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Word-of-Mouth Marketing: Best Among Friends or Strangers?

Andrea Bonezzi research on motivation

...negative word of mouth tends to spread more easily among close ties, making them potentially dangerous from a marketing standpoint.

As marketers turn to social networks to activate word-of-mouth campaigns, it becomes important to understand who, in their customers’ social networks, is most effective at spreading positive word of mouth about their brands and products. NYU Stern Professor Andrea Bonezzi discovered that networks of close friends can darken word-of-mouth marketing compared to network of distant acquaintances.
 
In “Sharing with Friends versus Strangers: How Interpersonal Closeness Influences Word-of-Mouth,”  Professor Bonezzi and co-author David Dubois, of INSEAD, set out to investigate how word of mouth varies depending on how close consumers feel to the person they’re communicating with. Their studies revealed that consumers are in fact more likely to share negative information about a product or service to someone with whom they feel a strong bond, and positive information to someone with whom they feel a weaker bond. “Therefore, while positive information tends to spread more easily across weakly tied connections,” the authors say, “negative word of mouth tends to spread more easily among close ties, making them potentially dangerous from a marketing standpoint.” This tendency manifests in both online and off-line interactions, across a variety of product categories, and is more pronounced for new products.
 
The authors point to the fundamental psychological motive for social connection to explain this phenomenon. They argue that people engage in word of mouth not merely to relay information, but also to fulfill a fundamental need for social connection. When interacting with strangers, social connection is achieved by forming new relationships. To that end, consumers are motivated to attract others by portraying a positive image of themselves and avoiding being perceived as a Debbie Downer. Thus, communicating positive information is more instrumental to forming new relationships than communicating negative information. In contrast, when interacting with close friends, social connection is achieved by maintaining established relationships. To that end, consumers are motivated to protect others by shielding them from bad experiences. Thus, communicating negative information is more instrumental to maintaining established relationships than communicating positive information.
 
Marketers should therefore pay attention to how word-of-mouth campaigns are being seeded. Within any social platform, closeness can vary considerably across consumers. Marketers might consider targeting people with less tightly-knit networks to seed word-of-mouth campaigns. For new products, as customers are likely to amplify negative information to their close groups, extra care should be taken when leveraging platforms such as Facebook. Moreover, as marketers consider how to best leverage key influencers, it might serve them well to take a look at the size of their audience and closeness of their relationships.