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Project presented in Nordmedia 2011 conference August 16, 2011

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I just came back from Nordmedia 2011 conference, where our DiRe project results were presented along with our starting points for our next project Media2. Nordmedia is the biannual conference of all communication researchers in the Nordic region – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Our subgroup of organizational communications was rather small compared to other groups, but very enthusiastic instead!

Considering the feedback from the presentation and the discussions it seems that in the Nordic countries psychophysiological measurements are not at all widely used or even known in communication research, as we expected (it seems that in Finland, for example, psychologists are doing media reception studies but separately from media researchers). As our conference paper was focusing on the methodological issues, this was a good change to create awareness of these measurements as a research tool. Hopefully this will foster new multidisciplinary research ideas in the future and more collaboration as well.

The conference paper can be downloaded here (updated version!) and also from the Nordmedia conference site.

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Different kinds of consumer voice January 28, 2011

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I agree with an argument in an earlier blog by Salla Laaksonen (The voice of the consumer is out and online January 20, 2011) that consumers’ social media and corporate reputations are an interesting development from the perspective of research and practice of corporate reputations. Such modern peer-to-peer and Internet-based social media of consumers in Finland, for example, include Huonekalureklamaatio.com (furniture retail experiences), Eat.fi (restaurant reviews) and Vapaa-aikavirasto (reviews of not only restaurants but also bars).

However, I disagree with Salla when she argues that such social media are made interesting because they help to create and circulate stories about corporate reputation and, hence, importantly construct corporate reputations. Such stories in peer-to-peer social media do construct corporate reputations but not in ways that are very important or significant as such, in my view.

True, modern consumers’ peer-to-peer media on the Internet in the instance of the above kinds of review are one modern equivalent of the consumer ombudsman in the public sector.  In contrast to the consumer ombudsman, it is also true that these social media appear to “represent consumers” at large rather than the public sector because they involve not only complaints from consumers that need to be addressed by public sector civil servants but also direct analysis of consumers’ understandings of “good” enterprise. However,  it should be remembered that also the above modern social media are skewed in terms of the reputations they help create and disseminate, just as is the consumer ombudsman system pioneered in Sweden and Finland in the 1960s. And, modern consumers’ peer-to-peer media on the Internet carry less weight than do decisions by consumer ombudsman, at least in Finland.

No consumers’ social media site for reviews in the digital era, just as no reputation mechanism, will represent the voice or voices of all consumers.  In practice, any particular case or story in consumers’ peer-to-peer review systems tends to be based on one case study on a small incident with a human interest component importantly attached. A corporate reputations may be changed a little bit but by one incident, but it is seldom created from scratch or dramatically changed by a story or a set of stories about small incidents with a human interest component.

Any analysis that is focused on some social-media discussion forum about a minor incident or a set of minor incidents discounts how consumers can take part in development of corporarate reputations by other means as well. Other kinds of reputational stories and mechanisms than peer-to-peer reviews on the Internet need to be analysed, also.  Consumers may still go the consumer ombudsman to complain. Or, in a dramatic instance and move, they may go to court. Finally, most obviously, in the case of business corporate, they simply may not buy the offering of the business corporation, or will refuse to pay full price.

In the long run, paths for future work should include the gathering of variegated empirical data, and cross-tabulation of voice, sales, and ombudsman data, for example. The fact that different kinds of intermediaries and mediators “representing the consumers” exist and ought to exist should be highlighted and remembered. Through empirical insights from consumers, others users, the market and the public sector we can develop a more refined and directly useful conceptualisation and understanding of consumer voice and exit. Thus, by including consideration of consumer entry and exit out of the corporate system of communication, marketing and sales, we can address the currently weakly empirically explored cross-roads of consumer voice, on the one hand, and corporate reputation and brand, on the other hand. These are research gaps and issues that ought to interest also practitioners of reputation management.

