There has been an accelerated digital transformation amid the pandemic.  Many consumers either choose to shop online or utilize multiple channels to shop.  Even we are moving into the new normal, the trends for online shopping and digitalization will continue.  Specifically, the rapid growth of consumers’ use of social media has increased the importance of electronic word of mouth (eWOM) in today’s business environment.

What is eWOM?  Generally speaking, eWOM refers to any positive or negative statements made by previous, current, and potential customers about a product, service, or a company, which can be viewed, responded, and forwarded online.  Because almost everything goes digital nowadays, many consumers rely on eWOM to learn about new products and services.  For example, many consumers trust their social media connections’ product recommendations and online reviews/ratings when they are making purchase decisions.  Some consumers even follow social media influencers, and then purchase the products recommended and used by them.  Indeed, today’s e-commerce environment has become a social commerce environment.

Because eWOM is very important, I frequently hear three questions from e-commerce companies: First, how can we have our loyal customers say good things about my business, products or services on social media? Second, how can we reduce negative comments on social media?  Third, how can we partner with influencers and have them serve as our brand ambassadors?  All in all, many organizations want to know how to foster positive eWOM, reduce negative eWOM, and effectively work with social media influencers.  Based on my research and consulting experiences, I would like to provide the following suggestions.

First, provide your customers seamless online shopping experiences with excellent website design.  When I conducted focus group interview with online shoppers, my participants mentioned the importance of quality of website design.  The site should allow shoppers to find the items they need quickly and effectively.  Thus, please always provide a search function and filtered navigation on site.  In addition, you need to reduce the frictions on your website.  For example, today’s customers don’t have much patience and can easily leave a site if takes longer to load.  Thus, you want to make sure that your site loads quickly.  Recent research findings also suggest that many online shoppers use mobile devices to shop.  Therefore, your e-commerce site design needs to be mobile friendly.  In order to reduce the percentage of abandoned shopping cart, please simplify the check-out process.  Don’t ask your customers to provide a lot of un-necessary information.  Give them the choice to be a registered user or a guest.  You may also provide multiple payment options, such as different types of credit card payment, PayPal, Amazon Pay, Google Pay, and Apple Pay.  Making your customers feel it’s easy and enjoyable to shop at your e-commerce site can definitely boost customer satisfaction.  Satisfied customers are more likely to make positive comments online.

Second, make sure that your products and services meet or exceed your customers’ expectations. If your customers love your company, products or services, they are more likely to write positive comments online and recommend your company to their friends and connections.  Several of my focus group participants said that they want the online vendors to make their expectations real.  The product quality and delivery time need to meet customers’ expectations.  Especially for online shopping, consumers can’t physically see the products and need to wait for the products to be delivered to them, they want the online vendors to be honest to them.  Thus, you need to provide accurate and detailed product descriptions in e-commerce sites.  You also need to make sure that your customers can receive the products within the estimated timeframe.  Definitely send your customers an email with a tracking number when the product is shipped.  By doing so, your customers can track their packages and know the exact delivery day.

Third, engage with your customers.  You can always engage with your customers in social media brand/fan communities. You can build online communities and encourage customer participation, cultivate connections, and create enjoyable experiences in social media. Positive interactions in the social media environment can foster positive eWOM and maintain a long-term relationship with your loyal customers. You can develop brand/fan communities by using social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok) or create your own online community in your company website/blog.  If your customers ask you any questions or make any comments in your brand community, please respond to them quickly and effectively.  When you decide which platforms to use for creating brand/fan communities, please take consumer demographics (e.g., gender, age/generation) into account.  For example, many young consumers, such as Generation Zers love Snapchat and TikTok.  If your customer base are young consumers, you may engage with them by posting fun and relevant content on Snapchat and TikTok.  There are more female users for Instagram and Pinterest.  If the majority of your customers are female, you build your online community on these two platforms.

Fourth, provide effective customer care via customers’ preferred channels.  You want to make sure that you provide consumers two-way communication channels. If there are problems with the products, your customers know how to contact you and solve the problems.  Because online shoppers cannot physically see the product, touch the product or try the product on, your customers may need to return or exchange the product. Therefore, you need to make sure that your customers can easily contact you if they have questions or concerns.  There are multiple customer support channels, such as 1-800 customer service phone numbers, a customer support email address, as well as a social customer care and chat function/chatbot on the company website.  You may choose the appropriate customer service channels based on your customer demographics.  Specifically, young consumers are tech-savvy and prefer online customer services.  When your customers contact you, they expect quick responses.  Many organizations use chatbot nowadays, because chatbot can answer customers’ simple questions immediately.  However, some customers still need to talk to a representative on the phone, when they have more complicated questions.  If they are not satisfied with your call center service, they may write negative comments on your social media site.  Therefore, please provide excellent customer services via multiple channels.

Fifth, invite your customers to review your business/products/services on your company websites. Many consumers would read online reviews before making a purchase decision. Because online reviews are influential, retailers can invite customers to rate their experience and write reviews soon after the products are delivered. Thus, you can send your customers emails to invite them to review your products on your company website. If you provide good products and services to your customers, the review results will be mainly positive. It’s fine to send emails to invite your customers to write reviews. However, you should not pay or provide incentives to get positive review results, because consumers want to see objective review results.

Sixth, partner with social media influencers.  Influencers are the ones with many followers on social media sites.  Therefore, they can be considered as the opinion leaders for some consumer segments.  Many consumers would purchase the products recommended by influencers on various social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok.  If the influencers create interesting content (e.g., videos) for your products or recommend your products, their followers are more likely to purchase your products.  Relevance is the key.  You need to research about your company’s consumer demographics and the potential influencers’ social media profiles.  By doing so, you can work with the right ones.  You don’t have to limit yourself to work with celebrities or mass influencers.  You can work with micro influencers, if their followers are your target audiences.  If your products have broad user bases, you may partner with influencers in different gender, age, and ethnic groups.  Diversity is one of the emerging trends for influencer marketing.  From consumers’ perspective, authenticity is important.  How to make sponsored content authentic?  The key is working with influencers who really love your brands and products.  By doing so, they can show their excitement using your products authentically and genuinely.  Then, you can build long-term relationships with the influencers and have them serve as your brand ambassadors.

Finally, be responsible for your mistakes and respond to negative comments quickly and effectively.  Organizations not only have to foster positive eWOM but also need to reduce negative eWOM. To reduce negative eWOM, all customer concerns and issues need to be handled effectively. There are business review sites, such as Yelp, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Thus, your customers can write reviews not only on your website but also on business review sites.  You may check what your customers said online. If there are negative comments, you can contact the dissatisfied customers and resolve the issues.  If you made a mistake, own the mistake and correct the wrongs.  Offering an apology may help. However, an empty apology alone may not be enough. You also need to take actions. Research findings suggest that dissatisfied customers would expect the company to initiate systematic changes, to offer compensations (e.g., a discount for future purchase), or give them a refund. You need to listen to your customers, understand their concerns, evaluate the situation, and provide a workable solution. If issues are resolved, negative eWOM can be reduced.

In conclusion, eWOM significantly affects consumers’ decision-making processes. By creating seamless online shopping experiences with excellent website design, proving exceptional products/services, engaging with customers, partnering with influencers, and having two-way communication with customers, you can foster positive eWOM in e-commerce environment.

Posted by Ming-Yi Wu, Faculty