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

Trust in the B2C Marketing Context

Research on the consumer trust concept has been extremely fruitful since the recognition of the concept’s importance for relationship marketing. Various marketing scholars have integrated the insights of interdisciplinary research in their work or were at least inspired by other disciplines. For instance, by drawing from social psychologists and organizational researchers, Huff (2000) defines trust as “the willingness to rely on and be vulnerable to a marketer, based on confidence that the marketer will benefit and not harm the consumer” (p. 206). An inbound characteristic of this definition is the psychologists’ view of trust as a psychological state defined as a confident (positive) expectation regarding an action important to the truster. Further, critical elements such as dependence, risk and uncertainty are all mirrored in this conceptualization of trust. In addition, Huff recognizes in his conceptual paper that to trust means that one must have the willingness to be vulnerable to his/her interaction partner (i.e., trusting intentions), and that this willingness involves cognition as well as (social) emotions. Similarly, Johnson and Grayson (2005) draw on a well-established theoretical basis (e.g., Lewis & Weigert, 1985) when suggesting a hierarchical multi-dimensionality of trust, and conceptualize trust as having cognitive, affective, and behavioural dimensions. Their multifaceted concept of trust found empirical support as cognitive and affective elements, while being highly correlated, turned out to be empirically distinguishable.

However, most recognizable advances towards a better understanding of consumer trust have been made more recently in the field of online trust (refer to Beldad et al., 2010 for a review). The term online trust is not consistently idenfied as it is regularly understood as a consumer’s trust in (i) the e-vendor, (ii), the online shop or commercial website, or (iii) online shopping in general. This research string also borrows heavily from earlier well-established conceptualizations developed in other disciplines. Here, the work of McKnight, Choudhury and Kacmar (2002a), which is specifically based on earlier contributions of Mayer et al. (1995) as well as McKnight et al. (1998), represents a dominant approach to regard and measure online trust as a multi-dimensional concept. Meanwhile, their fundamental work has been adapted by numerous online researchers (e.g., Aiken & Bousch, 2006; Kim & Tadisina, 2007). Originally, McKnight et al. (2002a) focus on the formation of initial trust, which means to build trust in an unfamiliar trustee. That is, “a relationship in which the actors do not have credible, meaningful information about, or affective bonds with, each other” (p. 335, referring to Bigley & Pearce, 1998). In such a situation, trusters have to build trust through cognitive processes and thought. Hence, they apply contextual cues as information sources and have to “construct” trust by “adding up” judgments of the characteristics of the trustee. McKnight et al.’s contribution is grounded in the cognitive-based trust literature which contend that trusting beliefs can be produced quickly due to various reasons; for instance, social categorization, reputation, illusions or irrational thinking, disposition, institutional roles and structures, or out of the need to immediately cooperate on a task (McKnight et al., 1998). In contrast, scholars of the knowledge-based trust approach (e.g., Blau 1964; Ring and Van de Ven 1994; Lewicki and Bunker 1995; Shapiro et al. 1992) suggest that trust develops successively through social exchange and hence represents some kind of continuity. Nevertheless, according to McKnight et al. (2002a, b) the construct can be conceptualized as both trusting beliefs (i.e., “one believes that the other party [trustee] has one or more characteristics beneficial to oneself’ (McKnight & Chervany, 2002, p. 46) and trusting intentions (i.e., “one is securely willing to depend on, or intends to depend on, the other party even though one cannot control that party” (McKnight & Chervany, 2002, p. 46)). Besides these two elements, their definition also includes risk, as they state: “trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectations that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor that other party” (here, the authors refer to Mayer et al. (1995), p. 712). In essence, cognitive-based or initial trust is mostly grounded on rational expectations about the behaviour of the object of trust (McKnight et al., 1998), or trustee. In turn, those rational expectations are based on beliefs about the attributes of the trustee as being beneficial to the consumer, here also called the truster (McKnight et al. 2002a, b). According to the authors’ review of 32 articles, three trusting beliefs are most essential for the existence of trust: (1) competence (i.e., the ability of the trustee to do what the truster needs); (2) benevolence (i.e., the trustee’s motivation to act in the interest of the truster); and (3) integrity (i.e., the trustee’s perceived honesty and promise keeping). McKnight et al. (2002a) build on the holistic trust model proposed by McKnight et al. (1998) and establish conceptual relationships between the concepts of institution-based trust, trusting intentions, trusting beliefs, and disposition to trust by applying a parsimonious model of the theory of reasoned action (TRA). According to the scholars, trusting beliefs (or the perceptions of the e-vendor) lead to trusting intentions (i.e., the customer’s intention to engage with a specific e-vendor for purchasing purposes - e.g., willingness to follow advice, share information, and make a purchase), which in turn results in risk-taking behaviours. McKnight et al. (2002a) advance that both institution-based trust and disposition to trust are determinants of trusting beliefs as well as trusting intentions. This acknowledges that basic traits and general attitudes impact contextual trust formation.

