Monday, May 19, 2008

New Academic Research on WOM: The Conversational Geography of Word-of-Mouth Communication and Marketing Practices

We've all heard about the tortoise and the hare and how the tortoise eventually, slowly but surely, arrives at the finish line, before the speedy hare. Well, two tortoises have finally crossed the finish line representing academic publication for some of my research on word of mouth marketing communication practices. It was a long journey but they have finally arrived.

These two pieces represent a significant milestone in my academic publication record because they are the first two pieces where I did not use a colon in the title. :-)

Actually they are important for other reasons which I'll explain briefly below. Actually, I'm going to split these into two posts and discuss each article separately.

The first piece that was just published appears in Communication Quarterly and is titled "The Conversational Geography of Word-of-Mouth Communication and Marketing Practices". Here's the abstract:

This study was a test of the utility of a diary-based methodology for revealing how word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing agents perceive their campaign and non-campaign-related WOM communication episodes. A modified version of the Iowa Communication Record, originally designed for presenting the “geography of everyday conversation,” was the base for the collection of 2,088 self-reports of the agents' WOM episodes. Data were subjected to a principal components factor analysis. The resulting factors—communication quality, value, impact, relational change, and conversational control—served to gauge differences attributable to the institutional nature of the WOM, sex of respondent and conversational partner, relationship type, and day of week.
This piece is actually "Part 2" of my "What's All the Buzz About?" research published in Management Communication Quarterly. There are (at least) three really interesting results in this article.

The first interesting result was that agents perceived a higher amount of change in their relationship after a campaign-related word of mouth conversation when compared to their non-campaign conversation. Subsequent analysis revealed that the direction of this relational change was positive; that is, participants in the agent-based programs reported feeling closer to their conversational partner after the conversation where they were discussing a campaign-related product. Since agents generally perceived the WOM episodes to be of high quality and of some value to their life it is not surprising to see some levels of greater relational closeness occurring after the brand-related conversation. But another possible explanation is that agents felt like they were helping their conversational partner by providing them with relevant information which led them to feel closer to the other person. But more research needs to be done to explain this finding.

The second interesting result was how participants in the agent-based marketing program perceived that they were more likely than their conversational partners to initiate interaction, to decide topics, and to end the conversation for products that they were talking about as part of the organized program when compared to brand discussions that weren't part of a marketing campaign. This makes a lot of sense since it's the program participant who has access to information about the latest and greatest products, but it could also be problematic because a hallmark of everyday conversation is a sense of "mutual conversational control"; that is, where the parties perceive they are contributing equally to the conversation. I have unpublished research (an even slower tortoise!) that shows that their conversational partners also perceive that the program participants exercise more "conversational control" during campaign-based conversations, but the jury is still out the implications of this (for example, if their partners perceive the agents exercise more "conversational control" during the interaction does this negatively affect perceptions of credibility or is this an understood norm in relationships when one person may have greater knowledge or experience about a topic than the other).

The third finding I wanted to highlight concerned the relationship between the program participant and their conversational partner(s). In comparison to weak-tie or acquaintance relationships, program participants perceived their WOM conversations with strong-tie relationships (best friends, romantic partners/spouses, and relatives) to have higher conversational quality, more value to their present and future life, and more of an impact on their attitudes, feelings, and/or behavior. This is important for two reasons: 1) the higher perceptions of quality, value, and impact might partially explain existing findings showing that people are more likely to engage in WOM conversations with strong-tie relationships. Second, the results pose a challenge for organized attempts to stimulate WOM in social networks. Existing research by Dr. David Godes and Dr. Dina Mayzlin has shown how firms need to stimulate WOM in weak-tie relationships to generate incremental WOM that spreads beyond the WOM that has already occurred within a social network. But it is these weak-tie interactions that agents perceive as having less communication quality and value, which as stated above, may be one reason why they occur less frequently. If one goal of a WOM campaign is to get the word out about a brand, product, or service to as many people as possible (or at least as many people who will find it relevant), and if weak-tie relationships are important to that process, then it will be necessary to create opportunities where people find the interactions with weak-ties more rewarding.

If you think you'd find this article interesting you can download it from the publisher's website here or a pre-press version from my download page (but if you're going to cite the paper be sure to cite the published version).

And stay tuned for my other article that was just published!