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Different kinds of consumer voice January 28, 2011

Posted by Antti Ainamo in Blogroll.
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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.


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)

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.

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.

Juggling with reputational cues August 10, 2010

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It’s about time to leave holidays behind and get back to work. Though I spent a part of my summer days reading a splendid new by book by Nicholas Carr, the Shallows – How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. To put it short, the book deals with the changes we meet in us when immersing to the new digital environment. Interestingly, not only our behavior is changing with the increasing use of online and mobile services, but also the actual physical structure of our brains.

This is basically due to the increasing amount and speed of different attention cues the internet is pushing. The whole environment is about acting  closer to real time and about catching our attention as often as possible: receiving new e-mails and new tweets, getting Facebook notifications, updating rss-feeds. Research shows that as our brains get used to such environment it actually becomes more difficult to concentrate on a specific task for a long period of time, such as reading a book. This phenomenon was also well described in a NY Times article in June. In his book, Carr calls this new brain the  juggler’s brain.

While reading (besides getting just a bit worried about my poor brains) I also began to wonder what’s in this for reputation and its management? A few simple ideas to begin with: Firstly, is good to remember that the juggling online reader is even less likely to dig in deeper when searching for information and conversations for example of a certain product. The mental images are created very quickly, which means it’s more and more important to make sure search engines show positive results on the first page.

Secondly, these new ways of reading online can also be taken advantage of, especially in web service design. This has been done for example by Amazon, who is famous of their context-aware book recommendations trying to trigger our attention and to purchase more. As another example, Google makes searching easier, reduces our efforts and directs our behavior by suggesting search phrases after the user has typed in just a few first letters. If concentrating gets demanding, why not create services that offer enough help and cues to make the experience smoother?

As resources of time and our mind become limited, it’s more and more about attention economics and about offering convenience for the juggling customer.

Redefining the Social Contract July 1, 2010

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “social contract” theory was not based on a real tangible property, but on several idealistic concepts of justice. Nevertheless, the benefits deriving from a fair social contract are visible and tangible. Similarly, reputation and reputational components may appear to be rather intangible and idealistic concepts, although they are in some way connected to organizational efficiency, productivity and eventually success.

Although Rousseau’s terms may appear to contrast with our project at a first sight, a deeper analysis demonstrates that his theory revolves – although from another angle – around the concept of reputation and credibility. In fact, establishing and maintaining an efficient and effective positive social contract among several partners, in Rousseau’s words, could be translated into shaping and consolidating a good company’s reputation within the Digital Reputation project prospective. Therefore, all the documented benefits deriving from Jean-Jacques Rousseau are likewise achievable through the exercise of creating and maintaining a company’s reputation.

In this regard, Rousseau’s theory shows from another prospective that good reputation not only minimizes opportunistic behavior and distrust, but also enhances organizational efficiency and productivity. In a context where trade competition is becoming extremely tight, producing more knowledge about reputation and reputational components would benefit the research as a science and eventually the competitiveness of Finnish companies.

In conclusion, Rousseau’s theory provides further reasons and motivation for studying and conceptualizing reputation. However, our team conceptualizes reputation through the use of a wider concept. In this regard, our working hypothesis is that good reputation not only relates to approach tendencies (e.g. BIS/BAS), but it also relates to specific frontal alpha activity (either as trait or status). Through the use of several measures (e.g. EEG, EMG, EKG), we aim at studying not only reputation but also several cognitive and emotional processes whilst the subject is processing the news message. Additionally, we are also interested in analyzing the tone of the message (positive vs. negative) and its potential influence of the subject’s reputational attitude towards the company. Recording emotional responses and brain’s activity will provide Finnish companies with valuable knowledge and eventually long lasting competitive advantage.

Measuring reputations – between metrics and academics June 3, 2010

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If you go and ask Google Scholar, there’s a lot of research available on online reputation. However, it is usually referring to a concept describing the reputation metrics between users within online services, such as eBay for example, and the research concentrates on the areas of computational sciences and system analysis.  These calculations are about simple evaluations (usually star ratings of few attributes) and comments, but nevertheless a way to operationalize reputational evaluations and show them quickly in a comprehensible way.

In fact, as far as I know, the calculations for online reputation in web services are by far the most stable, automatic and researched metrics on reputation there is. Unfortunately, the concept of organizational reputation is usually seen a bit wider and more abstract and therefore impossible to shrink into just a few questions, though some online evaluation services do give their users the possibility to rate companies with simple five star scales.

Theoretically developed reputation metrics such as Reputation Quotient RQ or RepTrak are based on a bunch of arguments and are often used in closed research settings. In our project we are using a Finnish reputation metrics RepMap, which consists of six categories and 24 different sub-attributes. A reputation measurement of Finnish public listed companies has been conducted yearly using RepMap since 2001. These meters do not have any special instruments or modifications for online use.

