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Electronic word of mouth (eWoM) has been adopted by Internet users as a way of communicating their consumption preferences and experiences. Consumers are able to reach out to others, unknown to them, and have online conversations that can influence their behaviour. Organisations need to understand how to respond to these brand-related conversations conducted via social media. By looking through the lens of social capital, this paper contributes to social media and social capital research by studying the perceptions that 44 social media users have of companies that interact with them online. The users value social networks and support as part of their online relationships. However, several new value categories are identified when compared to previous research. Further research is required to investigate possible segmentation approaches and alternative methodological choices.
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Customer service 140 characters at a
time: The users' perspective
Ana Isabel Canhoto a & Moira Clark b
a Oxford Brookes University , UK
b Henley Business School , UK
Published online: 26 Mar 2013.
To cite this article: Ana Isabel Canhoto & Moira Clark (2013) Customer service 140 characters
at a time: The users' perspective, Journal of Marketing Management, 29:5-6, 522-544, DOI:
10.1080/0267257X.2013.777355
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Journal of Marketing Management,2013
Vol. 29, Nos. 5–6, 522–544, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2013.777355
Customer service 140 characters at a time:
The users’ perspective
Ana Isabel Canhoto, Oxford Brookes University, UK
Moira Clark, Henley Business School, UK
Abstract Electronic word of mouth (eWoM) has been adopted by Internet users
as a way of communicating their consumption preferences and experiences.
Consumers are able to reach out to others, unknown to them, and have
online conversations that can influence their behaviour. Organisations need to
understand how to respond to these brand-related conversations conducted via
social media. By looking through the lens of social capital, this paper contributes
to social media and social capital research by studying the perceptions that
44 social media users have of companies that interact with them online. The users
value social networks and support as part of their online relationships. However,
several new value categories are identified when compared to previous research.
Further research is required to investigate possible segmentation approaches
and alternative methodological choices.
Keywords customer service; electronic word of mouth; social media; social
capital; social network; qualitative research
Introduction
Web 2.0 – and the capability it creates for social media exchanges in particular – has
revolutionised the way Internet users consume and experience products and services,
access information, and communicate with other consumers and with firms (Hamill,
Tagg, & Vescovi, 2010). For example, one-fifth of Twitter posts mention a specific
brand, with one-fifth of these expressing some sort of sentiment about the brand
(Jansen, Zhang, Sobel, & Chowdury, 2009). Given that Twitter users post 340 million
messages a day (Pring, 2012), there is an extensive number of brand-related online
conversations taking place.
While such brand-related online conversations – also called electronic word of
mouth (eWoM) – may be impersonal, they have been shown to influence purchase
decisions (Zhang, Craciuna, & Shin, 2010) and influence the customer experience
of the brand (Huang, 2010). eWoM is immediate and considered credible (Hung &
Li, 2007). The comments have a degree of permanence (Kiecker & Cowles, 2001)
and can be easily processed and transmitted onwards (Huang, Cai, Tsang, & Zhou,
2011), often reaching users unknown to each other, further amplifying the scale and
reach of eWoM. Moreover, with social network applications becoming more and
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 523
more popular, and with increasing levels of distrust of businesses (Cova & White,
2010), eWoM is likely to become even more relevant to consumer behaviour. The
cumulative effect of these factors means that such online interactions are a ‘market
force’ (Chen, Wang, & Xie, 2011) that cannot be ignored. Consequently, there have
been calls for organisations to move towards online dialogues with their customers
(Hamilton & Hewer, 2010). However, numerous examples in the practitioner
literature show that, when handled poorly, such interactions can degenerate into a
public relations nightmare, with heavy financial consequences for the firms (Bulearca
& Bulearca, 2010). Research is therefore needed to understand how organisations
should handle eWoM (Sweeney, Soutar, & Mazzarol, 2011) not only to mitigate
negative public relations activity, but also to help companies develop long-term,
mutually successful relationships with their customers. The present paper addresses
this call. The objective of this research is to investigate how organisations should
respond to brand-related comments on social media.
