community members
share an interest, which produces affinity and creates a bond. These social
network qualities coupled with the perceived credibility of consumer
evaluations, make the virtual community a powerful platform for
exploiting consumer-to-consumer recommendations, for example, by
means of viral marketing campaigns, i.e., using online consumer-toconsumer
referrals as a means of multiplying the popularity of a brand,
product, or company [24,84].
Several researchers have investigated what motivates consumers to
make contributions to the online knowledge reservoirs that virtual
communities constitute. Hennig-Thurau et al.  find evidence for eight
different motivations that largely correspond to motivations found for
engaging in word-of-mouth communication in the traditional, face-toface
setting: (1) venting negative feelings, (2) concern for other
consumers, (3) self-enhancement, (4) advice seeking, (5) social benefits,
(6) economic incentives, (7) platform assistance, and (8) helping the
company. Hennig-Thurau et al., furthermore, examine to what extent the
frequency of visits, as well as the number of comments written, are a
function of these eight motivations. It is social benefits that motivate
consumers most strongly, both to visit the platform and to articulate
themselves. Finally, the authors develop a motivation-based segmentation
of electronic word-of-mouth senders that distinguishes self-
interested helpers who are driven by economic incentives, consumer
advocates who act out of concern for other consumers, true altruists who
are motivated to help both other consumers as well as companies, and
Wiertz and De Ruyter  investigate contribution behavior to firmhosted
commercial online communities, inwhich customers interact to
solve each other’s service problems. They extend a model of social
capital based on Wasko and Faraj  to examine the direct impact of
commitment both to the online community and the host firm, aswell as
reciprocity, on quality and quantity of knowledge contribution. They test
their framework using self-reported and objective data from 203
members of a firm-hosted technical support community. Surprisingly,
their results indicate no relationship between members’ perception of
the normof reciprocity and contribution behavior. Also, they do not find
a significant relationship between commitment to the firm and quantity
and quality of contributions. Instead, this study shows that consumers
who contributemost in terms of quantity and quality are driven by their
commitment to the community,which is another indicator of the power
of virtual communities as networks of companionship. Besides
commitment to the community, Wiertz and De Ruyter find that
member’s online interaction propensity (i.e., a prevailing tendency of
an individual to interact with relative strangers – people they have
never met offline – in an online environment), and the informational
value s/he perceives in the community are the strongest drivers of
Other researchers have focused on the effects of online word-ofmouth
communication. Chatterjee  reports the results of an
experiment that examines the effect of negative online reviews. This
study shows that existing theories about interpersonal influence in
the traditional setting also apply to the online context; consumers are
more likely to search for and accept (negative) online word-of-mouth
communication in a situation in which they lack information and
experience, as well as in a situation in which risk is higher [39,77,78].
Chevalier and Mayzlin , aswell as Dellarocas et al. , address the
value of online word-of-mouth recommendations in terms of their
financial impact and their revenue forecasting potential. Chevalier and
Mayzlin show that the number of online consumer reviews about a
book is related to book sales. Besides, they find that negative reviews
have a stronger effect than positive reviews; this effect has been
shown before in the offline context . Dellarocas et al. show that
online consumer reviews about movies are representative of the
movie-going audience at large, and that the online consumer reviews
are better forecasters of movie revenues than professional critic
reviews. Together, these findings support the viewpoint that online
forums function as alternative and influential sources of information.
The existing literature about virtual communities and interpersonal
influence gives a first insight in the functioning of virtual
communities as reference groups and word-of-mouth networks, but
many questions remain. In the following sections, we start with
answering the most basic ones. Section 3 examines the determinants
and effects of virtual community influence on consumer decisionmaking.
