Thursday, May 25, 2006

Is Negative WOM More Frequent Online than Offline?

I'm trying to make sense of two seemingly contradictory positions about the prevalance of positive and negative WOM (PWOM, NWOM). Let's start first with some recent findings reported by Keller Fay from their TalkTrack methodology (opens into PDF).

Their data show that brand-related interactions are more likely to be "mostly positive" (62%) than "mostly negative" (9%) in terms of valence (aka, polarity or sentiment). And the majority of the WOM episodes represented were offline (92% to be exact, including F2F and telephone).

My own research with college-students (obviously not a representative sample) also supports the finding that PWOM is more frequent than NWOM (and a similar percentage of these interactions were in offline settings too).

Further, Robert East from Kingston Business School, has found that PWOM is 3x more likely than NWOM (largely because people have more opportunities to spread positive WOM). Robert's research also suggests the counter-intuitive finding that PWOM and NWOM are not all that different from each other in terms of impacting brand decisions, though this varies by category. Read his study for more details (opens into PDF).

A contrasting picture, however, emerges from Pete Blackshaw in a recent blog post and ClickZ article on defensive branding. Pete contends that in online CGM venues negative experiences are far more prevalent than positive ones. This is especially the case in search, where people are seeking out information online and considering a purchase. It seems that for certain product categories, such as automotive and electronics (two categories mentioned in Pete's post), the search results are often dominated by negative comments. Further, if it's indeed the case that many people use search for researching brands before they buy, then these negative comments can have a great deal of reach with, and potentially impact on, other consumers. So, regardless of whether or not all online CGM is more positive or more negative (anyone know of comprehensive research on this matter?), the important point according to Pete is that search results, at least for certain categories, often include more negative comments than positive comments (and these are the comments more likely to be seen by inquiring consumers).

OK, so let's assume the following for the sake of argument: PWOM is more prevalent in offline venues and online CGM-related search results are frequently more negative. What explains this difference? Is there something about people's communication patterns via online and offline media? Is it somehow easier to share PWOM offline? Is it somehow more gratifying to complain online?

Existing academic research by Sundaram et al. (1998) in Advances in Consumer Research shows that there are four primary motivations for spreading negative WOM: 1) altruism (to help ensure others don't get burned); 2) anxiety-reduction (telling someone else about the negative experience allows the other person to validate the person's reaction as reasonable and appropriate and gets the issue off our chest); 3) advice-seeking (where one person has a negative experience and seeks the aid of another to help them decide how to respond); and 4) vengeance (wanting to get back at the company).

All of these motivations could also apply to CGM/online WOM. And research by Bailey (2004) in the Journal of Marketing Communications certainly suggests that the internet does contribute to negative consumer-to-consumer articulations because it provides a forum where angry customers can make complaints and have a receptive and global audience to validate their negative experience. These articulations invite "that-happened-to-me-too" responses from others and these "me-too" comments may in turn raise the rankings of such posts in search engine rankings (this is speculation on my part but it seems plausible). Coincidentally, see an exchange between my students about bad cell phone service on our class blog and others responding with "me-too" comments (this example includes trashing one service provider while praising another.)

Plus don't forget that WOM articulations communicate more than just information about the product, but also about our own identities (this is what I like and don't like and this is the type of person I am and am not). The internet is a huge forum for this kind of identity-expression (or perhaps more accurately, identity-construction) -- just think MySpace and other social networking and community forums -- and on a societal level we seem to increasingly identify ourselves by our consumption and brand-related experiences.

And further, if you add in the fact that most companies don't do a good job of providing responsive and engaging outlets for people to complain it makes sense that consumers will take things into their own hands and perhaps express themselves where they'll get the largest and most receptive audience (which leads Pete to argue, and I agree wholehearedly, that effective WOM/CGM programs need to include the consumer affairs folks as well as the marketing folks).

But then if you grant the difference between online and offline WOM regarding an issue like positive versus negative sentiment wouldn't it then follow that online WOM isn't necessarily representative of offline WOM and vice versa? Or maybe it's that online search results aren't representative of offline WOM? I'm anxious to see research that looks at CGM across a range of different categories to determine the relative prevalence of comments with positive versus negative sentiment. Is anyone aware of research that does this?

And if it turns out that online WOM does skew more negative than offline WOM then it seems that online isn't representative of offline WOM as many claim. An implication of this, then, is that if companies are only paying attention to monitoring online WOM (which seems extremely important to do and we'd be foolish not to pay serious attention to it), and if consumers are primarily coming across negative articulations in search results, then nobody is getting a full picture of consumer-to-consumer WOM about brands just by looking online.