Yes, They're Compensating for Something


Online shoppers often turn to product reviews, but how reliable are they? Research shows less reliable than you might think.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — People in the market for a new product often turn to friends or the online world for word-of-mouth recommendations. But the popular notion that word-of-mouth purveyors want to help others by sharing their product knowledge may need re-thinking.

New research by Michigan Ross Professor David Wooten suggests some of these frequent online posters are driven by a desire to compensate for a perceived lack of knowledge about products. He and co-author Grant Packard, PhD '12, showed that people who believe their knowledge about products falls short of ideal were motivated to share word-of-mouth recommendations more with others, and tried harder to display their knowledge.

"We found that word-of-mouth transmissions from those who thought their knowledge was deficient may be motivated to talk about products less by their belief that they actually have something useful to share, and more by the feeling that they have something to prove," said Wooten, the Alfred L. Edwards Associate Professor of Marketing. "It's always been said that word-of-mouth communication, by and large, is something you can trust because there's no profit motive. We're seeing there may be distortions in word-of-mouth that aren't related to a profit motive."

Wooten and Packard, assistant professor of marketing at the Laurier School of Business & Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, detailed their findings in the article "Compensatory Knowledge Signaling in Consumer Word-of-Mouth," published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Can a consumer looking for a knowledgeable source sort the wheat from the chaff? Possibly. The study showed people compensating for a perceived knowledge shortcoming wrote longer reviews, used language that might make them sound more intelligent, and talked about themselves more in their posts.

They also tend to be more positive about the product.

"They're more positive because choosing and using a great product reflects back on them as being a smart consumer," says Packard.

For companies, this research can help them identify which consumers would be most likely to help spread the word about their products and services. Wooten and Packard showed that people who want to be more knowledgeable about products are, in turn, highly motivated to share their opinions, whether they think they're actually knowledgeable or not. And those opinions tend to be positive. So setting some 'aspirational' knowledge goals for consumers could motivate more people to share more product information.

"The products you buy and display say a lot about what you think you are," Wooten says. "We're finding that the products you talk about and how you talk about them also say a lot about who you aspire to be."


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