It has been noted that the change in how people use the Internet has produced
a new set of expectations. Hamill et al. (2010) even talk of a net generation
culture, characterised by people empowerment and by networks. This culture, the
authors go on to argue, requires marketers to adopt new mind-sets and approaches
to the management of customers and their networks. Conceptualising customers
within networks, and understanding customers’ expectations, is particularly relevant
for eWoM. This is because while there is some evidence of social media users
purposefully using those platforms to influence outcomes (Kietzmann, Hermkens,
McCarthy, & Silvestre, 2011), research suggests that users view these spaces as
private areas where they can interact with friends (e.g. Diffley, Kearns, Bennett, &
Kawalek, 2011). Hence, it is unclear how users perceive – and will react towards –
firms that intervene in conversations within consumer social networks. What is clear,
however, is that social media platforms are inspiring collective consumer creation
and production (Cova & White, 2010). This investigation is informed, therefore, by
social capital theory, which assumes the ability of social network members to extract
benefits from their relationships (Ali, 2011).
The remainder of the paper is organised as follows. First, the literature on social
capital is reviewed, with particular emphasis on its application to interactions by
consumers with organisations online. Then, the research method used to collect
and analyse empirical data is presented. Subsequently, the findings and their
implications for theory and practice are considered, as well as areas for further
research.
Social capital
Social capital theory has become increasingly popular in social sciences research,
including marketing (Lee, 2009). The term ‘capital’ implies the existence of an
investment made with the expectation of obtaining a benefit. Whereas physical
capital refers to investment in material resource and human capital to investment in
individuals, social capital refers to the investment made in social relations (Coleman,
1994).
Smith and Lohrke (2008) define social capital as the ‘sum of the actual
and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from a
relationship network’ (p. 316). Therefore, social capital is both a collective and an
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524 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
Table 1 Forms of social networks.
Criterion Dimension Selected references
Hierarchy Horizontal vs. vertical Putnam (2000); Adler and Kwon (2002)
Membership Informal vs. formal Wellman et al. (1988); Fukuyama (1999)
Ties Strong vs. weak Granovetter (1973); Wellman et al. (1988)
Similarity Bonding vs. bridging Putnam (2000); McPherson et al. (2001)
individual asset (Lin, 2001). There are two key structural elements in social capital:
the network and the support exchanged, which are discussed next.
Social network
A social network is the set of nodes ‘connected by a certain type of relationship’
(Aldrich & Zimmer, 1986). These nodes can be individuals or social units (Hung &
Li, 2007) like groups, organisations, or countries. While members of the network
interact with each other, every node does not interact with all other nodes. The
specific pattern of relationships between nodes results in different social network
forms. In turn, these impact differently on social capital.
One form of classifying social networks is according to the hierarchy of
relationships. Specifically, scholars (e.g. Putnam, 2000) distinguish between networks
organised around horizontal bonds of solidarity among members of equivalent
status, and networks driven by vertical bonds of dependence between members with
asymmetric levels of power.
Asecondapproachistofocusontheformofparticipationormembershipin
the network. The literature (e.g. Wellman, Carrington, & Hall, 1988) distinguishes
between networks that follow an organised set of rules regarding who can participate
and how, and networks that rely on informal norms of behaviour.
Another criterion of classifying networks is the strength of the ties. In his seminal
work, Granovetter (1973) distinguished between networks whose members are
emotionally close to each other, thus building strong ties, and networks where the
members are emotionally distant and, consequently, are connected by weak ties.
Finally, it is possible to characterise networks according to homophily between
its members, in terms of background, personal interests, or circumstances. Networks
whose members display similar traits are called bonding networks, whereas those
with heterogeneous characteristics are known as bridging networks (e.g. McPherson,
Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).
Table 1 summarises the types of relationship mentioned in the social capital
literature. The ties between the nodes in the social network are exchanges of
resources of various types (Wasserman & Faust, 1994), which support the social
network members.