McKnight et al.’s (2002a, b) basic conceptualization of trust as a combination of trusting beliefs (i.e., a set of specific beliefs) and trusting intentions (i.e., a general belief) has been advocated by various researchers (e.g., Becerra & Korgaonkar, 2011). For instance, for Aiken and Bousch (2006), trust is “a partner’s willingness to rely on an exchange partner in the face of risk” (p. 309). Aiken and Bousch describe trust as an attitude that has cognitive, affective, and conative (behavioural) components. The first two dimensions are covered by beliefs about the trustee’s credibility (i.e., reliability) and benevolence (i.e., the motivation to seek joint gain). Kim and Tadisina (2007) build on McKnight et al.’s (2002a) model. However, they argue for a more comprehensive trust model, as they conceptualize online trust as (1) trusting beliefs (i.e., perceptions of trustee’s competence and goodwill); (2) trusting attitudes (i.e., customer’s


positive affect and confidence in the e-vendor); and (3) trusting intention (i.e., a customer’s willingness to take a risk in the relationship). A similar approach is also advanced in the context of advertising trust by Soh et al. (2009).

Parallel to McKnight et al. (2002a, b), research emphasizing the nature of online trust has conceptualized the construct in two other ways (Gefen, 2002b). First, trust has been viewed as a set of specific beliefs about the other party, dealing with beliefs about critical combinations of the trustee’s characteristics (e.g., integrity, benevolence, ability) (e.g., Chang & Chen, 2008; Chen & Dibb, 2010; Chen, Griffith & Wang, 2005). This literature string is, for example, represented by the work of Chiou (2004). While giving no explicit definition for trust, the author measures the construct with a five-item measure adopted from Smith (1997), which strives to mirror trust in the truster’s belief in the honesty, responsibility, consumer understanding, profession, and company’s care. Gefen, Karahanna and Straub (2003) also make a distinction between behaviour and beliefs and conceptualize trust as a set of specific beliefs including evaluations of integrity, benevolence, ability, and predictability. They explicitly refrain from integrating trust affect since, according to the authors, such elements are arguably irrelevant in business relations. Trust is operationalized with a single dimension while implicitly mirroring the diverse trusting beliefs dimension. The model of Gefen and his colleagues (2003a) suggests that the antecedents of trust can be categorized into knowledge-based, calculative-based, and institutional-based trust antecedents. In a later article, Gefen and Straub (2004) define trust as a context-dependent multi-dimensional social concept whose vital dimensions depend on the specific circumstances framing the interaction. In reference to an online bookstore, the scholars propose integrity, predictability, ability, and benevolence as the key (cognitive) elements of consumer trust in an e-vendor (nevertheless, he contends that behavioural intentions are also critical elements of trust). According to Pavlou and Fygenson (2006), trust is “the belief that the trustee will act cooperatively to fulfill the truster’s expectations without exploiting its vulnerabilities” (p. 123). Wang and Benbasat (2005) conceptualize initial trust in online recommendation agents as the truster’s set of specific beliefs in the competence, benevolence, and integrity of the trusted party.

Second, trust has also been described as a general belief that the specific other party can be trusted (e.g., Arnold, Landry & Reynold, 2007). For example, Gefen (2000) used a single dimensional scale (with three items) to measure consumers’ overall trust assessments in an Internet vendor. He defined trust as “the confidence a person has in his/her favourable expectations of what other people will do, based, in many cases, on previous interactions” (p. 726). Gefen’s (2000) scale was later modified and applied by Gefen and Straub (2003), who followed Luhmann (1979) in defining trust as the belief that other individuals will act in foreseeable ways.

