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Opening the Word-of-Mouth Black Box:
An Analysis of Word-of-Mouth Rhetorical
Methods in Group Conversations
Boston University
School of Management
Working Paper #2006-07
Anat Toder-Alon
Frédéric F. Brunel
* This manuscript is based on a doctoral dissertation written by the first author under the supervision of the
second author. The authors wish to acknowledge the help and contribution from the other members of the
doctoral committee: Professors George Psathas and Patrick J. Kaufmann (both from Boston University) and
Professor Douglas B. Holt (Oxford University).
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ABSTRACT
This netnography departs from traditional word-of-mouth (WOM) perspectives by
emphasizing the relational (vs. instrumental) and communal (vs. dyadic) nature of WOM. Based
on an ethnomethodological analysis of online-community conversations, we show that
consumers use an abundant repertoire of advice seeking and advice giving rhetorical methods. In
addition, we show that WOM conversations are collective achievements emerging from the
collaborative work of participants who monitor on-going WOM interactions in order to
determine and design their possible involvement. Finally, we demonstrate that contrary to dyadic
WOM conversations, in a group WOM, the possible rhetorical practices and outcomes are
diverse, flexible, and multidirectional.
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There is abundant evidence that word-of-mouth (WOM) is a dominant force in shaping
consumption. For instance, we know that across categories, product diffusion is affected more by
WOM-driven adoption than by innate innovation (Sultan, Farley, and Lehman 1990). Moreover,
technological advances in marketplace connectivity have amplified the prominence of WOM.
Marketing executives now acknowledge that we live “in a world where word of mouth is on
steroids” (Blackshaw, as quoted by Gupta 2006). Yet, most companies continue to rely on mass
media campaigns which are continuously loosing effectiveness and consumer trust (Asbrand
2005). This trend is evident with emergent technologies and traditional media. For example, less
than 10% of consumers indicate trusting pop-up ads, direct email campaigns or banner ads, and
53% to 83% of consumers report being annoyed by them (PlanetFeedback 2003). Although only
5% and 13% of consumers consider print and TV ads annoying, a majority mistrust these ads. In
fact, in that study, only WOM garnered both low annoyance (9%) and relatively high trust (61%)
scores. Given this situation, it is not surprising that WOM is attracting more attention and
companies are trying to understand how they can join, shape or facilitate these conversations.
Despite the recent renewed interest, WOM is hardly a new topic in consumer research.
Continuous investigative attention has produced a significant research corpus on the topic, its
components and some of its processes. However, the specifics of WOM communicative
processes have not been fully addressed (De Valck forthcoming; Laczniak, DeCarlo, and
Ramaswami 2001). Although WOM communications can have various numbers of participants,
with mixed degrees of mutual acquaintance, can be achieved through several communication
modes, and can follow different interaction patterns, the development of WOM theory has
adhered to an individualistic paradigm and has largely ignored the social context (Bristor 1990).
Though some studies have incorporated relational properties (Brown and Reingen 1987; Gilly et
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al. 1998), none have studied WOM processes as part of group interactions. Most research has
embraced a view of WOM as a “person-to-person communication between a receiver and a
communicator whom the receiver perceives as noncommercial, regarding a brand, a product or a
service” (Arndt 1967, 5). This has contributed to a research focus on interpersonal dyads and on
the two roles of WOM seeker and WOM source. Further, these roles have typically been
assumed to be fixed throughout a WOM interaction, and most studies have considered only a
limited repertoire of WOM communications (e.g., WOM receiver requests information, and
WOM source provides information). Finally, since WOM exchanges are typically private, direct
observations and studies of WOM dialogs have been limited (Godes and Mayzlin 2004), and
researchers have typically gathered data from only one side of the dyad (Christiansen and Tax
2000). Consequently, past research has treated WOM conversation rhetoric as a black box, and
instead, has relied on inferences from aggregated data or consumers’ recalls of past experiences.
This limited research perspective seems particularly problematic in our current social and
business environment, where WOM can be performed not only by close (socially or
geographically) contacts, but also within large groups of virtual strangers who may never
physically meet and who are only connected through some computer mediated community.
While presenting challenges to past WOM theories, online communities also provide research
opportunities by allowing us to unobtrusively observe and capture WOM conversations
(Schindler and Bickart 2005). Further, these digitized communication records can allow us to
understand better how to dialogue with consumers and how to leverage the conversational
aspects of marketing communications (Deighton and Grayson 1995). In this article, we propose
to take advantage of this opportunity and develop a more comprehensive perspective on WOM
exchanges.
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Consequently, this research aims at developing new theoretical and practical insights that
reflect a broader conceptualization of WOM, as it occurs in a group and in its natural setting.
Specifically, we conceptualize WOM as a group conversation, where multiple parties interact
and collaborate, and where communication and influence are achieved through WOM rhetorical
methods that members strategically select based on the nature and context of the conversation. In
our empirical observations, we first identify the rhetorical methods that are used to initiate and
provide WOM advice. Then, we illustrate how participants construct WOM conversations in
orderly and meaningful ways, demonstrate the multiplicity and fluidity of WOM practices, and
finally show that group WOM leads to multidirectional outcomes.
THE STATUS OF WOM RESEARCH
In order to reach beyond existing WOM theories and build an understanding of WOM as
a social activity, we first need to delineate the existing knowledge around this phenomenon. As
already mentioned, WOM is one of the most powerful forces in affecting consumer behavior,
and has been shown to affect decisions in a wide range of product categories, such as food (Katz
and Lazarsfeld 1955), auto-centers (Engel, Kegerreis, and Blackwell 1969), new cars (Kiel and
Layton 1981), service providers (Keaveney 1995), appliances and clothing (Richins 1983), and
even industrial goods (Czepiel 1974). Surprisingly however, there have been few attempts to
provide a comprehensive framework of WOM various processes. Furthermore, past WOM
research has embraced a limited view of WOM as a static, instantaneous and ephemeral event.
Below, we illustrate this limited perspective across the three components of WOM: participants,
interaction, and outcome.
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Participants
Even though it is recognized that WOM exchanges may flow through large networks of
relationships (Frenzen and Nakamoto 1993), most research has focused on dyads and on the
roles of WOM seeker and WOM source. The WOM seeker is the individual who, when
contemplating a purchase, seeks out information from a friend, colleague, or other acquaintance.
The WOM source is that individual who provides the information. Because of their obvious
strategic importance as knowledge disseminators, WOM sources have been the subject of much
research. Three types of WOM sources are discussed in the literature: early adopters/innovators
(Rogers 1983), opinions leaders (Jacoby and Hoyer 1981), and market mavens (Feick and Price
1987). Similar but less extensive efforts have attempted to explain dimensions of WOM seeking
(Furse, Punj, and Stewart 1984; Kiel and Layton 1981). In addition, studies of the nature of the
relationship between the members of the dyad have shown that homophily (Feldman and
Spencer, 1965) and tie strength (Brown and Reigen 1987; Granovetter 1983) have an impact on
WOM exchanges. Yet, whether it is a trait approach to studying WOM sources and seekers, or
the analysis of the dyadic relationship, past WOM research has followed a static orientation. As
such, WOM roles have been considered fixed through the interaction, and comprised of a limited
repertoire of communication practices. We believe that there is an opportunity to acknowledge
more fluidity in role performance, and incorporate larger repertoires of communication methods
and practices into a broaden WOM research agenda.
Interaction
By definition, WOM exchange implies the occurrence of an interpersonal communication
containing service, idea or product information. WOM incidence has been linked to individual
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level motives (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004), post-purchase satisfaction (Westbrook 1987),
decision perceived risks (Murray 1991) and the role of price (Richins 1983). Even though these
and other past studies provide some insights into WOM interactions, they do not fully illuminate
the content or processes of WOM communications. One of a few rare exceptions is a study,
which revealed that the content of a series of WOM communications contained three types of
information: quality-only, price-only, and value (Mangold, Miller and Brockway 1999). Also, in
a broader scope analysis, Richins and Root-Shaffer (1988) determined that car buying WOM
interactions contained three types of WOM content: positive personal experience, product news,
and advice giving. In another context, Dobele and Ward (2002) identified five referrer styles for
an accountancy firm: opinion leader, passive mercenary, helpful friend, reciprocator, and closed
mouth. While these last three studies have provided important evidence on WOM content and
interaction styles, they have spoken mainly to the instrumental nature of WOM talk. Their
limited access to actual WOM conversations has impeded a systematic study of how WOM
interactions actually unfold between customers.
Outcome
Research on the outcomes of WOM interactions has been concerned mainly with the
factors that determine the likelihood of WOM affecting someone’s behavior and with the
potential magnitude of the impact. Typically, the impact of WOM has been assessed along a onedirectional and one-sided perspective (e.g., change in WOM seeker’s purchase intentions).
Specifically, studies have shown that WOM can be more effective than advertising in shaping
evaluations of an innovation (Engel et al. 1969), converting unfavorable predispositions into
positive attitudes (Day 1971), increasing purchasing intention (Sheth 1971), shaping brand
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evaluations (Herr, Kardes, and Kim 1991) and forming consumers’ expectations (Zeithaml,
Berry, and Parasuraman 1993). Overall, it also seems that negative WOM has more impact than
positive WOM, especially for purchase behavior (Arndt 1967). The vividness of WOM (due to
its interpersonal nature), as compared to other media-based communications, has been advanced
as an explanation for its powerful impact (Herr et al. 1991). However, it should also be noted that
not all consumers are equally influenced by WOM, and that underlying personality traits explain
some of the differences in WOM outcomes (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel 1989).
WORD-OF-MOUTH AS A SOCIAL ACT
In this article, we wish to step back from the dominant dyadic, informational/instrumental
research orientation and examine WOM communications along emergent lines. We wish to study
WOM in its social context, emphasizing WOM use as a social action, as a situated performance,
as tied to social relations and identities, and essentially as a matter of practice rather than just as
an instrument. As shown in the stylized example in figure 1, group WOM is essentially a
conversation, where multiple participants may be involved, with individuals using rich
repertoires of advice seeking and giving methods, assuming and changing roles throughout the
interaction, and where outcomes may affect multiple parties. Recognizing this broad nature of
WOM communication allows us to conceptualize it as a form of social actions (Mead 1934) that
participants build up through processes of noting, interpreting, and assessing the actions of others
in the interaction (Blumer 1986). Further, building on Miller’s (1984) concept of rhetorical
situation, we seek to identify WOM rhetorical methods as aspects of situated communications,
capable of reproduction and manifested across situations. Thus, a turn-by-turn analysis of WOM
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talk should provide insight not only into how everyday WOM is performed at the level of talk,
but also into the interactional and social structures that are manifested through the talk.
Therefore, we will approach the study of WOM through observation of its participants, the
methods and processes by which it is constructed, and its outcome amongst the group.
----------------------Figure 1
----------------------Participants
One of the most fundamental consequences of our conceptualization is that we recognize
that group WOM is more than a collection of separate dyadic exchanges. First, in a group, it is
possible for a “speaker to address his remarks to the circle as a whole” (Goffman 1979, 9).
Second, during group conversations, participants perform numerous, finely differentiated, and
dynamic roles. As illustrated in figure 1, there can be an entire group involved in sharing
information, debating or exchanging thoughts. A recommendation from one participant (message
2 – Kori) may lead another participant to share information that she heard about the discussed
product (message 3 - Christie), while prompting a third one to share her experience or concerns
with the suggested product (message 4 - Kylee), while yet another one might suggest a different
alternative. Furthermore, participants’ roles may change over the course of the conversation. In
our example, Janine, who initiated the WOM episode by seeking information, became an
information provider in the end. Consequently, analyzing this type of WOM interaction as a
series of seeker/giver WOM dyads, would miss key features of the process.
