I was intrigued by how innovative the UKTI (UK Trade and Investment) agency were by crowdsourcing ideas for innovation, and tapping onto user-generated methods to predict the future of how we conduct business. Such campaigns were not unusual for large brands, however this initiative was extremely impressive coming from a government agency.
Do take a peek, and you may be lucky enough to win an all expense paid trip to London. Good luck!
Have your say on the most insightful and creative predictions. The top 30 shortlisted entries will be displayed from July 5th 2010 until July 30th 2010 and the winners selected by a public vote.
The three entries with the most votes will win an all-expenses-paid business trip to London, hosted by UK Trade & Investment. They will meet influential figures from the world of business and discover how the UK can be their springboard for global growth.
A joint article by Pulse Group PLC and Aha! Research
Thursday, January 21th, Kuala Lumpur – While the debate continues on whether serious bloggers should acknowledge corporate sponsorship (i.e. incentives) for their product and service reviews, we reached over to blog readers to understand how their skepticism, beliefs, and perceptions of source credibility and source trustworthiness impact on their blog readership. Skepticism seems to be the most important predictor of blog readership and is a dependant on age and education, but not gender. Turning to bloggers themselves, we found that they are themselves skeptical of the blogs of their peers, and their skepticism is positively related to their views on ethical issues such as whether to acknowledge corporate sponsorship.
DEBATING BLOGGER ENDORSEMENTS
The Internet, and most notably since the introduction of Web 2.0, has truly democratized the dissemination of information. Not only has the Internet changed corporate and marketing communications from a one-way monologue to a two-way dialogue, but it also enabled consumers to significantly impact on these communications. Some even refer to this as a radical power shift in the marketing equilibrium where consumers are taking some control over the marketing communications function.
Consumers increasingly establish themselves online as expert product, service, and technology reviewers. They build up a strong following of fellow consumers flocking to their blog sites for, what they belief is unbiased and truthful peer-reviewed advice. While content quality is not always guaranteed, there are some incredibly insightful review blogs at the disposal of online consumers. As consumers trust these blogs, they are relying on them for purchase information and advice. There is tremendous opportunity for corporations to influence buyer behavior through these blogs and many are indeed taking advantage by attempting to convince bloggers to write positive comments about their products and services in exchange of incentives of all kinds. While one can’t exactly blame bloggers for being incentivized for their skillful writings, it is debatable on whether corporate incentives will lead to biased advice. Unless bloggers clearly point out incentivized comments, they may be misleading their readers who expect nothing less than independent and unbiased peer reviewed advice.
Whether these bloggers should make any links with companies entirely transparent has been an ongoing debate. The intensity of the debate recently increased since steps were taken by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well as actions and proposed actions by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) that will force bloggers to disclose any sponsorship and incentives they receive from the companies who they are promoting. One side of the argument posits that bloggers who receive any type of incentive to review a product should be considered an endorsement, and all endorsements must be clearly disclosed to the readers. Unless endorsements are divulged, bloggers may be damaging the trust relationship with their readers and contributors that is so essential in being an influential advisor. Unless bloggers clearly state their endorsement of the products they write about, consumers will find it hard to judge whether a blog is independent and truly unbiased. Blogs are inherently personal, rarely include references, and often allow for little or no detailed, critical analysis, so much relies on the reader’s trust in the writer.
The other side of the debate is that online policing is impractical due to the nature of the medium where external contributors could easily post biased advice and not being restricted by the rules governing the blog owner. Furthermore, defining “incentives” and “endorsements” which are covered by the rules will be a tough and contentious call.
TAPPING ON TRADITIONAL MEDIA TO GAUGE READER ATTITUDES
While the debate goes on in the media and conference rooms, the question remains as to what are the opinions of the blog readers. When readers are under the impression that bloggers are entirely independent from the corporation and its agents, or if bloggers are incentivized for their blogging, would that make a difference in the way readers perceive the truthfulness of the blogs?
A simple way to gauge blog reader opinion would be to ask them directly about their preferences. However, as researchers will know, a simple question gets simple answers that simply would not reveal true consumer attitudes.
As users of new media are most likely subject to the same issues related to traditional media, we turned to years of learning accumulated in traditional media measurement. In fact, much research has been done over the last three decades on the perception of consumers of traditional media such as television and print media, and also specifically to advertising measurement.
Marketing communication is a function of both the source of communication and the content. Traditional media research has identified, among others, four critically important measurement constructs of marketing communication to understand consumer perception, namely skepticism, belief, source credibility, and source trustworthiness. We draw on these measurement scales and we adapt them to measure consumer perceptions of blogs.
AN AUSTRALIAN SURVEY AMONG ONLINE CONSUMERS
To establish a benchmark measurement of consumer perceptions, we launched a survey among Internet users aged 18 to 49 through the Pulse Group PLC online consumer panels in Australian. A total of 169 responses (response rate of 42.25%) were received which is regarded as a sufficient sample for the purpose of this study. The sample included slightly more male than female respondents, age groups were more or less evenly spread, and around two-thirds of the respondents had been educated beyond high school.
The survey consisted of two parts. First, we measured the level of blog usage on a 6-point scale where 1=never and 6=daily. Level of blog usage was also measured by asking about the number of review blogs that respondents visit in an average month. Second, their perception of these blogs was measured by employing the attitudes scales developed and tested by traditional media measurement. Wording of the scale items (statements) were slightly adjusted to apply to blogs rather than to traditional media such as television.
