How Audience Size Affects Word of Mouth

Jun 19, 2014, 09:07 ET from American Marketing Association

CHICAGO, June 19, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- It's impossible to go on social media and not see people talking about themselves. Where they went on vacation, what they ate for lunch, even "selfie" pictures of what they did during the day.  Why does social media content seem so self-focused?  Are Millennials just narcissistic, or might there be something deeper going on?

New research by Alixandra Barasch and Jonah Berger proposes that one simple aspect of social media communication—the size of the audience—might also contribute to self-focused behavior.

The analysis appears in the June issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing Research.

In a series of experiments, the authors tested the effects of audience size on the content participants shared.  Barasch and Berger find that people naturally tend to focus on the self, and communicating with many others (broadcasting) does little to discourage this egocentric orientation. As a result, broadcasting encourages self-presentation, leading people to avoid sharing content that makes them look bad (e.g., a story about choosing a bad product).

However, the authors find that one-on-one communication (narrowcasting) prompts people to shift their attention to the message recipient, making them care more about sharing something useful (e.g., information about discount concert tickets).

For example, in one study, the researchers randomly assigned people to have face-to-face conversations with either a single person or a small group, then examined the stories they told about a recent restaurant experience. People who broadcasted told less negative stories than those who narrowcasted. Broadcasters also used more self-focused words (e.g., I, me) and fewer other-focused words (e.g., you, your). In another study, the researchers found that people were more likely to share information about an upcoming sale when narrowcasting.

These findings can help explain why Facebook and Twitter seem so self-focused. Social media posts often address a large audience of "friends" or "followers," which may encourage disproportionate self-presentation.

"Broadcasting is unrepresentative of everyday life because people may avoid sharing things that make their lives look bad," note Barasch and Berger.

These results have implications for how firms can manage word-of-mouth by presenting consumers with opportunities to narrowcast or broadcast on their webpages based on the type of product they sell. Companies that sell useful products (e.g., healthcare) should provide web forms for narrow, personalized messages. Conversely, companies that sell products related to self-presentation (e.g., designer clothing) should provide one-click posting onto social media.

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SOURCE American Marketing Association