What gets some product content talked about more than others?

RSM+logo+1jpgWithout actually knowing what drives and shapes consumers sharing information, companies invest huge amounts of time and money to make sure consumers talk favourably about their products, share their viral advertisements or make their slogans catch on. New research by PhD candidate Ezgi Akpinar of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) reveals three surprising psychological drivers that boost word of mouth.

She has found that first, consumers are reluctant to share relevant but negative news about a product if it’s personally relevant to them or if it makes them feel threatened; second, that ads that go viral do not necessarily guarantee favourable outcomes for the company; and third, that including one of the five human senses in a phrase makes people more likely to remember them and makes those phrases more popular over time.

Negative news reports about food and other consumer goods or products being found defective, contaminated or harmful – news which can hit the headlines for days –  can cause dramatic effects for companies, causing lost sales, product recalls or even a damaged reputation which can never be repaired.

In today’s ‘flat world’ of social media, product-harm crises are often global and widespread, which results in profound consequences for consumers and companies. While one could expect frequent users of the product – to whom this news is highly relevant – would be more likely to share this content with others, Akpinar’s PhD dissertation ‘Consumer Information Sharing: Understanding Psychological Drivers of Social Transmission’, exposes the complete opposite. Consumers who feel a personal relevance to certain news, because of regular use, feel threatened and thus are reluctant to share the information with others.

Akpinar demonstrates that people who feel at risk from some news facts are less likely to share their concerns with others. This group shies away from spreading the news, especially if they tend to focus on themselves. This pattern could be reversed by manipulating their self-view in relation to others and reminding them to think about others in their social environment, says Akpinar.

In conducting damage control, companies tend to focus on their own consumers in order to stop them from spreading negative news. But they should extend their damage control tactics to a larger audience, says Akpinar. On the other hand, health organisations should remind consumers that they’re not alone. They should be reminded to think of others; this will make them more likely to share negative news.

Secondly, Akpinar found that ads going viral don’t always help their brands in terms of boosting brand evaluations or purchase intentions. The majority of the audience do not even notice or remember what the ad was for – even if they share it online – she says. Given the rise of social media, many marketers now create funny and engaging ads in which brands are less prominent. The study shows having the brand as an integral part of the advertisement story line is crucial in making viral content valuable for the brands.

Finally, the research shows that phrases which relate to one of the five senses in metaphoric ways leads to higher recall among consumers, and contributes to the cultural success of the slogans over time. These findings have important implications for creating advertising slogans that catches on.

Akpinar will defend her dissertation in the Senaatszaal at Erasmus University Rotterdam on Thursday 5 December 2013. Her promoter is Ale Smidts, Professor of Marketing Research at RSM, and her co-promoter is Dr Peeter Verlegh. Other members of the Doctoral Committee are Prof. Gerrit van Bruggen, Dr Caroline Wiertz and Dr Stefano Puntoni.

Dissertation abstract

Consumers often share experiences, opinions or certain content with others. For example, they suggest restaurants, recommend article posts, share online videos, pass along rumours and complain about customer services. Such word of mouth determines what catches on and become popular among consumers. While research has shown that word of mouth is frequent and important, there has been limited work on understanding what makes certain content more shared than others. This dissertation fills this gap, and explores the psychological drivers that shape consumer information sharing and more broadly cultural success. It integrates various research perspectives and illustrates certain characteristics that make people share some content more than others.

First, Akpinar studies how self-relevance (i.e., high vs. low) impact sharing behaviour of product harm information, and this process is moderated by consumer self-construal (independent vs. interdependent). Second, she examines how advertising content can get viral, and how and when this benefits the brand. Finally, she explores how phrases that relate to senses in metaphoric ways (e.g., cold person) lead to higher recall, which contributes their cultural success over time.

The practical implications of this dissertation are of interest for professionals in the area of marketing, advertising, and public policy making. From a theoretical point of view, this dissertation has a cross-disciplinary contribution, and relates to the fields of health psychology, advertising, persuasion knowledge, linguistics, embodied cognition and foundations of culture.

About the author

Ezgi Akpinar (Turkey, 1984) received her bachelors’ degree with honours in Economics and Business Administration from the Koç University in Turkey, and her masters’ degree in Marketing from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Before starting her PhD at RSM, she worked as a consultant in the consumer information company Nielsen, conducting market research for clients in the FMCG sector. Her main research interests concern word of mouth marketing, advertising and social contagion. She has presented her work at leading international conferences such as the Association for Consumer Research, the Society for Consumer Psychology and the European Marketing Academy Conference. The empirical chapters of this dissertation have been invited for revision in top-tier academic journals including the Journal of Marketing Research and the Proceedings of Natural Academy of Sciences. Akpinar was a visiting scholar at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. Since September 2013, she has worked as an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Vrije University, Amsterdam (RSM).

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