A FUTURE MARKETING PERSPECTIVE
The phenomenon of blogs is growing rapidly and is expected to increase even in a more rapid pace (Technorati, 2006, November 6). As Wright (2006) discuss; blogs provides a new way of communicating with customers, as customers want to be talked with, not to. Companies have newly started to pay attention to this and as a result, the concept of Blog marketing has been born. The use of blogs as a communication tool has the huge importance for companies to understand how consumers use blogs in their decision making. The purpose of this paper is to understand and explore how and why consumers use blogs in their decision making process. Interview technique was used on young adults, as research suggests that this population use blogs the most (Tremayne, 2007).
It was identified that consumers use blogs throughout their decision making. Within the consumers’ decision making, collaborative blogs was mostly used as the consumers because it cover specific topic of interest for the consumers. Consumers were found mainly writing in the blogs when they had knowledge to contribute with or when they needed information that they could not otherwise find in the blogs.
It was identified that consumers turned to groups they belonged to, so called normative group, or they turned to groups that they did not belong to, so called comparative groups. These groups influenced the consumer by providing them with knowledge and by giving them positive and negative confirmation on their choice of purchase. However normative groups also persuaded the consumer to buy products in order to belong to the group.
Besides this, a pattern of characteristics of the individuals that the consumer blogged with were noticed. Consumers wanted user experiences and thus the vast majority of these individuals they turned to, seemed to be consumers themselves, with relevant product experiences. The consumers also seem to blog more with certain individuals, whose opinions were valued more. These individuals often shared the latest information on products.
Lastly it was also identified that consumers seemed to be selective when reading blog posts. The blog posts needed to contain detailed- and up-to-date information. Moreover, consumers wanted blog post to be written by other consumers because they saw them as more credible then companies. The consumers also chose to read blog posts that show similarities between the consumer and the blogger in terms of either usage pattern of product or preference for product choices.
Ever since the internet was introduced for the general public during the 1990s, people have used it as a source of information. Majority of the population in India use internet in order to get information regarding products and services. However most statistics available does not tell how the consumers use the internet and what kind of information they search for. There are many different sources of information online, for example company web pages, communities, blogs etc. The concept of blogs and blogging is a relatively new phenomenon in today’s society and it has not really been explored before. Nevertheless, magazines are today filled with articles on the importance for companies to start blogging and join the communication of the future, if they do not want to loose ground to their competitors (Lindstedt, 2005, November).
The major blog search engine, Technorati, shows some interesting facts on the number of blogs and its growth. In October, 2006, Technorati counted 57 million blogs and a growth rate of one hundred thousand new blogs per day. This number is expected to keep growing and double every eight month (Technorati, 2006, November 6). However, when it comes to the number of blogs in India, there is uncertainty.
Different articles talk about a wide interval of blogs, starting at around 18,000 (Lindstedt, 2005, August) and counting up to more then hundred thousands (Johansson, 2007). The reason to this wide span is due to the lack of a clear definition on what a blog is and also the fact that the figures are 18 months apart from each other. But the fact is that the tremendous growth of blogs worldwide also is true for India. India contains actors like Twitter, Facebook and MSN spaces whom all contain blogs and allow for a creation of your own blog. As a result of this growth, blog marketing has emerged as a new innovative way to create closer relationship with customers. It has also given the consumers the possibility to discuss amongst each other. Blog marketing allows marketers to establish closer relationships with its segment.
Today limited research has been made within the concept of blog marketing. Furthermore, all research that has been conducted has had the focus on how companies can use blogs in order to interact with consumers. Something that has not been considered, and has been taken for granted, is the issue of how consumers use blogs in their decision making. Moreover, how consumers consider the information that is being transmitted on the blog has not yet been explored. The truth could be that consumers use blogs in a way that companies have not thought about. The existing use of blog marketing could thus miss its objectives if companies do not know how their audience perceives it.
The paper focuses on consumer decision making process and tried to explore how consumers use blogs in this process. As there is not so much work done on the area, this increases the importance to conduct such study. Blogs provides a new way of communicating with customers (Wright, 2006). In order to use this communication tool, it is of big importance for companies to understand how consumers use blogs in their decision making.
The focus on the consumer decision making process in the context of blog is of importance for several reasons. It is today unclear how and in what stages consumers use blogs in their decision making process. An overview of the literature shows that not much research has been done within this subject. Traditional marketing tools such as advertising, sales promotion etc have different impact in the different stages of the consumer decision making process. But it is unclear what impact blogging has in those stages.