Support
Social capital is materialised in the form of mutual support (Huysman & Wulf, 2004)
between the members of the social network. One way in which members can support
each other is by exchanging information. Information can help members solve
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 525
problems or, simply, stay informed of current events (Coleman, 1994; Granovetter,
1973).
In addition, social networks can be a source of emotional support. This includes
empathy, affection, and encouragement, which allow network members to feel valued
(Taylor, 2011). Members of the social network can also offer each other a sense of
belonging and solidarity. That is, they can be a source of social support (Adler &
Kwon, 2002). Finally, members of a network can support each other in very tangible
ways. This can range from the provision of financial assistance, to the offering of
goods or services that help members in very concrete ways (Ali, 2011).
It has been proposed that different types of social network generate specific forms
of support. For instance, social networks that exhibit strong ties tend to be better
sources of social and emotional support, whereas weak ties may be more conducive
to information and tangible support (Putnam, 2000). In turn, bonding networks lead
on to emotional intimacy and mutual empowerment (Joshi, 2006), whereas bridging
ones support individual self-pursuit and access to new information (Burt, 1997) and,
in a business context, product innovation and the pursuit of new markets (McEvily
& Zaheer, 1999). Moreover, formal networks lead to effective negotiations (Kumar
& Worm, 2003), while informal ones help establish recurrent conversation patterns
(Youndt & Snell, 2004).
In summary, social capital is a complex concept, arising from the interaction of
mutually reinforcing elements. Glaeser (2001) notes that while there have been a
considerable number of research initiatives on the topic, these tend to focus on the
consequences of social capital. As a result, not enough is known about how it is
created.
Social capital, individuals, and organisations
Social capital theory has been used extensively in the business and management
literature (Lee, 2009), with studies falling into one of two categories. The first
type of study focuses on the impact of social capital on organisations. Such studies
adopt a micro perspective investigating how particular network configurations and
behaviours create resources for individual members of the network, which, in turn,
benefit the firm (Inkpen & Tsang, 2005). Examples of this stream of research include
the impact of social capital on innovation and product launch (Cooke, Clifton, &
Oleaga, 2005), and on resource exchange and transaction costs between firms (Uzzi,
1999).
The second type of study focuses on the impact of organisations on social capital.
The studies in this category adopt a macro perspective, examining how the existence
of institutions facilitates or constrains social capital (Svendsen & Svendsen, 2003).
For instance, institutions extend job opportunities and support mobility (Burt, 1997).
They facilitate access to information, equipment, and financial resources, though they
can also stifle innovation and create uncertainty (Lee, 2009).
Further research is needed in relation to the interplay between individuals and
organisations in the development of social capital (Ibarra, Kilduff, & Tsai, 2005).
Social capital studies have explored how the social networks of business actors give
them access to social support (Adler & Kwon, 2002). The definition of business actors
includes individuals as well as collective entities such as groups, units, or hierarchic
levels within the organisation (Kilduff & Tsai, 2003). Yet, social capital scholars tend
to focus on either the individual or the collective (Kilduff & Krackhardt, 1994),
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526 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
leading to an incomplete understanding of the relationship between individuals and
organisations.
Individuals develop cognitive representations as a result of their interactions with
organisations (Weick, 1995), leading on to the development of perceptions such as
organisational reputation or status (Podolny, 2001). These perceptions may, over
time, in return shape the structure of the network (Ibarra et al., 2005), and, with
it, the benefits accrued by the various members of the network. Hence, the study
of how an individual’s perception of organisations is built within social networks is
highly consequential for marketing.
The relationship between social networks and consumer behaviour has been long
established in the marketing literature (e.g. J. J. Brown & Reingen, 1987; Haenlein,
2011). Recent technical and societal changes, however, mean that consumers are
increasingly referring to virtual communities for consumption-related conversations
and advice. Therefore, a study of social capital in the context of marketing needs to
take into consideration the role of information technology.
Social capital and information technology
Social capital is a particularly suitable approach to study online interactions. As stated
by Putnam (2000), ‘social capital is about networks, and the Net is the network to all
ends’ (p. 171). However, it is unclear what the role of technology is in creating social
capital, in particular how it interacts with other forms of social communication (Lee,
2009).
