“There is little doubt that the digital revolution is one of the most significant influences on consumer behaviour, and the impact of the Web will continue to expand as more and more people around the world log in” (Solomon, p.42).
Over the past couple of decades, the development of Web 2.0 has meant a drastic transformation of the Internet from a very limited information sharing platform that once prioritised business-to-consumer e-commerce (B2C), to one that is now more readily accessible to a larger portion of the world population, across a far wider range of devices. This transition to the Internet as we know it today, marks what is referred to as a horizontal revolution, in which the traditional conception of information flow from large corporate entities to consumers is altered, as such promoting consumer-to-consumer e-commerce (C2C) (Solomon, 2013). This is facilitated and encouraged partly through the diffusion of information via social media, which Kaplan and Haenlein (2010, p.61) define as “a group of internet based applications that builds on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and it allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content”.
Youtube As A Social Network
Traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers once provided information content to be consumed in a static, unidirectional manner, whereas the advent of new web-based technology enables users of popular social media such as blogs, social networks and media sharing sites, to easily create and share user-generated content (UGC) with the world (Saravanakumar, 2012). The horizontal revolution which was previously alluded to, which is responsible for projecting us into today's hyper-social cyberspace as we know it, lead to the “You” trend with Web 2.0 being nicknamed “YouWeb” following Time Magazine naming “You” the person of the year in December 2006.
The same year Google took a gamble in acquiring the then year-old social media sharing website YouTube, which claimed 72 million unique visitors each month, for the sum of $1.65bn (‘Google buys YouTube for $1.65bn', 2006). Ten years on, video-sharing platform boasts an impressive range of user statistics: 1 billion hours of video content viewed daily, 88 different countries with their own localised versions of the YouTube website and $79.4bn generated through ad revenue (Strike Social, 2017) and a staggering 1.8 billion users every month .
To put these statistics in a global perspective, the Global Digital Report by We Are Social and Hootsuite (Digital Report, 2018), the current number of internet users stands at 4.021 billion, with 3.196 billion marked as active social media users.
The social media platform does present a certain level of risk to corporations seeking to protect intellectual property, with copyright material being made available illegally (even if in most cases, these are quickly and efficiently dealt with by removing the illegal content). But with such a large and highly accessible audience at the tip of one's fingers, it is of little surprise that brand managers deem this a manageable threat and place so much emphasis on attempting to harness the power of social networks, to act as marketing channels for the diffusion of brand-related information (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).
Youtube, is a leading tool in the world of digital marketing and therefore makes this study relevant to any individual or business seeking to gain an understanding of its effects on consumer behaviour.
Word Of Mouth Communication and User Generated Content
Johan Arndt (1967, cited Arch G. Woodside & M. Wayne Delozier 1976, p.13) proposes to define traditional word of mouth (referred to as WOM hereafter) advertising as “oral communication between two or more persons concerning a brand, product or service on a non-commercial basis”.
Today, consumers seeking product-related information are met with a diverse range of channels through which it is made available to them, with a significant proportion turning towards social media for product-related advice before making purchase decisions (Hsu, et al. 2013), although as noted by Godes and Mayzlin (2004), none seem to match the credibility and trustworthiness offered by WOM. The pair goes on to further the importance of WOM by claiming that “there is good reason to believe that it has more potential impact than any other communication channel”. Research by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955, cited Brown & Reingen, 1987), points towards WOM having a very strong ability to affect consumers when it comes to making purchase decisions with regards to household goods and “seven times as effective as newspapers and magazines, four times as effective as personal selling, and twice as effective as radio advertising in influencing consumers to switch brands”, while other studies (Brown & Reingen, 1987; Goldenberg, et al., 2001) also support the claim that it is a powerful tool in terms of influencing consumer behaviour and attitude towards brands.
It may seem evident, yet it is worthy to establish the prevalent reasons behind WOM acting as a primary go-to for advice-seeking consumers. In a first instance, and in agreement with the previously proposed definition by Johan Arndt, consumer-to-consumer, brand-related WOM communication does not serve a commercial agenda, meaning that it will contain an organic and genuine mixture of both positive and negative information. The lack of a corporate agenda, translates to an inherent lack of bias, which further increases the perceived credibility of the information. Secondly, as recognised by consumers in studies (Lorette, 2011, cited MacKinnon, 2012), information received via WOM comes across as being far less aggressive in comparison with that of corporate advertising.
The key focus of this study, Youtube, indirectly acts as a WOM communications hosting platform. Technically speaking, it is classified as a video content community with medium-level social presence and media richness, requiring a low level of self-presentation and disclosure. This means that the platform users are not in any way obliged to create personal profiles, but may do so in the event they should wish to display basic information such as joining date, ‘liked' videos, channel subscriptions and uploaded material, in the event that they are content creators (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).
Aforementioned research has demonstrated that WOM communication was already relevant before the development of Web 2.0. The advent of “YouWeb” along with its heightened means of information communication, transmission and accessibility marks the rise of brand-related consumer-to-consumer interaction over the internet (MacKinnon, 2012), thus bringing about an important transformation for traditional WOM, coining the terms ‘eWOM', ‘Internet WOM' or ‘Word Of Mouse' (Goldenberg, et al. 2001). Hennig-Thurau, et al. (2004, p.39), define 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”, and this brings us to draw the link between WOM and user-generated content (UGC). It should be noted that although the latter covers a larger scope of material, eWOM and UGC are very inter-related in a brand-related context (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).
User-generated content is defined by Daugherty, et al. (2008, p.16) as “media content created or produced by the general public rather than by paid professionals and primarily distributed on the Internet”. Furthermore, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2007, cited Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010, p.61) states that in order for it to be labelled as ‘user-generated', content must meet the following criteria: be published on a public domain or social networking site, showcase a certain level of creativity and needs to have been created “outside of professional routines and practices”. As an example, researchers conducted a qualitative content analysis to uncover the the nature of the first hundred video listings that appeared upon searching for the term “iphone 3g” and found that they feel under the following categories: review, reportage, unboxing, demonstration, satire, advertisement and blog commentaries Blythe and Cairns (2009); and it is within these categories of brand-related content featured on Youtube, that this study aims to focus on.
In light of the current market climate, consumers are looking to make more informed purchase decisions by seeking out information relating to price, features and warranties for the sake of comparison in an effort to acquire the best value for money (Retail Industry Global Report — 2010, cited Saxena, 2011). With consumers also globally demonstrating an ever-increasing online presence and market-savviness, the importance of user-generated online reviews is of paramount importance to businesses aiming to beat their competitors. Recent research by Podium (2017), found 93% of respondents felt online reviews impact their purchasing process with 58% looking at online reviews on a weekly basis, while 68% of consumers are willing to pay up to 15% more for a product if they can be more certain that a better experience will be gained. Another study reveals 85% trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, with positive reviews helping to gain 73% of respondents' trust (Bright Local, 2017). It should also be noted however, that the Bright Local survey found that “79% of consumers have read a fake review in the last year, but a worrying 84% can't always spot them”. Evidently, eWOM doesn't always necessarily stem from genuine intentions to help improve the marketplace and both businesses as well as consumers should be wary of ‘review spam' or ‘opinion spam' which illegitimately warp product image (either positively or negatively) in order to impact consumer perception (Lim, et al. 2010). Research also found that “10 to 15% of reviews essentially echo the earlier reviews and may potentially be influenced by review spam” (Lim, et al. 2010).
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