Mittwoch, 12. Dezember 2012

How firms might leverage online communities to create value for themselves

Porter & Donthu (2008) conducted an empirical study (using structural equation modeling techniques) aimed at providing quantitative evidence that explains how the efforts of a community sponsor might create value. In contrast to previous research that put the focus on the benefits that customers could derive from being a member of a sponsored community this study wants to reveal the benefits for the sponsor.

The central premise is that a virtual community’s value to a sponsoring firm depends on the sponsor’s ability to cultivate trust with the community members. In this model the community member's beliefs about and trust in a community sponsor are influenced by three exogenous key variables: the members' perception of the sponsor's efforts to
  • provide access to quality (= believability, accessibility, relevance, level of value-added) content (particularly content that is unbiased and controllable by customers), 
  • foster member embeddedness (e.g. granting members access to sponsor representatives, facilitating contact between the sponsor and members, providing customers with legitimate roles, and allowing members to influence community policies),
  • encourage member interaction (e.g. hosting moderated discussions).
Trust, then, will motivate members to 
  • share personal information with the community sponsor and
  • show desired behaviors  (e.g., intention of loyalty and willingness to cooperate in new product development) that are the result of trust-based relationships between firms and customers. 
The members will do so because
  • trust based on a sponsor’s integrity (= acceptable behaviour) and good judgment (= furthering the sponsor's interests as well as the interets of the members) motivates members to take risks by sharing personal information with the firm and
  • trust based on the sponsor's benevolence will foster a sense of moral obligation in the member and motivate him/her to perform acts of reciprocity in order to restore equity in the relationship with the firm.
The perception of the sponsor's efforts and the member's trust in the sponsor are linked by beliefs about the sponsor's
  • sense of shared values, 
  • sense of respect for the community members and 
  • sponsor opportunism.
Figure 1 shows the theoretical model.

The respondents to the two pretests and the online survey (multi-item, seven-point, Likert-type scale items) were sourced from a general panel of consumers  that was managed by a professional marketing research firm. The sampling of the respondent pool was designed in order to ensure that the pool included community members of all activity levels and that their communities were appropriate for inclusion in this study. The respondents then assessed the community to which they belonged. Table 3 shows the results.

Grosso modo, the theoretical model was consistent with the empirical data. But there are some points that are noteworthy:
  • Content may be king, embeddedness is emperor: Perceived efforts to foster member embeddedness have a greater impact on customer beliefs about the sponsor's sense of shared values and sense of respect than do efforts to provide quality content. However, efforts to foster member embeddedness are a double-edged sword for sponsors because on the other hand they also result in stronger member beliefs about sponsor opportunism. This suggests that members attribute a firm’s efforts to foster member embeddedness not only to the firm’s altruistic motivations (i.e., sense of shared values and respect), but also to the firm’s selfish motivations (i.e., opportunism).
  • Interaction is the figurehead of a community, embeddedness and content are at the very heart of it: There is no significant relationship between perceived effort to encourage interaction and any of the three belief variables. But according to the authors, this result should not dissuade sponsors from encouraging member interaction because prior research suggests that interaction helps to attract and retain virtual community members. 
  • A "transparent opportunist" is more trustworthy than a "nebulous public benefactor": Interestingly, there was no significant (negative) relationship between belief about sponsor opportunism and trust in a sponsor and rather a positive than a negative  relationship between perceived effort to foster member embeddedness and belief about sponsor opportunism. Thus, community members seem to expect/accept (to a certain degree) a community sponsor's self-serving motivations.
  • Trust in the sponsor's fairmindedness shapes the members' willingness of self-disclosure and cooperation: Trust is not only significantly associated with a customer’s willingness to share information with their community sponsor. Trust also motivates willingness to cooperate in new product development and loyalty. This demonstrates greater forms of reciprocity on the part of customers.
CAVEAT: The study suggests that trust will motivate members to show desired behaviors like loyalty and willingness to cooperate in new product development. But social-psychological research shows that there is a huge gap between motivation/attitude/intention on one side and actual behaviour on the other (cf. Fishbein & Ajzen, Theory of Planned Behaviour; for an intuitive description see:  The Attitude-Behaviour Gap: Why We Say One Thing But Do The Opposite).

Porter, C.E. & Donthu, Naveen (2008). Cultivating Trust and Harvesting Value in Virtual Communities. Management Science, 54(1), 113–128. Google Scholar

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