In reference to the second approach, researchers sometimes view the specific beliefs in the trustee’s characteristics (e.g., integrity, benevolence, ability) - which are often labelled as trustworthiness - as determinants of the general belief in trust (e.g., Bhttner & Goritz, 2008). Gefen (2002b), for instance, adopts this perspective by naming the specific beliefs as “dimensions of trustworthiness”, and nominating the general belief as “overall trust”. According to him, three specific trust beliefs (i.e., ability, integrity, and benevolence) together compose trustworthiness and are viewed as antecedents of overall trust. Gefen (2002b) defines trust (by referring to Mayer et al. 1995) as an expectation that the other party’s commitments will be fulfilled under conditions of risk by saying that trust is the “willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another person or people” (p. 39). The author developed a multi-dimensional measure of trust with six items measuring trusting beliefs and nine items to capture a consumer’s window-shopping and purchase intentions. Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky (1999) is another example. Trust is here described as “a consumer’s willingness to rely on the seller and take action in circumstances where such action makes the consumer vulnerable to the seller” (taken from an online resource). This definition is explicitly built on the earlier insights of Mayer et al. (1995) as well as McKnight et al. (1998). It analogously concentrates on the cognitive elements of trust (due to context) and describes the process of trust formation as a rational choice. For Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky, a store’s reputation and perceived size are both antecedents of trust, which is conceptualized as a combination of trustworthiness, integrity and benevolence, and is measured by a uni-dimensional (3-item) scale. The same conceptual approach was later advocated by Jarvenpaa, Tractinsky and Vitale (2000), who define it by referring to Doney and Cannon (1997, p. 37) as “a truster’s expectations about the motives and behaviours of a trustee”. In their research, the authors also applied Doney and Cannon’s unidimensional measure. Later, Jarvenpaa and Tractinksy’s (1999) single-dimension trust measure was also applied in the work by Pavlou (2003). In his definition of trust, he recognized McKnight et al.’s (2002a) conceptualization and describes trust as a belief in the other party to behave responsibly and to fulfil the trusting party’s expectations. Additionally, the trustee does not aim to take advantage of the risky situation of the interaction partner. Specifically, Pavlou (2003, p. 106) defines trust in B2C e-commerce as “a belief that allows consumers to willingly become vulnerable to Web retailers after having taken the retailers’ characteristics into consideration”.

Lee and Turban (2001) propose an integrative model for consumers’ trust in Internet shopping. The authors present trust in terms of expectations and willingness, as they hold that trust is the “willingness of a consumer to be vulnerable to the actions of an Internet merchant in an Internet shopping transaction, based on the expectation that the Internet [vendor] will behave in certain agreeable ways, irrespective of the ability of the consumer to monitor or control the Internet merchant” (p. 79). According to Lee and Turban (2001), the trustworthiness of an e-vendor is composed of ability, benevolence, and integrity. In addition, the research found that the propensity to trust moderated the relationship between the trusting belief of perceived integrity


and consumer trust in Internet shopping (measured with a uni-dimensional scale with three items: “Internet shopping is unreliable”, “Internet shopping cannot be trusted, there are just too many uncertainties”, and “In general, I cannot rely on Internet vendors to keep the promises that they make”). Koufaris and Hampton-Sosa (2004) also define trust in terms of a general belief, as they define initial trust as “the willingness to rely on a third party after the first interaction with that party” (p. 378). They recognize that uncertainty is a necessary condition for trust to exist. Additionally, they assume that the perception of uncertainty is generally based upon the beliefs describing the trustee’s ability, integrity, and benevolence. Hence, in their model, they relate various perceptions of the online company (e.g., perceived willingness to customize, perceived reputation, perceived size) and perceptions about the website (e.g., perceived usefulness) to trust perceptions, which is also influenced by a person’s trust propensity. Initial trust was measured with a uni-dimensional scale adapted from Doney and Cannon (1997) and Jarvenpaa and Tractinsky (1999).

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