Social media package: Dimensions for An Analysis of eWOM

If attitudes influence purchase intentions and decisions, it is useful to assess the main eWOM communication factors that can influence cus...

If attitudes influence purchase intentions and decisions, it is useful to assess the main eWOM communication factors that can influence customers’ attitude toward a product, a brand, or a company. Electronic WOM communication can be analyzed considering the four major elements in social communication: the message, the communicator, the receiver, and the response (outcome) (Cheung and Thadani 2010, 2012).

The Message

The main dimensions for the analysis of messages transmitted by the communicator to the receiver in the traditional WOM literature are valence (positive, negative) and volume (quantity of information) (Mauri 2002;13 Blal and Sturman 2014). These dimensions are considered also by eWOM studies, but sometimes with slight adaptations. Valence is contemplated through recommendation framing and recommendation sidedness. The first dimension refers to the valence of the message (positively framed or negatively framed), while the second refers to the balance of positive and negative content in the same message: one-sided when it contains alternatively positive or negative information and two-sided when it contains both positive and negative information.

Another important dimension considered by researchers in order to analyze the content of the message is argument quality, also named argument strength, that can be defined as “the persuasive strength of arguments embedded in an informational message” (Bhattacherjee and Sanford 2006). Argument strength is the extent to which the receiver of the message views the argument as convincing or valid in supporting its position. Argument quality evaluation depends on (Cheung and Thadani 2012):
  • relevance, the extent to which messages are applicable and useful for decision making;
  • timeliness, the extent to which messages are current, timely and up-to-date;
  • accuracy, the user’s perception that the information is correct and reliable;
  • comprehensiveness, the extent to which the message is perceived as complete.
Social media package

Filieri and McLeay (2014) in their study on antecedents of information adoption in accommodation add another dimension of argument quality to the model: value-added information, that is “the extent to which information is beneficial and provides advantages from their use” (Filieri and McLeay 2014). In fact, by means of online-generated content, travelers can get further information generally not included in the corporate websites. Some studies demonstrate that undetailed or very general messages are considered untrustworthy, while description of a detailed first-hand experience are viewed as a cue of the message validity (Schindler and Bickart 2005; Schlosser and Kanfer 2001; Doh et al. 2009).

Filieri and McLeay (2014) found that information accuracy, value-added information, and information relevance are more influential than other dimensions in predicting travelers’ adoption of online information in the hospitality industry.

In this first group of dimensions related to the message, we have to consider also some peripheral cues that allow people searching for opinions on a product or service to obtain shortcut information helping them to evaluate the recommendation.14 A first dimension is volume, i.e., the number of reviews/posts published by customers on a specific product, brand, company, etc., that creates an awareness effect about other people’s interest, influencing product sales (Duan et al. 2008). In fact, the number of reviews/posts is often associated to product popularity (Chevalier and Mayzlin 2006) and should be considered when evaluating the ranking of a product (Viglia et al. 2014). Namely, a first position on TripAdvisor of a hotel in a destination with only 10 reviews should be considered weaker than a second position with 80 reviews. However, these are aspects that sometimes the traveler does not take into account in the decision process (Filieri and McLeay 2014) and that generally prove more important for novices than for experts (Park and Kim 2008).

Other peripheral cues are recommendation consistency, recommendation rating, and product ranking and rating, also called normatively based determinants (Cheung et al. 2009). Recommendation consistency refers to the congruence of the message with the opinions of others about the product (the consensus of other reviewers on the topic). For example, a customer searching for a product, in the case of a remarkable presence of positive framed messages and only few negative feedbacks, could think that the authors of the negative reviews were unable to use the product according to instructions. Recommendation rating shows the perception of other customers about the topic of the review, offering readers an evaluation of the usefulness of the message. For example, more and more websites ask readers consulting reviews whether they proved useful (“Was this review helpful?”); this information is then sometimes published under the message (i.e., “30 people found this review helpful”). Product rating refers to the overall evaluation of a product or service by a consumer. It is a numerical information, generally a score given to the product, according to different scales and symbols on the basis of the website (e.g., five green bubbles in TripAdvisor, 1–10 scale in Booking.com, five stars in Expedia, etc.) (Minazzi 2010). The average score is also evaluated to create a ranking. Sometimes other indicators are added as, for example, the certificate of excellence of TripAdvisor shown under the ranking of the hotel. In the travel sector, ranking and rating could be useful shortcut information to select accommodation options and reduce the number of alternatives in a context where the number of accommodations online and of published reviews are rapidly increasing. Product ranking in hospitality is one of the most significant antecedents of travelers’ adoption of information from online reviews (Filieri and McLeay 2014). According to a study by Blal and Sturman (2014), ratings have a major influence on the performance (sales) of upper-tier hotels rather than on volume.