Our research framework is based upon existing theories of
interpersonal influence and word-of-mouth recommendation. We
explore in what respect these theories can be extended from the
traditional context to the computer-mediated context of virtual
It is widely accepted that word-of-mouth communication plays an important role in shaping consumers’ attitudes and behavior (Brown and Reingen 1987). Word-of-mouth has been shown to have a substantial impact on product choice (Kiel and Layton 1981), as well as in choosing services (Ennew, Banerjee, and Li 2000; Keaveney 1995). For example, Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) found that word-of-mouth was the most important source of influence in the purchase of household goods and food products. Their research revealed that word-of-mouth was actually much more effective in influencing consumers’ behavior than mass media (newspapers, magazines, and radio advertising) or personal selling. However, word-of-mouth is gaining new significance by the unique properties of information and communication technologies, like the Internet (Dellarocas 2003), and thus it is important to explore how the electronic environment may affect word-of-mouth behavior.
WOM has received considerable attention in the marketing literature and it is widely recognized to be a powerful marketing force (Silverman, 2001). WOM communication refers to “informal communications directed at other consumers about the ownership, usage, or characteristics of particular goods and services and/or their sellers” (Westbrook, 1987, p. 261). The interest among researchers in this phenomenon arises from the high occurrence of WOM in the marketplace (Sundaram, Mitra, & Webster, 1998) and its proven impact on the awareness, beliefs, attitudes and actual decisions of those who receive it (Brown & Reingen, 1987). This form of interpersonal information exchange has been found to be particularly important with regard to services (e.g., Baron, Harris, & Davies, 1996; Harris & Baron, 2004; Zeithaml & Bitner, 2003) and the diffusion of innovations (Arndt, 1967). WOM communication involves dyadic exchanges and in the WOM process, there is a sender as well as a receiver. Both benefit from the exchange. The receiver gets more information that is helpful for the decision process, relatively fast. After purchase, WOM can help to reduce cognitive dissonance that occurs when consumers question if they made the right purchase decision. In this case, WOM communication can comfort consumers. Likewise, the sender increases its confidence about his/her own behavior or product choices by convincing others to do the same. They also receive benefits of feeling powerful and helpful by providing others with information and thereby influencing the behavior of other consumers (Blackwell, Miniard, & Engel, 2001). The benefits resulting from WOM communication for both parties in the process are summarized in Figure 2.1. 7 Figure 2.1 Benefits of WOM. (Blackwell et al., 2001, p. 405) WOM communication often occurs as part of external search activities undertaken by consumers in their decision-making process (Sénécal & Nantel, 2001). Consumers may engage in these external search activities either as part of prepurchase search, i.e. information search related to a specific purchase, or as part of ongoing search, which refers to search for information that is independent of specific purchase needs or decisions (Beatty & Smith, 1987). Ongoing search activities are rather meant to enhance knowledge of particular brands and/or product classes, but without any purchase intent at the time of search. When performing external search, WOM sources are only one of many information sources available to customers. Beatty and Smith (1987) distinguished between media search (e.g. television and radio ads), retailer search (e.g. phone calls to retailers, trips to retailers), interpersonal search (e.g. friends, neighbors) and neutral sources (Consumer Reports). In studying the determinants of consumers’ external search effort, Peter and Olson (2005) reported, similarly to Beatty and Smith (1987), that the extent of search depends on product characteristics such as price and complexity, marketplace and situational characteristics such as store distribution and time pressure, and also on consumer related variables such as selfconfidence and attitude towards search and shopping. 8 It has to be noted that WOM can be very positive and in this case it can represent the marketer’s greatest assets, but it can also have a destructive effect when consumers spread negative WOM, which seems to occur even more than favorable WOM. Previous research has found that people are three to ten times more likely to tell others about a negative than a positive experience and satisfied customers spread the word to about three other people, while dissatisfied customers tell approximately eleven others (Silverman, 2001). Arndt (1967), for instance, showed that both positive and negative WOM influences the probability of purchase, whereby favorable WOM increases purchase likelihood and unfavorable WOM decreases the probability. Besides purchase likelihood, short-term and long-term product judgments are also influenced by WOM communication as found by Bone (1995).
