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

Construct Definition and Domain

At the center of this thesis is its definition of eWOM Trust that recognizes the complex higher- order, multi-dimensional (Butler, 1991; Ganesan, 1994) as well as the domain-dependent (Luhmann, 1979; Rosseau et al., 1998) nature of the trust construct. A deep investigation into prior trust literature led to the identification of the concept’s critical ingredients which seem to be essential for a profound definition of the eWOM trust concept. Hence, in the identification phase of this research, eWOM trust was preliminarily defined as a consumer’s general confidence that the information conveyed in online customer reviews is reliable. More specifically, eWOM trust is formally defined as a five-dimensional, second-order construct capturing the extent a consumer has the belief that information given in online customer reviews is (a) honest, (b) useful, and (c) benevolent; (d) has a favourable attitude towards this kind of market information; and (e) is willing to rely on online customer reviews in general. Hence, eWOM trust is broadly regarded as a person’s disposition toward having belief in online review claims and recommendations in general.

eWOM trust is a generalizable trait-like attitude that predisposes individuals to rely on the opinions and consumption recommendations expressed by fellow shoppers on diverse platforms enabling consumer-generated content (e.g., retailer sites, review sites, blogs, online newsrooms, forums). According to Allport and Odbert (Allport & Odbert, 1936) traits are “generalized and personalized determining tendencies - consistent and stable modes of an individual’s adjustment to his environment” (p. 26). Accordingly, eWOM trust is recognized as an individual difference variable and a single consistent response tendency. eWOM trust is a constant, long-lasting and internally caused psychological construct that can be observed across a wide range of situations and contexts (John & Srivastava, 1999). This means that consumers with a low eWOM trust, regardless of the situation, may be impossible to influence by any means by the information given or arguments conveyed in online customer reviews, because they would not believe any stated claims (Obermiller & Spangenberg, 1998). Conceptualizing eWOM trust as a kind of personality trait coincides with the acceptance of the psychological claim that some mental structures are stable over time. There exists support in trust and personality literature to assume that if a person is a high truster at the present point of time he/she will likely be a high truster later. However, the correlation is not assumed to be perfect and at least some change is supposed to happen. Therefore, the person could also become less trusting as an outcome of a social learning process. However, a person’s timely ordered earlier position on the eWOM trust continuum will be significantly related to where the person finds himself/herself in the future. This justifies describing eWOM trust as a relatively stable trait. “Relative” as it is acknowledged that various conditions (e.g., gathering of negative reviews experiences) can lead to changes or variations in the consumer’s orientation and the time span of this change being presumably shorter compared to other personality traits.

This said, it has to be noted that the conceptual domain of eWOM trust is limited to text-based online customer or consumer reviews as well as recommendations of products, brands, manufacturers, or retailers. It is not this thesis’ intention to quantify trust in any form of peer communication on the Internet per se, such as informal conversations among consumers in online forums or social platforms. However, it is recognized that reviews - as defined earlier - can appear in diverse forms and on miscellaneous platforms. Further, eWOM trust is understood as a form of implicit interpersonal trust (Rotter, 1971), which exists between an individual (i.e., the consumer) and a collective entity of fellow shoppers that are typically unknown to the consumer. Specifically, it represents a generalized trust toward the information or recommendations provided by others (i.e., the reviewer community) and not toward a specific person or review (Lu et al., 2010; Ridings et al., 2002). This ultimately determines the components and scope of the construct.

It can be shown that this thesis’ trust definition is consistent with literature’s earlier conceptualizations. First, this study postulates that confidence is an integral ingredient of its trust definition. In trust literature, the concept of confidence frequently surfaces, as many scholars have decided to include this aspect in their definitions and conceptualizations of trust (e.g., Deutsch, 1960; Gefen, 2000; Johnson-George & Swap, 1982; Moorman et al., 1993). Barber (1983), for instance, views confidence as favourable expectations or predictions held by the truster that the trustee will benefit the truster. Confidence has been regularly regarded as an attitude (Fazio & Zanna, 1981; Raden, 1985) based on cognition and affect. Here, it is sometimes argued that confidence implies a person’s readiness toward a specific object and therefore the concept parallels the narrow definition of attitude (Kim & Tadisina, 2007). Numerous authors also included similar concepts, such as expectations (Baier, 1986; Barber, 1983; Good, 1988; Rotter, 1971), confident expectations (Lewis & Weigert, 1985, or subjective probability (Gambetta, 1988). As eWOM trust is conceptualized as a positive expectation that stems from a cognitive as well as emotional evaluation of internal beliefs and attitudes, as well as a positive intention towards peer information, the concept of confidence (i.e., the attitude that relying on eWOM information is safe) seems to be appropriate to mirror the true nature of the construct. Trusting eWOM users are best characterized by their sanguine attitude that the information given in reviews is authentic and acting on this basis of knowledge is safe and advantageous.

