Electronic Word of Mouth - Defining the different ways consumers process online reviews

A new study identifies distinct types of consumer response to online reviews for products and services, providing insights that may benefit any company operating in the competitive online market.

Shopping online has become second nature for the modern generation of consumers. Their purchase choices are often informed and guided by online reviews, a form of electronic word of mouth (eWOM) which now form an integral part of the online environment. Such reviews encompass rich information about experiences of a product or service. In addition, many review websites complement text with other eWOM information cues, such as summary statistics and author information. However, the shopper can find themselves confronted with hundreds of reviews, ratings, and other information for a single product or service. All this can prove a challenge to process and digest, so consumers may be expected to employ selective attention to the different information cues available.

For the paper Cutting Through the Online Review Jungle – Investigating Selective eWOM Processing the researchers investigated how consumers selectively process such eWOM information cues.

To accomplish this they conducted two studies. The first, an exploratory study using verbal protocols, confirmed that consumers display selective eWOM processing patterns which they are able to easily articulate. Here, a selective eWOM processing pattern is defined as the combination of eWOM information cues which a consumer processes as part of their decision-making while deliberately disregarding other eWOM information cues.

The second study developed and applied a measurement instrument to capture these patterns. Subsequent analysis indicated that there are five prominent eWOM processing types. The study describes them as follows:

  • The Efficient – these consumers place a strong emphasis on reviews that are short, timely, and helpful. Compared to other types, the ‘Efficient’ favour the use of headlines for review processing. Typically they wish to retrieve information quickly, without expending too much time and effort. They generally disregard information about the review author, and number of reviews.
  • The Meticulous - these place importance on a variety of cues and seek to derive in-depth information from online reviews. The ‘Meticulous’ consumer also puts a strong emphasis on content and quality of review. Compared to other types, they pay attention to a review’s style and structure, and they may find short reviews lack sufficient information for their satisfaction.
  • The Quality-Evaluators - members of this group prefer recent reviews, a strong quality of argument, and are interested in information about a review’s author. The helpfulness rating of a review is also an important cue for this user type.
  • The Cautious Critics – the cautious critic focuses strongly on the quality, structure and style of argument presented in a review. They are very receptive to negative reviews, appearing to be interested in what could go wrong with a purchase. They are less interested in reviews that give mediocre ratings, arguably as these do not present a clear-cut opinion.
  • The Swift Pessimists - these individuals seem to skim review content. They rely on short reviews. Overall, negative reviews are of more relevance to ‘Swift Pessimists’, as they prefer to receive a quick overview of any potential problems with a product.

The researchers believe that an awareness of such types could inform user-focused improvements to online review websites. The results of the study suggest that managing online review websites with a one-size fits all approach would be flawed, as different groups of consumers focus on different combinations of eWOM information cues.

Therefore, firms should consider integrating the measurement instrument developed for this paper with customer surveys to understand which eWOM processing type is dominant among their customers, and highlight those reviews which most appeal to that type.

As efforts to further develop online reviews as a marketing tool increase, knowledge of these types could help firms better understand how consumers process the wide range of eWOM information they encounter, leading to more efficient and personalised targeting of consumers and a stronger product conversion as a result.

The paper Cutting Through the Online Review Jungle – Investigating Selective eWOM Processing was published in Journal of Interactive Marketing. The accepted version of the paper is available for download at the link below.


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