Interactions
In this research, we propose that WOM participants design and use rhetorical methods in
terms of the activities being negotiated. These rhetorical methods are WOM-bound activities that
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center on a problem talk and encompass the forms of advice seeking and recommendation giving
practices that are enacted habitually by group members. As such, WOM rhetorical methods are
the building blocks that participants use in constructing WOM conversations. Group members
have a repertoire of WOM rhetorical methods that they can strategically use in response to the
specifics of a WOM exchange. In this research, we attempt to uncover and describe these
different WOM rhetorical methods. Yet, we do not mean to suggest that there is only one valid
way to classify WOM discourse. In fact, we portray the study of WOM rhetorical methods as
valuable not because it might permit the creation of some kind of taxonomy, but because it
emphasizes the social and cultural aspects of WOM exchange.
Outcomes
In contrast to dyadic perspectives, in a group setting, WOM may simultaneously
influence a variety of consumption behaviors across multiple participants. A close look at the
stylized example in figure 1 reveals several consumption outcomes as a result of the WOM
episode (e.g., Janine buys a mattress according to Kori’s recommendation, Amy buys a bassinet
mattress according to Janine’s recommendation, and Kylee considers changing the mattress that
she bought). One can also speculate that there are social outcomes, with members reaffirming
their friendships and solidarity. In addition, in a group WOM conversation, the outcomes might
be more efficient as the conversation creates synergies. For example, A may ask for advice, B
responds, C evaluates B’s information, D offers another alternative, which is then evaluated by A
and C, and so on. Finally, there are also implicit efficiencies as insights accepted openly by some
participants may be noted silently by others. Together, these aspects make the task of detecting
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the outcome of an exchange a bit more difficult as outcomes need to be evaluated across many
participants and potential dimensions, and some indirect outcomes might go unaccounted.
In summarizing this review of the research on WOM, we would like to offer a reframed
definition of WOM and connect WOM research with specific group research issues. First, we
extend the definition of WOM beyond traditional dyadic conceptualization and include the
procedural aspects of WOM (i.e., various media, potential methods, and possible outcomes).
Therefore, we define WOM as a personal, interactive communication regarding a product, a
service, or an idea, that occurs between two or more individuals who are independent of the
organization that provides the asset under consideration. WOM communication may occur in
various types of media and forms, it may be neutral, positive, or negative, and it may (but does
not have to) be instrumental in determining an individual's consumptive behavior.
Second, though we do not need to reaffirm that groups are fundamental to social and
consumption life, our conceptualization of WOM as a social act reminds us that there are
substantial lacunae in our understanding of many group issues. In the group communication
literature, the research emphasis on task communication, and in particular on group decisionmaking, has contributed to a lack of attention to group relational aspects (Frey 1996).
Consequently, communication scholars have called for research on how contextual and relational
elements and communication forms influence group communication (Barker et al. 2000; Poole,
1999). In consumer research, recent advances in Consumer Culture Theory have redefined
fundamental constructs (e.g., loyalty) by investigating how consumer communities contribute to
a social patterning of consumption (Arnould and Thompson 2005). Specifically, we now have a
better understanding of the social processes and practices by which these communities develop,
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and have evidence that vibrant communities exist around specific interests and brands (Muniz
and O’Guinn 2001; Kozinets 2001; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). We hope that just as
brand community research has reframed brand loyalty, research on the relational communication
aspects of WOM can reframe and revitalize our core understanding of WOM. To that effect, we
are fortunate to be able to leverage internet communities in order to directly observe and capture
WOM as it occurs in groups of consumers.
THE RESEARCH CONTEXT
In this netnography (Kozinets 2002), we analyze the WOM conversations in an Internet
community’s bulletin boards. One advantage of studying such communities is that members’
postings are continuously captured and archived, thus providing a field setting where we can
study actual group WOM exchanges. Further, online communities are efficient channels for
facilitating WOM communication, shaping consumers’ opinions and influencing corporate
policies (Kalehoff 2004). For example, estimates are that 20% of online consumers in North
America, and 15% in Europe, use online recommendations when making purchase decisions
(Asbrand 2005). Of course, WOM in online communities has a few unique characteristics.
The first distinctive aspect of online WOM is its written nature. As such, it cannot
directly convey voice modulations, non-words sounds, facial expressions or body language
(Harris 2000). Moreover, everyday speech is a spontaneous and evanescent form of
communication, whereas written communication tends to be more permanent and planned
(Jahandarie 1999). The second significant feature is that online communities bring together
individuals who have little or no prior relationship, and therefore tie strength is often low
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(Schindler and Bickart 2005). In these groups, individual status characteristics are less evident or
even absent (Lemus et al. 2004). Further, when combined with the potential for full or partial
anonymity, this lack of observable status allows participants not to be “constrained by
circumstances of their background, appearance, status, neighborhood, and workplace” (Granitz
and Ward 1996, 165). Thus, on the web, one has more freedom in terms of self-presentation and
one is largely what one posts (Schau and Gilly 2003). Finally, computer-mediated groups are
very efficient means of information exchange, and therefore the amount of WOM information
may be much greater (Lemus et al. 2004). Through our analysis, we were cognizant of these
specific issues and took them into account. However, it is also important to recognize that as
internet participation becomes more prevalent, many of these distinctions between real and
virtual spaces are eroding and becoming irrelevant (Fernback 1999).
METHODOLOGY
This netnography is based on text data from the discourse of bulletin boards hosted at
BabyCenter.com, a community for new and expectant parents. The first author initially made her
entrée in this milieu while pregnant herself. Following this initial experience, two data collection
phases were undertaken. In the initial phase, messages were collected for a one-month period
from five different bulletin boards (cross sectional) and at two points in time (semi-longitudinal).
Across the boards and periods, these data reflected different community life stages (as boards are
organized by pregnancy due-dates, and a new board starts every month), and resulted in an
archive of 12,830 messages. The unit of analysis was the verbatim thread transcript, which was
operationalized as a seed message with all of the replies. Data from phase one were used to
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orient our understanding of community communications and practices. In the second phase, a
full longitudinal study was conducted, and the complete text of all messages of a newly formed
bulletin board was captured for a nine months period. During downloading, 12,162 threads were
screened to confirm the presence of WOM exchanges. WOM episodes were defined broadly, and
could include any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual or former customers,
about a product, service, idea, or company (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004). We retained 661 WOM
threads for further analysis. This corpus of messages was read several times and examined in line
with the basic tools of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (Garfinkel 1996). Through
this bottom-up ethnomethodological approach, we have tried to uncover WOM social
organization as an emergent achievement resulting from the concerted efforts of participants
acting within local situations. This analysis of WOM rhetorical methods was therefore not an
interpretive effort, as we did not try to uncover the symbolic meanings of WOM practices. The
WOM practices were studied as they are and not as representative of something else (Garfinkel
1996). Hence, in order “to explicate the knowledge that practice creates” (Miller 1984, 155), we
studied everyday WOM organization in its concrete details, as it is used in social interactions.
ANALYSIS OF WORD-OF-MOUTH EPISODES
To understand how WOM is conducted, we seek to identify the rhetorical methods that
individuals employ, rely upon, and take for granted in engaging in WOM exchanges. Our
ethnomethodological analysis investigates WOM talk across two levels of analysis. At a message
level, we investigate the regularities in the methods that WOM participants use to initiate a
WOM interaction and to design WOM responses. Then, using the whole thread as the unit of
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analysis, we investigate whether and how WOM initiation methods formulate the “gist” of WOM
discussions, and describe how group WOM differ from dyadic approaches.
Our ethnomethodological approach is informed by membership categorization analysis
(MCA) (Hester and Eglin 1997; Sacks 1974). In MCA, “the ordinary sense of talk and action is
made problematic (i.e., for the purpose of analysis) and is conceptualized as the accomplishment
of local instances of categorical ordering work” (Hester and Eglin 1997, 3).The focus of MCA is
on the use of membership categories, membership categorization devices (MCD), and category
predicates. According to MCA, there are certain predicates that can be imputed on the basis of a
given category membership. They include activities, obligations, attributes, knowledge, and
competencies that are expectably part of objects or persons that are the incumbents of particular
categories (Hester and Eglin 1997).
A WOM thread captures the various kinds of activities in which the participants may
engage. Going back to the stylized example in figure 1, we see that the thread is named by the
initiator based on the main topic (“Crib advice”). The participants consist of each party that
produces a message. In the example, we have five participants. Messages are numbered with
message 1 being the posting that begins the thread (the WOM initiation in most instances). Each
WOM interaction (a.k.a., WOM episode, WOM thread) consists of a series of messages. The
number of messages may vary depending primarily on the level of interest in the topic. Besides
just announcing a topic, thread titles serve also as an invitation for members to provide help.
They project the organizing MCD and the category predicates of the participants. In our
example, any reader can assume, just by the topic, that the MCD will consist of parties to a
WOM conversation regarding cribs and that some of the responders will have knowledge and/or
experience with cribs. In addition, one can presume that the participants will be engaged in
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activities such as asking for information about cribs, providing recommendations or warnings on
specific types or brands of cribs, supporting or challenging each-other’s advice, and finally
engaging in some public display of gratitude for the recommendations.
Overall, WOM talks should be seen as the sequential accomplishments of local acts made
by individuals as part of being engaged in categorical bounded activities. When WOM
participants act “in ways that are ‘predicatively-bound’ (i.e., predicates of action, rights,
obligations, etc.) inferences can be made (are made) by each of the parties about the other based
on these actions”, and these activities are “category relevant and category generative” (Psathas
1999, 156). This suggests that in a typical seeker–responder view of WOM conversations, a
WOM seeker has obligations and rights that include asking a legitimate question, providing
information on the situation or needs, and thanking the responders. On the other hand, a WOM
provider has obligations, knowledge and competencies, such as advising, arguing and making a
relevant reply. Further, these predicates are reinforced through the sequential turn taking nature
of WOM conversations (Sacks 1992). Similarly to the caller-called category pair in telephone
conversations (Sacks 1992), in WOM conversations, we anticipate a categorical distribution
based on WOM sequential production, with the WOM seeker producing the first question and
the WOM provider producing a response. Thus, an asymmetry between WOM participants may
arise from the predominantly question-answer pattern that characterizes WOM interactions. In
turn, these predicates of actions lead to a repertoire of advice seeking and advice giving
rhetorical methods that participant carefully utilize. Before discussing the specifics of these
methods, we would like to provide a general overview of the nature and scope of the observed
WOM activities.
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WOM Episode – Setting the Scene
An analysis of WOM threads reveals that solicited and received advice covered a broad
range of products and services connected to pregnancy and/or babies. These included requests
for general advice (e.g., nursery themes), product recommendations (e.g., alternatives to double
stroller), trade-offs within product categories (e.g., full versus travel size swings), and brand
recommendations (e.g., Baby Bjorn versus Snugli). Moreover, the advice solicited was not
limited to baby products (e.g., vacation suggestions) and was often linked to very consequential
decisions (e.g., medical option). This last point along with an illustration of the impact of WOM
exchanges are illustrated dramatically in the following two messages. In the first one, a WOM
seeker thanks the women in the community for their advice, admitting that without it, she would
have already terminated her pregnancy. In the second one, the impact of other members’ advice
is further visible with the poster indicating that she will heed it over her doctor's guidance.
