Recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Research indicates that online comments do impact buyers’ decisions about which products to purchase. However, the factors that have the most influence are the number of comments and the reader’s approach to reading those comments.
According to Yeosun Yoon, Zeynep Gurhan-Canli and Gulen Sarial-Abi, co-authors of the study, “How individuals make decisions is influenced by their self-regulatory goals. According to regulatory focus theory, promotion-focused individuals are likely to be sensitive to gain-related information that involves the presence or absence of positive outcomes. On the other hand, prevention-focused individuals are likely to be sensitive to loss-related information that involves the presence or absence of negative outcomes.”
Researchers provided participants with either two or six comments that appeared to be written by consumers in response to a fictional news story about a non-existent MP3 player from one of various manufacturers. The researchers then examined the participants’ attitude toward the brand.
The results showed that participants who were provided lots of fake consumer comments evaluated them according to their own orientation; promotion-oriented people looked for positive experiences among other consumers and prevention-oriented people looked for a lack of negative experiences among other consumers. However, when only a few comments were available, participants were more likely to switch their points-of-view and evaluate the comments from the opposite orientation, as well.
The authors theorize that when the participants were overloaded with information, they could only process a limited amount of it. As a result, they focused on a subset of the comments that dealt with the primary concerns of the participant. When participants had only a few comments upon which to make their decisions, though, participants no longer ignored information that reflected a motivational orientation that differed from their own. “When information load is low, individuals have higher cognitive capacity to process inconsistent information,” according to the study.
The study showed that brand names also spurred participants to switch motivational orientations. Participants who viewed a brand favorably were more likely to take a promotion-oriented approach to that brand, whereas they were more apt to take a prevention-oriented approach to brands they did not view as favorably.
“When individuals are provided with few commentaries, they are likelier to process information that is inconsistent with their motivational orientation,” concluded the authors. “We suggest that when consumers read commentaries by others they pay attention to the extent to which they selectively focus on positive or negative information.”