Dr. Michael S. Minor University of Texas - Pan American
Today we live in a global village (Mcluhan & Powers, 1989) of connectedness where people have few places to hide and minimal privacy. Online social networks are some of the most highly populated communities within our global village and an increasingly important source of information. Much of this commodified information is influencing the use and adoption of products and services (Subramani & Rajagopalan, 2003).
There are over one hundred notable online social networking websites with membership ranging into the millions. Many of these websites are beginning to work with Internet advertising firms to offer network-based-marketing with product icons and links that can be added to member profiles and personal websites or be included in messages to network friends. Additionally, tracking software will allow purchases of anything from clothing and books to cars and plane tickets to be broadcast to members within network or targeted to specific in-network members that have similar interests or purchase patterns. Facebook recently began this strategy, having to add an opt-in policy for Facebook members after an outcry among consumers concerned about privacy (Klaassen & Creamer, 2007; Wharton School, 2007). The viral quality that is being introduced is quickly catching on as a way to not only reach consumers, but as an additional tool to get to know them. Viral marketing is a tactic of creating a process where interested people can market to each other (Subramani & Rajagopalan, 2003). Quickly becoming center stage, the aim of viral marketing is to create a message that the consumer will want to pass on to others.
In the context of the online social network, members are a resource of great interest to firms and marketers not only for their online consumption habits, but for the power of member to member recommendations. With the introduction of strategies such as viral marketing, there is a special ability to target consumers by utilizing the voluntary consumption-related communication habits (Carter, 2009). The studies included here explore online social network credibility, the potential power and varied profiles of the online influential consumer and the increased visibility of the influential consumer due to viral marketing strategies.
Perceived credibility of those providing social support in online social networks (i.e. in-network members, or friends) is thought to be high so we hypothesized that online social network friends will be comprised primarily of real world friends. In that case, the credibility inherent within our offline social support networks made up of friends, family and colleagues will also be naturally extended to online, in-network context.
Viral marketing is a social process and critical to its survival are the interactions, exchanges, and influence of information among consumers. The interactions and exchanges can be over email or messages exchanged on online social network sites. Those that pass on the information and have influence among the consumers can be considered online market mavens or “viral mavens” (Phelps, Lewis, Mobilio, Perry, & Raman, 2004). That led us to ask whether subjects who participate in online social networking are likely to participate in viral marketing activities.
Given that those consumers with special influence on the buying habits of other consumers are categorized as experts (Feick & Price, 1987), and the maintained credibility of friends and their recommendations whether online or offline (Hsu, Ju, Yen, & Chang, 2007), we can see a possible increase in the perception of expertise among novice consumers in the online social network context, possibly due in part to viral marketing. To establish the difference we propose our research question asking whether novice or non-experts will be likely to recommend products to in-network friends on online social networking sites.
Two preliminary studies were conducted. The first study was conducted in the form of in-depth interviews at a large southern university. Interviews were conducted as a methodological response to the exploratory nature of the study. Results indicate a changing landscape and an opportunity for marketers to utilize online social networks and viral marketing strategies with appropriate recognition for the reservations of social network members regarding security, privacy, ease of use, and consent. We concluded that online social networks are representative of our real world or offline social networks indicating that credibility is already present within online networks. The combination of this credibility and member’s willingness to share product information and experience online is creating an ‘expert’ among consumers that would not otherwise be perceived as experts. More consumers are willing to share their product recommendations. Non-experts are participating in activities that will represent them as experts to their online social network. The hesitations to share specific product icons and links creates a barrier that might be overcome with time and support on the part of the social network site. The increased willingness of non-experts to provide information suggests that the profile for market mavens becomes increasingly broad in the context of online social networks. The profile may broaden more with the additional viral marketing activity as a bolster. Finally, it can be suggested that viral marketing is turning online social network members into influential consumers, flattening the previously accepted hierarchy of influential consumer types.
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Klaassen, Abbey and Matthew Creamer (2007), "Facebook to add shopping service to its menu. (Cover story)," Advertising Age, 78 (44), 1-39.
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Phelps, Joseph E., Regina Lewis, Lynne Mobilio, David Perry, and Niranjan Raman (2004), "Viral Marketing or Electronic Word-of-Mouth Advertising: Examining Consumer Responses and Motivations to Pass Along Email,"Journal of Advertising Research, 44 (4), 333-348.
Subramani, Mani. R., and Rajagopalan, Balaji (2003)," Knowledge-sharing and influences in online social networks via viral marketing,"Communication s of the ACM, 46 (12), 300-307.