Published "Word of Mouth:" Referable, Consumer-


Generated Information on the Internet








April 2002




Published "Word of Mouth:" Referable, Consumer-


Generated Information on the Internet


Abstract


Consumer-to-consumer communication about products and services, often known as “word of mouth” (WOM), is an important source of marketplace information. The Internet is becoming an increasingly active medium for this type of communication. We describe the ways in which word-of-mouth information is communicated on the Internet and argue that those forms of WOM that are published on the Internet, and are thus “referable,” have a considerable potential for expanding the scope and benefits of WOM. We then review the relevant literature and develop a framework to guide the analysis of a series of qualitative depth interviews with users of Internet WOM. We report the insights and findings that have resulted from this research and discuss their theoretical and managerial implications.




Published "Word of Mouth:" Referable, Consumer-


Generated Information on the Internet


Verbal consumer-to-consumer communication, often referred to as simply "word of mouth" (WOM), has long been recognized as an important factor in consumer behavior (e.g., Whyte, 1954). The development of the Internet has led to the appearance of new forms of word-of-mouth communication (Granitz and Ward, 1996). Using the Internet, consumers can now easily "publish" their opinions, providing their thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints on products and services to the public at large. For example, on a message board at www.oxygen.com, consumers exchange opinions about good (and bad) shopping sites on the Web. Likewise, "Style Chat" at www.leftgear.com provides users with an opportunity to discuss fashion and design. Sites such as www.consumerreviews.com and www.epinions.com allow consumers to post their reviews of products and services in a number of different categories, as do many major online retailers. This type of information is already playing a role in marketing, and promises to do so much more in the future.


The importance of online WOM increases as access to and usage of the Internet continues to grow. For the last week of March 2002, Nielsen/NetRatings estimated that the average user in the United States logged onto the Internet seven times, spending an average of 32 minutes per surfing session and visiting 19 unique sites. Nielsen estimates that the active Internet universe in the United States during this period was over 79 million (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2002).


This large number of users gives Internet WOM significant potential power for marketers. Anecdotal evidence of the power of Internet WOM abounds. For example, after the success of the use of Internet "buzz" in promoting the movie "The Blair Witch Project," studios are increasingly relying on online WOM to develop interest in new films. In promoting the trilogy of films based on "The Lord of the Rings," New Line Cinemas is encouraging the development of "unofficial" Web sites about the movies, providing these sites with interviews with the film\'s director in order to generate discussion and excitement about the movies (Brinsley, 2000). Likewise, students hired to post questions and comments on teen-oriented chat rooms and bulletin boards generated discussion and interest in pop singer Christina Aguilera (White, 1999). Epinions.com estimates that it gets one million unique visitors per month (Schoenberger, 2000). And consumer stories posted on Oxygen Media boost traffic to the site by 14 percent (Stepanek, 2000).


Our earlier research (Bickart and Schindler, 2001) provides some empirical evidence regarding the power of one form of Internet WOM – the online forum. As part of a weekly class assignment, we randomly assigned students to look at either corporate web pages or consumer forums for information about specific product categories such as nutritional supplements or biking. At the end of the semester, students\' interest in the assigned product categories was measured. We found that interest in the product category was higher for students assigned to view forum information on the topic than for those assigned to look at marketer-generated information. We suggest that the discussion forums are more successful in generating product interest because the content posted on such sites is thought to be more relevant and credible and is able to generate greater empathy among readers.


Our primary goal in this paper is to explore in more depth the potential power of online WOM. Under what circumstances do consumers find such information to be most useful? What are consumers\' motives for searching