The scientific relevance of this thesis is threefold. It can be explained by the following quote of Steven G. Jones: “Computer-mediated communication is not just a tool; it is at once technology, medium, and engine of social relations. It not only structures social relations, it is the space within which the relations occur and the tool that individuals use to enter that space.” (Jones, 1998, p. 11-12). The contribution of this thesis lies in its scientific investigation of the Internet as a social space, as a medium, and as a technology.
By considering eWOM as a new social relation, I build upon the work of others who have treated the Internet as an entirely new phenomenon in the field of marketing research (e.g., Hoffman, Novak and Chatterjee, 1995; Hoffman and Novak, 1996; Alba, Lynch, Weitz, Janiszewski, Lutz, Sawyer and Woods, 1997). To understand what the phenomenon of eWOM means for the way companies do business, we first need to know how consumers make use of eWOM. Why and how do they participate? Why and how do they contribute content and about what? Various researchers have started to address these issues. Hennig-Thurau et al. (2004), for example, come up with an analysis suggesting that consumers’ desire for social interaction, desire for economic incentives, their concern for other consumers, and the potential to enhance their own self-worth are the primary factors leading to eWOM behavior. Bagozzi and Dholakia (2002) and Dholakia et al. (2004) investigate how individual-level and group-level motivations determine community participation, thereby discerning between small group-based communities and network-based communities. Systematically investigating these issues is the necessary first step that has to be undertaken in a still developing marketing research area. I hope to make a contribution in this respect with a quantitative inquiry into one particular area of marketing research.
By considering eWOM as a medium that is used by consumers to exchange information and to share experiences, I build upon existing theories on interpersonal influence. Research activities that have been undertaken in the traditional context include, among others, the effects of consumer conformity on choice behavior (Venkatesan, 1966), reference group influence (Bearden and Etzel 1982) and opinion leadership (Rogers 1983). Systematic research into the effects of online interpersonal influence on consumer behavior in real life is almost completely lacking. Some journals address the issue as a sideline, but only Bickart and Schindler (2001) have undertaken an investigation. In an experimental setting, they test for the differential effects of consumer-generated online information versus marketer-generated online information on consumer behavior. Naturally, this topic needs further research before a solid knowledge base will be achieved. This thesis contributes to this by explicitly centering upon interpersonal influence in an online setting, thereby using existing theories about reference group influence.
Finally, by exploiting the technological features of the Internet, I contribute to the furthering of using Internet-facilitated techniques to understand consumer behavior. Of course, online surveys are already an established research method within the field of marketing research.