[One more slight bit of hope - 1] I talked to my doctor and the test came back positive, […]
he said to wait a week and then I go for another ultrasound … We are not getting our hopes
up too much […] but at least waiting the extra week puts my mind and heart at ease that we
are making sure that the right decision has to be made. Once again I have to thank every-one
because without every-one I would not have thought to question getting a D&C [dilatation
and curettage] today and then I would have had a nagging in the back of my mind forever.
[OB right or wrong? - 1] Hi Ladies, I'm starting to question my OB [obstetrician] […] [She]
gave me a list of meds that are OK all through pregnancy. I posted on another board to help
this lady with a stuffy nose because on my list it says vicks's is OK. Another lady said her
OB said NOWAY because of the menthol in it. So now I'm worried. Here's the list my OB
gave me [...] Anyone know if these are ok? I hate the thought of being misinformed.
The aim of our subsequent analysis is to produce formal descriptions of the rhetorical methods
that individuals employ in specific WOM interactions. The analysis is organized in terms of the
following main sections: (1) WOM initiation, (2) WOM advice, and (3) WOM interaction.
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WOM Initiation Repertoire
In this section, we decompose and analyze WOM initiation. Our analysis focuses on
messages that contain requests for advice, information or recommendation. Initiator messages
serve as topic openers and provide for extended topical discussion (Sacks 1992). We should note
that some WOM conversations might be initiated by messages containing self-generating advice
in the absence of a preliminary request. We will address this type of self-generating advice in the
WOM advice section. There are five fundamental components in a WOM initiation: (1) seeker’s
legitimacy, (2) topic legitimacy, (3) request formulation, (4) solicitation of responders, and (5)
requested response framing (see table 1).
Seeker’s Legitimacy. Participants who inject a WOM question must signal to others that
they are legitimate in deserving the community’s attention (Galegher, Sproull and Kiesler 1998).
Disclosure of personal or problem specific information allows participants to claim legitimacy.
One of the most common methods is by signaling one’s community membership. Since
BabyCenter.com boards are organized by to due date, legitimacy is frequently implied by
specifying the initiator’s “edd” (expected due date) or baby’s age. Our observations also suggest
that legitimacy can be gained through behavioral statements that explicitly signal community
membership (Galegher et al. 1998). In particular, first timers or members who “lost track for a
while” may indicate that they were active members in the past or that they were “lurking” (just
reading) for some time before. To buttress that claim, they may refer to the group’s shared
history, comment on past posts or refer to specific members. Finally, they may also indicate that
they belong to similar or affiliated groups, and by doing so signal that they are knowledgeable
about the group culture and purpose and therefore have a right to seek attention.
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In establishing her legitimacy, each WOM seeker has access to a repertoire of identities
that she can use to define herself and the potential responders. Rather than being pre-determined,
one’s identity is shaped by the specifics of the context and is occasioned through the discourse
interaction (Sacks 1992). Identity is also indexical, in the sense that participants choose to give
salience to specific aspects of the self according to their goals in the interaction. Consistent with
self-categorization theory (Turner 1987), we found that participants may identify themselves as
unique individuals (personal identity) or as members of some group or class of individuals
(social identity), and that these are strategic but equally valid expressions of self. For example, in
the following message, the WOM seeker identifies herself as an experienced mom (“like many
other moms now that #3 is coming”). Since category-constitutive features of the category
experienced moms is familiarity with products, services, and other issues about motherhood,
babies, or pregnancy, experienced moms are treated as a more knowledgeable group compared to
other participants. Thus, by making salient this part of her identity, this initiator provides the
responders with a way to orient to the WOM talk. Specifically, this allows responders to assume
that answers should not include basic information on strollers since an experienced mom should
be familiar with it. In addition, this self-categorization presents an implicit indication about the
participants who are entitled to offer a WOM response (i.e., other experienced moms).
[Side by side double strollers - 1] I currently have a Graco DuoGlide Tandem stroller. At
the time #2 was coming along I had done research and it seemed like the best choice for us.
[…] Well, probably like many other moms now that #3 is coming along I am once again on
the quest for a better solution.
Conversely, in the next example, the self-categorization as a “first time mom” would signal
category-constitutive features such as lack of experience and knowledge in most things related to
motherhood, babies or pregnancy.
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[Cloth versus disposable diapers - 1] I'm a first time mom and I was wondering the pros
and cons of having cloth diapers […] I don't know anyone who has used them, I need to get
your opinions.
While WOM initiators may self-categorize as group members, others emphasize their
individuality. In the next example, the initiator describes her personal situation:
[Cloth diapers - 1] I want to use cloth diapers (this is my first) but I want to make sure it is a
good experience from the beginning so I don't fall back on the disposables. For those of you
who have been there before, what diapers do you highly recommend?
The distinction between the initiator who self-categorized as “I’m a first time mom” (as part of a
group) and this last one “this is my first” (as an individual who is expecting for the first time), is
subtle but noteworthy. When a WOM seeker introduces herself as a member of a group, she
signals that she does not perceive herself to be in a unique situation, and thereby provides
responders with a way of orienting their response in accordance with the category-constitutive
features of that group. In contrast, if a WOM seeker defines herself as a distinct individual, this
indicates that at that time she does not really perceive herself as a group member and seeks
individualized advice. By providing different self-categorizations, initiators signal different
motives and category features, and also indicate the types of participants who are entitled to offer
a WOM response. Later in this analysis, we examine how such self-categorization is relevant for
the overall interaction and for the ways WOM responders formulate their advice.
Topic Legitimacy. Besides establishing legitimacy for the seeker, the WOM initiation
must also establish that the request is legitimate and deserving of the community’s time. Just as
callers are obligated to provide a reason for a telephone call (Psathas 1999), WOM initiators are
obligated to provide a reason for posting. Most commonly, participants signal that their request is
legitimate by writing about issues deemed legitimate by the community (Galegher et al. 1998),
by providing a compelling description of a problem or need, and by using the topic name in the
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thread title. At BabyCenter.com, WOM topics are de facto legitimate if they fit with the
community purpose, and therefore concern babies, young families, or pregnancy. For these
topics, no special justification appears to be necessary. However, individual might also try to
access the community resources for topics that are not part of the typical community concerns.
As seen in the next two messages, when participants initiate such requests (e.g., moving
suggestion, or activities for an older child), they typically emphasize this fact right on the topic
header by explicitly stating that this is off-topic (“OT”). Moreover, they often apologize for
posting a non-related message. These explicit acknowledgments are means to ingratiate the
potential responders and inoculate any possible hostile response to the request.
[OT [off topic] - Moving Suggestions - 1] My DH [dear husband] and I are thinking of
moving to the DC, MD, or VA area. I would greatly appreciate it if anyone can suggest some
nice, friendly suburbs to look at. I hope this doesn't bothers anyone that this isn't a “baby”
posting, but I thought this would be a great place to get others opinions on the area.
[OT [Off Topic]: Activities for 2 yr old at home for summer - 1] Sorry this is off-topic,
but I know there are so many SAHM's [stay-at-home moms] on this board. I need some
advice. My Mom has agreed to watch my 31 month old DD [dear daughter] over the summer
to help us save some money before the new baby comes… What can my Mom do to keep her
busy? What kind of resources are out there?
Regardless of topic fit, participants may seek to increase the perceived legitimacy of their
request by signaling that they have researched the issue. This method not only establishes their
involvement with the issue but also signals a knowledge base. In some cases, as in the next
example, initiators may even indicate that they have already received WOM information and
recommendations, but that they still would like to hear the advice of the community members,
signaling that both the topic and the opinion of the community matter a lot for them.
[OT [Off Topic]: Any booster seats recommendations - 1] [...] Anyone care to share their
favorite?…I need to buy a booster seat for my 3 year old son […] I have some info/ratings
[…] and some recommendations from magazines and friends - but thought I'd check with the
moms out there with toddlers. If you've “been there-done that” and can offer me any advice,
recommendations, what to steer clear of - I'd appreciate it [...] thanks!
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Request Formulation. In order to obtain meaningful WOM advice, seekers strategically
use one of three main request formulation methods (1) a full diagnosis, (2) problem only, and (3)
solution only. A full diagnosis contains a description of a situation, with its emergent problem or
need, along with an attempt to come up with a solution. In the following full diagnostic example,
the initiator describes her situation (“never bought or used one before”), her problem (“am
unable to do anything requiring the use of more than one arm”), its urgency (“need one NOW”),
and then efficiently constrains the potential WOM responses by offering solutions (“Target or
Baby Depot”) and excluding others (“can't wait for shipping”).
[Where I can get a sling tonight - 1] I've seen most nice slings on-line, but I need one
NOW! I just can't wait for shipping time. I am unable to do anything requiring the use of
more than one arm now that Jake is awake so much more. I have never bought or used one
before, so I'm wondering if Target or Baby Depot carry nice ones […] Would Toys R Us
carry them (much closer to me)? And if anyone can recommend a brand that would be
wonderful too!
Other initiators express their problem without an attempt to come up with a possible solution:
[OT [off topic] – Vaseline mess – 1] My dd [dear daughter] got a whole tub of Vaseline last
night and smeared it all over herself and her hair. Keep in mind that her hair is really long
[…] I cannot get the Vaseline out. We bathed her twice last night and then I washed her hair
twice this morning with Dawn dishwashing liquid. It is still greasy and disgusting looking.
Any ideas on what might help get the Vaseline out of her hair?
Alternatively, initiators may choose to provide no detail about their situation or problem,
and focus solely on the potential solution. In the next account, the participant seeks stroller
information from second-time moms but provides no facts about her specific situation, needs or
experiences, instead focusing only on the solution to her information quest.
[Travel systems versus strollers - 1] Here's a questions for 2nd time or more moms: I've
heard mixed reviews about travel systems - the convenience of them is obvious, but I've also
heard that the strollers are usually junk. What has been everyone's experience […]?
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Solicitation of Responders. While some WOM initiations seem to indicate implicitly or
explicitly that anyone who is willing to answer is welcomed to do so, most WOM initiations
typically contain indications concerning the people who are entitled to provide a response. This
targeted solicitation is accomplished through seeker’s meaningful selection of categories. WOM
seekers use two main categorization methods to solicit specific potential responders: (1) based on
responders’ past behaviors or experiences or (2) based on specific responders’ profiles or
category membership. By choosing different responder categorizations, WOM initiators may
signal different features clustered around the categories, thus affecting the essence of the WOM
responses. The following WOM initiation is an example of a WOM seeker indicating that
responders are entitled to provide advice if they have already purchased the product.
[Diaper bags - 1] Has anyone gotten a diaper bag that they love? I cannot seem to find the
right one. Actually I found a great Nine West one, but I cannot justify spending $79.00 […]
As shown in the next two messages, other WOM initiations may indicate that responders
may be entitled to provide their advice if they either belong to a broad category such as
“experienced moms” or fit a narrower category profile such as “expecting #2”. By specifying a
narrow respondent profile, the seeker implies that she is soliciting recommendations from people
like her. This method might yield more relevant information since homophilous individuals are
more likely to have similar product needs and wants (Feldman and Spencer 1965).
[Best diapers - 1] For those experienced moms out there, what do you think is the best brand
of disposable diapers? There are so many out there I wouldn't know which to choose.
[Double stroller - 1] Was just wondering if anyone who is expecting #2 or more has any
recommendations for double strollers. My little ones will basically be 2 years apart so I'm
really looking around for a double stroller now [...] could you tell me which one you have
and what do you like/dislike about it […]
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Requested Response Framing. Our observations suggest that WOM seekers use their
request to frame the nature of the requested advice. As discussed by Bruner (1986), there are two
ways of ordering experience and finding out about the world: paradigmatic versus narrative. A
paradigmatic mode is based on formal tools of validation and empirical verification. A narrative
approach is based on internal, personal, context-dependent and specific accounts. Our findings
support that WOM initiators can use either route to frame the requested response. As shown in
the next message, a paradigmatic framing emphasizes analytical and functional aspects (such as
product characteristics, comparison between alternatives based on objective attributes, etc.) and
tends to be non-personal, context independent, and external.