By mapping out this information, companies can learn how to use their marketing in a new and innovative way to appeal consumers. Moreover, whatever research is conducted is from company perspective. To be successful in blog marketing, activities needs to be shaped in accordance to consumers’ blog usage. If companies learn how blogs are used, they can benefit in several ways like – they can engage in the viral marketing on the blogs to create knowledge of their products, or can listen on why consumers prefer competitor’s products.
What is Blog?
A blog is a web page that contains regularly posted inlays that are archived and arranged in reversed chronological order (Wright 2006). They are user-friendly, inexpensive, self-publication of content for a potentially vast audience on the web. The entries in the blogs are called blog posts. Blogs are more flexible and interactive than previous publication print and digital formats. They contain numerous hyperlinks that are often accompanied by comments regarding the destination of the link. Blogs are designed to be a part of a network where they are connected to each other through links, which are generally related to the content. The readers then have the possibility to comment on the blog posts. Blogosphere is the term used to describe the global network of blog postings. Blogs can be thought of as a gateway to vast sources of information where users may respond to a blogger by sending comments and links to additional information. In this sense, it is fulfilling many needs (Tremayne, 2007).
Type of Blogs
Diary blog – A diary blog is a web based tool that gives the author the possibility to post information for consumption for others. Also, diary blogs gives the reader the possibility to add comments regarding its content; however, this is not applicable for all diary blogs. The authors that are writing on a diary blog all have different opinions regarding things and express their view of whatever they are writing about. This is a demonstration to the personal and dynamic capacity of a diary blog according to Searles and Sifry (2002). Pomerantz and Stutzman, (2006) describes diary blogs as web pages that arranges discrete posts that contains chunks of information that may contain images, multimedia and text. According to Lamshed, Berry and Armstrong (2002) diary blogs are very personal and if the reader does not like the author and his/her opinion, it may not interest them enough to return. The blogger can use the diary blog for personal enjoyment and archive the happenings in their lives.
Collaborative blog – It contains information that is posted by several individuals not just one author. In collaborative blogs, readers have the possibility to contribute with links or posts comments, in order to participate with their opinions, answers and questions. Most collaborative blogs focus on a specific topic, and the authors can be both regular people as well as experts within the topic (Holtz and Demopoulos, 2006). The collaborative blogs are an online group created by the bloggers in the blogosphere. These groups have focus on certain topics in order to encourage readers to correspond to each other, which is similar to a normal discussion group. The purpose, according to Lamshed et al. (2002), is to break down the barriers between people and to extend the blog to more than just one author, in order to create a discussion among its members. Collaborative blogs have standard rules about participation in order to avoid development of poor quality content, which do not encourage new and current readers to come back on a regular basis.
Company blog – It include two types of blogs, product and customer service blog. Product blogs can consist of different approaches. One approach is to provide updates about the product so customers can receive the latest information. A second approach is to provide customers with insights and information directly from those who are responsible for the products. A product blog that keeps customers updated can build loyalty to the product and the brand/company. The customer service blog is rather similar to product blogs, but customer service blogs focus completely on issues on the already purchased products. The customer service blogs is a channel in order to address the issues on the products to the customers that have purchased the product (Holtz and Demopoulos, 2006).
When the first blogs appeared in the late 1990s, they were primary web pages that contained many links, offering mostly “personal information” and easy to update. The blogosphere has been expanding rapidly over the last few years. According to the New York Times and Pew Research, nearly one blog per second is created (Tremayne, 2007).
The Current Scenario
People have blogged long before the term was coined, but the trend gained force with the introduction of automated published systems, especially Blogger at blogger.com. Thousands of people use services such as Blogger to simplify and increase the publishing process. People started using the blogs because they wanted to express themselves about mentioned events. Blogging about events has attracted the attention of the mainstream news media, further contributing to the popularisation and adoption of this new phenomenon of computer mediated communication. Today the blogging in the blogosphere concerns business, for example about markets, customer service, product etc. (Tremayne, 2007).
According to the search engine Technorati (2006, November 6) there were more than 57 million blogs available on the internet as of the end of October 2006. Approximately 12% of those blogs had posted comments or links. Research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project presented by Tremayne (2007) also indicates that blog readers today are similar to the early adopters of the internet and other new communication technologies. The bloggers are young, well-educated and more likely to be males. According to Tremayne (2007) the development of blogs seems to follow the traditionally diffusion path of successful new communication technologies and users with great interest in technology. The final step to become a part of the broader public of the internet community is then to shift to the general internet users.
