We investigate when and why people share positive versus negative word of mouth (WOM). We find that people tend to share more negative information with close others because they aim to protect them but more positive information with distant others because they aim to self-enhance.
While prior research has documented that consumers share both positive and negative WOM, little was known about when people are more likely to share positive versus negative information. To answer this question, we focus on interpersonal closeness (IC) -- the feelings of proximity a sender has toward a recipient -- and hypothesize that high (low) IC activates a need to protect others (self-enhance) and, consequently, makes negative (positive) information more valuable. In turn, we expect that this shift fosters the sharing of negative (positive) information with close (distant) others.
We conducted four experiments involving different populations (French and United States; MBAs and undergraduates) and manipulated interpersonal closeness by varying features of the conversation setting (e.g., the social media platform used) or the relationship between the sender and the recipient. Across experiments, we asked senders to share information with a recipient about a product (a camera, a hotel, a restaurant) or a topic and coded participants' responses to assess the amount of positive and negative information shared.
We find that people tend to share more negative than positive information with close others but more positive than negative information with distant others and that these differences are tied to the fact that sharing with close others activates a need to protect others and that sharing with more distant others activates a a need to self-enhance. As a consequence, strongly tied networks tend to be conducive to positive information while weakly tied networks tend to be conducive to negative information. Our findings also illustrate how the value of information is shaped by context in which a conversation takes place.
First, our research offers unique insight into when and why people share more positive versus negative information. Second, the findings reveal how the social context of a conversation shapes the value of certain kinds of information and invites future research to further unpack how contextual features affect information-sharing. Third, our findings have implications for companies or agencies that aim to boost the sharing of positive WOM or aim to limit negative WOM (e.g., rumors) by subtly weighing on conversational features.
Questions for the Classroom
- When does positive vs. negative word-of-mouth tend to spread?
- Why does positive vs. negative word-of-mouth tend to spread?
- How might a marketer encourage the sharing of positive information?
David Dubois, Andrea Bonezzi, and Matteo De Angelis (2016), “Sharing with Friends Versus Strangers: How Interpersonal Closeness Influences Word-of-Mouth Valence,” Journal of Marketing Research, 52 (5), 712-727.
David Dubois is Assistant Professor of Marketing, INSEAD (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Andrea Bonezzi is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business, New York University (e-mail: email@example.com).
Matteo De Angelis is Assistant Professor, LUISS Guido Carli (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).