Written by Masters Student
The last 10 years has shown a development within the online environment. There has been a great change from Web 1.0 powered by one-way-communication to Web 2.0, which focus on two-way-communication through an interaction between consumers and companies on different online social medias. In relation to consumer empowerment the growth of online communities and electronic word-of-mouth has become a dominating communication channel, due to consumers validation of others opinion (Akar & Topsu 2011). With the combination of a grown interest of social medias, where the consumers have the opportunity of "spreading the word" about brands (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2013) and the fact that consumers can choose what they want, the consumer have gained more power than ever. However, the changes are huge for the companies, which have to adapt and implicate the communication channels in their marketing strategies (Akar & Topsu 2011). They are forced to interact with the consumer through online communities to ensure any degree of control of the channels. This paper aims to uncover the development of consumer empowerment and provides different views on how companies can overcome the challenges in the online environment.
Key words: Online communities, Communication, Consumer empowerment, Electronic word-of-mouth, Social medias, Interaction, Communication channels, Web 2.0, User-created content.
Development in the communication channels
Although traditional marketing activities influences electronic word-of-mouth, is it the consumer who owns and control this communication channel and for many consumers it has a higher credibility and trustworthiness than traditional medias (Akar & Topsu 2011). It is the content of electronic word-of-mouth, which drive traffic to the Web sites (Pfeiffer & Zinnbauer 2010). The development within the social media area and these communication channels attracts more people to the branded web sites. Consumers purpose is largely to search for information about brands and products and many are staying on the web sites longer (Sandes & Urdan 2013). Based on this it is evident that many are turning away from traditional channels e.g. TV, Radio and Magazines (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2013). Especially women is emphasized to be emotional involved in the buying process and are motivated by non-economic goals (Akar & Topsu 2011). The online communities or Web sites thereby draws thereby many consumers, because it allows them to be involved in the process of information searching and sharing experiences (Akar & Topsu 2011).
The online communities where consumers interact frequently and share their own opinions with each other provides companies the opportunity to target interesting individuals more effectively (Akar & Topsu 2011). This development has furthermore affected the rise of a large amount of social medias, which allows the consumers to interact more easily with the companies. However, it makes it more difficult for the managers in the companies to control the messages received by consumers (Winer 2009). Based on the significant impact the social medias have on marketing strategies today, companies have to change and expand their marketing strategies (Akar & Topsu 2011). A mind-set for the companies is that all consumers want different things. Furthermore, a challenge for the companies is the further development within the communication channels and its increasingly complexity that might occur e.g. microblogging systems and mobile Web with related applications where the consumer/user is “always on” (Pfeiffer & Zinnbauer 2010). The companies have to interact and communicate directly by talking with the consumers and not at them (Mangold & Faulds (2009) in Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2013). Companies have to optimize their social media sites to facilitate the interaction i.e. give the consumer an opportunity for sharing opinions with others and thereby host online communities (Winer 2009).
The main changes
A main difference from the marketing abilities on the “old Web” and Web 2.0 is the user-created content, the interaction and cooperation between the consumers (Akar & Topsu 2011). This evolution of Web 2.0 has created a greater amount of online communities and influenced the evolution of electronic word-of mouth. The ability to share an experience and discus brands and their products, combined with the facilitation of interactions between consumers has made the online communities very powerful (Winer 2009). These interactions might influence the choice of brand and company. According to Cova & Pace (2006) it has become a common fact that companies lose part of the control over their brands. Sometimes, consumers “hijack” the brand and enhances its evolution independently of the marketing managers in the companies (Cova & Pace 2006). Consumers use online communities to create and perceive more reliable communication from other consumers by generating, editing and sharing information about products, services etc. These actions flows out of companies' control (Akar & Topsu 2011). A consequence of this interest and behaviour combined with the rising empowerment of the consumers has forced many companies to provide online communities for the consumers. The companies no longer drive the communication themselves, not even at a minimum degree (Cova & Pace 2006). An example of this is Apples online community, where every consumer who would like to share their opinion and interact in a discussion about products or gain some knowledge from other users are welcomed to join the online community (Apple, 2014). However according to Akar & Topsu (2011) the evolution of Web 2.0 has created a possibility for the companies to have two-way communication with the consumers. This is caused by an exponential development among the delivery of information between users (Alexandru & Carmen 2011). According to Joachimsthaler & Aaker (1997), it could be an advantage to involve the consumer with larger experience of using a product, thus a way of build up the power of the brand. Online communities and the way it provide a possibility for conversation on a variety of topics, brings consumers and companies together (Weinberg & Pehlivan 2011). Online communities might help the companies to sustain their brand and its story through users’ attribution of “the real live” content. Everyone is allowed to express their relationship to and opinion about the brand and product, which makes it more objective and contributes with specific meanings to the product (Cova & Pace 2006).
