Special Session Summary Expanding the Scope of Word of Mouth: Consumer-To-Consumer Information on the Internet

Barbara Bickart, Rutgers University-Camden
Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers University-Camden
[ to cite ]:
Barbara Bickart and Robert M. Schindler (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Expanding the Scope of Word of Mouth: Consumer-To-Consumer Information on the Internet", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 428-430.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 428-430



Barbara Bickart, Rutgers University-Camden

Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers University-Camden

The importance of word-of-mouth communication as a source of consumer information has long been recognized (e.g., Arndt 1967; Brown and Reingen 1987; Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991; Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955; Richins 1983; Rogers 1983; Whyte 1954). In this session, we explored how the Internet has expanded or changed both the nature of word-of-mouth communication and its impact on consumer behavior as well as the methodological approaches used to examine it. Specifically, the papers in this session explored how consumers evaluate the usefulness of online word-of-mouth information, their motives for providing online word-of-mouth, and how consumer-to-consumer online exchanges change as consumer relationships evolve.

The papers in the session explored consumer-to-consumer online communication from three perspectives: (a) from the user’s perspective (i.e., what makes a consumer posting or review valuable?); (b) from the poster’s perspective (i.e., why do individuals post negative word-of-mouth information on the Internet?), and (c) from the community perspective (i.e., how does the stage of community development affect the types of word-of-mouth information that are exchanged?). We examined these issues using a variety of methodological approaches, including content analysis, surveys, and grounded theory method.

In the first paper, Robert Schindler and Barbara Bickart used content analysis to examine the determinants of more versus less valuable consumer reviews. They found that detailed information (versus more general evaluations) is valued in consumer reviews. In addition, form of expression can be a cue to the value of a word-of-mouth message. For example, less valuable consumer comments were more likely to include misspelled words and the use of inexpressive slang. Finally, negative evaluations appeared to be less valued in the consumer reviews.

In the second paper, Jim Ward and Amy Ostrom used content analysis and surveys to examine consumers’ motives in posting negative word-of-mouth information. The Internet provides consumers with the ability to post negative information and attract a wide audience. While most consumer-to-consumer interactions in other settings occur spontaneously, posting negative consumer information on the Internet is a planned and effortful activity. Ward and Ostrom find that consumers who post negative information on the Internet have had negative experiences that go beyond product failure and their goals in posting information are far more extreme than in typical word-of-mouth situations.

While the first two papers focused on word-of-mouth from a dyadic perspective, the final paper focused on the group aspects of Internet word-of-mouth behavior. Online communities or forums constitute a significant mode of consumer-to-consumer interaction on the Internet. Using qualitative research methods (grounded theory method) Anat Alon, FrTdTric Brunel, and Wendy Schneier Siegal examine how the nature of consumer-to-consumer interaction changes over a community’s life cycle. Given the weak ties (at least initially) between community members, the degree of trust in the opinion of other members is significant. Their research offers a unique opportunity to look at how the nature of information exchange changes as strong ties develop.

John Deighton moderated a lively discussion. Some of the issues raised during the discussion included how the mode of communication (i.e., chat room or discussion forum versus consumer reviews) might affect the cues used to evaluate consumer comments and the implications of this research for how "shills" can be effective in generating discussion and affecting consumer behavior via online word of mouth.



Robert M. Schindler, Rutgers UniversityBCamden

Barbara Bickart, Rutgers UniversityBCamden

One of the many changes that we have seen with the rise of the Internet is the magnification of the influence of consumer-to-consumer communication. For example, online "word of mouth" (WOM) between consumers has been considered important in the success of the movie "The Blair Witch Project" and the rapid rise in popularity of the pop singer Christina Aguilera (White 1999). It is estimated that the consumer review site epinions.com gets one million unique visitors per month (Schoenberger 2000). Given that WOM comments have long been recognized as an extremely influential source of consumer information (e.g., Whyte 1954), the Internet’s facilitation of this form of communication increases the importance of understanding how WOM can so powerfully impact the consumer decision process. In this paper, we examine the determinants of the value of product information provided to consumers by other consumers for different types of shopping tasks.