[Cloth versus disposable diapers - 1] I was wondering the pros and cons of having cloth
diapers. In my babybook that I got it says that a newborn usually goes through 80 diapers a
week! I'm trying to save money but are cloth diapers worth the hassle?
By contrast, a narrative framing invites internal, personal, context-dependent, and experiential
accounts. In this case, the responder is expected to produce a series of anecdotal descriptions of
particular incidents, utilizing narrative tools, drama, human intentions, and actions. In the
following initiation, the WOM seeker describes her particular situation, expresses the problem
that is attached to this situation, describes options that she has considered, and then frames the
requested response by asking for personal experiences, intentions, and actions:
[Two cribs or a big kid bed - 1] I'm interested to see what other people facing the 2-under-2
situation are doing about this. My ds [dear son] will be about 17 months when the new baby
arrives, which is early for a big boy bed - but he's already the size of an 18-month-old, so I'm
worried that crib-climbing is coming up rapidly, and I don't want to have to shell out for a
whole new crib if ds [dear son] will only be in his for a month or two after the new baby
arrives […] I've thought about just having the new baby sleep in the pack-n-play […] for a
while. I've also thought about getting a big-kid-bed […] What are other people with small
children doing about this, or what did you do if you've already been in the situation?
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Summary. Analyses of WOM initiations revealed how WOM seekers organize their
messages via the use of categorization devices. Participants’ meaningful selection of categories
and the arrangement of items determine the sense of WOM initiation (Vallis 2001). Although
some WOM initiations might not include elements from each categorization device, we
determined that five main components (each with a repertoire of possible rhetorical methods) are
used to build this part of the WOM conversation. These include: the seeker’s legitimacy, the
topic legitimacy, the formulation of the request, the solicitation of specific responders, and the
framing of the requested response. Table 1 provides a summary of the major components and
rhetorical methods of WOM initiations. In the interactional-level of analysis section, we will
consider whether and how these initiation methods formulate the essence of the WOM responses.
----------------------Table 1
----------------------WOM Advice Repertoire
In this section, we analyze WOM advice as the accomplishment of local acts made by a
WOM provider, as part of her being engaged in a categorical bounded activity. Four
qualifications apply to this analysis. First, it is important to acknowledge that local verbal
expressions are not by nature WOM advice. They become so only when they occur in a context
where they serve a specific communication function (i.e., responding to a WOM question, or
self-generating a WOM advice) and are therefore instrumental in achieving a goal. Second,
regardless of its linguistic characteristics, any statement speaks about some subject. However,
our analysis is not focused on the idiosyncratic and topic-specific substantive content of a WOM
advice; but rather, it centers on the observable physical and linguistic features (e.g., rhetorical
methods) of the advice statements. Third, even though this section focuses on local messagelevel WOM practices, we recognize that group WOM is also constructed through the overall
26
WOM conversation. Consequently, in a subsequent section, we examine WOM advice in relation
to the larger interaction that is taking place. Lastly, and as already mentioned, our analysis
revealed that while most WOM advice is invited, some is also self-generated. When appropriate,
our findings include and identify the specific aspects of this type of WOM. Overall, our analysis
of WOM advice revealed four major components of advice rhetoric: (1) foundation of authority,
(2) advice framing, (3) advice focus, and (4) advice scheme (see table 1).
Foundation of Authority. While establishing legitimacy for their request is a central
concern for the WOM seeker, a rhetorical imperative for WOM providers involves achieving
ethos. This is one the three Aristotelian modes of persuasion and it is achieved by establishing
one’s competence or authority on an issue (Galegher et al. 1998). In general, authority can be
claimed by establishing personal knowledge, discussing one’s own behavior, or relating personal
or someone else’s experience with the issue. Of course, a combination of some of these methods
can also be used to buttress one’s advice. For example, the following responder establishes her
authority by describing her extensive knowledge (“did a lot of internet research”), relating the
experience of a credible third party (“my neighbor …very experienced mom …breastfeeding
machine”), and describing her own behavior (“I have purchased”) and experience (“already
received it … can tell that my newborn won't get lost”).
[Where I can get a sling tonight - 9] […] I have purchased an Over The Shoulder Baby
Holder sling, upon recommendation of my neighbor who is a very experienced mom and a
breastfeeding machine. I also did a lot of internet research, and decided this would fit my
needs best. I have already received it, although I am still waiting for Baby #2 […] I can tell
that my newborn won't get lost in it like my older son did with the Nojo […]
Another method that WOM providers use to establish authority is through categorybound inferences. Establishing that the WOM provider belongs to a specific category of
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individuals may allow the recipient to make inferences about the provider’s character or
knowledge. This is consistent with an ethotic argument where ethos (the character of the
speaker) is used to transfer credibility to the speaker’s proposition (Walton 1996). For example,
in response to a question about car seats, the responder in the next message self-categorizes as a
“safety child seat fanatic” thereby invoking relevant category-bound predicates. This
categorization implies that she is worth listening to because of her knowledge about the subject.
[Strollers and car seats - 20] […] I am a safety child seat fanatic!!! the graco snugride
infant seat is rated one of the best and it goes for about $100 […] I loved how it snapped on
and off […] I bought the matching stroller [...]
Besides establishing their authority on the subject, providers of non-invited advice also
face the added burden of legitimizing their claim and demonstrating that it is deserving of the
group’s attention (Cuff and Francis 1978). One rhetorical method to address this concern is by
establishing the existence of a latent demand. In the first message below, the WOM provider
makes a recommendation in the message header and explains how she uses the product as a
nausea relief, a latent need that other pregnant women might have as well. In addition, as the
second example illustrates, a methodic device that is common to non-invited WOM advice is the
appeal for the “in the same boat” notion. This emphasis on homophily is designed to gain
attention and trust, and reinforces that as homophilous individuals, “we”are likely to have similar
needs (Feldman and Spencer 1965).
[Try peppermint gum - 1] I bought Orbit brand peppermint gum on a spur of the moment a
few days ago and I find that I'm chewing it all the time. It really seems to ease my queasiness
[…] I wish I had discovered this with my other pregnancies […]
[Recommendation for all preggo - 1] Quaker Instant Oatmeal has a specially formulated
line called Nutrition for Women […] it helps ward of that awful constipation […] But the
BEST part is I can actually stomach it with this terrible morning sickness!!! Just a thought
for those of you who are in the same boat as I am, or those who are preparing for it!
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Advice Framing. As already discussed, there are two different ways of finding out about
the world: paradigmatic versus narrative. This basic distinction between persuasion through
reasoned arguments versus through stories and dramas has been acknowledged across the social
sciences and consumer research (Deighton, Romer, and McQueen 1989). We found that each of
these modes may be present in WOM advices, and each one provides distinctive ways of
ordering experience. A paradigmatic WOM advice is impersonal, objective, and logical. Content
is provided in a generalizable and universal form, and could be testable by formal procedures.
The following message illustrates such a recommendation:
[Diapers – what kind are you using? - 25] I have been using cloth diapers for about 18mos
now with my first son […] For me the reasons are as follows (in order of priority):
1. Minimizing contact with toxic chemicals (diapers contain the same ingredient that […]
2. Environment. Human waste should be treated and not added to landfills […]
4. Easier clean up. I actually did less laundry after switching […]
5. Cost. Good quality cloth diapers will resell for a portion of their initial value […]
In contrast, narrative advice methods are based on stories, and they seek to make
experiences comprehensible, believable, and lifelike. Their persuasive effects may derive from
their ability to facilitate the generation of thoughts by the audience and enable behaviors and
values modeling (Sunwolf and Frey 2001). Narratives as a method of WOM advice giving are
consistent with the personal experiences WOM dimension that was uncovered in previous
studies (Richins and Root-Shaffer 1988). In response to a question about using pacifiers, the
following WOM provider uses a narrative frame for her advice. She produces a series of
anecdotal descriptions, utilizing conflict (“drives my dear husband crazy”), a pivotal experience
(“my dad … told the nurse to get it”), drama (“the ‘plug fairy’ came and exchanged them”), and
also flashbacks and emotions (“I sucked one when I was little”). This deeply personal and almost
confession-style advice accentuates the sincerity and personal exposure of the provider, allowing
her support overall claim (“I would rather them suck a pacifier”):
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[Dummies / pacifiers - 5] […] My ds [dear son] is 2 1/2 and he still uses his “binkie” […] it
drives my dh (dear husband) crazy that he uses it so much but it really doesn't bother me,
[…] They gave us one in the hospital, they provided it and he took to it right away, my dad is
actually the one who told the nurse to get it for him […] both of my nephews had them till
they were at least 3 or older and then the “plug fairy” came and exchanged them for toys,
[…] I sucked one when I was little and when my parents took it away I started sucking my
thumb till I was in elementary school and my teeth stick out a bit, I am waiting until after the
baby and going to get checked for braces cause they bother me so bad, so in my opinion, not
debate I would rather them suck a pacifier than there thumb or finger.
Alternatively, the next narrative provides a WOM advice that is centered more on the object of
the WOM, in this case using liquid iron supplements. The WOM provider uses a comedic
dramatization of her experience, structuring it in a script-like fashion. Yet, the WOM object is
much more center-stage in this narrative, and the WOM advice seeks to communicate several
object-related issues: the product smells badly, might not be needed by some women, testing can
be done to verify, and finally a medical doctor recognizes it is not always needed:
[Iron Pills - 9] Did you challenge them? This is what happened to me: They gave me a bottle
of liquid iron and said “Take X tablespoons a day of this.” I took it home, smelled it, and said
“Heck no!” So here comes the next appointment:
“Are you taking your iron drops?”
“Ummm....no.”
“Why not?”
(Pause.) “Frankly, they smell like frog waste.”
(Rolls eyes.) “Put them in some orange juice and be done with it!”
“Prove I have a deficiency and need them.”
“Give me your finger.”
(Ahhh, crap! They called my bluff!) I held out my finger, they gave me a tiny stick, put my
blood on a test strip and stared at it. Levels were perfectly normal.
“OK,” says the doc. “You don't have to take them” […]
Advice Focus. As hinted above, our analysis has revealed that WOM providers might
focus WOM advice content along object-oriented or person-oriented dimensions. Further, when
the WOM is person-oriented, it can focus either on the WOM provider’s experience (selfreferential) or on the WOM seeker’s situation (recipient-referential). Object-oriented advice
focuses on the products, services, brands, or ideas that are of concern. Objectifying the message
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“directs attention away from human agency” (Deighton 1992, 365) and decontextualizes the
product merits, thereby increasing its overall relevance and appeal. This rhetorical method is
akin to the product-news WOM dimension in Richins and Root-Shaffer’s (1988) research, and is
generally based on product knowledge. An example of object-oriented advice is the use of
product or brand comparisons.
[Breast pumps - 4] […] Avent Isis: For a manual pump, very easy to use. Way too many
parts […] Priced right […] Quiet totally portable […] Pump in style: Bigger, more
expensive. Needs outlet or battery. Easy to use […] Fewer parts to wash […] Perfect for
going back to work. […] Good customer service […]
Alternatively, WOM responses may focus on the user. As seen in the first example
below, these rhetorical methods can be self-referential, emphasizing the WOM provider’s
experiences, situation, problems or needs (“we never had a dishwasher”, “my 2nd she was a
preemie”). Otherwise, when the focus is recipient-referential, rhetors show solidarity by
recognizing the audience’s “knowledge, concerns, values, and responses” and by “endorsing and
adopting their points of view” (Dillon 1986, 24). Thus, when providing recipient-focused
responses, WOM providers must reproduce patterned notions of others (Miller 1994). As shown
in the second message, a WOM provider may explicitly address the recipient’s specific situation
(“you are at home”) or needs (“you are not going to use it that often”).