The new stage of the development of blogs is the business sector. Business has become a new phase of the communications that appears on the blogosphere today. Bloggers communicate and share information to each other since blogs are the new ways for customers to reach out to the companies. This scenario has made the companies more alert to listen to their customers’ demands through the blogosphere. Enterprises now have the opportunity to gain new knowledge from the customer and to gain an idea about what the customers are saying about them (Tremayne, 2007).
Observations have been done on why internet users connect to blogs. Blogs seem to encourage a sense of community, especially for those who seek more in-depth information than what is available through traditional media. Blog content generally reflects the bias of the blogger, who tends to take one side of an issue. Furthermore it contains a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals. Information seeking is also a reason for accessing blogs. Bloggers provide the latest news and analysis by experts and other with inside knowledge, some of which is glossed over or omitted by the traditional channels. Blog users can also frequently use one certain blog due to they follow a story for a longer period of time than that they would be able to do if the story came from traditional media (Tremayne, 2007).
Blog as mode of Communication
In business, companies are required to communicate with their customer and have a strategy for the implementation of the chosen approach (Kotler et al. 2005). Communication with customer can take many forms, such as advertising, mailed brochures, sales promotion and personal selling etc. The marketers are often those who conduct this communication. They are often perceived as people with something to sell; they express what is good, great and irresistible with the product/service (Varey 2002).
Blog enjoys characteristics of different types of flow of communication like:
It enjoys characteristics of One-step flow of communication as:
- Flow of information from company to the target audience (Fill 1999, Harrell et al 1999, Ottesen 2001).
- It is non-personal communication since the message is carried without personal involvement by Kotler et al. (2005).
- All consumers are exposed to the same message at the very same time.
- It follows the principle of Mass Communication (Fill 1999).
It enjoys characteristics of Two-step flow of communication as:
- In this information goes from the sender to certain receivers, that in turn reach the target audience through interpersonal networks (Fill 1999).
- Mass communication reaches the target audience, opinion leaders and opinion formers are there to strengthen the influence of the message (Blackwell 2001). Blogs helps the opinion formers and leaders in reaching targets that were missed by the traditional mass communication.
It enjoys characteristics of Multiple-step flow of communication as:
- It overcomes the problem of two-step flow of information that neither allow the information to flow between individuals in the target audience, nor it includes the communication between the original senders, via a consumer, to the opinion leader and then passed on to other consumers.
- It adds the function of gatekeepers, who are people in a position able to decide whether or not the target audience will be able to take part of the message.
Relationship between Blog and Word of mouth (WOM)
WOM is defined by (Blackwell et al 2001 p.404) as “the informal transmission of ideas, comments, opinions, and information between two people, neither one of which is a marketer”. According to them, both the sender and the receiver gains from WOM, which is supported by Fill (1999), who also argues for the above. The benefits for the receiver are rather straight-forward; as they gain lots of information they would not be able to obtain otherwise. The benefits for the sender can be a little vaguer at first glance, but according to both Blackwell et al (2001) and Fill (1999) people like to talk about the purchases for a number of reasons, such as confirmation, satisfaction, status etc; which is what the purpose of blogs. According to Blackwell et al (2001) the affect of WOM has increased rapidly due to Internet. Consumers of today are able to spread the word of something faster and further than ever before.
Schindler and Bickart (2005) discuss that the traditional WOM and online WOM differs in the strength of ties between consumers when they are exchanging information between each other. Granovetter (1973) previously argued that the strength of ties between two individuals is a function of the amount of time spent together, the emotional intensity and degree of intimacy in the relationship. Following this discussion, online WOM is characterized by weak ties. Weak ties then provide three possible benefits for the consumer. Friedkin (1982) argues that it first provides a potential input for a decision. Second, consumer information should be more diverse then that coming from stronger ties. Thirdly, it also gives consumers the opportunity to gain access to expertise which they normally would not get access to (Constant, Sproull and Kiesler, 1997). One downside is however, that consumers do not know the motives of the person that provides the online WOM. It can be difficult to access the informant’s background and expertise in the topic (Schindler and Bickart, 2005).
Consumer Decision Making Process
The consumer decision making process provides a general description on how a purchase decision is made. Consumers does not necessarily go through all the stages for all the kinds of decisions they make, and neither do they always go through the stages in the very specific order that is presented below (Blackwell et al 2001). The process consists of mainly five steps (need recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase and the post-purchase process) according to most researchers within the field (Blackwell et al. 2001, Statt 1997, Kotler et al. 2005), but there are number of factors that affects the consumer in their purchasing process. Consumer are affected by individual determinants (Blackwell et al., 2001) and physical factors (Harell & Frazier, 1999) because they are different, have different experiences and motivations, therefore, they will interpret things differently. Also consumers differ in available resources and knowledge which will further affect their decision.