In an earlier study (Bickart and Schindler 2001), we have provided evidence demonstrating that WOM on the Internet can be more effective in generating interest in a product category than marketer-generated online information. In a series of depth interviews with consumers who participate in online shopping (Schindler and Bickart 2001), we explored in detail what motivates consumers to use Internet WOM, how they evaluate the comments they read, and the role that this information plays in their decision-making activities. This research has yielded insights into how traditional concepts such as source credibility and source similarity are involved in the effects of WOM. For example, the interviews have indicated that specific words used in a consumer comment can greatly affect the perceived credibility of that comment and that source similarity may be more important for products purchased for hedonic purposes than for utilitarian purposes.

Because much of the WOM information communicated online is "published" on the Internet (i.e., is publicly available for a relatively long period of time), the opportunity exists to systematically test hypotheses about how WOM information exerts its effects (Granitz and Ward 1996). The research that we presented in this session is a first step in doing this. We instructed consumers to gather online information that wuld be valuable for a prospective purchase of a book and a new car. We asked them to focus on online consumer comments that consisted of 50 words or more. They were told to read a minimum of ten such comments for both the book and the car purchase and to print, for each product, the consumer comment that they found most valuable and the one that they found least valuable. The study’s participants were given two weeks to complete this task. At the end of this period, they were asked a series of questions about each of the four comments they had printed.

Because our qualitative research suggested that shopping goals affected how WOM information is used, we also systematically varied whether the consumer’s shopping goal was utilitarian or hedonic. For the book purchase, half of the consumers were told they were buying it in order to better manage stock market investments and the other half were told they were buying a book to read for pleasure during an upcoming vacation. For the car purchase, half of the consumers were told that they were shopping for a car that is reliable, practical, and fuel-efficient. The other half were told they were shopping for a car that would get them there in style, and would give them a good time on the ride.

The central aspect of the investigation was a content analysis on the most and least valuable comments. Our preliminary results suggest that the comments judged as most valuable contained more detailed product information and less negative information than the comments judged as least valuable. In addition, we find that form of expression can be a cue to the value of a word-of-mouth message. For example, less valuable comments were more likely to include misspelled words and inexpressive slang, such as use of the word "awesome." Finally, we find that the participants rated the writers of the consumer comments judged to be most valuable as having more similar interests to themselves, and as being more articulate, smarter, more level-headed, and more reasonable than the writers of those comments judged to be least valuable. Although we had hypothesized differences in valued aspects between hedonic and utilitarian tasks, in this preliminary analysis we haven’t found evidence for that. However, type of shopping task does seem to affect the content of the messages. For example, hedonic-task reviews contain more emotional words than reviews examined for utilitarian tasks. Future analyses will continue to explore the differences between comments valued for hedonic and utilitarian tasks.



James Ward, Arizona Sate University

Amy Ostrom, Arizona State University

The Internet is changing the nature and power of WOM communications. In a traditional scenario, a consumer dissatisfied with a firm’s offering is likely to provide negative WOM to a relatively few people in his or her personal circle. Consumers outside his or her network are unlikely to encounter the message. In contrast, in the electronic environment, the opinions that consumers post to the web can be seen by millions, are available for long periods of time, and may be encountered by purchasers at precisely the time they are searching electronically for information about the firm. Furthermore, WOM providers on the Internet can supplement their words with pictures, scanned documents, and supporting comments by other consumers. The web thus appears to be magnifying the power of WOM in the marketplace. Thus, it is important to understand consumers’ motives for posting NWOM on the web, in particular the types of incidents that prompted their postings and heir goals for such postings. The motives of posters may be especially interesting to understand because, unlike spontaneous WOM, posting is a planned, intentional, and effortful behavior, especially for those who place lengthy comments and pictures on the web.

The study focused on consumers who had posted negative comments about a firm on the Internet in the form of their own web sites or elaborate contributions to other’s sites. A content analysis of these protest sites focused on understanding the types of incidents posters describe as prompting their NWOM, the images conveyed of the target firm vs. self, attributions of blame, and the objectives of the posters as conveyed by their comments. The content analysis includes NWOM from over 40 sites covering a wide variety of industries.