The above points about corporate strategy aside,  I admit that in the immediate and operationalized presen, consumers’s stories (or stories of users who portray themselves as consumers)  in social media on the Internet are not without significance. Such stories provide feedback to corporations as to the richness of the kinds of representations of their reputations that may be “out there”. Thus, I would argue that such stories are weak signals or a range of possible directions in which they reputation of a corporation may develop. Yet, again, I underline that I do not believe that they are a useful means of either measurement or understanding of reputation as such. Where I find stories that written by consumers signicant in a minor but important way is that they help to address how to enable consumers and users to provide more feedback to corporations, to the consumers, to society, and preferably to all of the above, than has been the case so far. By accessing a diversity of expressions of private and public opinion, for example a corporation can then more successfully master the challenges and potentials of reputation management than on the basis of a “wild goose chase” for a killer application that may work once but not consistently. Stories, facts, deckisions and judgments. These are elements of a dynamic complex. Reputations are created and changed in a rich ecosystem of cognition and communication.

The voice of the consumer is out and online January 20, 2011

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As it has become evident that people are willing and maybe even eager to say out loud their opinions and consuming experiences online, we have seen a rise of services focusing on publishing and aggregating consumer opinions.

One of the first consumer review services was eOpinions.com founded in 1999 and still running. There’s also a shopping portal attached to the service so that the services are co-creating content: advertising product for reviewers and product reviews for shoppers. All the reviews are posted by individual users and they can also be peer reviewed so that good reviewers will get more recommendations. Content engine then ranks reviews according to their ratings. Consumers can also receive bonuses for their reviews, based on how often their reviews were used in making a decision. Thus writing good reviews can bring users some income.

Finnish versions of such services are a bit younger. For example Puskaradio.net (in English Grapewine) is an open web service  for product or service reviews opened in 2006. Usually these services collect a lot of complaints on bad customer service, about problems with shipping or returns and also opinions and experiences on products. Puskaradio.net also reminds their users to behave: to follow the Netiquette and the Finnish law as well.

In addition there are lots of review services dedicated to culture products, such as movies, books or games. Increasingly web stores are also merging reviewing options as a part of their service, so that you can easily see a glimpse on other people’s thoughts before buying. And online media is trying to join the conversation and competition as well by giving the voice to their readers on service reviews (a good Finnish example is Omakaupunki-service under Helsingin Sanomat).

Some interesting Finnish services include also:

And why am I writing about this in Dire blog? Well of course, because reviews are small reputational stories, and besides these sites might be interesting for companies, they could also be used as research material.

ps. These services are also very handy if you want to create revenue using web ads, since people are producing text about commonly searched products and services and are most likely making a buying decision at some point. That’s why there are even services such as Pointblog, which gathers texts and thus web traffic under certain keywords by giving users points if they write about  a certain theme. Later  the points collected can be used in a web shop.

On the very concept of reputation November 18, 2010

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When talking with people about our project, those who are not familiar with the concept of organizational reputation are often asking ”Why are you not talking about brands?”. Therefore I thought it would be useful to clarify the concepts a bit.

My favorite quotation on the differences between the terms comes from Pekka Aula and Jouni Heinonen (both of whom are actually involved in our project): Brands can be made, image can be built, but you need to earn your reputation. (translation from Finnish by the writer)

Another, more specific classification for the terminology comes from Brown & al (2006). In their article, the writers categorize corporate associations in four different categories. They begin with the concept of identity, which refers to the mental associations about the organization, held by the members of the organization. Next, they split the concept of image to two: intended image refers to the mental associations the organization wants its important stakeholders to hold about the organization, whereas construed image is the mental associations the organization believes the stakeholder’s hold. Finally, reputation is the mental associations the stakeholder’s actually hold.

Brand, for that matter, is a concept used mainly in marketing and marketing research. A company can have multiple brands; not only for the organization itself but also for its products. As image and reputation, brand also refers to the mental associations held by the customers, but  it also includes ideas of the functional appeal and general awareness of the product. A company can have strong product brands or a strong corporate brand, but can still have a bad reputation (see Fombrun & van Riel 2004). In fact, a brand can also have a reputation on its own  – and this reputation can be good or bad or anything in between, and it’s not equal to the brand being strong or well-known.