One argument is that electronic forms of communication connect people that
are geographically distant, in a timely and cost-effective manner (Lee, 2009).
Furthermore, information technology creates a new form of public space where
individuals can come together and interact with each other. These online, public
spaces can encourage public participation, recognition, and the strengthening of local
social ties (Hampton & Wellman, 2003). The result is an increase in social capital
(Lin, 2001).
Other authors, however, argue that the characteristics of interactions within online
networks are not conducive to the development of social ties. The temporal divide,
the absence of affective and expressive language, and the limited opportunity for
personalisation and symbolic interaction limit socialisation and bonding (Lee, 2009).
Furthermore, online social networks where discussions are moderated to limit the
number of useless or offensive postings may be seen as restrictive by its users (Hung
& Li, 2007). Hence, while it is easy for people to communicate with each other, this
may not result in social capital.
A possible way to reconcile these views is to recognise that the Internet is more
suited for certain types of social networks than others. Specifically, it has been
proposed that online technology is particularly suitable for horizontal networks
(Putnam, 2000) and those exhibiting weak ties (DiMaggio, Hargittai, Neuman, &
Robinson, 2001; Lin, 2001). Moreover, it fosters bonding networks of members
connected by a common interest by breaking traditional demographic barriers
such as ethnicity or national origin (Hampton & Wellman, 2003). In terms of
membership, online social networks are deemed to be equally suitable for formal
as for informal networks (Putnam, 2000). Unfortunately, the discussion of the link
between information technology and social capital remains largely at the conceptual
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 527
level. There is a lack of empirical studies looking at the type of social networks that
emerge in online environments (Lee, 2009).
In addition to the need for empirical research into the effect of information
technology on network relationships, there is a requisite to understand what support
social network users can obtain from interacting online. As Putnam (2000) stated,
in order to understand the form of social capital emerging from participation in
a social network, it is crucial to understand the motives for participation in that
network.
It has been proposed that online environments are conducive to the creation of
support (e.g. Dholakia, Bagozzi, & Pearo, 2004; DiMaggio et al., 2001; Lin, 2001).
This is because it is relatively easy for social network members to invest their own
time and provide support for fellow consumers (Wiertz & Ruyter, 2007). Moreover,
because these interactions can be easily viewed by the entire network, it makes
support accessible to a wide number of people (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). Lin (2001)
goes so far as to state that ‘there is clear evidence that social capital has been on
the ascent’ (p. 211) as a result of growing Internet use. While information is seen as
the primary form of support exchanged in online social networks (Schuler, 1996),
other forms can also occur. For instance, emotional support may be available to
members of self-help groups (King & Moreggi, 1998). Social support, friendship, and
intimacy may emerge from establishing and maintaining contact with fellow members
(Dholakia et al., 2004). Finally, the short and concise exchanges that characterise
online interactions (Lee, 2009) may be conducive to tangible support.
Authors such as Stoll (1995), however, question the quality of such support
and, thus, the extent to which online networks contribute positively to social
capital. Again, there seems to be a gap between the potential of the technology
to make support available to and through the network, on the one hand; and
the perceived quality of the actual informational, emotional, tangible, and social
resources exchanged, on the other hand. This is particularly unclear when one of
the nodes in the network is a commercial organisation.
Social media users may derive emotional and social support from interacting with
organisations online (Wang & Fesenmaier, 2004), leading on to loyalty from users
towards particular online platforms (Kim, Lee, & Hiemstra, 2004). However, the
use of the platforms by marketers to create heightened discussions around their offers
may hinder the social media experience and cause users to abandon the online social
network (Huang, 2010).
The findings from the literature review show that social capital theory is a
suitable lens to study the interactions between individuals and organisations on social
media because it examines how individuals extract benefit from their relationships
with organisations online. In order to understand how these interactions generate
social capital, researchers should investigate the impact of the social interactions on
technical platforms on the two structural components of social capital: social network
and support. This approach is outlined in Figure 1. Hence, to understand how
organisations should respond to brand-related comments on social media platforms,
the following research questions are investigated:
RQ1: What types of online relationships are most valued by social media users?