Another aspect that affects the consumers is the environmental influences (Blackwell et al., 2001) and societal and social factors (Harell et al., 1999). Here the authors talk about external factors that affect consumer, such as culture, social class and reference groups, but also the influence of the family and other individuals by whom the consumer is affected because every individual strive to some extent “fit in” heavily affect consumers. Also the information provided by these groups tend to have high credibility, depending on the consumers need to belong.
Lastly, consumers are also affected by their degree of involvement (Harell et al. 1999). Involvement is the degree to which the consumers perceive the purchase to be of importance to them, and how complex they find the purchase situation (Blackwell et al 2001). The more complex the purchase, the more effort will be needed from the consumer in order to make a good decision. The involvement in turn affects the way in which consumes will learn about the products. Since a low involvement purchase is fairly routine consumers do not engage in a very extensive information search on the product, they mainly gather their information passively. A high-involvement purchase will demand more from the consumer and they will be more motivated to actively search for information.
Bickart & Schindler (2001) investigated the WOM in online forums on the Internet. They assigned students to look at either corporate web pages or consumer forums about specific products. They found that after one semester, there was a higher interest in the product category for those who used the online discussion forum. They then suggested that a reason for this was because the content posts in the online discussion forums are thought to be more credible and more relevant but also having more empathy among its readers.
In another study, Bickart & Schindler (2005) tried to explore the consumer use of online WOM. They found three motives for using online WOM – a) To gain information on purchase decisions, in which consumer reviews and negative information was of most interest; b) To get support from decision already made in which positive was used most for confirmation of that the right choice have been made; and c) Whether information was searched for fun or not. Another theme they discovered was the evaluation of the content of information in online WOM. They identified, corporate web pages are more biased and untrustworthy. Independent web pages free from corporate marketing, in which detailed information and authentic first person experience was viewed more credible and reliable. A consensus of agreement among consumers in the online WOM also tended to increase the credibility. Finally, they found online WOM disperse more information in all stages of consumer decision-making process. During the need recognition, when product was mentioned, it sometimes stimulated interest or problem recognition for the consumer. Other consumers sometimes provide ideas that lead for alternative product to be included, or removed, in the consumer consideration set.
Online WOM also suggested important attributes that could influence the criteria of which alternatives are compared. Information from consumers on how alternative rate on those criteria was also of importance when comparing alternatives. After purchase was done, online WOM information could increase the consumer’s satisfaction of the purchase through positive information. They also discovered that their informants were selective in their information gathering process. This was done to simplify the information but also to help them absorb the information with amount of consumer information about a large area of different products. They continue and suggest that future research should look deeper into what characterise the content in those online WOM consumers choose to read.
Bernhad, Bjurling and Åhrén (2006) did another study on un-addressed consumer complaints through blogs. They found that the blog is used as a way to express dissatisfaction on companies and their products and services. It is used when the consumer do not get enough amendments from the companies. Blogs then works as a complement to complaints through friends and family, and it is an easy way to ease the consumer’s experiences and reduce the stress of a distasteful treatment from companies. The consumers have then used blog to warn other consumers on products and companies but also to tell their own story regarding the complaint. Bernhad et al. (2006) discuss that the technical development has reduced the barriers to complain and this had led to increased likelihood to present complains for products of less value. Wallstén (2005) then comes to the conclusion that the collaborative blogs increase the learning process in which people can learn from each other by reading blog post. It also gives a shared knowledge base for the participants. In another study by Constant, et al. (1997) weak-tie sources were found to make it harder for consumers to assess the quality of the WOM information they received. Schindler and Bickart (2005) then discuss that the reason for this may be that the consumer do not know the motives of the informant and it may also sometimes be hard to assess the background and expertise in the topic of the informant.
As the purpose of study is to understand how consumers perceive their own experiences and behaviour which can be best analysed through inductive approach. As this approach allows researcher to have more flexible structure that will permit alternative explanations of the phenomena. This approach is qualitative in nature that begins with data. It develops an empirical generalisation that describes patterns of that data and it seeks to identify or develop a theoretical proposition that is consistent with those patterns (Schutt, 1996).
Putting emphasis on the inductive approach, research strategy of the paper is built on an exploratory study, though it also includes a cross-sectional study as interviews were held over a short period of time (Saunders et al. 2003). As the paper does not allow for sufficient time for conducting a longitudinal study and it is not intended to study the effects of change and development of the blogging phenomena on the consumers’ decision making process, a cross-sectional study is more appropriate.