It is argued that WOM is becoming ever more prevalent nowadays, partly due to the
enormous product variety coupled with limited product differentiation and information
overload that customers face. This has made information search more challenging
(Ramaswami & Varghese, 2003) and WOM can help to reduce uncertainty and the amount of information that is involved in making a decision. Consumers are no longer passive, but become active information seekers. Therefore, several researchers suggest making WOM more central to marketing and to the development of marketing strategy (Ozcan, 2004; Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2004).
Two characteristics that distinguish WOM from other information sources is that, in contrast to manufacturer/seller sources like product advertising or labeling, or even independent, third party sources like Consumer Reports, WOM is usually perceived as more credible and trustworthy. Second, WOM is more readily available through social networks (Yong, 2006).
WOM is spread by people who do not represent a commercial selling source, so they are perceived to have little interest in promoting the company and they have no direct gain from altering the truth in favor of the product or service (Jin, Bloch, & Cameron, 2002; Silverman,
2001). It provides people with a source of information that is independent of the seller or producer and hence it represents a rather objective point of view. Besides the perceived credibility of WOM, it has also been argued that WOM information from other consumers is of greater relevance. It often describes product features in terms of usage situations and performance from the user’s perspective, whereas information provided by the seller focuses more on technical specifications and technical standards for product performance (Chen & Xie, 2004). WOM provides product experiences of other consumers, without having to buy 9 the product immediately. Past research has underscored the predominance of others as a source of information. In a study on external search effort, Beatty and Smith (1987), for example, found that information from friends was sought especially in cases where the individual has a lack of product knowledge. Herr, Kardes and Kim (1991) showed that WOM communications have a greater impact on product judgments than information presented in printed format, because information received face-to-face is more vivid as compared to marketer-provided information, such as advertisements. A majority of the research concerning
WOM focuses on personal sources of information, whereby the sources have been classified according to the closeness of the relationship between the WOM source and the WOM receiver (Duhan, Johnson, Wilcox, & Harrell, 1997). Strong tie sources are for example friends and family, while weak tie sources include acquaintances and strangers. In their study, Duhan et al. (1997) reported that perceived tie strength influences the selection of these sources and that consumers have different motivations for the use of weak versus strong tie sources. Price and Feick (1984) studied the use of interpersonal sources and found that about
91 percent of their respondents were likely to use knowledgeable friends, relatives, or acquaintances as information sources in product purchases.
Given the strong influence of WOM on consumers, companies have a great deal to gain from understanding and stimulating WOM communication and they seem to start recognizing this, as firms are increasingly seeking to increase positive WOM (Villanueva, Yoo, & Hanssens, 2006). As mentioned before, both positive and negative WOM can influence consumer behavior and subsequently business performance. Positive WOM can help to create a
favorable image for the brand and the company, while negative WOM is likely to deter consumers from buying a certain product or brand, and hence can damage the reputation and performance of a company (Sundaram et al., 1998). In contrast to the high marketing costs of acquiring new customers though advertising and other promotions, WOM does not require investments from the companies’ marketing resources. In fact, satisfied customers become some kind of sales assistants free of charge. Villanueva et al. (2006) reported evidence for the link between WOM and firm performance. They found that customers acquired through marketing contribute more to firm’s performance in the short run than customers acquired through WOM. However, the latter group tends to stay longer as active customer and thus generate more value over time. Moreover, customers acquired through WOM are better at future WOM generation. They bring approximately 3.23 new customers, while those acquired through marketing investments bring in only around 1.59 new customers (Villanueva et al.,10 2006). As the authors found, in the long run, this results in the fact that customers acquired through WOM have double the impact than customers acquired by marketing-induced channels. Furthermore, in the literature, WOM has been found to be strongly correlated with satisfaction and loyalty (e.g., Hennig-Thurau, Gwinner, & Gremler, 2002; Magnus, 1998;Zeithaml & Bitner, 2003). Loyal customers tend to recommend a product or service to others.Reichheld (2003) reported that in many industries, getting customers enthusiastic enough about a company so that they s
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