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Home arrow Engineering arrow Measuring Electronic Word-of-Mouth Effectiveness: Developing and Applying the eWOM Trust Scale

Theoretical Importance

In recent years, marketing scholars as well as practitioners in the business sector have both recognized the extensive exchange of information among shoppers online. A growing body of literature mirrors the increasing research interest in the field of online advertising and eWOM effectiveness. In particular the topic of online reviews and recommendations as well as social media impact have become a vital field of scientific inquiry (e.g., Chung, 2011; Dhar & Chang, 2009). Much is already known. However, despite this heightened interest, research dedicated to providing adequate eWOM measures attempting to capture the characteristics of eWOM review and recommendations that make them persuasive rarely surface. Only a handful of the paper-and-pencil scales typically applied in the greater context of online shopping are validated. Until now, the focus of fruitful eWOM research was on topics such as the motivational background of contributing to eWOM (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004; Walsh & Mitchell, 2010), or the optimal approach to spreading viral communication (Berger & Milkman, 2012). In contrast, contributions on the appealing and critical concept of eWOM trust remain scarce.

In online research, the concepts of trust in shops or online shopping (e.g., Beldad, De Jong & Steehouder, 2010; Bente, Baptist & Leuschner, 2012), commercial websites (e.g., Ahrholdt, 2011; Aiken & Bousch, 2006; Chang & Chen, 2008), vendors (e.g., Becerra, 2006; Benedicktus, 2011; Chau, Hu, Lee & Au, 2007), products (e.g., Becerra, 2006), brands (e.g., Alam & Yasin, 2010), and the Internet as a shopping institution (e.g., Grabner-Kraeuter & Faullant, 2008; Lee & Turban, 2001) are generally recognized as critical variables for online consumer behaviour. More recently, researchers have also discovered the influence of social presence or trust in fellow, typically unknown, shoppers and reviewers on shopping outcomes (e.g., Casalo et al., 2011; Fang & Chiu, 2010; Liu & Zhang, 2010; Pan & Chiou, 2011). They all agree that trust between strangers can foster or impede shopping outcomes. At the same time they provide insight that purchasing online best takes place in an “atmosphere of trust”, where consumers produce attitudes towards the vendor, the medium, the product, and other shoppers. Various research calls have been put forward to capture additional insights into social shopping and eWOM effectiveness - including demands for a precise measure of consumers’ trust in online reviews and recommendations (e.g., Gefen, Benbasat & Pavlou, 2008; Urban et al., 2009). This research makes a pioneering step towards answering these calls. However, it also accords with other impulses for the advancement of research in the online shopping context (Chen & Hung, 2010; Taylor & Lee, 2008).

In accordance to Straub’s (1989) claim on scale development, the development of a reliable and valid scale will (1) bring more rigor to research and allow future scientific inquiry to be executed in a more systematic manner, as it brings standardization to the study of eWOM trust;

(2) promote cooperative research efforts in the research community; (3) help to assure that research results are valid and “can be trusted”, and (4) make earlier and future eWOM research results more interpretable and clear (p. 148). For example, while one can notice several research attempts which aim to evaluate eWOM impact, several of these contributions are contradicting, unclear on certain aspects or need further explanation. This thesis argues that eWOM trust is a key determinant of consumers’ responses to customer online reviews, which has been regularly ignored in earlier surveys. Therefore, a profound investigation into individual trust differences may bring more clarity in respect to so-far inexplicable phenomena. In addition, this research helps to better understand eWOM’s role in a modern communication environment.

Up to the present, several trust-related constructs have been measured in the greater context of consumers’ attitudes toward eWOM messages (e.g., eWOM usefulness, credibility, helpfulness, quality, and attitude). However, research suffers because of a missing domain- specific instrument which assesses the level of consumer trust in eWOM. This gap in research is caused by several critical problems:

First, there is no agreement among scholars concerning how eWOM trust should be conceptualized. For instance, some authors confuse eWOM trust with eWOM trustworthiness

(e.g., Burgess et al., 2011). The distinction between these two constructs is, however, an important one. While trust is often described as a general willingness of the consumer to depend on the information conveyed in the message in situations of risk, trustworthiness, in contrast, is the set of beliefs about the information that often precedes that willingness (e.g., Mayer, Davis & Schooman, 1995) or it is regularly regarded as only one of the aspects of trust (e. g., McKnight & Chevany, 1996). Related to this problem is the lack of agreement on the number of types or dimensions that trust in eWOM comprises. Existing measures of eWOM trust often do not cover the entire scope of the trust construct (e.g., Chen & Hung, 2010). Even though various items have been applied to measure trust in eWOM, they have to a large extent focused on measuring the integrity (e.g., deception, manipulation, falsity of the message) or the reliability (e.g., keeping a promise) of eWOM. Hence, these research approaches advocate a single-dimensional understanding of the concept. Trust literature, in contrast, provides meaningful insights that trust is best understood as a higher-order construct and is generally more than an individual’s belief that the trusted party is not deceptive or manipulative. Rather, trust regularly includes beliefs in the trusted party’s abilities to fulfil promises or tasks, benevolence, and predictability, but also the consumer’s willingness to rely on the trusted party under conditions of risk. While the attempts to measure eWOM trust are rare, the majority of the few attempts to date do not capture the true meaning of the construct.

Another critical issue in current eWOM trust research is the scales’ lack of established validity (and reliability). Additionally, eWOM trust has been regularly quantified with single-item measures (e.g., Burgess et al., 2011) or ad-hoc multiple item scales (e.g., Briggs et al., 2002; Casalo, Flavian & Guinaliu, 2008) that have not been validated. To my knowledge, there are no validated multi-item measurements of trust in eWOM which have been tested for internal reliability and validity either. Most of the typically applied scales were adapted from research in other contexts and/or were developed conceptually without the necessary empirical testing. Specific characteristics of the eWOM context were often neglected. The fact that these measures are derived from other domains makes it likely that eWOM-specific trust elements remain uncovered. In contrast to most trust theorists who conceptualize trust as a construct composed out of several dimensions, these single-item measures as well as ad-hoc scales commonly treat trust as a single dimension. The further use of invalidated measures which neglect the true nature of trust in online reviews and recommendations not only limits the comparability across studies but also limits future advances in the field of eWOM research.

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