The word-of-mouth paradox

April 16, 2012 By Jamie Hanlon, University of Alberta
Sarah Moore researches how word-of-mouth stories affect our feelings about our experiences.

(Medical Xpress) -- Sarah Moore says that if you want your memorable family resort vacation to stay memorable, move away from the keyboard. Seriously.

Moore researches how word-of-mouth stories affect our feelings about our experiences, and she has found that our feelings change when we share them. She says that when the storyteller analyzes or thinks about an experience like a family vacation, it reduces the emotions, positive or negative, about the event. However, she notes that for practical experiences, such as buying and using a USB stick, analyzing and thinking more about the experience will amplify our feelings about it, be they positive or negative.

Moore, an assistant professor with the Alberta School of Business, says this is one important area of consumer research that remains virtually unexplored.

“Nobody had ever asked, ‘What happens to me if I tell you that the restaurant I went to last night was fantastic?’ We know that this makes you, the recipient of word of mouth, more likely to go to the restaurant, but what does it do to my feelings about the restaurant, as the storyteller? It’s an important question because it’s going to determine, for example, whether I go back to the restaurant and whether I’m likely to ever tell anyone else the story,” said Moore. “It can affect both the consumer’s actual behaviour and future word of mouth.”

Positively speaking: Don’t think, just feel

She says that when we have an , such as travelling or watching a movie, we develop feelings about those experiences. When telling stories about these experiences later, we can describe them and express our appreciation or dislike for them—but once we start to analyze them, the lustre of that emotion fades.

Moore says it is similar to work that clinical psychologists have done to help people overcome traumatic experiences by analyzing and processing them. Thus, thinking about a negative experience may mean giving that restaurant with bad service a second try. But for positive experiences, the best thing is not to think too much.

“There’s a saying that you should never ask anyone why they love you. This is true—don’t do it. You shouldn’t be rationalizing or analyzing that feeling because the more you do, the more it fades,” she said. “If you have a positive emotion that you’d like to preserve, don’t think about ‘why’. Just relive it.”

Practical experiences: Thinking only makes it worse (or better)

On the other hand, Moore says, analyzing utilitarian experiences only reinforces our feelings and beliefs about those experiences. The difference is that these experiences are related to things that have a specific purpose; they tend to be more cognitive than emotional. For example, using tax software, driving a commuter vehicle or taking an airplane ride will each elicit positive or negative feelings. And the more we think about what we did or didn’t like about these practical experiences, the more certain we will feel about whether to use the product or service again.

“For cognitive experiences, if we think about those, if we analyze and rationalize them, it actually amplifies our ,” she said. “We’re figuring things out. We’re becoming more certain and more extreme in our opinions.”

Tailored for optimal customer interaction

Moore says that companies seeking to manage consumer storytelling can help consumers generate word of mouth that will be helpful to the business and to the consumer. She notes that some reviewer websites, such as Epinions.com, provide consumers with guidelines on what to include in a review. She says that helping customer-service staff learn to elicit functional feedback from customers—or generate explanations of what they didn’t like—works in the best interests of company and customer alike.

“I think this is one of those instances where marketers’ and consumers’ ultimate goals are aligned,” said Moore. “Both want to preserve happy experiences. Both want to get over negative . So at least their incentives are going in the same direction in this case.”

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