Word of mouth on the Internet: Being aware of message distortion

Kristine de Valck, Professor of Marketing - July 15th, 2012
Word of mouth on the Internet: Being aware of message distortion by Kristine de Valck ©fotolia

Kristine De Valck and her co-authors analyze an electronic marketing campaign designed to promote a specific cell phone model among bloggers. They show that, unlike conventional marketing campaigns, on blogs the message can be distorted depending on who is selected to talk about the product and the kinds of communities to which they belong.

Kristine de Valck ©HEC Paris

Professor of marketing Kristine De Valck joined HEC Paris in 2004. She has been interested in online communities of consumption since her Ph.D work at Erasmus University (the (...)

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“Marketers and sociologists have recognized the importance of word of mouth as a naturally occurring phenomenon for more than half a century, suggesting, for example, that word of mouth affects the majority of all purchase decisions,” says Kristine De Valck. “However, these theories and observations about informal, unsolicited word of mouth were constructed in a marketing world untouched by the Internet.” The Internet’s accessibility, reach, and transparency have enabled marketers to influence and monitor word of mouth as never before. Kristine De Valck lists the ways marketers can achieve their goals online: “listening in” to online conversations, moderating word of mouth, engaging in dialogue on social media forums, giving products to people of influence, and so on. Notably, such tactics change word of mouth from a natural, spontaneous phenomenon, whose power, notes Kristine De Valck, rests primarily in the fact that participants are not commercially motivated, to a more artificial, calculated, and commercialized force in which bloggers are co-opted by marketers to become product advocates.


This phenomenon has become so widespread in the United States that the Federal Trade Commission has begun to regulate it. Bloggers are now obligated to say if they have a link to a brand or a company. “This has no legal consequence in Europe, but it sets the tone in regards to ethics, since many large firms are members of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) which, although based in the United States, has members worldwide. The practice is becoming more established and is beginning to resemble what we are already familiar with in other areas, such as journalists receiving free products.” However, little research has been conducted on digital word of mouth, even after Robert Kozinets, Andrea Wojnicki, and Sarah Wilner’s article on the subject was published in 2010. “There have been quantitative studies on how digital word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) affects sales. But before ours, there had been no qualitative article attempting to understand about what exactly or how people are talking and the ways in which consumers react to e-marketing campaigns.”


By giving bloggers cellphones and then analyzing the blogs, De Valck and her co-authors show that digital word of mouth does not simply increase or amplify marketing messages but instead systematically modifies them during their integration. “Existing theories have a truncated view of word of mouth. The concept of viral marketing is based on a misconception, where a message that integrates into a market spreads, intact, like a virus,” says Kristine De Valck. “We have shown that this is not what happens: Bloggers adapt what they say to their own narrative and the community to which they belong; they transform the marketer's message to suit their own identity (or that of the character they have created online) as well as their audience and their network.”

Bloggers transform the marketer's message to suit their own identity as well as their audience and their network.


The authors identify four distinct communication social media strategies (evaluation, embracing, endorsement, and explanation), each of which is influenced by the speaker’s character narrative, the norms within their virtual community, their communication forum (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and the marketing promotion element. “These communication strategies are marked by the prominent tension between commercial and communal norms,” and their success depends on how they are shaped by blogger narratives, says De Valck. To illustrate her point, she takes the example of two bloggers: Judith, a nurse on sick leave who, in a transparent manner, uses 11, very professionally managed blogs to help make ends meet; and Alicia, a housewife who until now had never embedded marketing messages into her blog and who, despite her openness about the campaign, generates negative reactions from readers in her promotion of the cell phone. “Internet users are not accustomed to this type of promotional campaign on a blog about the hard life of a housewife and this can have adverse consequences for the brand of the phone.”

Based on an interview with Kristine De Valck, associate professor of marketing, and the article “Networked Narratives: Understanding Word-of-Mouth Marketing in Online Communities” by R. V. Kozinets, K. De Valck, A. C. Wojnicki, and S. S. Wilner, published in Journal of Marketing (March 2010, vol. 74, n° 2, pp. 71-89), which earned her the Prix Article Professeur of the Fondation HEC in 2010.


The managerial implications for companies wishing to use word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) on the Internet are manifold. As illustrated by the example of Alicia, it is important to find appropriate spokespeople for your marketing message — bloggers who are not controversial choices for discussing product promotions! Moreover, as the type of message changes depending on the identity of the blogger, marketers need to consider whether the point is to convey technical information, personal feelings, and so on, when choosing their bloggers. De Valck also advises marketing agents to engage over the long term rather than the short term with bloggers and account holders on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, her research suggests that it is better to favor virtual communities that are already open to these kinds of promotional campaigns.


The researchers designed a campaign to promote cell phones in six North American cities. They analyzed the blogs of 83 of the 90 people who were given a phone over a period of six months to evaluate the long-term effect of the online marketing campaign. “We were interested in blogs because studies have shown their importance in word-of mouth campaigns,” explains De Valck. “Surveys in Europe indicate that blogs are the second most trusted source of information” (Nielsen Trust in Global Advertising Survey, Q3 2011).