Reputation refers also to hearsay and therefore to narratives: what is said and heard and thought about the company? These associations can be different within different publics and stakeholder groups; therefore a company can actually have multiple reputations, each stakeholder group emphasizing the viewpoints important to them. For example, some people might be more interested on the durability of the company’s products, whereas another group might be extremely interested on social responsibility issues. This is why most of the reputation measurement tools use a variety of attributes to cover all different aspects stakeholders use to evaluate a company (see previous post).

Luckily, reputation is also a word used in common language and therefore is usually widely understood as such. The definition in Merriam-Webster is rather helpful: “a : overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general b : recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability”. So it’s not only about stories and thoughts, but also about evaluation incorporated in them.

In sum, reputation is a concept and a meaning that is built and modified within the public, in their minds and in their narratives. Corporate reputation is based on the actual actions of the whole company. And importantly, the organization cannot fully define their reputation. It’s somewhat possible to push the associations to a favorable direction and thus aim to manage reputation, but not control it – that’s why the first quote about earning your reputation is very much in place.

Note: Besides corporate reputation there are some other scientific uses to reputation as well. Usually research on online reputation is talking about reputation and reputation systems used in online services to evaluate the trustworthiness of other users.  (see Wikipedia)

Beyond Reason November 9, 2010

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Imagine the following scenario: it’s evening time at the supermarket. A multitude of similar products are displayed on the shelves and the clock is ticking. Weighting up all the possibilities would be cognitively unfeasible and unrealistic. Nevertheless, choosing won’t be so challenging and in a blink of an eye the popular brand is visualized and the product bought. The choice is immediate, clear and appears rational. However, what if the brand has recently been involved in an international controversy?

In the current economy the market is saturated with products and services that overlap and competition is fierce. For the company to market on prices alone just won’t’ be enough, for the consumer with a conscience times are surely hard (C. Smith 1998).

Does the above description sound familiar? If so, common wisdom about choice decisions suddenly appears inappropriate and leaves space for the two following quotes: “reason leads to conclusion, but emotions lead to action”(Donald Calne); one might add that “love is also blind” (William Shakespeare).

My opening scenario indicates that decisions are based upon emotions, not logic. As documented by M. Lindstrom (Brand Sense 2006), these emotions represent the sum of all the minds and souls of every single person that comes into contact with your company over time (M. Lindstrom – Brand Sense 2006). In a nutshell: corporate reputation.

However, since emotional processes operate often outside awareness, it could be also assumed that specific sensorial channels could be more effective than words in shaping the buyers’ perceptions.

If specific channels and channels combinations together with emotions speak lauder than words, the relations between emotions, corporate reputation management and social networks could be re-conceptualized.

In other words: what channel(s) should be preferable to convey a positive online reputation? 

How could companies better use emotional responses in order to gain reputation?

More interesting: what channel provides a better readymade aid in case of an unexpected international controversy?

The (he)art of campaigning October 25, 2010

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Barack Obama has been the first internet and social-network-oriented President in the history of U.S. In his online oriented political campaign, he took the hazard that paid off (Castell 2009).

However, many people still wonder whether social networks with their tremendous communication capabilities really help in achieving prestige, popularity and eventually success. Other might ask if reputation really links to specific communication channels. In my opinion, the next paragraph provides the skeptics with evidence that social campaigning on the web is one of the keys to success.

First, through wise multimodal communication, the African American President was capable of mobilizing and involving an unprecedented number of young people. It is of note that the majority of this electorate voted for Obama. In addition to this, the presence at polling booths increased for the first time in history of the U.S. political elections and many rooted prejudices and stereotypes against the African-American community were overridden. These are just a few of the outstanding achievements that the Afro-American President fulfilled through an emotionally oriented online communication. In other words, social networks and emotions paid off.

