The Power Of Fashion Blogs As Customer Touch Points: How Digital Opinion Leaders Can Engage Potential Customers In Brand Conversation Through Electronic Word Of Mouth

Written by Kristina Liebold 

The Way Customer’s Buying Behaviour Has Changed

The internet as it is known today, has changed the way customers shop for their brands of choice. Physical customer-brand-interaction is being joined by digital interaction. However, potential and existing customers do not solely inform themselves about brand innovations on a brand’s official website but secondary sources, such as online communities, have gained popularity for consumers in order to seek information, be entertained or pursue social relationships (Kulmala et al. 2013). Topics of interest are being discussed with likeminded individuals, which can shape the potential customers’ attitudes towards the brand and their willingness to purchase a brand’s products. 

In this context, the Web 2.0 has opened its gates for fashion enthusiasts to become self-appointed brand ambassadors through fashion blogs. Fashion blogs are increasingly gaining relevance as customer touch points to many existing and potential customers. Fashion bloggers mostly advocate several brands simultaneously as a means of digital fashion journalism. Due to the customer-to-customer (C2C) nature of blogs, bloggers are generally being trusted as reliable sources, unlike the branded content of marketing campaigns (Uzunoglu & Misci Kip, 2014).

Reviewing these developments, fashion blogs increasingly display powerful tools as customer touch points. Hence, it needs to be investigated how it is possible for bloggers, as digital opinion leaders, to intentionally use electronic word of mouth to engage potential customers in brand conversation in their blogs.

This blog post consists of two parts: part one describes the theoretical background that needs to be acknowledged in order to thoroughly examine and evaluate the exemplary case studies of influential fashion blogs in part two. The second part will conclude with a brief outlook on what these developments imply for today’s brand executives. 

The Power Of Fashion Blogs As Customer Touch Points - Part I

The New Digital Customer Decision Journey 

According to McKinsey and Company’s global co-leader in digital marketing and sales practice Edelmann, marketers should not underestimate the power social media as customer touch points (Edelmann, 2010). By developing a “new customer decision journey” Edelmann shows how social media is an essential part of this process constituted of four steps: (1) consider, (2) evaluate, (3) buy and (4) enjoy, advocate, bond. Firstly, brands need to consider whether their products are top of mind in the desired target group. Consumers today are “assaulted by media”, which leads to a reduction of the actual products that will eventually be considered for purchase. Secondly, once a product is being considered, potential customers seek to find relevant input and reviews about the product in order to evaluate benefits and limitations of such. Thirdly, many buying decisions are made at the point of purchase, thus this displays a crucial customer touch point. Last but not least after having purchased the product, the consumer interacts and bonds with the product. Oftentimes further online research is being conducted and, if the product experience is positive, product and brand advocacy can take place. According to Edelmann, marketing managers must adapt their spending to targeting crucial stages within the customer decision journey, such as “evaluate” and “enjoy, advocate, bond”, which are highly impactful on the act of purchase. Marketers must aim at a new, integrated customer experience, which should be strategically influenced by brand executives as much as possible. „The phenomenal reach, speed, and interactivity of digital touch points makes close attention to the brand experience essential—and requires an executive-level steward“ (Edelmann, 2010).

The Effects Of Electronic Word Of Mouth 

Armelini and Villanueva (2011) also describe a revolutionary shift in marketing towards the inclusion of social media. According to the scholars, consumption and attention is increasingly moving away from traditional media towards online media. Active involvement in social networking is becoming indispensible for brands in order to realize effective brand positioning. Next to the classical marketing investment in advertising, the concept of electronic word of mouth (eWOM), when being affirmative, has proven to have a positive effect on product revenue. Hennig-Thurau et al. (2004) describe eWOM as “any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the internet” (cited by King et al.. 2014, p. 167). Especially for high-risk products, such as luxury fashion products, eWOM provides assurance and thus risk-reduction through the provision of product-relevant information and evaluation (King et al. 2014). An immediate interaction with the potential and existing consumers takes place, being perceived as highly credible due to the blog’s C2C character (Armelini & Vallanueva, 2011). Uzunoglu and Misci Kip (2014) describe how eWOM, that is that is generated by bloggers is oftentimes viewed as “non-commercial conversation” (p. 598), thus readers do not consider such messages to be manipulated by the marketers of a brand, they trust the blogger. This in turn can positively influence the consumer’s attitude towards a brand and direct him or her towards purchase (Flynn et al, 1996). According to Armelini and Villanueva (2011), a correlation between volume of conversations and sales is given, positively or negatively, while the cost of social networking is fairly low. Thus, once eWOM is being spread in a positive way, brand value is being enhanced as the brand image is strengthened. Nevertheless, the brand’s control over eWOM is limited; marketing messages can merely be stimulated. Kulmala et al (2013, p. 20) describe two forms of eWOM in consumer fashion blogs: “naturally-occurring organic” and “marketer-influenced amplified” eWOM. In amplified eWOM, the blogger receives products as a form of brand sponsorship, agrees to continuous co-operations with brands where he or she is obliged to write about the brand on a regular basis, gives tips that point the reader to the brand (e.g. shopping events) or works with the brands in order to offer competitions where readers can win the brand’s products. In any case, the blogger will speak about the brand in more detail and is likely to refer to outlets where a specific product can be bought. Ideally, organic and amplified eWOM do not differ significantly from each other and are coherent with the blogger’s general style to preserve the readers’ trust and to continue to meet their expectations. Reactions to brand messages in fashion blogs then can be both, positive and negative. According to research conducted by Kumala et al. (2013, p. 33) bloggers themselves usually publish positive eWOM to maintain a “positive atmosphere in the blog”. Still, negative eWOM can come from the blog audience or the message intended by a brand can be changed and loose its accuracy or adequacy.  In that case, it is possible that serious brand damage takes place. Nevertheless, the same research showed that readers that spread negative feedback visited the examined fashion blogs less often than other readers. 

The Power of Digital Opinion Leaders

According to the scholars Uzunoglu and Misci Kip (2014) “influencial bloggers are positioned as the new opinion leaders of the digital environment” (p. 598). In their study they describe how Katz and Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow communication theory from 1955 can be applied to communication within blogs. According to the theory, messages that are filtered by opinion leaders have a stronger impact on their audience due to the inter-personal nature of communication. “Opinion leaders act as intermediaries in the web of social interactions” (Uzunoglu & Misci Kip, 2014, p. 593) and thus decode and mediate information to their audiences. The power of bloggers as digital opinion leaders is portrayed in the way they are able to influence and change the perception and behaviour of their readers. If executed well, blog content can create a buzz and spread through eWOM, as mentioned earlier. The popularity of the blog and the items it promotes can strongly benefit brands and their digital presence. The higher a blog’s reach, the more it can increase a brand’s digital market penetration. Product launches can be supported through a targeted enhancement of a brand’s diffusion of innovation, ideally leading to an adoption among readers (Uzunoglu & Misci Kip, 2014). According to Katz (1957) opinion leaders are similar in their nature in three ways: “personification of certain values (who one is); competence (what one knows, level of expertise); and strategic social location (whom one knows, network)” (p. 73). Social media allows for a direct connection between the opinion leader and his or her followers; thus, the strategic use of a digital opinion leader’s reach can be of great interest to brand executives.