Monday, March 03, 2008

WOM as Empowered Involvement

There's an interesting line of research out of the European School of Management (Berlin) about WOM. Researchers Dr Frank Jacob and doctoral candidate Martin Oetting are working with the notion of "empowered involvement" as a way to explain managed word of mouth.

They start with the research on involvement and WOM, which dates back to at least the 1960s. Research has documented the important role of ongoing involvement in a category to explain opinion leadership and also elevated levels of WOM behavior. Other research has shown how involvement levels can be raised by providing opportunities for customers to be actively participating in the marketing process.

This research leads them to the notion of "empowered involvement." Can deliberately yielding control of the marketing process to consumers stimulate WOM by creating greater levels of involvement?

The idea of empowerment has historically been studied in human resources management. Thus, these researchers look at how empowerment works with employees as a way to see how it may apply to consumer behavior.

Specifically they cite work by Spreitzer, who defined psychological empowerment as intrinsic motivation. In order to achieve this sense of intrinsic motivation, Spreitzer's research suggests, workers need to feel meaning, competence, self-determination and impact.

This leads the research to define their theory of Empowered Involvement: "When companies allow consumers to experience meaning, self-determination, impact and a sense of personal competence through certain aspects of a marketing process, they can increase these consumers’ situational involvement" [situational involvement is a temporary state of involvement as distinct from enduring involvement, which other research suggests is integral to opinion leadership].

Through two stages of empirical research, the researchers find preliminary support for their model. The results suggest the importance of better understanding how to build relationships with consumers and also how to provide them with sufficient levels of decision-making powers so they feel the four components of empowered involvement: meaning, competence, self-determination and impact.

I'd like to see this research explore, qualitatively, how people come to feel meaning, competence, self-determination and impact in marketing contexts. How is it similar or different to empowerment in the employment context?

Also, how important are the notions of trust and authenticity (that is, it seems reasonable to think that a pre-condition for empowered involvement is that people trust that the company is being sincere and authentic in their desire to listen and involve the consumers)?

Finally, I would also encourage those interested to read the chapter "Loyalty Myths Regarding Employees" in the book Loyalty Myths. The parallels between the empowerment-loyalty relationship and the empowerment-WOM relationship might be instructive.

To learn more about this research on empowered involvement you can visit At the site you can download the full working paper.