Second, the candidate’s image and therefore reputation also benefited from his social networks oriented and highly emotional political campaign. In my opinion, B. Obama was perceived as more appealing because it conveyed not only beliefs and opinions, but also desires, dreams and ultimately emotions. In this regard, the Afro-American President was perceived as more intelligent, successful, smarter, reliable and compassionate than his opponents. (D.Daye 2008 – Obama McCain Political Brand Analysis Results). Again, his emotionally engaging interaction paid off. Several examples about emotional engagement may be mentioned, however, the worldwide slogan of the campaign “yes, we can” is the more appropriate simply because for the first time in U.S. history a single emotion gathered together citizens from all walks of life.

In conclusion, as documented in Castells (2009), voters ended up voting for Obama not only because of the message: change. What made people support and ultimately vote for the Democratic leader was an emotion: hope. A single emotion shared with millions of voters on the web was the driving force that mobilized an impressive number of voters. In this light, emotion and the communication capabilities of social networks should be taken into consideration by any company looking to succeed in its marketplace. To sum it up: “Wherever you go, no matter what the weather; always bring your own sunshine (Anthony J. D’Angelo, The College Blue Book).

 

Product reviews affect usability perceptions October 7, 2010

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A recent study from Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT shows exciting results: the more a user expects to like using a new mobile phone, the more he or she will like to use it. Thus users’ favorable expectations make them forgive encountered usability problems and perceive new mobile phones usable.

In an experiment by Eeva Raita and Antti Oulasvirta, subjects were primed by reading either a positive or a negative product review for a novel mobile phone before using it. After reading the review, subjects performed either easy or hard task with the phone, and then rated its’ usability with a standard questionnaire. The study revealed a strong effect of positive expectations: the subjects who had read the positive review gave the phone 74% higher usability ratings than others – even if they had trouble using it. Interestingly the ratings subjects gave right after performing the task were not affected by the prime. The researchers suggest this might result from the fact that in the post-experiment evaluation phase the subjects were asked to evaluate the system as a whole.

The researchers do not mention reputation in their paper, but the finding naturally have also implications in the reputational field: product reviews or company reviews or reputational narratives for that matter do have an effect on the way stakeholder’s perceive their experiences. And to surmise a bit more, maybe this means the positive reputational narratives heard beforehand diminishes the value of bad experiences users just had with the product?

Of course people do regard different information sources differently. A technical review of a gadget is probably seen more reliable than an angry blogpost – or maybe not, if the reader, for example, happens to know the person writing the blog or the blogger has gained good reputation as a tech-writer. Research has shown that people trust their own networks when seeking information, but they also lay surprisingly heavy trust on search engine results and on well-known brands (see Hargittai & al. 2010). People also tend to believe in statistics and repetition: multiple information sources enhance credibility (to be more specific, according to Edelman Trust Barometer 2010 60% of respondents believe a piece of information is true after they have heard it 3-5 times). All in all, there are a lot of factors involved in creating trust.

The HIIT study, titled “Too Good To Be Bad: The Effect of Favorable Expectations on Usability Perceptions” is published in the proceedings of the 54th annual meeting of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) held in San Francisco last week. Paper can be downloaded from HIIT website.

Campaign-oops: No pressure October 4, 2010

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There has been an interesting PR campaign scandal going on during the weekend. On Friday, 10:10 Global, a campaign aiming to courage individuals to help stop global warming by reducing their CO2 emission by 10%, published a video promoting their campaign.

The basic idea of the video is something like “it’s a free choice, but if you don’t participate you will be excecuted” as the clip shows different stories where those not participating are blown to pieces. And yes, with all the visual effects borrowed from horror movies. The people behind the campaign say their idea was to make people laugh.

This rather interesting approach for an environmental campaign brought up some pretty angry comments for example in Twitter, and was also pointed out by media. Soon the video was removed from the campaign site and replaced with an official apologize. Naturally, there are several copies of the clip around in YouTube only and the complaints are still swelling. Is all publicity good publicity here? At least people are talking.

And, we do need to give two credits for 10:10 of being open and transparent: Firstly, they are not making any attempt to censor or remove other versions of the video circulating online. Secondly, they have been busy answering and apologizing people’s tweets the past few days. Sounds like a conversation to me.