More specifically, in this thesis, eWOM trust is defined as the generalized confident expectation that online customer reviews are reliable. Here, reliability is defined as the consumer’s belief that eWOM consistently keeps its promises and hence is trustworthy. In literature, reliability has often been operationalized in terms of dependability, credibility, and consistency (Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Johson-George & Swap, 1982). For instance, McGregor (1967, p. 164) refers to reliability by noting “inconsistencies between words and actions decrease trust” and also Ouchi (1981) conceptualized trust in terms of an individual’s beliefs in the consistent or reliable behaviour of the trusted party. In marketing literature, Swan et al. (1988) identified reliability, which they labeled dependability, as one of the four distinct dimensions of trust. A consumer perceives eWOM to be reliable, if eWOM trusters believe that OCR is sincere about the claims they make about the discussed or recommended object (e.g., product, service, brand, and vendor) and they expect that these claims are very likely to be fulfilled by this object later. When an information recipient trusts ORC, this means - in general - that he/she is confident that his/her reliance is not capitalized.

Second, this thesis recognizes that the trust construct has more than one conceptually distinguishable facet and, therefore, defines eWOM trust as the psychological collectivity of relatively stable confident beliefs, favourable attitudes, and well-meaning behavioural intentions towards online customer reviews under conditions of uncertainty, risk and interdependence that are inherent in online social interactions of this kind. In trust theory, a two-way literature stream of trust conceptualizations typically emerges which mirror such an understanding. While the first approach concentrates on trust as an expectation, belief or attitude towards the current or future behaviour of the object of trust (Barber, 1983; Luhmann, 1979), the alternative approach associates trust with a person’s acceptance of and/or exposure to vulnerability (Doney et al., 1998; Mayer et al., 1995; Rosseau et al., 1998). The thesis at hand integrates both views by including five dimensions of trust that the literature has most frequently identified: (1) integrity/honesty; (2) ability/usefulness; (3) benevolence; (4) likeability; and (5) willingness to rely on. The first four factors of trust represent specific trusting beliefs and attitudes. On the other hand, the willingness to rely on dimension deals with the consumer’s acceptance of a risk inherent in any eWOM message posted from more or less unknown other consumers on the Internet. High eWOM trust should be manifested in each of these dimensions.

Third, this thesis’ definition also shares the similarity with established trust conceptualizations that trust consists of cognitive (i.e., the knowledge or belief component), emotional (i.e., the affective response towards the trust object), as well as conative elements (i.e., behavioural tendencies) (e.g., Barber, 1983; Lewis & Weigert, 1985; Luhmann, 1979; Mishra, 1996). These scholars heavily draw on the original conceptualization of attitude which follows the “three- component” or “tripartite” view (Katz & Stotland, 1959; Krech et al., 1962; Ostrom, 1968; Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960). High eWOM trusters therefore base their trust on cognitive judgments, emotional bonds and the readiness to use OCR in risky shopping conditions.

The proposed definition also separates eWOM trust from similar constructs, such as the more general attitude toward eWOM. Later it is argued that both constructs are conceptually separated but nevertheless related. For instance, a consumer may dislike eWOM in general because he/she does not trust this form of market information. Hence eWOM trust is seen as a critical correlate of positive/negative eWOM attitude.

While being conceptualized as an individual difference factor, it is recognized that an individual’s trusting stance in online reviews and recommendations is influenced by the human socialization process (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), including prior consumer experiences that make a consumer think and feel that he/she can rely on the words of others. Instrumental conditioning is one behavioural approach to explain the formation of trust. When the reliance on OCR (i.e., purchasing a socially recommended product) is followed by positive consequences (e.g., the product meets the consumer’s expectations), this trust is reinforced and trusting behaviours are more likely to be repeated. However, when the reliance on OCR is followed by negative consequences (e.g., the product doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations as the reviews turned out to be manipulative, false and opportunistic), trust decreases (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011). However, changes in the level of trust only appear slowly. People have a natural tendency to trust eWOM - like their natural tendency to trust/distrust other people - and hence it is quite fixed. However, this disposition coexists with situational eWOM trust when consumers face online reviews. Both types of trust may be influenced by the situation and both are assumed to have an interdependent relationship. For instance, it is accepted that the impact of generalized trust in eWOM on situational trust may vary to some degree due to situational variables that a consumer faces in a consumption actuality (e.g., perception of reviewer’s motives) - thereby induce a temporary state of trust (this view is consistent with the related works of Forehand and Grier (2003); Obermiller and Spangenberg (1998)). Hence, as such it can be temporarily, briefly and externally influenced (John & Srivastava, 1999). Nevertheless, a person’s generalized tendency to trust eWOM remains relatively stable and dominant in the most part and essentially determines situational trust (i.e., the consumer’s reliance in the specific review) as it sets the level of potential trust (McKnight et al., 1998). That is, a person who has a general low propensity to trust eWOM will never show the same level of trust in a specific review as a person who is generally more trusting. It is agreed that individual reaction to reviews is ultimately determined by situational trust. However, situational trust is itself only a mediator of internalized trust. Human reactions to eWOM are to a large degree determined by an individual’s global orientation towards it.

What follows is a more detailed discussion of the various components that are theorized to be responsible for the very own nature of a construct that can be called generalized eWOM trust.

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