Collaborate with the consumers
It is important for the companies to collaborate with the consumers and live up to their expectations concerning engagement (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2013). Companies have to ensure that their brand content and desired story upholds a closeness to the consumers’ brand stories or beliefs by navigating the brands' content through the user-created content (Singh & Sonnenburg 2012). A facilitation of the way consumer can create and share content might attract more consumers and provide more effective brand communities, which might lead to deeper and stronger relationships between consumers and company (Chrisodoulides 2009).
Trust is an important factor for many consumers to interact and purchase online, meanwhile it is supposed that many consumers avoid things they do not understand and thereby create barriers for using the Internet (Akar & Topc¸u 2011). In relation, consumers join social networks e.g. online communities as it enables them to share information with people who is a part of an intimate group or have similar interests, thereby people they can trust. Trust in the online communities can contribute to a feeling of sharing experience and information with close friends (Papasolomou & Melanthiou 2013). However, consumers do not approve advertisements and messages within social media environments generated by the companies. The company messages are unwanted because of the lack of objectivity and the fact that the messages perceived as spam (Akar & Topsu 2011). Compared with one-way-communication it might become a challenge for the marketers to control all the messages across the channels and consumers' "words" about the brands (Winer 2009). On the other hand, online interaction gives the company multiple advantages through lower costs, a friendly communication environment and time efficiency for the users (Alexandru & Carmen 2011). Furthermore, they might learn something from the users, which assure success. Companies, have the opportunity to present their products to interested individuals through these dynamic online communities (Akar & Topsu 2011).
A development in consumers’ opportunities for creating their own products has also occurred. Herein a customization and personalization of the products e.g. shoes from Nike. At Nike’s web site the consumer have the ability for create and design their own shoes (Nike, 2014). Besides expressing identity through customization and personalization, consumers are now able to share their experience of consumption and thereby satisfy their social needs through the Web sites and online communities (Chrisodoulides 2009).
However, both online and offline communication channels are often helpful to provide insights and drive a brand’s success. The companies should therefore not abandon traditional marketing entirely. There have to be synergies between two or more communication channels to support exposure (Pfeiffer & Zinnbauer 2010). The essence is to listen to the consumer to gain information, which the companies might use effectively to support relationships or in the search for individuals on low-cost or at a free basis (Weinberg & Pehlivan 2011). Furthermore, to be able to understand when the consumer are speaking and be able to hear them is a major element for facilitating the collaboration (Weinberg & Pehlivan 2011). However the fact that there is a lack of control within the information flow due to the growing consumer empowerment makes it even more difficult for companies to get a behavioural understanding of the consumers interaction which is a frustration for many companies (Winer 2009).
Effect of electronic word-of-mouth
Dissatisfaction is not the only aspect that contributes to generation of negative word-of-mouth, lack of trust at the consumer level influences their self-confidence for using the online environment, which might influence the production of electronic word-of mouth negatively (Sandes & Urdan 2013). Many consumers relies on their judgement of the quality of information about the brands and products from other consumers with similar content interests and past reviews on the Web sites and online communities (Winer 2009). Recognition of a brand might affect perception of its products and it is common that people, even if they never have used a brand, tend to like it if it is well known. Thus, is the visibility of a brand is important because it might signal success and quality (Joachimsthaler & Aaker 1997). The consumer empowerment in general might affect the visibility whereby the companies should use this as an advantage.
Consumer empowerment has grown through the development of Web 2.0. Changes in consumers’ behaviour, herein interaction, information search and shopping online etc. have forced companies to communicate differently with the consumer through new communication channels. The use of online communities and other social medias among consumers has grown and the flow of user-created content is larger than ever before. This development has created a lack of control for the companies. This might be a challenge for many companies because they have to change and adapt regarding this occurring consumer empowerment gained through online communities. They have to interact with the consumer objectively to maintain trust and credibility and thereby create success for their brands. Electronic word-of-mouth might be a threat for many however a success for others.
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