Coloring book of popular services: the blue strategy September 17, 2010

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A recent interesting blogpost in ColourLovers is writing about colors of social web companies, or specifically colors used by the brands from the top 100 sites in the world.

It turns out that the logos of most popular web services are dominated by blue color. Red seems to be a strong silver medalist. Huge traffic social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype and Wikipedia all trust in blue. A previous look into issue by Wired 10 years ago shows that also majority of the biggest American corporates are painted in blue or red.

"The Colors of the Web" from ColourLovers

What first comes to mind is of course the question, whether the blue color actually brings popularity or do new ventures just pick the blue color (consciously or unconsciously) to be more popular? And is Google actually playing it safe by putting the entire rainbow in their logo?

Color is one of the fundamental aspects of human perception, and there is a lot of research on its effects on cognition and behavior. However, the psychological processes actually looming behind color perception have not been clarified. Several studies nevertheless tells that blue is associated with openness, relaxation, happiness, peace and tranquility. In contrast, red is seen as a stimulating color, referring to excitement, anxiety, happiness and activity, but also dangers and mistakes.

It is still unclear how much emotional reactions evoked by colors are universal and fundamentally human,  but a concensus now lies in cultural context emphasis, which sees color associations very tied in cultural and personal contexts. This actually means that the use of blue logos could in a way create a positive spiral of reinforcement, when blue is constantly getting more associations in popular services.

One recent study demonstrates that red color can bring out primarily an avoidance motivation, whereas blue will activate an approach motivation. Also, red color enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task. Considering this it makes a lot of sense that social network sites use blue colour in their visual apperance.

When designing the DiRe experiments we decided not to use company logos as stimulus material, since the possible emotional reactions evoked by colours or plain visuality could bring too much noise in the psychophysiological signals recorded.

See research on the issue:

Mehta, R. & Zhu R. J. (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science 27 February 2009.
Suk, Hyeon-Jeong (2006): Color and Emotion. A Study on the Affective Judgment of Color Across Media and in Relation to Visual Stimuli. Doctoral dissertation. (pdf)

Google’s little reputation alphabet September 9, 2010

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Yesterday Google officialy released their new Google Instant search, which basically means the search engine is doing and refining the search immediately as you type (you can check the example video on Google’s site behind the link). The service is rolling out for users in US and UK and a few other European countires, but Finland will have to wait for a few months.  Though since 2004 we’ve had Google Suggest, which gives the user suggestions in a dropbox below the search box, so actually Google Instant is just taking this one step further.

Both Google Instant and Suggest have inspired the listings of Google Alphabets. What the search engine suggests when a user inserts just the first letter of the search string? Check for example a recent list from yesterday on Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog, or another listing based on autocomplete function from 2008 at O’Reilly Radar. These lists (which can of course be checked pretty easily by yourself as well) give the glory to the famous and the popular. A goes for Amazon, I for Ikea, S for Skype and E for eBay. And Å for Åhlens. According to Google, these suggestions are solely based on search popularity.

Google suggestions are an interesting popularity rank based on masses and their interests. However, popularity alone does not give us information on evaluations and thus is not equal to reputation (as reputation can be shortly defined as discourses and evaluations). After a quick look through the Digit’s list and the Global Reputation Pulse 2010 list of most reputable companies in the world, it seems that the search alphabets concentrate – not so surprisingly – more on online services and companies, but both lists are consisting of popular BtoC companies and share some same names as well.

Reputation models usually do count in the popularity or public image of the company investigated, but they also measure several other qualities. So, a company does not have to be widely known in order to have a good reputation. A company can even enjoy extremely good reputation in a small group of stakeholders, but a far worse reputation in some other group of people. Actually quite an interesting larger scale example of this is the fan culture visibly present within gadget users; there’s an ongoing dispute between Apple fanboys and PC lovers, for example.

While these popularity lists are very interesting to see, there remains a question of the reasons why people are over and over again searching for these certain companies – maybe all publicity is not good publicity? And then again, the funny fact that Google itself is on Google’s most searched items list is a good reminder: the list probably tells more about people’s habits of using the web than about reputation.