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

Contribution and Implications

This research makes a theoretical as well as practical contribution. From the theoretical perspective, this thesis is one of the first of its kind to introduce a reliable and valid measurement instrument which can be used in the context of customer online research. As outlined in the introductory chapter, this research string has already recognized the potential explanatory power of the eWOM trust construct. However, contextual research is characterized by the usage of poorly assessed scales which often mirror the conceptual confusion among researchers concerning what to include in the construct and which kinds of dimensions most appropriately mirror consumers’ general reliance on online customer reviews and recommendations. Typically, the applied scales have not been tested for internal reliability or their necessary validity. Under such conditions, this research is able to make multiple contributions. First, the development of a reliable and valid scale, in general, brings the desired standardization to the study of the focal construct and enables scholars to investigate its characteristics and relationship with critical concepts of consumer behaviour more systematically. By providing a basis for common conceptual agreement, the new instrument can also stimulate further research collaborations among international marketing scholars. Further, through the theoretical recognition of the construct’s role and the collective usage of an adequate measurement instrument, research benefits as this adds to its interpretability and the acceptance of its findings.

More specifically, the application of the eWOM trust scale representing a valid and reliable indicator of the extent of consumers’ confidence in online customer reviews aids researchers to gain a profound knowledge of how and which consumers are influenced by others on the Internet. Preliminary evidence from online customer research suggests that personal characteristics and general orientations of the consumer impact his/her reactions to online reviews (e.g., De Valck et al., 2009; Park & Kim, 2008; Zou et al., 2011). This research has demonstrated that generalized trust in reviews has a far-reaching impact on the perceptions of individual reviews in terms of developed trust in and attitude towards these reviews. Both the recognition of the role of generalized eWOM trust as a determinant of review perceptions and the inclusion of direct eWOM trust effects can make a valuable contribution to the research of consumer responses to social information available on the Internet. The introduction of the eWOM trust construct in research frameworks and its measurement with the new scale may also enable researchers to explain some earlier inexplicable phenomena, as trust potentially has a critical role as a moderator between review perceptions and outcomes or as a mediator.

Further, this research makes a theoretical contribution, as it is specific to online research. However, the insights of interdisciplinary research helped to develop a theoretically sound conceptualization of eWOM trust. As Chapter 2 has shown, various disciplines have deeply investigated the concept of trust. Nevertheless, online consumer research has only recently discovered the construct’s explanatory power, leading to little systematic research in this field. As the study of consumer trust in online shopping (e.g., in e-vendors, in the Internet as a purchasing channel) has already shown, scientific progress can be stimulated by an in-depth knowledge of the nature of the core concept and an analysis of the eWOM trust phenomenon from a broad interdisciplinary perspective (e.g., Gefen, 2002b; Gefen & Heart, 2006; Mayer et al., 1995). The eWOM trust scale is theoretically anchored and derived from multiple scientific disciplines. This circumstance represents a launching pad for the explanation of diverse eWOM-related consumer behaviours from the viewpoint of interdisciplinary research.

In literature, contributions for segmenting consumers in respect to their communication patterns and attitudes are surprisingly scarce. While its key role for social relationships has been recognized for a long time, the concept of trust - in a similar way - is hardly used to identify target segments for marketing actions n(see Dimitriadis et al., 2011; Hulten, 2007 for notable exceptions), while being used in other contexts such as political voting (e.g., Schiffman et al., 2002). This research overcomes some of these limitations by making a first step towards grouping online consumers according to their reliance on the two major forms of online marketing communications. As such, it completes our knowledge about online consumers advanced by earlier research (e.g., Barnes et al., 2007; Bhatnagar & Ghose, 2004; Brengman et al., 2005; Ganesh et al., 2010).

From a managerial perspective, the new scale potentially enables some practical insights. Prior research, as well as the results of this thesis, imply that consumer trust recognizably affects the evaluation of review information and its impact on shopping and business outcomes. Empirical findings support the theoretical assumption that high trusters respond more positively (negatively) to positive (negative) reviews or recommendations than low trusting consumers (e.g., Bambauer-Sachse & Mangold, 2013; Tormala & Petty, 2007). The developed scale can help to anticipate the impact of social information in diverse communication channels and forms among different consumer groups and target audiences. The scale, here, not only enables marketers to assess generalized review trust, but furthermore can help to measure trust in specific messages, reviewers, and online channels.

