The buzz phrase that I have seen in every business plan lately is word of mouth (WOM), and to be more specific: electronic word of mouth (eWOM). The authors assert that if they do everything right (offer the right product at the right location and at the right price, etc.), customers won’t be able to stop talking about them. While this sounds good in theory, in reality there are still billions of dollars spent on advertising – much of it online at Google, Facebook, and others – by companies that haven’t been able to get customers talking.
A Perceived Relationship
To understand why that is, I turned to research by Rebecca Gunn and a definition of eWOM as: “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.” While eWOM has many of the same characteristics as the traditional offline form, there are some differences. For example, traditional WOM requires conversations take place orally, whereas eWOM conversations can take place simply through written language in an online environment. In addition, traditional WOM generally involves a relational aspect, whereas eWOM conversations may take place among people who have never physically met and may remain virtual strangers.
To compensate for the lack of relationship, researchers discovered that in online written content consumers often create personalities for unknown, faceless communicators. Because there is a perceived relationship, the content is considered more trustworthy and credible, so it has greater influence over consumers than other forms of traditional WOM. And, while traditional WOM’s audience is limited in size, eWOM can reach a wide scope of potential consumers. Finally, eWOM conversations reside online, which allows the information to be sought out and retrieved.
Motivations for Contributing eWOM
The big question, from the standpoint of a business, is why some consumers contribute to eWOM while others don’t. In order to get customers talking about your product, you need to know what motivates them to do so. Here are seven reasons people engage in eWOM.
Social Benefits. By contributing online, consumers are able to identify with others and express opinions, which are seen as part of the requirement for being involved in a social online community.
Enjoyment. Researchers have found that people relive exciting and adventurous experiences by contributing online.
Altruism. People truly want to help others make better decisions. In the travel industry, for example, consumers often warn of a negative experience or endorse a positive one.
Self-Enhancement. People like to be recognized as experts. Helpful eWOM through eloquent written reviews and recommendations enhances their online status.
Self-Directed. Similar to self-enhancement, self-directed motivation considers the entertainment value as well as the possibility of economic incentives, like monetary compensation or discounts. Self-directed motivation can be just a way to pass time and receive self-gratification; perhaps a better descriptor of this motivation would be self-gratification.
Consumer Empowerment. Consumers believe a company will pay better attention to them if they publicize matters in an online environment. They also see it as a way to ensure quality in a risky transaction.
Expressing Displeasure. eWOM may be used as a way to vent frustrations or to seek retribution. Although some studies have shown that this is not a primary motivator, negative eWOM could make consumers feel better after a bad experience.
There are many other factors that influence eWOM but one of the most significant is its availability. If a consumer has mobile access at the moment of great displeasure, she may be more tempted to turn to eWOM to share her displeasure than she would be hours later. Of course the same is true for a positive experience.
So what does any of this mean? It means that eWOM can be driven by any of a number of motivations, and that it can be positive or negative in nature. Your challenge is to tap into one or more of these major motivators to get people talking about your business. And, unless you can come up with some method of truly motivating consumers to engage in eWOM, you had better still include something in the business plan budget for marketing.