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

Conceptualization of the Construct, Research Questions and Hypotheses

In this chapter - after discussing the role of trust for online review impact - this thesis presents a literature-based definition and conceptualization of eWOM trust. Hereafter, thirteen research questions and fifteen hypotheses are proposed in order to assess multiple forms of construct reliability and validity, including translation-, criterion-, and nomological validity. For testing the latter, a comprehensive theoretical framework of eWOM trust including its antecedents, consequences, and correlates is presented. Subsequently, this chapter outlines additional assessments of scale generalizability. The chapter closes with a discussion of the applicability of the new eWOM trust scale (eWT-S). Here, it is proposed that the new measurement instruments offers - together with an assessment of consumers’ online ad trust - a valuable tool to segment online information recipients.

Evidence for Generalized eWOM Trust

Trust has been found to be an important factor that determines the nature of interpersonal relationships and enables its conduct (Ridings et al., 2002). Additionally, its critical role for social exchanges in the presence of risk and uncertainty is emphasized throughout academic literature (Gefen, 2000; Jarvenpaa et al., 1998). Trust is an important facilitator of information sharing among individuals as well as a primary cause for the development of new relationships. This is true for face-to-face interactions that take place every day (e.g., Coppola, Hiltz & Rotter, 2004; Gabarro, 1978; Piccoli & Ives, 2003), but also for impersonal online interactions (e.g., Gefen, 2000; Gefen et al., 2003; McKnight et al., 2002a). Here, during the last decade the research interest has been focused on the topic of consumer-vendor relations (Pavlou & Fygenson, 2006). However, more recently a new topic has emerged that targets the significant role of trust in the information given in eWOM reviews and recommendations (e.g., Hsu et al., 2007; Ridings et al. 2002; Urban et al., 2009).

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden 2017

W. Weitzl, Measuring Electronic Word-of-Mouth Effectiveness,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-658-15889-7_3

Trust in online social interactions (eWOM) can be best viewed in this context as an interpersonal relationship or relational exchange of communication content. For various years, consumer reviews are an inseparable element of the online shopping experience. OCR have become a socially significant object. This enabled the development of generalized behavioural patterns (e.g., eWOM usage, adoption) but also of relatively stable attitudes such as eWOM trust towards this form of online market communication. Before discussing the functions and key role of eWOM trust, it shall be noted that this thesis assumes that eWOM trust is not trust in reviewers per se, but a generalized orientation towards the information provided by these reviewers. That is, trust in the product of the source. Hence, it includes trust in other’s product experiences, evaluations, and recommendations. However, it is assumed that eWOM trust is inseparable from trust between people (interpersonal trust) (Rotter, 1971) or what Luhmann (1988) calls “personal trust”. This means that consumers of eWOM develop a uniform attitude towards the product (i.e., reviews and recommendations) and the source (i.e., reviewers or the review community). While social shopping, a consumer normally doesn’t interact with a specific other when exchanging market information; instead he/she interacts with a group of mostly unknown shoppers that form the community of earlier/present/potential customers of a product. Hence, the consumer interacts passively with this group, when he/she reads customer reviews from a group of persons, but also potentially actively when he/she posts reviews to the general public or responds to specific reviews. In both cases, trust is a necessity. Therefore, trust in eWOM has to develop between the individual and this community in order to enable and foster social exchange. That is, for a person who wants to engage actively in or consume passively eWOM communication, trust has to exist on the generalized collective (Ridings et al., 2002) or institutional level (i.e., trust in reviews in general) rather than on the individual level (i.e., trust towards single reviewers). For instance, writing reviews and giving personal recommendations to fellow shoppers is an apparent social action which bears the potential of being embarrassed by others in the form of negative comments. Trust in the community relieves the writer from this burden or minimizes the perceived risk which otherwise would deter him/she from involving in relational exchange. eWOM trust is therefore a key facilitator of this interpersonal relationship. This corresponds to various research contributions that have applied the notion of interpersonal trust to collective entities (e.g., Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998) or institutions (e.g., Soh et al., 2009) earlier - OCR are a socially constructed institution.

For consumers, eWOM trust has an important purpose. It is an imperative that in cases where strong trust between people exists, they are also more willing to get involved in cooperative interaction or shared activity (Gambetta, 1988; Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998). In the context of online reviews and recommendations, this cooperative interaction is represented on the side of the review reader by his/her tendency to collect, use and accept eWOM information and adapt their purchase according to the new insights granted by the reviewers. It’s common sense that consumers who think that customer reviews are both trustworthy and reliable also attribute a higher information value to this kind of market information, which further inclines them to 96

collect information from this source (Fang & Chiu, 2010; Ridings et al., 2002). Consequently, this trusted and valued information is very likely to influence subsequent purchasing decisions (e.g., Pan & Chiou, 2011) - especially in the absence of alternative information. This claim is well supported in literature. For instance, for Blau (1964), knowledge-sharing activities result from social exchange relationships which are influenced essentially by trust. Other scholars agree with Blau that there exists a causal relationship between trust and information sharing (e.g., Adler, 2001; Chen & Hung, 2010; Dyer & Chu, 2003, Fang & Chiou, 2010). For Dodgson (1993), trust relationships are substantial for effective communication. The same is assumed to be true for eWOM communication where eWOM trust enhances the quality of the dialogue and the persuasiveness of the eWOM messages.