The “skepticism” and “belief” scales consisted of respectively nine and ten items which were evaluated on a 7-point agree / disagree rating scale. “Source credibility” and “source trustworthiness” consisted respectively of six and eight bi-polar items (a 7-point semantic differential scale) where at the positive side of the scale was a word such as “Experienced” and the negative side “Not experienced”. Respondents had to indicate the extent to which their opinion was reflected by either side of this scale.
The survey revealed that 10% of our respondents have never used review blogs, while 12% are using these blogs almost on a daily basis. The remaining 88% of respondents have blog usage levels that vary on the 6-point scale from “frequently” to “very rarely”. The median number of blogs accessed in an average month was three.
While our four attitude scales (skepticism, belief, source credibility, and source trustworthiness) were originally developed to measure consumer attitudes toward advertising and consumers’ disbelief of advertising claims, it passed our rigorous scale reliability and validity tests of fitness to measure consumer attitude in the blogging context. These four constructs were then tested for their predictability of both frequency of blog usage and number of blogs visited to help us understand which attitude constructs are the key drivers of usage. While all four constructs are highly predictive of blog usage, the analysis suggested that skepticism has the highest level of predicting blog usage, followed by source credibility. Both source trustworthiness and belief constructs were found to be less important predictors.
CONSUMER SKEPTICISM VARIES ACROSS DEMOGRAPHICS
As our analysis highlights the importance of consumer skepticism, we embarked on gaining a better understanding of this critical construct. A skeptic is a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual, and skeptics generally value truth over immediacy. Skepticism is the human trait of doubting or having a questioning attitude or state of mind. Skepticism toward marketing communications is regarded as a stable, generalizable marketplace belief, constituting an important element of consumers’ implicit theory of how the marketplace operates. Furthermore, skepticism is not an absolute, but comes in degrees and can vary by individuals and groupings of individuals.
In terms of antecedents to skepticism, we tested demographic characteristics such as gender, age, and education to determine if they are likely to have a direct effect on skepticism, and the direction of this impact.
The analysis revealed that skepticism seems totally unrelated to gender as there are no significant differences between males and females regarding their skepticism about blogs. Second, age seems to have a significant impact on skepticism. It appears that the youngest age group (18-29) in our sample is significantly less skeptical than the oldest group (40-49). Third, skepticism also appears to be inversely related to education, with the more educated respondents being less skeptical than the less educated.
SKEPTICISM OF BLOG READERS VS BLOG WRITERS
As our study measures the consumer skepticism toward blogging, and not the bloggers themselves, we turn to a recent study we conducted for Text100 Global Public Relations among 449 product, service and technology review bloggers across 17 countries in Asia-Pacific, North America, and Europe. The study reported that these bloggers seem to have fairly high ethical standards. They believe their peers should acknowledge corporate sponsorship for product reviews, advertorials, posts that support a blog’s advertisers, and gifts or incentives. Furthermore, by using the same skepticism scale, we found that these bloggers are fairly skeptical of the blogs of their peers. Skepticism toward blogging is also positively related to a blogger’s views on ethical issues: the more skeptical a blogger is about the blogs of others, the more they believe that bloggers should acknowledge corporate sponsorship for product reviews, advertorials, posts that support a blog’s advertisers, and gifts or incentives. Finally, there are no significant differences in overall skepticism between bloggers in the Asia-Pacific and the combine regional of North America and Europe.
What are the implications of this study to marketing communication practitioners? First, skepticism appears to be the most important predictor of blog usage levels. To increase usage, bloggers need to address reader skepticism.
Second, the skepticism scale, adapted from an advertising context, can be used as a survey tool to gauge the degree of skepticism among a specific target audience of a blogger, or in the organizations’ efforts to use bloggers as vehicles to reach and influence a group of internet users. This can be done in settings beyond the scope of, and demographic and geographical constraints of this study.
Third, while the research described here studied skepticism toward blogging in general, it could be used to gauge skepticism toward a particular blogger, or type of blog, or within some other specific context.
Fourth, this study, and similar ones that can be easily conducted, enables managers to target communication efforts to different customer groupings in different, and most appropriate ways. For example, the results of this study suggest that blogs would be an appropriate PR tool for communicating with younger, more educated consumers, while older and less educated consumers might be better reached through more traditional media, such as product reviews in newspapers and magazines.
While this study offers a better understanding of blog readers and writers, it should be noted that the survey among the blog readers was only conducted in an Australian context, and it is not known at this stage whether the findings can be generalized to a broader international context. Furthermore, while the survey offers a general picture of skepticism towards blogging, it does not offer explicit answers to the causes of skepticism. While we focused on demographics as predictors of skepticism, and skepticism as predictor of blog usage, it is obvious that the direction of causality can be questioned. It could also be true that accessing blogs frequently and accessing a larger number of blogs will cause one to be less skeptical about them.
About Pulse Group PLC
Pulse Group plc is a holding company whose wholly owned subsidiary, Pulse BPO Sdn. Bhd. (together, the “Pulse Group”), is a leading provider of research process outsourced (”RPO”) services within the Asia-Pacific region predominantly to market research and media companies, based anywhere around the world, wishing to conduct research within the region. It also provides its services to RPO companies based in other parts of the world who have a need to conduct research within the Asia-Pacific region.