In the case of social networks, these last two dimensions are expressed for example by the “like” option of Facebook or the pins of Pinterest which are ways to tell others that you like that message, sharing the content with your network without necessarily having to write one specific post.


The Communicator

Shifting to the communicator of the message, the difference between WOM andeWOM regarding the generally unknown source of the message causes concern about the credibility of online reviews (Park et al. 2007). Therefore, source type and credibility are highly valued by customers reading online recommendations and posts. Source credibility is the extent to which a source of information is perceived to be believable, competent (characterized by a certain expertise), and trustworthy by information receivers. It refers to the reputation of the website where the review is published (Brown et al. 2007) and of the reviewer. In this last case, it is sometimes conferred by the administrator of the website and, at other times, is indicated by specific and formal ranking on the basis of the message’s helpfulness (Hennig- Thurau et al. 2004; Zhang and Watts 2008).

The source type is also very important because receivers of the message are influenced more by personal sources of information (i.e., friends and colleagues) than by unknown sources. Social ties between the two actors of the communication are critical elements. For example, in order to exploit the strong and personal social ties among people in the net, the commercial review website TripAdvisor allows users to log-in with Facebook credentials, thus offering them the possibility to identify the recommendations of Facebook friends. The opportunity to log-into other social media, websites, and Apps by means of one’s Facebook profile offers more and more information about the communicator, helping the receiver to better interpret his or her credibility or assess similarity. In fact, the content of the message is evaluated in a different way according to the degree to which the receiver perceives to be similar to the communicator of the message, generally considering age, gender, education, social status, etc. (homophily). According to various studies, the presence of details and personal identifying information (PII) of the reviewers (Xie et al. 2011) is generally a cue of the message’s validity (Ayeh et al. 2013). However, in the online environment this information is missing, reduced, or sometimes even intentionally fake. Therefore, according to some scholars, the conceptualization of homophily in this context is more associated with shared interests and behaviors (for example similar previous purchases, hotel preferences, etc.) rather than other personal information (Brown et al. 2007; Kusumasondjaja et al. 2011).


The Receiver

The response to a certain message coming from the same source of information can change according to the receiver’s perceptions, experience, and involvement. Several studies show that receivers’ features mediate information perceptions and therefore the impact on attitude and behaviors (Park et al. 2007; Zhang and Watts 2008; Cheung et al. 2009; Park and Kim 2009; Park and Lee 2009). Involvement (motivation) and prior knowledge (expertise) are highest on the list of the receiver’s features in eWOM communication research (Cheung and Thadani 2012). Moving from previous studies, we have identified the following main factors related to the receiver:
  • expertise, prior knowledge of the review/post topic and of the platform in which it is published. The expertise level of receivers can change over the customer’s life cycle (i.e., prospects and customers display different expertise about the products) and the product life cycle (products in their first stages versus products in their maturity stages) (Park and Kim 2008);
  • confirmation of prior belief, the extent to which the message confirms/disconfirms the prior belief of the reviewer about a product, a brand, etc.;
  • involvement, refers to the personal relevance of a product, a brand, etc. to the receiver, depending on her/his emotional and affective tie with the message;
  • motivation to process information, refers to the desire to engage in a cognitive activity by reading and evaluating information. This is more intense when receivers are searching for something to satisfy a personal need (focused search) (Zhang and Watts 2008);
  • cognitive personalization, concerns the inclination of people to interpret events and messages in a self-referential manner that is “the extent to which readers find resonance in the review and think about how they would feel in a situation described in the review” (Xia and Bechwati 2008)

Examining the receivers’ features that influence attitudes and purchase intentions and decisions, Park and Lee (2009) investigate also the role of national culture by comparing U.S. and Korean consumers’ behaviors. Moreover, Ricci and Wietsma (2006) in a study conducted in relation to the travel sector demonstrate the existence of a significant difference in the way men and women interact with online recommendations. Men show a high propensity to trust the opinion of the reviewer, while women seem less influenced by reviews and base their decision more on their own opinion of the product.

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