The content analysis supported the following findings. Consumers who had put up more elaborate comments or sites had often experienced not only a product or service failure, but a series of what they felt were procedural injustices (e.g., impolite treatment by the firm) during their efforts to seek redress. These experiences appeared influential in causing the consumers to re-frame the initial product or service failure as a personal vendetta against the firm. The comments they posted on the web focused heavily on the procedural injustices they had experienced. They also focused not just on recommending against a product or service choice, but attempting to frame the firm and its executives as having corrupt policies. The objectives of the posters went beyond seeking redress for their specific complaint and included goals of receiving apologies for the procedural injustices they had experienced, warning other consumers about the firm, and even revenge against the firm. In this respect, most posters were aware that their efforts to tell others about the firm on the Web were potentially far more damaging than conventional WOM.

In conclusion, the study reveals that consumers who place elaborate negative content about a firm on the Internet have a distinctive profile in terms of the events they experienced that prompted their postings, the portrait of the firm presented in their comments, and their goals for their postings. Overall, implications for firm policy aimed at reducing the probability of incidents likely to motivate elaborate negative postings are discussed.



Anat Alon, Boston University

FrTdTric Brunel, Boston University

Wendy Schneier Siegal, Boston University

Although individuals are frequently directed in their product choice and usage by word-of-mouth from referent others, marketers and academics’ knowledge about interpersonal influence exerted in the marketplace is relatively limited (Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel 1989, Lascu and Zinkhan 1999). Research on word-of-mouth has focused primarily on the individual (e.g.,: source trustworthiness or expertise; Petty and Cacioppo 1981), without much systematic consideration of the social context within which word-of-mouth occurs. Moreover, despite the importance of consumption contexts and consumers’ complex social networks and interactions, very little of the research has been conducted in field settings. Actually, this tendency is also true for research on social influence in social psychology (Eagly and Chaiken 1993).

This study examines the nature and characteristics of word-of-mouth within Internet consumption communities. Unlike past research that was mainly interested wih word-of-mouth as a dyadic phenomenon (one-to-one), this study focuses on word-of-mouth as a social system whose nature is integrated with group processes (one-to-many, or many-to-many). Indeed, this paper shows that the characteristics of word-of-mouth (e.g.,: motivation to seek or give advise; cognitive, affective and behavioral consequences) shift with the different community’s developmental stages. Also, this study extends past research from a methodological point of view, since the context of virtual communities provides an opportunity to unobtrusively observe the dynamics of community relationships in a field setting. Further, this paper provides new insights into the precise nature, psychology and sociology of word-of-mouth in the unique setting of cyber communities.

In an attempt to describe and study the characteristics of word-of-mouth in online communities, this study uses a grounded theory method (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Text data was used from bulletin board discourse within a site for expecting and new parents. The data site host many bulletin-board-mediated communities, organized by expecting mother due date. This allowed us to study several communities in different development stages (from beginning to decline).

While analyzing and comparing the textual discourse of communities in different developmental stages, the authors demonstrate that different stages in community life cycle result in differences in the nature of word-of-mouth, and in the ways people are influenced in social situations. One provocative finding from the analysis is that members of the community engage in substantial word-of-mouth exchanges and that many consumption decisions seems to be influenced by the information that is shared in the bulletin boards. While word-of-mouth characteristics (e.g.,: amount of requests/responses, types of topics, motivations to seek and give advise) varies according to the community development stages, it is noteworthy that members seem to exhibit great trust in the opinion of the other members. This is particularly interesting since these people have never met face to face, do not work together, do not live in the same town or neighborhood, and do not share the typical bounds that one expects with traditional referent sources.

Building on social identity theory (Hogg and Abrams 1998; Turner 1982; Tajfel 1972), our findings further show how the psychological and social consequences of group belongingness change over time, and therefore influence word-of-mouth behavior in the community. The nature of group belongingness and identity orientation appears to fluctuate between personal-focused and social-focused stages as the community develops. Therefore, it is the complex interplay and back and forth between the role of the group in the individual and the individual in the group that appear to influence how word-of-mouth gets played out in this context.


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