Beyond Information: How Consumers Use Online Reviews to Manage Social Impressions
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Imagine you are asked to choose a new restaurant to try with other people. You want to choose the right restaurant in order to impress your companions, and you read online reviews to help you make the right decision. Unfortunately online reviews from regular diners vs. food critics are not in agreement, one loving the restaurant while the other disliking the place. To whom will you choose to believe in order to avoid selecting a bad restaurant and ending up embarrassing yourself in front of others? Moreover, does your tie strength with your companion dictate the different impression tactics you employ and the ways you process the reviews? To answer these questions, we examine how consumers respond to mixed reviews under different social tie influences. Traditional research on negativity bias would suggest that negative review will trump positive review (Feldman and Lynch 1988; Herr et al. 1991; Lee et al. 2009), regardless of the source. But we believe the situation is more complex when the reviewed product or service will be consumed with others. We look beyond the informational role of consumer reviews and introduce them as a tool for managing social impressions. The main proposition is that consumers can utilize product reviews to create the desired impression to different social partners. Past research on impression management shows that consumers employ different tactics to impress their counterparts in order to achieve the goal of either being liked or respected (Ratner and Kahn 2002; Fisk et al. 2007; Bergsieker et al. 2010). How an individual creates a positive impression may vary based on the people he or she is trying to impress. As strong vs. weak tie strengths evoke different impression management strategies, consumers selectively favor certain information in mixed reviews to achieve their social goals. Through an experiment, we find that when dining with strong tie connections (e.g., close friends), consumers have less favorable attitudes when they see negative reviews from other diners than negative reviews from food critics. In contrast, when dining with weak tie connections (e.g., acquaintances), consumers’ attitude was affected equally by negative professional reviews and negative consumer reviews. These results suggest that the social context of a consumption activity is relevant to how consumers may integrate online review into their decision-making. The results from this study offer useful insight into the management of consumer sentiment and consumer-to-consumer engagement in today’s social media environment. Traditionally companies have paid close attention to what professional sources such as renowned critics, Consumer Reports, and other professional review websites say about their products. Our research suggests that the management of consumer sentiment and the importance of positive consumer-to-consumer engagement may vary depending on the social context of the consumption. For products and services typically consumed with close friends and family (e.g., Christmas holiday-themed products and services), attention should be focused on the power of consumer-to-consumer engagement and word-of-mouth. In such circumstances, even if professional reviews are less than favorable, it is not likely to have a significant impact on consumers’ decisions.