Why We Talk: A Social Media Framework

While I will never underestimate the power of face-to-face word-of-mouth, a large part of how we communicate about products, and experience a brand, occurs online. The power of social media and its effect on decision making has been well documented. We know online word-of-mouth has a large impact on purchase intention (Bailey, 2004; Xia and Bechwati, 2008). We know that the amount of trust consumers have in a brand (developed through social interactions) influences their purchasing decisions (Chan and Hgai, 2011; McKnight, Choudhury and Kacmar, 2002). For example, think about how often consumers tweet or post to a brand’s page and expect a personalized response.

Similarly, we know that consumers turn toward others’ consumptions habits to inform their purchasing decisions and that C2C is becoming much more influential than traditional mass marketing (Kimmel, 2010). Furthermore, we know that online environments are where millennials are (Pew Research Center). Many report that this is where they would prefer to do the bulk of their shopping , product research and to hear what others say about that product.

From a management perspective its becoming more clear that understanding why consumers spend more and more time engaging in word-of-mouth (i.e what drives consumers to talk) is imperative.  Secondly, understanding these motivations are key to the development of any social media strategy. In fact, social media has made word-of-mouth (WOM) farther reaching, more targeted and can be a mechanism to build trust between consumer and brand (Brown, Broderick and Lee, 2007; Yeh and Choi, 2011). Those active on social media look to other users for opinions and cultural references. In an online context, WOM is much more influenced by a consumer’s network and their current worldview.

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 4.12.18 PM

For example, content on Tumblr should visually represent a strong identity (of brand or users) to encourage the performance of word-of-mouth. Consumers often use WOM to gain attention, being “in-the-know” or perceived authority. More specifically, WOM helps consumers project social and cultural capital. This was found on New Balance’s Tumblr. No mention of the brand, only a very strong identity signaling message.

So where does that leave us?

From a research perspective we need to establish a framework that will help us through the data collection process. Not only will this help us to understand why consumers are motivated to share their experiences with products and services, but we can begin to build categories or profiles of the consumer through this lens. If we want to create content that generates positive WOM engagement, understanding the particular narratives (life themes, culture, worldview, etc.) of the audience is the first step. However, that is best left for an additional post.

To help understand consumers’ motivations to engage in online WOM, Hennig-Thurau (2004) developed a utility typology to map key motivators. Their argument was that different utilities are derived by the consumer when they engage in WOM behavior.

Focus-related Utility: Utility consumer receives by adding value to the community through his or her contributions.

Key motivations

  • Altruism or true concern for others
  • Desire to help the company (based on good experiences)
Focus-related Utility
Focus-related Utility
  • Social benefit: Convergent behavior, signals a specific identity or belonging to group
Focus-related Utility
Focus-related Utility
  • Exert power over brand:

Consumption Utility: Consumer gains value through consumption and community that surrounds the product

Key motivation

  • Consumer is motivated to understand the product in a more complex way (ability to repair, hack, operate)
Consumption Utility
Consumption Utility

Approval Utility: After consumption occurs, the community approves of post-consumption contribution (i.e. reviewer ratings)

Key motivations

  • Self-enhancement: seen as a consumption expert by others


  • Economic rewards

Moderator-related Utility: Social media platforms (called third party platforms in article) make it easier to voice complaints

Key motivations

  • Convenience
  • Problem-solving support

Homeostasis Utility: Inherent need to live a balanced life, engaging in WOM restores a balance

Key motivations

  • Positive consumption experience: Strong psychological desire to share positive experience (social media makes this easy)
Homeostasis Utility
Homeostasis Utility
  • Negative consumption experience: Sharing or venting a back experience acts as a way to lessen the tension of experience

Using the data from approximately 2,000 online users, the researchers developed four predominate “motive-based” segments. They found that “social benefits, economic incentives, concern for others, and self-enhancement to be the primary reasons consumers publish their experiences on opinion platforms”. Once we understand the life themes and life projects (see McCracken’s work on both*) we can begin to craft word-of-mouth strategies on social media around these predominate motivations. I created a one-pager on the value of understanding the consumers’ life theme when developing word-of-mouth messaging. We can backtrack using the work from Kozinets in Networked Narratives to begin to develop a strategy for researching life themes.

Kozinets et al (2010) found that positive WOM engagement occurred when:

  1. the message/content was consistent with the goals and history of the consumer narrative
  2. it removed the commercial-cultural tensions and provides the ability for individual adoption
  3. it fit into current community norms

Nike produces excellent content (or memes) that are easily spread within platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest. All three were were well within the most reblogged pieces of content for the morning I screen grabbed them.

According to Kozinets “marketing messages are no longer unidirectional, but exchanged between networks”. Not only are life themes important, but the final component is understanding the networks that consumers are engaged within. What are the norms? Are rituals present? What is the ideology that unites the participants? Is it transformation? Is it goal-oriented?

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.38.41 AM

These questions (and subsequent research efforts) help to bring focus to the type of content that will hopefully create positive WOM engagement.

In conclusion, it is important to understand why consumers are motivated to share content on social media sites. What ultimately underlies these motivations is the influence of consumers’ life themes and the networks they operate within.

* For even more insight read Transformations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s