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Research Insight | How Does Prepurchase Word of Mouth Affect Postpurchase Word of Mouth?

Marketers know that word of mouth—reviews and recommendations from friends and strangers—can lead consumers to make a purchase. But what happens after the purchase? If a customer learned about a product from a friend or from a stranger, will they be more likely to share negative or positive reviews? In this study, the authors propose that having received a positive recommendation from a stranger might make a customer more likely to share a negative experience, for two reasons: First, the customer may think their negative review could have a greater impact, helping more people by contradicting the positive review. Second, if they received the recommendation from a friend, they may hesitate to contradict their friend’s opinion. In five experiments, the authors test these ideas and reveal several insights on information sharing and interpersonal closeness.

This research counteracts the view that word-of-mouth intentions depend only on the customer experience after purchase. In fact, what happened before the purchase matters too.

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What You Need to Know

  • Ask customers “How did you hear about us?” and pay attention to the answer: close friends or distant others? 
  • When launching new products, be aware that many five-star reviews from unknown reviewers can make customers judge a shortfall more harshly. 
  • E-tailers and online marketplaces can strategically display testimonials and reviews from people who share characteristics like nationality, city, age, and gender with potential customers.  
  • Managers in countries with an interdependent culture, such as China, should pay particularly close attention to this effect. 
 

Abstract

Consumers often purchase new products based on online reviews and recommendations from both friends and strangers. Previous studies have extensively explored the effects of word of mouth (WOM) on the prepurchase stage, but little is known about whether WOM from friends or strangers can alter consumers’ postpurchase behavior. The authors propose that positive WOM from distant (vs. close) others increases consumers’ intention to share negative WOM when the product/service fails to perform to their satisfaction due to two distinctive motivations. First, consumers perceive that positive WOM from distant others might mislead more people, and, consequently, consumers expect their negative WOM to have a greater impact on helping others. Second, when receiving positive WOM from close others, they are less willing to publicly contradict the close others’ WOM even though they believe the WOM is misleading. Studies 1a and 1b demonstrate the main effect of interpersonal closeness on negative WOM intention, while Study 2 reveals the dual mediating effects of anticipated impact and relationship norm. Studies 3 and 4 validate these mechanisms by showing the moderating role of the self-construal level while ruling out the role of impression management. This research offers practical implications for WOM management across different social ties.