As the purpose of paper is from the consumer’s perspective, qualitative research method will enable us to get information from the informants and will allow us to understand the meaning that the informants’ attach to their experiences of blogging. Description is based on the meanings that informants’ express through words. A qualitative approach will allow getting this non-standardised data without being locked into a standardised set of questions. This is because the nature of the questions will need to be flexible and open-ended in order to explore what emerges during the interview. Furthermore, to get a rich description of this non-standardised data and to get into the thoughts of our informants’, the interviews will need to allow a long length of time.
The sample selection consists of young educated adults; as previous research suggests they use blogs the most. The sample size consisted of nine people within the ages of 21 to 28. Of those nine people, three are females and six are males. Judgement sampling technique was used for identifying the informants who had rich experiences of blogging. The low number of informants can be justified by this as it allows getting a richer description of the phenomena studied.
This primary data has been collected through interviews which are qualitative (semi-structured and in-depth) in nature. Limited research that exists and relates to our study has been used as secondary data. To check the effectiveness of semi-structured interview, two pilot studies were conducted. First semi-structured interview uses too much theoretical jargons that fail in retrieving the information. The second test then avoided the theoretical jargon and explanations. To get a rich description, informants were briefed two days prior on the themes to be covered in the interview. It was ensured that each informant had read the information letter before the interview took place. The informants were interviewed in two different ways -a) 6 informants were interviewed face-to-face in quiet rooms and conversations were recorded; and b) remaining 3 informants were interviewed through Skype because of distance and conversations were again recorded.
However, attempt was made to conduct all interviews face-to-face as it enables to establish personal contact which is also important as Saunders et al (2003) argue; qualitative data favours the establishment of personal contact. It was also judged that the face-to-face contact would increase the likelihood of describing and identifying our informants accurately. In all cases, focus was on recording the findings from the interview as the findings emerged naturally. To really understand the informants’ meanings to their experiences and actions, flexible approach was used within the semi-structured interview. Although questions were bound to the themes, questions were flexible to allow an understanding of the participant.
DATA PRESENTATION AND ANALYSIS
Data is presented through sectioning each interview individually. Collected raw data was put into categories and themes that emerged from the interview as need is to have a close understanding to our informants. Information collected and compiled under each category will be compared with other categories. This helps in identifying relationships; in discovering key themes, and recognising patterns and trends. Later on, theoretical framework will be applied on those patterns in order to understand it in a new way. Quotes will be made to simplify the meaning and in drawing conclusions.
a) Interview with Reema Sharma: Reema, 25 years old, was interviewed at her office in Jammu and studying at Jammu University. She uses blogs when she wants to buy something new or wants to find out different type of products available. She also uses blogs for reading travel diaries for fun and to be in touch with people she knows. When it comes to blogging about a future purchase, she reads blogs by people who are in the same situation as her and that have experience from the things she is interested in. She blogs travels but sometimes for electronics products and hiking. She has never used blogs actively, she only reads them. The kind of blogs she uses is mainly product blogs, and collaborative blogs, where she can read and learn more. She does not really read the blogs from companies. Rarely she reads a blog and completely changes her mind. The blog can instead make her choose a different brand.
Relationship with bloggers: For her, the blogger is just someone whose blog she happens to find. Reema trusts all the information that is written in the blogs, but she explains that the more detailed description on how the product has been used, the more she relies on the inlay. People whose blogs she reads most often posses greater knowledge then her, within the subject.
Need and awareness discovered with blogs:Reema agrees that she discovers a lot of new kinds of products, but this has never actually evolved to a need. This has occurred, for example, when she has blogged about hiking gear, she has learned about many new products and the advantaged with those products, but as she is not very experienced in the area, many of those products are just too complicated. However, the blogs she reads regarding travels could actually create a need sometimes. From these blogs she learns more about possible places to travel to which she might visit later in her life she explains.
Blogging for information and evaluation of potential purchase: Reema searches for information about experience from others consumers and their opinions. She looks for new things and assesses which of the product will give most value for her money. For her, price is often one of the most important factors affecting her decision. The reason to why she chooses to collect the information from blogs is because she feels that this is the only place where she can learn about peoples’ experiences and opinions, and also since this information is more neutral then if it would be from a company. When it comes to evaluating products, she mainly uses collaborative blogs in where many people can express their opinions on things. While evaluating the products she mainly stick within one price category that will offer her maximum value of her money.