RQ2: What support do social media users perceive they derive from interacting with
organisations online?
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528 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
Figure 1 Possible sources of social capital for users of online social media.
Dimensions
Structural
Elements
Social Capital
Online social network
relationships
Hierarchy
Membership
Ties
Similarity
Support available to
social media users from
interacting with
organisations online
Informational
Emotional
Tangible
Social
Research approach
Given the emergent nature of the phenomenon investigated in this study, the
researchers followed an exploratory approach, drawing on qualitative data. The
analysis of social networks can follow one of two approaches: whole network analysis
or personal network analysis (Williams & Durrance, 2008). The former studies the
network from the outside, collecting data for each tie and node. The latter approaches
the network from the inside, collecting data for specific nodes and associated ties.
As the emergence of social capital is a subjective process (Ibarra et al., 2005; Podolny,
2001), the study follows a personal network analysis approach, focusing on the
experiences of individual customers who use social media platforms.
It is common for studies of personal networks to focus on specific activities such
as Granovetter’s (1973) research on changing jobs. This allows the researcher to
deepen the understanding of the content of social ties (Williams & Durrance, 2008).
This study, too, focuses on a specific activity, namely customer feedback. In addition,
it focuses on social media users who experienced or witnessed interactions with
firms on online social networks, as opposed to exploring hypothetical scenarios.
The decision to focus on actual exchanges follows Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979)
conclusion that scenarios have validity and generalisability limitations.
The study followed a semi-structured interview approach. First, it asked users
to provide examples of companies who handled interactions with customers on
social media particularly well, meaning where the respondents were satisfied with
the outcome of the social media conversation. Then, it sought to clarify what aspects
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 529
of the interaction interviewees appreciated the most. The researchers probed the
reasons respondents had nominated particular companies, seeking to clarify aspects
of the interaction or the outcome that mattered to the social media users.
Data collection
Potential interviewees were approached through the popular social media platforms
of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The profile of social media users does not
necessarily reflect that of the general population (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr,
2010; Webster, 2011). Hence, it may not be a good source of data for studies
researching heterogeneous social groups. However, this study is focused on the
perceptions of social media users and does not seek to generalise to the overall
population. Therefore, these platforms were deemed a suitable means of data
collection for this particular research project.
Collecting data electronically offered several of the advantages identified by
Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill (2007). Specifically, it gave access to users in
dispersed geographic locations, and bypassed problems of cost and accuracy of
interview recording and transcribing. However, it also presented challenges. Using
public platforms meant that interviewees could be offered neither confidentiality nor
anonymity, which are two important factors in gaining access to individuals (Easterby-
Smith, Thorpe, & Lowe, 2002). Furthermore, as experienced by other researchers
(Mann & Stewart, 2000), using the electronic medium resulted in limited levels of
interactivity, with users rarely responding to more than 3 questions. Finally, obtaining
80% of replies through Twitter (Figure 2), which limits messages to 140 characters,
meant that many answers were fairly short and used abbreviated forms of words
or expressions. However, some interviewees displayed inventive ways of conveying
detailed explanations. In some instances, users linked their responses to blog posts,
articles, web pages, or other online content with additional information; in other
cases, users offered to continue the conversation via e-mail so they could expand on
their positive experiences on interacting with organisations via social media.
Figure 2 Source of valid responses.
Facebook, 1
LinkedIn, 8
Twitter, 35
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530 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
The researchers posted invitations for participation in the research on the selected
social media platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook), and asked respondents
to share the invitation with other social media users who might have participated
in or witnessed positive interactions with organisations online. That is, this study
followed a snowball approach to sampling. This technique is suitable for research
settings where it is difficult to identify potential respondents with the desired
characteristics (Saunders et al., 2007). It improves precision in sampling among hard-
to-find populations (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002), as was the case with this project.
