FEATURE22 December 2016

A question of trust

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Word of mouth recommendations can be very persuasive, but brands looking to use this type of advocacy should be vigilant about who’s doing it, and how similar they are to their target market. By Bronwen Morgan.


In an age where social media and online review sites have made potential critics of everybody, the power of positive word of mouth is well known. In fact, research from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has suggested that one offline word of mouth impression can drive sales five times more than one paid media impression (up to 100 times more for higher consideration categories), and that it drives as much as 13% of consumer sales.

Linked to this, a recent study from a group of academics in the US and Canada, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, has looked into the effect of ‘self enhancement’, or boasting, on both persuasion and social perceptions. 

This, said the academics Grant Packard, Andrew Gershoff and David Wooten, is of significant importance as boasting is often a key motive for people sharing word-of-mouth recommendations. In fact, previous research suggests that as many as one in four reviews contain boasting elements. For example, a consumer’s online review about a hotel is likely not only to give information about the hotel’s rooms or service quality, but also hints at that person’s travel expertise.

To build on this existing theory, the group looked into how boasting behaviour, combined with varying levels of trust, might subsequently have an impact on levels of persuasiveness. 

mirror, mirror

In the first of three studies, the researchers used the established relationship between demographic similarity and trust – that is, that people are more likely to trust people they believe to be similar to them – to manipulate trust levels in order to test their hypotheses. 

Study participants were asked to imagine that they were shopping online for a holiday, and had come across a hotel review. One version of the review was written in such a way as to portray the reviewer as an expert in travel experience, while the other claimed to come from a source with an average level of knowledge of the area. 

There were also two similarity conditions. In the first, the reviewer’s profile described a 21-year-old student from a nearby location, attending the same university, and being of the same gender as the study participant. The second described the reviewer as a 31-year-old worker of the opposite gender, from a distant location. 

The results showed that boasting could have either a positive or negative impact on persuasiveness, depending on the participant’s perceived similarity to the reviewer. If the reviewer and the recipient of the review were demographically similar, then boasting behaviour led to a higher likelihood of the recipient saying they would book the hotel. However, if they were dissimilar, that same boasting behaviour had a negative effect on their likelihood of booking the hotel. 

reviewer rating

The second study saw a more direct manipulation of trust cues through use of reviewer ratings information (similar to those used on peer review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp). Reviewers were presented as either ‘not at all trustworthy’, ‘moderately trustworthy’ or ‘extremely trustworthy’. 

Interestingly, reviewers who weren’t trusted by others were rated as being more boastful (compared with those who were moderately trusted), while those who were highly trusted were seen as no more or less boastful than the moderately trusted group. The researchers noted that, in contrast to the first study, the more direct trust signal of reviewer ratings seemed to make respondents more vigilant of boasting when the trust cue was negative, but not when it was positive. 

Unsurprisingly, results also showed that when a source was not seen to be trusted by others, boasting led to a lower likelihood of the respondent choosing the hotel. When a reviewer had only a moderate trust rating, their boasting had no effect on how likely the participant was to choose the hotel. But, if they were seen as highly trusted, the likelihood of choosing the hotel increased if the source boasted in their review. 

trust in me

The final study looked into how observing the behaviour of people in a generally trusting or mistrustful state of mind might shed light on exactly how trust impacts on the effect of boasting behaviour on persuasiveness. 

Research participants were primed to feel trusting or mistrustful by being given one of two news articles to read. One described a play in which an actor portrayed a character who was selfish, dishonest and deceptive; the other described the same actor portraying a character who was altruistic, trustworthy and honest. Participants were then asked to carry out a similar task to those in the previous studies; this time coming across a review while shopping online for wine. 

They were asked to list thoughts that came to mind while reading the review and were given eight text boxes and told to write only as many thoughts as they had. This exercise tested the theory that when given cues that lead to someone feeling mistrustful, they are more likely to generate negative thoughts about a boasting source. For example, if a salesperson is thought to be self-interested – perhaps driven by wanting to make the sale), they are seen as less sincere and less trustworthy. 

Results showed that when participants were primed to feel less trusting of others generally, negative thoughts about a boasting source led to negative perceptions of the source’s motives. But when they were primed to feel more trusting, positive perceptions of the reviewer’s expertise came about without thoughtful consideration. That is, when participants were primed to feel less trusting, they generated significantly more thoughts when the source was boastful than in any of the other conditions. This suggests that when trust is low, boasting behaviour leads to greater general vigilance. 

The lessons for brands looking to capitalise on word of mouth, then, are clear. The academics themselves suggest that brands and companies looking to take advantage of these consumer-to-consumer interactions should carefully consider whether to include reviewers’ demographic information. The study’s results corroborate previous findings that having no demographic information at all may be more persuasive to a potential customer than being presented with a reviewer who is demographically dissimilar.

More generally, they stress the importance of taking simple actions to improve general trust cues, such as ensuring that the use of third-party trust certification could help to boost word-of-mouth persuasion. 


8 years ago

The implications in terms of trust around online reviews seem pretty sound.. ..but the broader implication seems to have been overlooked by the academics. As you point out, the WOMMA study outlined the power of offline WOM, and here the trust dynamics are totally different. Most offline WOM is with people you know well - friends, family, work colleagues, and they are generally trusted more than online contacts. So the real implication is that brands need to ascertain how to drive BOTH online & offline WOM, and how the issue of trust

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8 years ago

(jet-lagged correspondent finishing comment!).. and how trust issues affect each channel

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