Individuals develop trust in eWOM because this saves cognitive energy (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011). It gives us a basic orientation towards the trust object. More specifically, eWOM trust’s basic function is its vital role for reducing risks typically associated with customer review information and hence social complexity (Luhmann, 1979). In online social shopping, consumers typically look for cues which help them to select the right product, vendor etc. The positive/negative experiences of others with market offerings are an important aid and often the key reason for selecting/not selecting it. Similarly, recommendations are an important decision aid, often triggering the final purchasing decision. Depending on these reviews and recommendations therefore automatically implies accepting a set of various risks with respect to the product (e.g., financial risk) but also - and inseparable from this - risks associated with the reviews themselves (e.g., risk of deception, risk of being manipulated). Hence, the risks and dependencies that consumers face are typically not insignificant. And consumers apply mechanisms such as trust to reduce these risks. At its heart, to trust means that the truster thinks that the trustee will not exploit his/her vulnerabilities (Casalo et al., 2008; Corritore et al., 2003). Various authors emphasize that a reduction of perceived risk is an important result of the trustbuilding process (Mitchell, 1999). Implicitly, the same scholars acknowledge that for the development of trust, uncertainties about the social relationship have to be present that lead to certain perceptions of risk, vulnerability, and interdependence (Casalo et al., 2011). Trust’s function as risk reducer is especially important in the context of virtual knowledge exchange, as it shall “rule out” opportunistic behaviours (Ridings et al., 2002).

The risks associated with OCR originate from their specific characteristics. For instance, customer reviews are typically provided by strangers with whom the consumer has never interacted before and very likely will never meet in future. Due to the reviewers’ and recommenders’ anonymity it is reasonable for consumers to have doubts about the trustworthiness of these messages and about the creators’ basic motivations. Is the reviewer driven by true altruism or are there intentions to steer other shoppers wrong? Besides the lack of face-to-face contact, the identities of the reviewers may be suspect. For instance, employees of firms can impersonate regular reviews and fake the content of reviews easily. As they purely communicate information that is in the interest of the product’s producer, the reviews are no longer independent, objective and credible (Bray & Schetzina, 2006; Burgess et al., 2011). The opportunity to falsify customer reviews has been picked out by earlier research contributions (Litvin et al., 2008), but also by the media, which has uncovered unethical business tactics to disguise advertising as proper eWOM communication (e.g., Gee, 2011; Moe, 2012; Streitfeld, 2011; Tuttle, 2012). Therefore, consumers have good reasons to be sceptical towards eWOM and refuse this kind of information because of its latent risks. Believing and applying eWOM for purchase decisions can have serious negative effects. For instance, the recommended product turns out to perform poorly (functional risk) or the usage of a recommended product puts social pressure on the consumer (social risk).

The theoretical basis for explaining the need for a psychological construct which can be named (generalized) eWOM trust is supported by various disciplines but particularly by social psychology. In addition, there is some evidence that consumers tend to develop trust in eWOM as a way to reduce involved risks, interdependencies and vulnerabilities. For instance, according to a study realized by Nielsen (2012) 70% of consumers at least say that they in general trust and use online customer reviews. Other research institutions provide similar figures (e.g., Cone, 2011). Various studies (cited before) state that trust in reviews is the key trigger to show positive behaviours towards them and buying the recommended products - overcoming review and product risks.

We have seen that the characteristics of eWOM lead to conditions of risk, uncertainty, and dependence which makes the decision of the consumer how to implement review information in the purchasing process quite complex. Trust is an efficient mental mechanism of the human mind to reduce this otherwise overwhelming complexity. Since shoppers are not able to diagnose the quality and the background of every single review, they are urged to develop a constant mental orientation - or in other words - a certain level of generalized trust towards this kind of market communication. This orientation is triggered by generalizations about reviews but also their creators (i.e., reviewer stereotypes) that are reasonable in the eye of the consumer. eWOM trust determines the way of dealing with the eWOM world in a consistent manner and is, as such, deeply rooted in the consumer’s personality.

As eWOM trust ultimately determines communication persuasiveness as well as consumer reactions towards reviews and recommendations (buying behaviours), it is reasonable to measure the concept adequately. Academic as well as managerial studies usually apply imprecise operationalizations of the eWOM trust construct and are not able to detect varying degrees of trust. For instance, the above statistics about eWOM trusters may include persons who may label online reviews as sincere but are still not willing to rely on them. Not discriminating between those two types of groups may lead to a too optimistic impression about the effectiveness of eWOM messages in general. Others may reject eWOM completely, as they find this kind of information totally unbelievable, while others describe themselves as not trusting but unconsciously take a moderate stance. A precise measure of eWOM trust enables us to differentiate among those consumers and to anticipate the impact of reviews and peer recommendations.

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