In October of 2010, Dutch comedian Youp van ’t Hek publicly bashed T-Mobile’s customer service for not helping his son properly. As many people had comparable difficulties with the telecom provider, T-Mobile became a trending topic on Twitter. Van ‘t Hek even had some appearances on national television about the affair. Soon, people started to speculate about the damage this was causing the company. Did the ttweets cause serious image damage? Would people abandon their subscriptions with T-Mobile? Nobody knew. The impact of negative ttweets was uncharted territory. “A happy customer tells one friend, an unhappy customer tells everybody.” With the rise of the Internet and social media this sentence has been given new meaning. ‘Everybody’ is suddenly the whole world, and it includes more thanjust your friends. Moreover, it has become so much easier for consumers to post their dissatisfaction with a product or brand online. Organizations keep a close eye on what is being said about a product or brand on Twitter. But what exactly is the effect of these negative messages?
The digital age and its effect on word-of-mouth marketing
The Internet has forced almost every facet of our business and daily lives to change. The way customers and business come together is shifting away from the traditional model and this evolution is just beginning. The rise of the Internet has an important impact on word-of-mouth communication. Instead of having just your neighbours or friends to chat with you, you can now access the entire world with just a few clicks. In traditional word-of-mouth communication, we rely on people we know and trust. This familiarity is often not present on the Internet. Also, in an online environment sender and receiver of information are separated by both space and time, whereas in its offline equivalent, people need to be together to communicate.
These characteristics of the Internet have made it easier for consumers to share their opinions about products, brands or services. Special review websites like Epinions.com or cnet.com enable consumers to share product experiences with other (potential) consumers.
But social media such as Facebook or Twitter are increasingly used to sing praises or share disappointments regarding a product. Despite advertisers’ and marketers’ efforts, consumers generally have more trust in the opinions of peer consumers. Also, messages from advertisers are easier to ignore than messages from friends. Electronic word-of-mouth has become an important influence on consumers’ product evaluation and thus is seen as increasingly important by businesses and organizations concerned with reputation management. This progress has led marketing managers to believe that they should have community managers to scan the web every day, searching for positive or negative messages about their brand or product.
The prevailing idea behind this is that negative electronic word-of-mouth communication (eWOM) on social media has a great impact on consumer behaviour. The damage negative product-related messages on the web can do is often intuitively estimated as enormous but academic research in this field yet has to confirm or reject this claim. In her master thesis, Stricker took the first steps in determining the power of 140 characters.
The unique case of Twitter
The study focused on Twitter for several reasons. It is perceived as a very different form of eWOM than any other social media platform. This is because of the unsolicited, tie strength and swiftness characteristics of the microblog. Whereas most studies focused on consumers that were actually looking for information prior to a purchase, on Twitter consumers are exposed to an unsolicited form of eWOM. The user may just bump into a tweet about a product or brand. This means that the level of involvement is much lower than on a product review website. Also, the quality of the review may differ from a traditional review website. For example, a high quality message is more logical and persuasive and therefore more effective. Considering a tweet can only contain 140 characters, theytweet have to be to the point to have any effect.
The importance of involvement, message quality and tie strength
Building on existing word-of-mouth studies, Stricker developed an experiment in which respondents were exposed to a negative tweet about CoffeeCompany (Dutch coffee bar chain). Three factors were incorporated in the experiment: message involvement (being high or low involved in reading the tweet), message quality (containing arguments or not) and tie strength (strong or non existing relationship between source and receiver). Before and after reading the negative tweet, people were asked about their purchase intentions and brand attitudes toward CoffeeCompany.
The results showed significant differences between the effect of strong and weak tie sources. Consumers conform to online consumer reviews via Twitter and attitudes become unfavourable as the tie strength increases. Respondents that were exposed to a tweet from a friend or family member were affected more in their purchase intention than those from a weak tie source. As opposed to Facebook, it is perfectly normal to follow a person you do not know on Twitter. This person can be an expert on a certain topic, but is still considered a weak tie. The study showed that only close relations could have this impact on one’s behaviour. Marketers should focus less on these anonymous content generators, and more on traditional word-of-mouth theories.
The influence of strong ties
The negative tweet impacted purchase intention more than brand attitude. This finding points towards the short-term impact of negative tweets. People were reluctant to buy from CoffeeCompany in the short-term, but long-term attitudes toward the brand were not affected as much. These findings stress that marketers should look at online word-of-mouth the same way they do offline. Consumers are not necessarily affected by exposure to potentially thousands of messages about a brand. What matters most in influencing consumers behaviour are friends and family. In his blog, Paul Adams (Facebook employee, formerly at Google) also points toward the importance of ‘normal’ people in your inner circle. These are the people that influence you most in your decisions. According to Adams your circle contains about 20 people. Where do you connect online with these people? Probably not on Twitter, but on Facebook. Adams: ‘If we want ideas to spread, if we want people to evangelize our brand and for their messages to spread, we need to focus on everyday people, and understand how their groups of friends are connected.’
This research showed that only strong ties can have an impact on purchase intention. However, this does not mean that businesses can stop monitoring the Twitter-buzz. According to research by inboxQ, Twitter users are likely to make a purchase from businesses that answer their questions. Your negative buzz on Twitter may not have an impact on your followers, but in the end you have a problem that needs to be solved. Brands need to be serious about answering consumers on Twitter.