Atotalof51individualswereinterviewed.Sevenwereexcludedfromtheanalysis
because they discussed companies that had handled the online interaction poorly,
rather than satisfactory exchanges as requested. This resulted in 44 valid responses
(Figure 2).
A disadvantage of snowball sampling is that it may lead to a largely self-selected,
homogeneous sample (Saunders et al., 2007). However, the broad geographic
location of the 44 interviewees (as judged by their social network profiles) and the
spread of industries and organisations they mentioned (detailed in the next section)
show good variability within the sample.
Data analysis
The responses were carefully read, and notes were taken in order to develop a
holistic understanding, as advocated by Rubin and Rubin (1995). Subsequently, the
transcripts were analysed following the basic analytical operations outlined in Spiggle
(1994).
Data were analysed manually, rather than through a qualitative data-analysis
computer program. These programmes enable researchers to analyse large amounts
of data quickly (Saunders et al., 2007). However, when there are multiple synonyms
that respondents may use or many ways to express similar ideas, the use of automated
tools may result in ‘partial retrieval of information’ (D. Brown, Taylor, Baldy,
Edwards, & Oppenheimer, 1990, p. 136). This was a particular concern in the
present study given that social media users tend to display varying levels of colloquial
language, abbreviated words (e.g. ‘fb’ instead of ‘Facebook’), and use emoticons.
Data were categorised deductively, according to the constructs previously
identified in the theory. This step also highlighted a number of categories emerging
inductively from the data, such as the degree of personalisation of the relationship.
Subsequently, the initial categories were refined and organised in order to abstract
from specific labels to general conceptual constructs. To achieve this, the researchers
compared the empirical material collected with each other first, and with the
emerging categories later. The researchers also identified the relevant dimensions
for each category. Some of these dimensions were directly extracted from the
literature while others resulted from analysis of the data collected, as per Wiseman
(1987). In addition, the researchers integrated the various categories identified in
the literature or developed in the analysis, noting which categories tended to occur
together and how the concepts related to each other. The resulting list of categories,
which is discussed in the next section, was used by multiple coders and verified
through inter-coder reliability checks.
As part of the data analysis, the researchers investigated the frequency with which
particular concepts were mentioned, using the methodology outlined by Goffin,
Lemke, and Szwejczewski (2006). Counting the occurrences of particular constructs
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allowed the identification of salient concepts, while keeping the richness and fullness
associated with qualitative data analysis (Saunders et al., 2007).
Findings
Altogether, the 44 interviewees identified 52 examples of companies that they
perceive to interact very well with social media users. The examples ranged from very
small organisations to multinational firms, in a broad range of industries (Figure 3).
Of these, one company was mentioned by four different users, seven were mentioned
by two different users, and all other cases received one mention only.
Among the comments collected, there were 76 references to aspects of the
structural element ‘social network’, and 101 references to aspects of the element
‘support’. The findings are summarised in Table 2, where the asterisk symbol denotes
a factor not mentioned in the social capital literature. The findings are presented for
each structural element, with the dimensions discussed according to the frequency
with which they were mentioned (highest to lowest).
Social network
Most comments under this structural element concerned the dimension
‘membership’. Of all the references for this category, 33% reveal an appreciation
for firms that approach social media interaction in a more formal way – for instance,
when there is someone who has clearly been assigned the role of handling social
media interactions, when there is a process for dealing with those comments, and
when the social media channel is integrated with other communication channels, as
exemplified by this quote:
Received this Tweet from [FMCG company] ... ‘We’re sorry about the beans.
Please contact us on [free phone number]. We’d appreciate the chance to talk
with you’. Called the number, and received an apology and a full refund. [FMCG
company] explained that their beans are packed in a sterile environment and
Figure 3 Mentions per industry sector.
0 2 4 6 8 10 12
Utilities
Telecoms
Sport equip & prod
Retail
Restaurant
Media
IT-serv
IT-hard
Insurance
Hotel
Food & drink
Automotive
Airline
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532 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
Table 2 Factors emerging from the data analysis1.