[Questions about Bottles – 2] […] I used the playtex nursers. I loved them. We never had a
dishwasher and so it was so easy with the disposable inserts. When I had my 2nd she was a
preemie and the nipples on the playtex was all that could fit in her mouth. I plan on using
them again when I do give a bottle […]
[Medela Pumps - Mini-electric vs. Pump in Style - 3] […] I really liked it but did find it
kinda bulky and took some time to set up […] Since you are at home though that should not
be a problem […] the PIS is kinda expensive so if you are not going to use it that often then
it might be better money wise to get a smaller one.
Advice Schemes. This last set of WOM giving rhetorical methods deals with the
arguments (justifications or refutations) provided for WOM advice. Our analysis is grounded in
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argumentation theory, but does not use formal logic methods to evaluate the absolute validity of
the arguments. Instead, we follow a more pragmatic and contextual orientation in which
arguments are considered based on their ability to generate acceptance (Eemeren and
Grootendorst 1992). Therefore, although WOM arguments can be strong or weak and even
sometimes invalid by logic standards, they should be studied based on their overall plausibility.
Arguments can be seen as good, correct or reasonable if they contribute to the conversation
goals, and alternatively as bad, incorrect or fallacious if they block it (Walton 1996). In order to
achieve the conversation goals, WOM providers design their advice by using conventionally
accepted, ready-made WOM advice schemes. The objective is to bring about a transfer of
acceptance from some premises to a conclusion. Hence, WOM advice schemes represent ways to
justify statements “in relation to the conventions of what kinds of moves or speech acts are
conventionally accepted in that type of dialogue” (Walton 1996, 9). Accordingly, an analysis of
advice schemes produces information as to the principles, standards, criteria, or assumptions
involved in a particular attempt at justification or refutation (Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992).
Argumentation scholars have developed inventories of the types of arguments schemes
that can be used in dialogues (Walton 1996, Macoubrie 2003, Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992).
To date, Walton’s (1996) classification of twenty-five types of argumentation schemes appears
to be the most detailed and encompassing. However, similarly to others, it is also not exhaustive
or generalizable to all types of conversations. Undoubtedly, our own analysis of WOM advice
schemes was informed by these foundational considerations. Yet, our inquiry also reflects the
specific nature of WOM conversations as encountered in our data. To increase presentational
efficiency, we have grouped argument schemes in six general categories: reputation of advice
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source scheme, proven solution advice scheme, verbal classification advice scheme, reasoning
advice scheme, consequence advice scheme, and analogy advice scheme.
1. Reputation of advice source scheme. We observed several rhetorical methods that can
be globally described as attempting to support (undermine) a WOM advice by leveraging the
superiority (inadequacy) of the WOM source. As already discussed, establishing one’s own
personal authority (or position to know) allows WOM providers to gain the attention of the
WOM seeker. However, this rhetorical method can also be the actual argument used to support
the WOM claim. Thus, as shown in the examples below, citing a third-party expert (“our
pediatrician”) or a reputable source (“teachnutrition.org”) can support the argument in the claim
(Walton 1996). Further, it should be noted that by leveraging the technology at hand, responders
are able to validate their advice by posting direct references or hyperlinks to sources. In the
second example, the WOM provider is very efficient in justifying the type of milk that should be
consumed by linking her post to the authoritative sounding website.
[Dummies – pacifiers - 5] I am not trying to have a debate either, but our pediatrician told
us with ds [dear son] that it is better for their teeth than sucking thumb […] and it shouldn't
cause problems with buck teeth […]
[Milk-fat percentage - 12] I did a quick yahoo search for “calcium and milk types.” I came
up with the following pdf link: http://www.teachnutrition.org/pdf/types of milk.pdf. The site
basically says that all milk types are equally nutritious and the only difference is the fat [...]
A cited expert can also be the poster herself, a close family member, or an acquaintance. In the
example below, the responder categorizes her husband as a “nutritionist,” and thus can leverage
his expertise on prenatal vitamins. In the process, she also builds her own credibility by casting
her advice in scientific sounding terms (“Synthetic vitamins tend to block out the nutritional
food… does not match the synthetic version”) and thus can argue against the dominant product.
Finally, to strengthen her claim, she provides her doctor as one extra authority source.
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[Prenatal vitamins - 5] […] Take a GNC Prenatal. You will feel better, and the baby will be
getting the Proper vitamins needed. Why? Because the pills your Doctor gives you are
synthetic. Natural vitamins are just like eating the mineral or vitamin in food. Synthetic
vitamins tend to block out the nutritional food you are eating because it does not match the
synthetic version of the vitamin or mineral. My husband was a nutritionist and he abhors the
synthetic vitamins sold by Doctors and pharmacies. He threw away all my sample packs and
said it would not do a body good […] My doctor actually AGREED with my husband that
the naturals are better […] She said the reason they give the synthetic is because it is covered
under insurance […]
This last example is also indicative of advice schemes that use negative reputation effects
to undermine an alternative. By stating that synthetic alternatives are prescribed because
insurance companies cover them, the WOM provider attacks the alternative product option by
highlighting the bias or “dark motive” of the source (Walton 1996). Recommendation can also
be undermined by using methods of disagreement such as objections or challenges (Meyers,
Brashers, and Hanner 2000), pointing out inconsistencies between a source’s advice and
behavior, or questioning the character or reputation of the source. In the following case, in
response to a participant who had suggested that based on her own situation and readings she
thought that pregnancy reduces calcium in teeth and causes teeth decay, another participant
forcefully attacks the suggestion. She uses a character attack, questioning the hygiene practices
and veracity of the original account. As a whole, this argument, with its strong, chastising and
non-negotiable claims, takes on the authority of a parental voice (Dillon 1986).
[Teeth problems - 3] At the risk of sounding rude or crass I will attempt to get my point
across to you [...] If there are a lot of cavities in your mouth and some are moderate to deep
[...] they were there for a while [...] Honestly when was the last time you had a dental check
up and do you really care for your teeth the way you should? […] It has nothing to do with
calcium being removed from your body […] Don't tell me you do all of this because if you
did you would not be in this situation […]
2. Proven solution advice scheme. A WOM provider can support her advice by
illustrating how the recommendation has worked for her or someone she knows, by showing that
it is a typical solution to the problem at hand or by establishing that it is the solution favored by
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most. One common method used in proven solution WOM advice schemes is advice from
example. This advice scheme is used to support a generalization and prove a point as opposed to
just being an anecdotal illustration (Walton 1996). For example, in the next post, the WOM
provider uses her firsthand experience to argue for the right way to purchase a baby carrier:
[Where I can get a sling tonight - 5] Just a word of caution *Try it before you buy it*. I
bought the Nojo Dr Sears sling for Sam, he hated it until he was old enough to sit up. By that
time, I hated it, because it dug into my shoulders […] I am taking my baby with me when I
go to get my baby bjorn. I have tried it on, and I like it-but I am not taking anymore chances
on getting something I hate wearing […]
A similar method is WOM advice from popularity. In this kind of justification, the popularity of
the recommended advice is used to support a course of action. A seen in the next example, the
implication is that if “MANY” people think or behave in a certain way, that way has to be right
because it would be foolish to expect so many people to be wrong (Walton 1996).
[Strollers and car seats - 4] We bought the Evenflo Travel System. I would NEVER
recommend it to anyone! The car seat is great, it is the stroller that is terrible (I am not the
only one, MANY people I have talked to say the same thing) […]
Naturally, not all justifications are executed well, and some argumentation schemes appear weak.
For instance, in the post below, the provider warns of problems with a product, but instead of
using first hand accounts of her own experience or instances that she has witnessed, she provides
hearsay, and therefore we might question her justification quality.
[Medela pump – Mini Electric vs. PIS - 8] […] Please, please, please, please avoid the
Gerber/Playtex/Evenflo pumps [...] not only are they ineffective (which can really jeopardize
your milk supply), but I have also heard of women actually getting tissue damage from using
the darned things! Yikes!
3. Verbal classification advice scheme. This kind of justification establishes that a
particular target is a member of a category (e.g., a Japanese car) which has a known property
(e.g., good resale value). Therefore, based on the classification, the target is inferred to also
possess the property (Walton 1996). The inference process can be implicitly or explicitly
35
articulated. In the next example, the WOM provider explicitly declares that she is eccentric and
thus, assuming category-bound inferences, we should expect that she would not like a minivan
(something not eccentric!). Markedly, she rhetorically uses this counter-dispositional
construction in order to support that her recommendation (preferring minivans over SUVs) is
factually even more robust because of its reluctant nature (Potter and Edwards 2001). Generally,
since a key issue with any verbal classification scheme is the definition of the classification,
these advice schemes can be counter-argued with two main methods: the arbitrariness or the
vagueness of the classification (Walton 1996).
[Vroooom - 9] My hubby and I are a bit eccentric (tattoos, lost track of the body piercings)
and I would never think of myself as the mini-van type but that is what we have to have now.
I love the way SUV's look and feel but they drink up the gas. And I feel like we would just
be throwing that money away every month. I am planning to buy a Dodge Caravan. They get
great gas mileage and have a good safety rating. They also have higher trade-in values […]
4. Reasoning advice scheme. There is a broad set of rhetorical methods that can be
characterized under this heading, including justifications from sign, cause and effect,
correlations, established rule, and evidence to a hypothesis (Walton 1996). These methods use
empirical evidence or some objective rule in order to link an advice with some properties. For
example, in a correlation advice method, justification in support or against an option is provided
through showing the co-occurrence of two phenomena. As such, when a participant states that
“allowing your child to sleep with you anywhere, other than their own crib or bassinet, raises the
risk of SIDs by about 14%”, she uses correlation to argue against the practice of bed sharing.
Similarly, when a participant declares that “My kids broke out in hives if anything ‘accidentally’
was washed in the regular loads with Cheer”, she uses cause and effect as a way to recommend
not using Cheer as a detergent. Although evidence from precedents can be clearly in favor of
36
(against) an alternative, sometimes, as in the next example, the cause and effect is inconclusive
or not systematic and this can be used to advocate for the status quo or an alternative position.
[I am stunned at what I am reading! – 4] […] I know when my mom was pregnant they
ate everything and did all kinds of crazy stuff but whose to say they were right or wrong. I
have problems health wise because my mother smoked while pregnant and afterwards. There
are others from the same scenario who have a clean bill of health.
A rule-based advice is a method in which the sole conclusion of a reasoning process is
provided as the global guiding principle (e.g., “anything biological or that has enzymes is also
more likely to cause allergies”). Alternatively, a cause and effect articulation can be more
formal, and the WOM giver not only provides empirical evidence, but also states a more formal
hypothesis, along with some conclusion from her trial. In the next passage, we find such an
argument from evidence to hypothesis. The WOM giver describes her own experience,
elaborates on the lack of support for an alternative hypothesis, and then further abstracts the
information by concluding that a “regular detergent does the same job.”
[Dreft – Can you use something else? - 7] I never once bought a baby detergent with either
of my children, and have no intentions of doing so with this one. I washed all of their clothes
in whatever I was washing our clothes in, and they never had a problem. No skin rashes,
nothing. I don't see the point in buying separate detergent, doing separate loads, etc, when
regular detergent does the same job for a lot less money.