By developing this thought further, this research has demonstrated that using the new scale can provide meaningful insights into essential topics of online market communications. The findings of the segmentation approach suggest that the identification of groupings of communication recipients who differ in terms of trust in online reviews and advertising and their subsequent targeting with group-specific communication efforts can trigger desired consumer responses. More specifically, literature as well as recent studies suggest that consumer scepticism towards advertising is constantly rising and represents a serious problem for marketers (Nielsen, 2012). The research at hand, however, shows that a relatively small amount of online consumers (29%) have low levels of trust in online advertising. A third of these consumers seem to be not responsive to any kind of market communication whatsoever. Hence, they are also unresponsive to negative eWOM (e.g., shit storm). The other two-thirds can be labelled pure review trusters. The high level of trust in online reviews results in a high influenceability of these consumers by opinions of fellow shoppers and the social climate towards a product or brand on the Internet. The social information is accented without questioning it. This is true for positive, but also negative, reviews. Companies face the challenge that they are completely unable to steer direct communications and thus can hardly elicit consumer responses. Negative eWOM can have an especially serious impact on business outcomes. This is intensified by the circumstance that pure review trusters appear to have a- priori strong hostile feelings towards companies and their offerings in general.

Low trusters, in contrast, seem to neglect information given by other shoppers, as well as marketers. This can be explained by a low susceptibility to informative as well as normative information and the orientation towards alternative information sources like personal experiences. The research has shown that a large proportion of almost two-thirds of online consumers has moderate or high trust in online reviews and online advertising and thus is responsive to marketer communication efforts. Especially, high trusters represent an interesting and actionable consumer grouping. Such consumers appear to have high trust in reviews; however, this trust comes with some scepticism towards its characteristics and reasonable risk perceptions of using this kind of information. The segment is also very active in sharing personal experiences with products and brands. This information transfer, however, may be also influenced by advertising contents, to which high trusters hold a very favourable and open- minded stance. That is, these consumers can be used as a trigger of viral marketing. They also have a very positive attitude towards companies, their products and the marketplace. Purchasing decisions are typically characterized by a strong usage of social information. This may be attributable to a low self-confidence in decision-making, as well as an openness to informational and normative influence. These characteristics imply that high trusters highly consider both consumer- as well as marketer-issued product clues, but they are particularly receptive to product claims distributed homogeneously in various communication channels and by various originators. Communication messages targeting this consumer group should therefore integrate the two major online communication forms and should additionally resonate well with the 318

characteristics of the high trusters. The emotional, cognitive as well as behavioural characteristics of the high truster segment provide some hints that its members show heightened customer engagement (Brodie et al., 2013) and activism. This surely needs further scientific clarification. However, if a relationship exists, companies may benefit from a number of consequences of customer engagement, including increased trust (e.g., Hollebeek, 2011), satisfaction (e.g., Bowden, 2009b), loyalty (e.g., Bowden, 2009a), and commitment (e.g., Chan & Li, 2010). The findings, on the other hand, also warn marketers to be cautious, as no group of consumers exists that solely relies on online advertising. Additionally, consumers - across all segments - typically trust eWOM more than product information provided by companies. This is especially critical when conflictive information is available.

Besides planning and managing communication efforts that are target group-specific (advertising and buzz management), the new scale also enables marketers to develop more efficient social recommendation systems. When implementing social instruments on their websites, marketers have to decide, for instance, in which form information is provided (e.g., star ratings, pictures) and which complementary cues (e.g., information on the reviewer’s name, origin, purchasing history) it should feature. Similarly, they have to decide which channels to use. For instance, recommendation systems can be included on the corporate website or on an independent, external site (e.g., By asking consumers to evaluate alternative forms and appearances of consumer reviews in terms of felt trust and other perceptions, marketers are able to find the best solution valued by consumers.

Finally, this thesis also provides some insights for policy makers. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that online customer reviews are an important form of third-party evaluations. This reputation instrument relieves consumers from risks associated with online shopping. Getting the advice from trusted individuals gives guidance and enables individuals to make well-informed and better shopping choices (Zhou et al., 2013). However, unethical behaviours are picked out as a central theme by the trade press recently, as some companies are using fake reviews in order to boost their sales or harm competitors. Steering consumers wrong with manipulated OCR is an unfair business practice. False online reviews seduce consumers to make consumption choices they wouldn’t have done if they had known the truth. A variety of firms have suffered from untruthful review content already and it is very likely that online shopping in general will be harmed in the long-run if OCR loses its credibility. Accordingly, various organizations and companies have begun to invest in authentication mechanisms that aim to ensure the correctness of the claims made in reviews. Researchers support this endeavour, for instance, by developing new instruments to discover lies in eWOM (e.g., Hancock, et al., 2007). By recognizing that untruthful eWOM jeopardizes consumers’ confidence in Internet shopping, national and international public authorities have put the topic of eWOM trust on their schedule (e.g., EU’s 2012 Consumer Agenda) and have started to develop new standards, guidelines and programs which all strive to ensure the authenticity of customer reviews and consequently consumer safety on online shopping portals (European Commission, 2014). The new scale here can make a valuable contribution, as it can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of such efforts in the long-run. The scale’s practicability allows its inclusion in longitudinal surveys permitting the capture of the eWOM/online social shopping dynamics in our consumption society.

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