Communication Channels and Word of Mouth: How the Medium Shapes the Message

By: Linsey Walker

In their article titled “Communication Channels and Word of Mouth: How the Medium Shapes the Message”, Jonah Berger and Raghuram Iyengar explore the question of what effect the particular channel through which consumers communicate (e.g. in person, over the phone, online) has on what they talk about and share with each other. The authors were particularly interested in how people communicate about “interesting” things. It may seem like it would be difficult to define “interesting” or to get everyone to agree on what is interesting and what is not, but the authors define interesting things as novel, exciting, or surprising in that they violate expectations in some way, and cite multiple sources demonstrating that there is a high degree of agreement among what people consider interesting, as far as products and brands are concerned. For example, people largely agree that Nike is more interesting than Tide.

Existing literature has shown that online content deemed more interesting was shared across more people (more interesting New York Times articles were more likely to make NYT.com’s Most Emailed list), but that the same was not true for word of mouth; that is, interesting products are more likely than less interesting products to be shared online but interesting products did not receive more word of mouth discussion. The authors hypothesized that the reason for this dichotomy could be explained by something called synchronicity. Oral conversation tends to be synchronous, because when people talk to one another there is little delay between what one person days and the other’s response. Conversely, written conversation is more asynchronous, allowing more time in between replies. People can wait hours or even days to respond to an email, but the same time span would be odd in an in-person or phone conversation. Berger and Iyengar designed a series of studies to test their hypothesis that the asynchronous nature of written communication, like social media posts which allow people to take time to think about what to write, allows people to cultivate what they share and discuss, resulting in discussions of more interesting products and brands.

Berger and Iyengar designed a series of studies to test out whether synchronicity could explain why more interesting products and brands are shared in written communication as opposed to orally. They had students at the University of Pennsylvania engage in a conversation task, in which the students were asked to have a short conversation about products and brands. They were randomly assigned to use oral (face to face), written (instant messenger) communication, or oral (pausing before speaking, to account for the extra time, or asynchrony, allowed in the written group). Then, the brands discussed in the conversations were rated on an interesting scale by students who were not study participants. The results showed that people talked about more interesting brands when they used written communication, as opposed to oral. Furthermore, pausing briefly before communicating in the oral group led people to discuss more interesting products.

These results, in addition to similar follow-up studies as well as data that a market research group gathered from thousands of respondents, led the authors to conclude that communication modality influences what consumers discuss; specifically, consumers mention more interesting products and brands when communicating using written communication (e.g. email, instant messenger, texting) than they do when communicating orally (e.g. face to face, over the phone), due to a higher degree of asynchronicity in written communication. Given time to self-enhance, people will take advantage of it and discuss more interesting things to seem more interesting themselves.

This study fits in with our current topic of social media marketing because the goal of social media marketing is to gain attention to your brand or product through social media sites, as well as getting consumers to pay attention to and share it. One main implication of Berger and Iyengar’s work in this paper is that in written communication, like Facebook pages or Twitter campaigns, the more interesting, the better. On the other hand, if your product rates low on the interesting scale (laundry detergent, for example), online marketing might not be the best fit for the product. Encouraging word of mouth sharing might be a better fit in that situation.

It is clear that different types of communication affect which products and brands get discussed, and this could be useful information for marketers looking to generate discussion about different types of products.

Source: http://www.msi.org/uploads/files/Berger_Iyengar.pdf

Berger, J., & Iyengar, R. (2013). Communication Channels and Word of Mouth: How the Medium Shapes the Message. Journal of Consumer Research, 40, 567-579.

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3 thoughts on “Communication Channels and Word of Mouth: How the Medium Shapes the Message

  1. Jim Butterworth February 19, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    Linsey,

    I find a couple of aspects about this study interesting.
    The first being that there are only two major categories: written communication and oral communications. Also, within those two main categories there is no distinction between differing types of communication. For example, letters, blogs, email, and texting are equal within the written communications category.
    The second aspect is the test group used to test the authors’ theories: undergraduates from the University of Pennsylvania. While there were later tests in a non-controlled environment, those tests were only used to prove hypotheses formulated in the controlled environment.
    Treating all communication under only two large umbrellas may skew the results of the study. For example, the age of a person can distinguish how communication is achieved using a cell phone; if you are 18 to 24 (the age of an undergraduate) you are mainly communicating via text messaging, the further you age out of this group the more and more you communicate by speaking rather than texting. (http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/09/19/how-americans-use-text-messaging/)
    There needs to be a distinction under the written communication umbrella. I agree most written communication (such as emails, blogs, and letters), by being asynchronous, gives the thoughtful time to develop ideas and present compelling views on an “exciting” product. I would argue the current use of most texting, however, is asynchrounous and used only as a replacement for voice communication. In essence texting, in most cases, is closer to oral communication than all other forms of communication under the written communication umbrella.
    If most of the written communications in the study were done by texting, I think this study has a very serious flaw in its main premise.

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  2. Kyley Murphy February 19, 2015 / 6:26 pm

    Linsey,

    This article is very interesting! I agree that more “interesting” products are going to be promoted on the internet. I know that if I was on Facebook, I am not going to promote something that I don’t find interesting or I think others won’t enjoy. I also agree that the more someone has to think about what they are going to say, the more likely they will be to have a complete thought process. If they are only talking orally, then they might forget to mention something. You can also back up your cause a lot more as to why a product is interesting when you have more time to think about it!

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  3. Jeff Marcoux February 20, 2015 / 4:01 pm

    Great job presenting yesterday Linsey. The topic is very interesting and the conclusions they reached make logical sense. However, as Jim pointed out in class, given the limited data sample, as well as the limited data range, this study is inherently flawed. It’s perfect as it relates to college age students. They prefer written communication as opposed to actual face-to-face communication- that’s how they’ve grown up. The older generation, having matured in a world (business and social) without texting, twitter or email, would probably ruin the authors findings as it relates to email being the medium which generates the most interesting topic.

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