Finally, an advice from sign is one that uses an inductive process to infer a property of
the target. In the next example, the respondent describes that she started to get rashes after using
a brand of detergent to do her daughter’s laundry. Based on the evidence, she inferred that the
detergent is too strong if an adult like her can get a reaction to it.
[Dreft – Can you use something else? - 12] […] I used Ivory Snow for my dd's [dear
daughter] laundry and for the first 3 weeks I was covered in a rash on my neck and arms […]
turns out I am allergic to Ivory Snow - that's harsh stuff! […] baby detergent is often the
hardest stuff as it has to get out nasty stains, […] I'd stick with your normal detergent.
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5. Consequence advice scheme. Similarly to causal advice methods, a consequence
advice scheme focuses on the outcome of the decision, but instead of focusing solely on
evaluating whether the outcome is good or bad, it focuses more on the ultimate consequences of
the outcome. This advice scheme is evident in the next passage where the WOM giver argues
that there is no upshot to an amniocentesis test, regardless of its result.
[Amnio - 2] […] the real question is, would you keep the baby either way? For me, the baby
I get is what I get so whether he/she is Down Syndrome or something else doesn't change the
fact that I'm having the baby. So in my case an amnio wouldn't do me much good except
cause me worry before I need to.
Often, the evaluations of consequences are based on value judgments (Macoubrie 2003). In the
following message, the responder provides a moral justification for cloth diapering, as a way to
protect the environment. Notably, the use of phrases such as “should be,” and “supposed to be”
emphasizes the value basis and the vehemence of the advice (Dillon 1986).
[Diapers – what kind are you using? - 25] […] Human waste should be treated and not
added to landfills where it can contaminate water supplies, etc. Feces on disposables are
supposed to be shaken into the toilet and flushed, but rarely is. The urine cannot be shaken
and ends up in our garbage dumps. Diapers are also made from non-renewable resources and
take a very long time to decompose.
The slippery slope justification scheme is a specific type of consequence-based advice
schemes that warns that if a WOM seeker takes a first step or accepts a basic premise, she will
find herself caught up in an almost infinite series of gradual consequences leading to a
problematic outcome (Walton 1996). In the next example, the WOM giver warns of such
potential consequences, arguing that if one examines the content of every food item and worries
about all potential issues, one will have to stop eating, and thus it is better to avoid that path.
[Food Warnings – 4] […] I too have read lots on the case against lunch meat and decided to
only have it occasionally. […] Personally I think in today’s society you'd have to eliminate
almost everything to have a perfect healthy pregnancy […] My personal advice is to choose
the things to eliminate that could cause serious birth defects and go from there.
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6. Analogy advice scheme. This kind of justification is used to argue for one case based
on its similarity to another. This advice scheme includes justifications from comparison, analogy,
and practical reasoning. As seen in the next two examples, the advice scheme can be based on
analogies between WOM protagonists or between situations. In the first example, the WOM
provider uses a personal analogy (“I too was…I totally understand where you are coming from”)
to express her common concern with the seeker, in hope that the seeker might respond by acting
similarly to her (Dillon, 1986). The second example draws parallel between two situations (“I
know it will be the same”) and allows the participant to infer that just like her parents, she too
will need to have many people in her car, and therefore will need to purchase a big vehicle.
[OT – anyone buy from Amazon? - 4] I too was a seeeeeerious CHICKEN about on-line
shopping, even though all my relatives and friends were doing it. I have shopped from
Amazon several times recently and had absolutely no problems […] I totally understand
where you're coming from b/c I've been a victim of ID fraud […] and it's SUCH A PAIN to
get straightened out! On the other hand, you don't want to let the fear run your life, right?
[Vroooom... 29] […] I know when I was growing up there were never any fewer than 4 of
my (or my sister's) friends in the car with us, and we had large family outings all the time. I
know it will be the same for us. Why try to squeeze into a small car? I might as well resign to
the big old minivan and think of all the great places it will take us […]
Summary. WOM interactions are typically initiated by a WOM seeker who formulates the
gist of the WOM responses. As such, these sequences of actions should be analyzed based on
their interactive properties. Nonetheless, analysis of numerous WOM responses suggests that
some sort of common template is operating in their formulation. Even though individual
responses are constructed through the specifics of an interaction, the same template operates
across responses and across interactions. Correspondingly, in this section, the ordinary sense of
WOM advice was decomposed and conceptualized as the accomplishment of local practices
made by a WOM provider as part of her being engaged in a categorical bounded activity. Our
39
analysis discussed the different advice rhetorical methods that are used to establish authority and
frame, focus and justify the advice. Table 1 provides a summary of these major components and
methods. To be complete, our analysis needs to examine how WOM seeking and WOM giving
methods are jointly used as ongoing and developing sequences of action. The examination of the
interactive nature of WOM conversations is the focus of the next section.
Interaction Level Analysis of WOM Communications
This section examines how WOM participants are able to converse in orderly meaningful
ways throughout their interactions. Our analysis provides insight into how online WOM actions,
though performed in different locations and at distinct times (i.e., members may post messages
from virtually anywhere, whenever they wish), cumulatively demonstrate a coherent activity. In
the first part of this analysis, we present a series of interaction patterns and discuss how
communication principles can be used to understand them. In the second part of the analysis, we
step back from the role-based WOM seeker and WOM source dyadic perspective, and
demonstrate that these roles do not fully capture the more nuanced dynamics of group WOM
communicative practices and outcomes.
WOM Conversation Patterns. In the most common case, when WOM advice is provided
in response to a request, the WOM responder does not have to gain attention. However, her
challenge is to properly interpret the request and produce an advice that will be aligned with the
initiator’s specific goal. Our analysis uncovered that different methods of WOM initiation
provide possibilities for different methods of responses, thus making relevant different advice
content, upshots, and justifications. Because of their voluntary nature, it is reasonable to assume
40
that WOM advices are produced by participants who wish to cooperate with the WOM seeker.
Indeed, we found that members of the community produced WOM conversations that followed
cooperative principles (Grice 1975). Accordingly, WOM responders provided information that
was substantively and rhetorically tailored to the WOM request: as informative, relevant, clear,
and unambiguous as requested (Grice 1975). For example, the initiator in the next thread
provides no details on her specific needs or preferences. She frames the request solely in
paradigmatic terms (“newer ones have more bells and whistles”, “recommend a good one”), and
clearly states her goal (“to go out and purchase a new one”). Following cooperative principles,
the responders provide her with paradigmatic and object focused WOM advice (e.g., product
characteristics, price, retail information), and basically stay clear from sharing personal
information or providing narrative backgrounds.
[Bouncy Seats – any recommendations? – 1] […] my Fisher Price Soothing Bouncy Seat is
broken […] I've decided to go out and purchase a new one. […] I've noticed that the
newer ones have more bells and whistles. Can anyone recommend a good one?
[2] […] Fisher Price Cover 'N Play Bouncer. I just found it here: http://www.babygenie.com
[…] for $24.95. It really is excellent. The toy bar is detachable, but the best part is that
there is a really soft blanket trimmed with satin […]
[3] I just bought the fisherprice aquarium, it was $50 […] it's so relaxing, it has a vibrator,
different songs, and sounds like ocean, and rain drops, sooo cute!!!!!!!
[4] We got the Fisher Price Infant to Toddler Rocker. I liked it because it was "more bang for
your buck" and the baby could use it a bit longer [...]
[5] I agree with the pp [previous poster] for the fisher price aquarium one. So soothing those
ocean sounds! That's what we bought and has my vote.
[6] Fisher Price Ocean Wonders Aquarium Bouncer […] about $40 at Babies 'R Us. It looks
comfortable, has toys, music, ocean sounds, lights and a vibration mode […]
[7] Thank you for the great input!
In contrast, the initiator in the next example emphasizes that she wishes to learn from the
experiences of second-time moms. This request essentially calls for narratives, experience-based
and person-oriented WOM advice. By indicating that only members of a certain category (“2nd
time or more moms”) should respond, the initiator de-facto brings individuals (as opposed to just
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products) to the center of the potential responses. Consequently, the WOM responses that follow
reflect these characteristics. Each advice provider contributes a narrative to demonstrate their
experience with the category and discuss how the product fits in their life (“I have a smallish car
and so does DH, but the stroller fits in the trunk”). People and experiences, not products, are at
the center of the accounts, and when product features are discussed, they are framed in terms of
personal usage benefits (e.g., big wheels for all terrains, big basket for shopping).
[Travel Systems vs. Strollers – 1] Here's a questions for 2nd time or more moms: I've heard
mixed reviews about travel systems […] What has been everyone's experience […]?
[2] I personally love my travel system. I loved being able to take the baby straight from the
car to the stroller without taking him out of the seat first. We used the stroller all the time
as well, on all kinds of terrain as it has the bigger wheels. I have yet to have a problem
with it and we've had it 2 1/2 years. It's a Century BTW.
[3] We have a Graco travel system. I love it and highly recommend it. I have a smallish car
and so does DH, but the stroller fits in the trunk just fine. It's big and has a big basket
underneath, so it's perfect to take shopping or to the park or whatever. […] Also you can
snap accessories on to the little tray area for baby, it keeps them occupied […]
[4] I liked having a travel system it was convenient. However dd [dear daughter] did outgrow
the car seat by 3 months […] So really after 3 months we were just using the stroller […]
a travel system is good, just get one with a good stroller. You do use the stroller ALOT
longer than you use the infant car seat […]
[7] Thanks for your responses! I'm not sure which way I want to go - I just wanted to know if
I should rule out the travel system completely. I'm usually not a fan of convertible stuff
because you tend to loose out on the features you want - but I'll just have to look and see
what's out there.
As previously discussed, narratives in WOM messages can be focused on either the
WOM seeker or the WOM giver. In the previous example, the initiator did not communicate
information about her situation or needs, and therefore the experiences in the narratives were
self-referential, focusing on the WOM provider. On the contrary, in the next conversation, by
self-categorizing as an individual (“since I haven't breastfed or pumped before (since this is baby
#1)”), thus, singularizing herself amongst other so-called “first time moms”, the initiator
provides a context to her own need. Further, by expanding on her short and long term goals
(“plan to breastfeed …continue to do so for as long as possible…one more child after this”),
42
needs (“pump the occasional bottle”), and situation (“working from home…available to baby
whenever he/she needs”), she provides a full diagnostic that can guide advice giving. In return,
we observe that this account provides relevance for recipient-referential narratives that focus on
her situation and needs (“since you are at home” or “since you hope not to pump too much”).
[Medela Pumps - Mini-electric vs. Pump in Style - 1] [...] I plan to breastfeed, and I want
to continue to do so for as long as possible. I will be working from home […] I'll be
pretty much available to baby whenever he/she needs. I expect that I'll need to pump the
occasional bottle so I can leave baby with a sitter or go to a meeting, etc. Since I haven't
breastfed or pumped before (since this is baby #1), it is reasonable to think that I'll only
need a smaller, less powerful pump (like the Medala Mini-Electric or the Avent Isis), or
should I splurge and get the PIS just because it is so much better (even though I won't be
using it “full time”) And do you think I'll find that I pump more than I anticipate? I will
(god willing) have at least one more child after this. Assume I have no one to borrow or
purchase a used PIS from and DH [dear husband] is not fond of the e-bay idea […]
[2] This is my third and I only occasionally used the pump for the same reasons as you. Both
times when I had my babies I asked the nursery at the hospital for a pump to use. They
worked pretty good for what I needed […]
[3] HI. I used the PIS when I had dd [dear daughter]. I really liked it but did find it kinda
bulky and took some time to set up which doesn't help on a half hour lunch break. Since
you are at home though that should not be a problem. […] I do know that the PIS is kinda
expensive so if you are not going to use it that often […] get a smaller one […]
[6] I have them both. The mini electric […] works fine but the PIS is like a Mercedes in
comparison. […] since you hope not to pump too much the mini would be sufficient.