When in need for some quick statistics and data corporate reputation online can be measured using for example Google Alerts and search counts, Twitter mentions, blog post counts etcetera. There are several web services that are helpful in this: some are free but most are pay services or offer only limited services for free (check for example real-time social media search Socialmention.com and social media monitoring tool Trackur.com – more free services listed for example in this blog post). Also several international and Finnish media analytic companies are offering social media monitoring as part of their services.

But the problem with these services often is that they solely rely on metrics and counts instead of giving that much qualitative analysis on the content. As a result, someone inside the organization should find time to go through all the material and draw conclusions. Even though titles such as Social Media Managers are popping out, few companies can dedicate enough work time to go through all the material online, especially if the company is a big one. Is there anything that could be done to help in these tasks?

In our research project we are aiming to develop research based models that could be used in automatic qualitative analysis of online content when measuring reputations. This should not be only about searching words and their connections but also about emotions, sentiments and theoretical aspects or reputation, and the special context created by digital environments should be taken care of. With the growing importance of visuality and also continuously evolving web services on the other hand this will not an easy task to do, but something very important and interesting for sure.

Digital reputation as a Game March 12, 2010

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Digital reputation as a Game,

It’s an idea and a perspective Antti and I have been entertaining ourselves with over the past couple of weeks. We’ve yet to fully convince the other members (and perhaps even ourselves) in the research group of the validity and the reasons behind this approach…

By writing it down I hope to a) open up the idea for myself even more, and

b) Maybe be able to convince rest of the research group that it is a valid approach in terms of the project (or on the other hand provide them with the necessary tools to convince us to drop it..). Either way, a win-win situation!

The reason why I believe reputation as a game is valid metaphor in this context relates to the fact that games, be it football, basketball or board games, are familiar to most people. Thus the motivation behind the idea of digital reputation as a game lies within the attempt to captivate any potential interest by using terminology and theories that are familiar to most, but also use them as tools in explaining and building on potential theories as the research moves forward. On the other hand, rules and other basic elements in most games can quite easily be transferred to wide array of contexts.

For instance,

Reputation game consists of two teams, on one side there are firms providing goods and services and on the other side there are consumers. The game can be played either by Firm vs. Customer, Firm vs. Firm, or Customer vs. Customer.

  • That is, the firm is evaluated and opinionated by the consumers before they make up their mind/decide whether the firm has a good reputation or a bad one.
  • Firms compete against each other in terms of who has the best reputation.
  • Customers compete against each other in terms of opinions and reasoning behind their opinions about certain firms and why they consume their products. Battle of expertise/group pressure in other words.

Firms that have good products/services, positive publicity and generally reliable customer support can provide a solid defence against knowledgeable/critical customers with the likelihood of relatively small number of critics anyway. On the other hand firms with problems, bad press etc. have less tools to defend against customer dissatisfactions, negative comments/blogs, bad press etc, thus the customers have the upper hand/more influence in term of the firms (negative) reputation.

Most games, just like firm’s reputation management, involve both formal and informal rules, as well as their enforcement. Some firms are better in managing (playing the game) their reputation than others. If strategy in terms of firm’s reputation management can be associated with the game plan (strategy) of any particular football team, playing with the terminology makes it possible to open up the concept of (digital) reputation in a way that it perhaps more familiar to a larger audience.

Making a further reference to football, all football managers study their opponents, listen to their scouts, learn how the opponent plays and then make a decision regarding the game plan. Firms can do the same in terms of listening to their customers, analysing the strategy of competing firms in order to decide what actions to take in term of their goods and services. So the same/similar tools that make some football managers better than the others can possibly be of use within the context reputation.

User-driven reputation March 11, 2010

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We spent yesterday at a Tekes workshop talking about user-driven service innovations with the other research projects funded by Tekes service innovations program. As our title suggests, our project is a just a bit out of the program’s focus compared to the others, which are strictly doing research on service innovations. Nevertheless, we are aiming to improve competitiveness in the Finnish service sector by researching corporate reputation and ways to monitor and manage it.

But is the combination of reputation and user-driven innovations plausible? In fact, it makes a lot of sense. Our definition of reputation is discursive, that means reputation is a continuously developing set of beliefs, evaluations and expectations created by the public. These reputational discourses are further modified in communicative action – again mostly by the publics, based not only on direct experiences with the organization but also on the stories told by their peers.

Therefore reputation is inevitably user-driven, since it can be defined as the collective set of perceptions and beliefs a certain public is having on a certain organization. In our context, digital publicity, these reputational stories can easily be shared and also collected by the organization. Maybe the concrete innovation is actually using this information effectively to improve communications and other processes within the organization. This could create a continuous circle of small innovation, in turn leading to bigger scale service and product innovations.

I would go a far as saying successful reputation management is not possible without keeping the users in the center. Better than guessing is listening: the only way to know what your customers and other stakeholders want and think is to listen to them, and then aim to meet their expectations.

ps. Another interesting connection between services and digital publicity is the role of web-based service encounters when creating reputation. I hope we will have a chance to look deeper at this later on.