Researchers from California Polytechnic State University, University of Miami, and College of William & Mary published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing which demonstrates that consumers’ likelihood to share opinions directly with a brand depends on their satisfaction with the brand.
The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Why Unhappy Customers are Unlikely to Share Their Opinions with Brands” and is authored by Chris Hydock, Zoey Chen, and Kurt Carlson.
The study addresses the fact that for brands to succeed, it is imperative that they understand consumer sentiment—what customers think about the brand and products. Brands derive much of this understanding from the information and opinions consumers share with them. Intuitively, one might assume that direct consumer-to-brand opinion sharing is most likely to occur among those with very positive or very negative attitudes toward a brand. This intuition is echoed by managers: In a survey of business professionals that asked about the relationship between customers’ attitude toward a brand and their likelihood to share with the brand, the majority expected a U-shape relationship.
Counter to this intuition, this new study demonstrates that consumers’ likelihood to share opinions directly with a brand depends on a confluence of psychological mechanisms that result in a hockey-stick-shaped relationship between attitude level and sharing (“__/”). Among those with a positive attitude towards the brand, the research shows that the more positive a consumer’s attitude, the more likely they are to share their opinions with the brand due to reciprocity norms, explaining the right side of the “__/” attitude-sharing relationship. However, among those with a negative attitude toward a brand, two counteracting factors result in a null relationship between attitude and sharing. First, as attitude toward the brand becomes more negative, consumers are more likely to share due to a desire to vent. Importantly, though, a second factor is relevant when sharing with brands: the attitude object and audience are one in the same (the brand). Hydock explains that, “People tend to avoid sharing negative information with the attitude object because doing so induces social discomfort and guilt. Given that people often anthropomorphize brands, it follows then that unhappy consumers may be averse to sharing negativity with the brand.” This aversion to criticize counteracts the desire to vent (explaining the left side of the “__/”). These findings are counter to the U-shaped relationship that is found between attitude and sharing with other consumers (WOM).
The research team studied these ideas in a series of studies including two that measure real sharing behavior. As revealed in these studies, consumers who have a greater discomfort criticizing brands are especially less likely to share negative opinions with the brand. Chen adds, “Interestingly, we also show that in scenarios where consumers are unable to leave their relationship with a brand, their overwhelming desire to vent can overpower their typical aversion to criticize.”
For practitioners interested in understanding consumer sentiment, this work suggests that the information consumers share with brands may be non-representative and positive leaning. This bias highlights the need for firms to adopt opinion-seeking strategies that minimize consumers’ anticipated discomfort (i.e. their aversion to criticize) or to provide sufficient incentives to overcome this psychological barrier. In this vein, one of the studies demonstrates that significant incentives can motivate those with negative attitudes to be just as likely to share their opinions with a brand as those with positive attitudes—providing a potential, though costly, remedy.
Full article and author contact information available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022242920920295
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