Because group WOM exchanges are conversations, it is important to recognize that the
initial request is not the only message that can shape the conversation rhetoric. As the
conversation develops, individual WOM givers, or the WOM seeker herself, can intervene to
change the rhetorical focus of the exchange. In the next conversation, the initiator is responsible
for an advice giving rhetorical shift during the interaction. In her initial message, she indicates
that she would like to learn about responders’ experiences with car seats and strollers. In return,
the WOM responses are provider-oriented, focusing on anecdotes (“one day I was pushing the
stroller with dear daughter in it”) or personal situation (“we live on a dirt road”). Then in
message 7, the initiator returns and provides information on her specific situation (“on leave (in
43
Nov, Dec, and Jan)”) and fears (“don't want to be completely housebound”). This enables
responders to be attentive to her situation and creates a shift in WOM advice rhetoric. Hence, as
seen in message 14, the responses that follow are more recipient-referential, focusing on the
recipient situation and needs (“don’t worry … doesn’t mean you'll be housebound!!”).
[“Strollers and car seats" – 1] We are researching strollers and car seats, and are interested
in the travel systems. What did all of you use? If you bought your stroller and car seat
separately, why? Do you like the products you chose? […]
[2] We bought the Leisure Sport Graco Travel system as we live on a dirt road - so we
wanted a jogging stroller with the big wheels and we wanted a snap in car seat [...]
[3] We got the Century Travel System since we wanted a travel system & it had the best &
safest ratings on the Consumer/Baby Digest. My dd [dear daughter] was born in January
2000 […] We still used the stroller even though she's 3 plus now [...]
[4] […] Evenflo Travel System. I would NEVER recommend it to anyone […] one day I was
pushing the stroller with dd [dear daughter] in it, and the WHEEL fell off! […]
[5] We had a Grace travel system and we hated it [...]I will be using a sling or my Baby
Bjorn until the baby is too heavy for me to carry and will then be buying a tandem
jogging stroller […]
[7] Thanks, ladies! It sounds like the travel system itself is not that helpful [...] I don't want to
be completely housebound while I'm on leave (in Nov, Dec, and Jan - UGH!!!) because it
would be too depressing. So, if I wanted to just go walk around the mall or something,
how do I carry a newborn? […]
[14] “MomtoBe” - don't worry, just because you don't purchase a “travel system” doesn't
mean you'll be housebound!! You can take almost any stroller to a mall, you don't need
to have one that a carseat snaps into - just pick your baby up out of its carseat, and put it
in the stroller. Or do what another poster suggested, and just carry the baby […]
Finally, the closing of a WOM conversation deserves special attention. While we
observed WOM conversations with no explicit closings, we found formal closing statements in
many instances. Typically, this was done by the initiator of the WOM discussion. Our findings
suggest that, just as telephone callers have an obligation to close the conversation (Psathas 1999),
WOM seekers have an obligation to monitor the WOM interaction and find a place where a
closing message can be produced. The closing can be achieved by thanking the WOM providers
and/or providing information concerning the impact of the received WOM. As a whole, WOM
closing methods are consistent with the rhetorical methods that were used throughout the
44
message, in particular the initiation message. For instance, if an initiator provides no information
in regards to her personal situation, the closing statement is typically brief and instrumental.
Consistent with her paradigmatic initiation, the WOM initiator in the “Bouncy Seats”
conversation that we examined earlier, closed the thread by posting a message saying: “Thank
you for the great input!” but providing no information in regards to her decision. In contrast,
when the initiation is more person-oriented as in the “Travel Systems vs. Strollers” conversation,
the WOM seeker can be more personal in her closing and can share some parting personal
thoughts (“thanks for your responses! I'm not sure which way I want to go […] I'm usually not a
fan of convertible stuff because you tend to loose out on the features you want”).
In summary, our ethnomethodological analysis of WOM conversations has revealed a
rich and varied set of rhetorical methods that WOM participants can use to construct WOM
exchanges. While there is a very large potential repertoire for individual messages, we have also
observed that patterns emerge throughout a WOM interaction. Thus, a WOM conversation is not
the product of isolated practices determined by the participants’ independent preferences and
personalities. Instead, WOM conversations are assembled achievements emerging from the
collaborative work of participants who try to cooperate with the WOM seeker and constantly
monitor the unfolding WOM interactions.
Beyond the dyad - Practices and Outcomes in Group WOM. In a group context, a central
issue is that coherent and convergent conversations must be born from multiple point-of-views
and across diverse relationships. In this section, we present evidence that in group WOM
conversations, the roles of WOM seeker and giver are more fluid and nuanced than traditionally
discussed. Throughout WOM conversations, participants often switch roles or engage in various
45
conversational practices. These practices jointly facilitate WOM exchanges above and beyond
WOM giving/seeking. Further, WOM outcome might be multidirectional and influence more
than just the initiator. Our findings show that convergence-seeking practices (Meyers et al. 2000)
are central mechanisms by which members achieve the communication objectives. Strictly
speaking, these are not WOM seeking (giving) methods per se. Rather, they are communicative
practices aimed at facilitating and steering the conversation and also maintaining and reinforcing
the social fabric of the community (Keyton 2002). For example, in our data, we found frequent
instances where members would express concerns for others (e.g., “I'm so sorry to hear about
your daughter”), show agreements (e.g., “I have to agree with Sally”) or would summarize or
harmonize previous statements (e.g., “if you want to circumcise, great. If you don't, great. The
main point I'm trying to make is NOBODY should judge ANYBODY for this decision”).
Not all of the communicative practices were constructive or supportive. We also found
negative and potentially destructive communication practices in which members would
sometime be aggressive (e.g., “Honestly when was the last time you had a dental check up and
do you really care for your teeth the way you should? … Don't tell me you do all of this because
if you did you would not be in this situation”), critical (e.g., “don't get freaked out by the info in
the post above, co-sleeping does NOT increase the risk for SIDS.”) or systematically reject
others’ view (e.g., “when you are ready to pay for this child in it's entirety […] then you can pass
judgment on me […] Just don't attack other people for not following the same psychotic routine
you do”). Still, regardless of valence, we recognize that these types of communication practices
are crucial in group communications, and are indispensable organizing devices that allow
relationship building and effective group discussions (Keyton 2002).
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As it unfolds, group WOM creates possibilities for participants’ role switching and for
multidirectional WOM outcomes. Based on explicit accounts in posted messages, we found that
other members, besides just the initial WOM seeker, can be influenced by a WOM conversation.
Further, throughout the WOM discussion, WOM providers might alter their own advice and
align it with advice provided by other parties. In addition, we observed conversations in which a
WOM seeker becomes a WOM provider or a WOM giver switches to be an information seeker
or acknowledges that her own behavior (opinion) is now transformed as result of the WOM
conversation. The next example captures all of these aspects of WOM dynamics and outcomes.
[Julie - Bra advice - 1] Hi everyone, I'm ready to go shopping for some larger sizes now that
I'm almost popping out of my regular underwire bras. […] Do any of you have any
favorite stores, brands or types you would recommend? […]
[Andrea - 3] I would recommend no underwires for now. If you hurt, maybe a sportsbra or
something with a really wide band underneath for support. Good luck!
[Sally - 4] […] What I liked best was the smooth-front playtex nursing bra. It's built like a
sports bra, only not as thick so it doesn't make you feel all sweaty […]
[Winnie - 5] Another bra question - should I buy nursing bras now if I can get them on sale?
I don't know if I will get much bigger. if I should wait, should I get some before the
delivery or wait even longer?
[Christy - 6] […] I would definitely get a couple of nursing bras before delivery and then
after your milk comes in you can get some more. […] I am going the maternity bra route
for this pregnancy. I hate those ugly nursing bra's until the baby comes, then they are
great but still ugly. […]
[Sally - 7] […] I actually like my nursing bra and it isn’t ugly at all :o). The Bravado bras are
very popular with preggos/nursing moms that I know and are good for wear during
pregnancy as well. http://www.mommygear.com/nursingbras.htm
[Julie - 9] […] Sally. Some of those are so cute. Thanks for all the feedback […] I see that
JC Penney's has a few maternity/nursing bras, including a Playtex one […]
[Christy - 11] Sally, those where cute! Bye Bye ugly bras. They are about the same price too
as what I bought mine. Thanks again!
In the above WOM interaction, Julie, the initiator, is seeking information about maternity bras
and places to purchase them. As expected, this initiation provides possibilities for participants to
cooperate with the request and provide corresponding advice. This is what Andrea and Sally do
in messages 3 and 4. However, in message 5, we observe a dynamic switch, in which one of the
47
community members jumps in the conversation and becomes a WOM seeker by introducing a
new dimension for the advice: timing of purchase (“should I buy nursing bras now”, “should I
get some before the delivery or wait even longer?”). In the next message, Christy responds to
Winnie, and after some general information, proceeds to explain how much she hates nursing
bras. Sally, who already had provided a recommendation in message 4, returns in message 7.
Replying to Christy’s comment, she argues that she likes her nursing bra and thinks that “it isn't
ugly at all”, and to justify her position includes a link to an online retailer. Interestingly, this last
recommendation has an impact not only on the original poster (Julie-messages 9) who seems to
be sold on the recommendation, but also on Christy (message 11) who now has changed her own
advice on nursing bras, and is also ready to make a product switch. Finally, we should also point
out that in her last message, Julie, the initiator, now engages in WOM giving by recommending
JC Penney’s as a retailer for this type of product.
Summary. Throughout this section, we have demonstrated the necessity to move beyond
the historically dominant informational/instrumental perspective of WOM that has typically
viewed WOM participation as a means to achieve private consumptive goals. Our analysis
showed that group members’ intentions need to be understood also through efforts to “affiliate
with others in the group and in general to ‘fit in’ and to achieve self-enhancement through group
actions and achievement of group goals” (Bagozzi, 2000, 395). Specifically, in the context of an
online community, affiliation with the group can represent social identification and social
integration benefits (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004).
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DISCUSSION
In this ethnomethodoligical study of group WOM, we have developed a description of the
communicative processes and interactions used to seek and provide WOM information. As such,
we were able to capture the richness and subtlety of WOM as a phenomenon whose nature is, in
and of itself, worthy of investigation. Specifically, we undertook a comprehensive analysis of
community WOM interactions and uncovered rhetorical methods that WOM participants use to
seek or provide advice. The findings from this research provide new insights into how WOM is
assembled, and in particular how members enact communicative practices in WOM initiations
and WOM responses. We showed that WOM rhetorical methods are situated communications
capable of reproduction across occasions. Our findings also showed that through collaborative
and convergence-seeking practices, WOM participants produce and reproduce coherent
interactions. Overall, this netnography furthers our understanding of how consumers use speech
to assemble WOM and “construct and order their affairs” (Sacks 1984, 25).
Our approach has been markedly different from past research on WOM (including most
research on online WOM). Unlike many previous research efforts that had focused primarily on
the antecedents and consequences of dyadic WOM communications, this study investigated
WOM as a social system of contextually generated meanings. In essence, this study stresses that
WOM is an activity that is carried out in particular local circumstances. As such, WOM methods
are to be regarded as in situ achievements of participants’ practical actions and practical
reasoning. Building on Miller’s work (1984), we showed that a rhetorically sound perspective on
WOM methods must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse per se, but on the
actions WOM discourse serves to accomplish. Accordingly, WOM methods “tell us something
49
theoretically important about discourse” (Miller 1984, 155). Thus, although some of the WOM
methods identified in the conversations may seem mundane or even intuitive (e.g., seeking pros
and cons of a product versus seeking a phenomenological narrative), it is precisely their
commonplace role in the structure of everyday thought that helps us capture the granularity of
everyday conceptions of WOM behavior.
Moreover, our study of WOM as a social act fulfills something even more fundamental
than recent calls to bring culture, groups, and society “back in” consumer research (Bagozzi
2000). Although we recognize the importance of these macro aspects of consumption, we also
want to avoid framing them as social structures that cause social conduct (Boden 1994). When
viewed from an ethnomethodological point of view, these social structures are the in situ
products of members of society. Hence, “it is through making their activities accountable that
members actually produce and reproduce the features of social structure, in particular, its cohort
independence, facticity, and constraining character” (Boden, 1994, 13). In other words, the
context in which WOM occurs is sequentially implicated. As Goodwin suggests, context “is not
simply a set of features presupposed or invoked by a strip of talk, but a dynamic, temporally
unfolding process accomplished through the ongoing rearrangement of structures in the talk,
participants' bodies, relevant artifacts, spaces, and features of the material surround that are the
focus of the participants' scrutiny” (Goodwin 2000, 1519). In this sense, social structures, such as
communities, exist through the actions, reactions, and inactions of their members.
Finally, although our netnography benefited from research opportunities that the internet
has created, we would like to discuss some ethical dilemma stemming from this type of scholarly
work. Because of their accessibility and referable nature, online communities and the Internet in
general are very attractive sites for fieldwork (Bell, 2001). Nevertheless, we recognize that our
50
type of research might provoke some ethical concerns. Even though the material that is studied in
our and others’ research is published and available in the public domain, there have been
criticisms towards researchers who harvest discussion lists without the explicit permission of the
participants (Sharf, 1999). We acknowledge that although these conversations are public and
readable by anyone with internet access, they have also a private and personal nature. We
understand this tension and dilemma, but also recognize that obtaining explicit consent from
every member in these conversation threads is rather impossible and impractical (for instance we
do not have personal access to the members). Consequently, we have made specific efforts to be
proactive in addressing these concerns and respect the privacy of the community’s participants.
We have changed all names, pseudonyms, and web addresses in the logs, and have not linked
any verbatim to an actual date or board.
Implications
This netnography has provided a novel perspective for WOM research and marketing
practice. Even though issues such internet WOM, buzz or blogging are becoming part of the
everyday marketing lexicon in many companies, much has yet to be learned on how it should be
practiced and used. Our managerial recommendations are twofold. First, we want to encourage
the systematic reexamination of the WOM marketing tactics that might be primarily based on
dyadic and static WOM theories. Second, we want to emphasize that to become effective WOM
marketers, companies must learn to listen intently to consumers and also consider the contexts
within which WOM occurs. We believe that through the study of WOM conversations,
marketers can not only develop a better understanding of the various methods people use in order
to search for and give WOM advice, but also learn much in terms of marketplace opportunities
51
or threats. An ethnomethodological approach appears to be a useful frame for analyzing these
types of interactions. This type of contextual and societal analysis allows examining how the
characteristics of a consumption context shape the communication practices within its setting.
Our findings confirmed that WOM is more dynamic and more context-dependent than previously
discussed. Building on our approach, WOM marketers could gain knowledge on the processes
that people utilize in order to influence others, and in particular analyze the methods that are
employed by the people driving WOM (the so-called “influencers” or “connectors”). This would
allow them to refine their tactics and better support and encourage product advocacy. As a
whole, understanding the detailed dynamics of WOM can provide direction for better managing
and facilitating consumer-to-consumer and firm-to-consumer interactions.
Further, from a corporate social responsibility perspective, we believe that special
attention should be placed on the ethics of WOM marketing practice. As WOM marketing
becomes an ever-greater strategic imperative, it also creates opportunities and temptations for
consumer deceit. We believe that this strategic shift will only be successful if WOM marketing
practice also adheres to very strict ethical standards. For instance, it is very important that
consumers always understand whether they are talking to a neutral peer or to somebody
imbedded in the community and only pretending to be a peer. Full disclosure of affiliation and
purpose is key. Besides being the right ethical choice with clear long-term benefits, it is the
correct short-term business policy as recent research has shown that disclosure of affiliation has
positive impact on the effectiveness of WOM marketing agents (Carl 2006). Though in its
infancy, the WOM marketing industry seems to share these ethical concerns. One of its key
body, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (www.womma.org), is explicit in advocating
strict ethical standards and considering consumers as advocates as opposed to mere targets. We
52
understand that at this juncture, much remains unknown and that best practices and standards
will be refined with time. We hope that the consumer research community will be an important
partner in this process and that future research can illuminate some of these issues.
Limitations and Future Research
Several limitations to our research emerge, and should be considered as part of future
research agendas. First, this study has concentrated on online WOM interactions. As discussed
before, although many of the characteristics of offline WOM can be empirically observed in
online WOM, there are few key differences between traditional WOM and online WOM. For
example, in online communities, each poster is able to compose their contribution offline, and
then post their entire turn in its complete form. Also, as previously mentioned, the paralinguistic
contributions of face-to-face WOM interaction are absent from the interactions on bulletin
boards. Moreover, if a reader looses interest in a post or thread, she can simply stop reading and
move to a different one, something that live oral conversation does not readily permit (Rutter and
Smith 1998). Given these differences between online and face-to-face interactions, future
research should attempt to explore how our findings extend to face-to-face WOM settings, and
develop a broader contingent model of WOM communications.
Second, expanding further on the importance of context, future research should explore
how the fact that a WOM interaction is conducted in some setting (e.g., a certain moment in a
community’s life span) has any consequences for the shape, form, trajectory, content or character
of the interaction that the WOM parties conduct (Schegloff 1991). Recently, it has been proposed
that communicative practices and rituals play a key role in online community development.
(Toder-Alon, Brunel, and Schneier-Siegal 2005). Therefore, future research should investigate
53
how WOM practices shape and are shaped by community development processes. Specifically,
leveraging the situated qualities of WOM communicative practices, future research should
attempt to explore the relationship between the conditions of interaction (e.g., participants’
perceived community belongingness) and the different methods of WOM rhetoric. Particularly,
using longitudinal analysis of WOM exchanges within a community, future research should
investigate the reasons and the ways in which different methods of WOM rhetorics change over
time. Also, future research should examine the various social and psychological factors that
occasion the production, reproduction, or modification of different WOM practices in different
contexts (e.g., in mix-gendered communities, in different types of communities such as
communities of purpose, communities of practice, and communities of interest).
Third, since most participants in Babycenter.com are women, gender issues may limit the
generalizability of our findings. Because gender has been shown to affect communication styles,
and women have been characterized as more communal (Brunel and Nelson 2000; Tannen
1990), this might have an important impact on the nature and content of the WOM rhetorical
methods and practices we have uncovered. Future research should attempt to explore whether
and how WOM interactions are affected by gender issues in different types of communities.
Finally, we would like to propose that WOM actions and reactions be viewed as dramatic
performances, with each party framing, negotiating, and delivering on reciprocal obligations
(Deighton 1992). As such WOM conversations become interactive processes in which actors
may feed on each others (Deighton 1992), and in which quality perceptions and satisfaction are
driven by the perceived value of the performance. Therefore, evaluating participants’ satisfaction
with WOM exchanges should focus more on the meaning and social aspects of WOM
interactions (Fournier and Mick 1999), especially consumers’ perceptions of the value of the
54
WOM interaction, than on traditional measures focusing on the instrumental qualities of WOM
exchange. Thus, future research should develop specific measures of satisfaction with WOM
interactions and explore whether and how participants’ evaluations and satisfactions with WOM
interactions are affected by the use of different rhetorical methods.
We believe that this research has offered a new perspective into the study of WOM, and
that hopefully it will serve as a starting point for a broader dialogue regarding the position of
WOM in consumer research. Just as marketing practitioners are rediscovering the power of
WOM, we as consumer researchers should reconsider our theories on this topic. In particular, it
seems critical that existing frameworks be evaluated in light of recent technological and
marketplace changes. We do not suggest systematically casting aside our models, however we
hope that our own work can stimulate new research that will evaluate and adapt existing
frameworks to reflect the lived reality of WOM. Our research has stressed that WOM is a
complex phenomenon; however, it is precisely this complexity that makes it such an exciting
area to investigate.
55
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61
TABLE 1
REPERTOIRES OF WOM RHETORICAL METHODS
Components
Rhetorical Methods
Advice Seeking Repertoire
Seeker’s legitimacy
Establish community membership via:
- Due date or baby’s age
- Past involvement with the community
- Knowledge of the community history
Self introduction and personal disclosure:
- Personal identity emphasis
- Social identity emphasis
Topic legitimacy
Fit with community purpose
Legitimization of off-topic issues
Topic involvement
Request formulation
Full diagnosis
Problem only
Solution only
Solicitation of responders
Experience based
Personal profile based
Requested response framing
Paradigmatic
Narrative
Advise Giving Repertoire
Foundation of authority
Personal knowledge
Formal sources
Behavior
Own (or others) experience
Advice framing
Paradigmatic
Narrative
Advice focus
Object-oriented
Person-oriented
- Self-referential
- Other-referential
Advice scheme
Reputation of advice source scheme
Proven solution advice scheme
Verbal classification advice scheme
Reasoning advice scheme
Consequence advice scheme
Analogy advice scheme
62
FIGURE 1
STYLIZED EXAMPLE OF WORD OF MOUTH CONVERSATION
Message
Number
Member
ID
Conversation Threads
Topic: Crib Advice
I have to get a new crib mattress …
well I have looked for a new mattress
at Walmart and Pennies and can not
find a hard one! … is this right? Are
they now saying babies have to sleep
on a soft surface or a hard one???
1
Janine
2
Kori
I read that when picking a mattress,
under 100 coils is not enough support,
over 200 coils is overkill, so it's best to
get a mattress around 150 coils. I got a
Sealy Maxipedic 160 coil I think it was
$79 or $89
3
Christie
I have read the same stuff Kori has
read about 160 coils being the best
thing. Lots of cheaper mattresses only
have 80 coils…
4
Kylee
I haven't heard anything about
mattresses or how to pick them, we
just bought one yesterday and we just
got the cheapest one, … I didn't know
that there were specifics for mattress
buying, so I hope that it is okay
5
Kori
Kylee- there are specifics for buying
mattresses, they should be very very
firm for two reasons ...
Illustration of Conversation Processes
63
6
Janine
Thanks ladies, I thought they were
supposed to all be firm! … the bassinet
mattress is … 3/4 inch thick! i spent
over 100 bucks on it and i would think
it would be a little thicker, so i am
going to look for one of those as well...
anyone else have a problem with the
bassinet mattress???
7
Amy
Janine, I have a problem with my
bassinette mattress/pad. It is flimsier
than a changing pad! … I didn't think
of getting a new one, I guess that
would be good, but it'd have to fit my
bassinette brand exactly, which is
Graco. I guess it's worth looking into!
8
Janine
Amy~ mine is the Graco triad and we
got it through target, bought it over
internet,... i saw one at jcpenny.com
and they have a 2 inch one for like
13.00 which is an awesome price, so
we will see.... maybe this will help you
too!
9
Amy
Hey thanks Janine!
I will check the JC Penny at the mall.
$13.00? That's pretty cheap. So worth
it since the one I have I really dislike!
Thanks again
Note: This stylized example was adapted from actual observed conversations.