Frequency
Structural
element Criteria Dimension – Description Counts %
Social
network
Membership Formal – Firms approach social
media interaction in a
structured way
25 33
Informal – Interactions don’t
follow set rules
23
CharacteristicsReliability – Certainty of being
able to access the
organisation, the assurance of
getting a response, or the
consistency in service levels
expected
23 30
Hierarchy Vertical – Interacting with an
authorised, empowered
representative of the
organisation
9 12
Horizontal – Dealing with
another human being, not a
corporation
9 12
PersonalisationHigh – Direct interactions that
reveal knowledge of the
customers and their
circumstances
79
Low – Effective interactions that
do not feel too personal
11
76 100
Support Tangible High – Problems solved,
financial benefits obtained and
access to perks
27 27
Information High – B2C, C2B, and C2C
exchanges
24 24
Emotional High – Feeling listened to, cared
for, a focus on long term
relationships, able to express
oneself, etc.
24 24
EffectiveHigh – Speed with which users
can access support, relative
superiority of social media
over alternative channels and
ability to avoid future
problems
15 15
Social High – Engagement with the
organisation, other users and
the community, and feeling
part of a group
11 10
101 100
1The symbol denotes a factor not mentioned in the Social Capital literature.
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 533
therefore the tin was likely damaged in transit ...Anyway, full marks to [FMCG
company] for excellent customer service and social media monitoring. Note: the
Twitter response was from the US (their head office/agency?) and the follow-up
from the UK. Nice joined-up brand thinking. (Interviewee 7)
Interviewees also expressed preference for interactions that follow certain
‘characteristics’. Even though the characteristics captured in 30% of the references
are not specifically mentioned in the social capital literature reviewed, they clearly
relate to aspects of the relationship that are relevant from the point of view of the
construct ‘social network’. Specifically, respondents commented on the reliability of
interacting with organisations via social media, be it the certainty of being able to
access the organisation, the assurance of getting a response, or the consistency in
service levels expected:
[IT company] ALWAYS respond, no matter how bad it is. (Interviewee 6)
Users also discussed aspects of ‘hierarchy’ (24%), with preferences equally split
between vertical and horizontal forms of interaction. Some users liked to feel that
they were talking with an authorised representative of the organisation that was in
a position to solve their problem, someone who could take action following a user
suggestion or simply apologise on behalf of the firm. However, an equal number liked
to feel that they were dealing with another human being, as opposed to a corporate
body:
Ifindthatindividualsrespondmuchmoreeffectivelythanbusinesses...
Businesses tend to amplify promotional content to their network, whilst
individuals tend to respond directly to questions, comments, and feedback.
(Interviewee 32)
The other aspect, highlighted in 10% of the references, was ‘personalisation’. Again,
this aspect of the network interaction is not specifically mentioned in the social
capital literature. Of these mentions, only one user appreciated that the company
had solved the problem without becoming too personal. The remaining users praised
personalisation initiatives such as the firm re-tweeting comments, or engaging directly
with the social media user and knowing their circumstances:
The [airline] support rep ...tweets back to the customer the latest status of the
flight. (Interviewee 40)
Support
The comments collected addressed all four types of support identified in the social
capital literature, showing that there is a broad range of benefits to be obtained from
interacting with organisations online.
The main benefit mentioned by the interviewees was obtaining ‘tangible support’.
Twenty-seven per cent of references for this category include numerous examples
of problems that were solved through direct interaction on social media – for
instance, plane bookings were amended, broadband issues solved, and faulty products
replaced:
[Retailer] got some actions on a problem that I had no joy with phoning them up
and received several phone calls from them and it got resolved. (Interviewee 2)
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534 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
Other forms of tangible support mentioned include financial benefits, such as a refund
or a sales promotion. Users also liked being able to access perks such as getting
particularly good service at a restaurant, a flight upgrade, or an exclusive experience:
[Premium car brand] gave me [a car] for a weekend ...It was a fun, easy, classy
experience. (Interviewee 13)
Twenty-four per cent of the references were made regarding ‘information’ exchanged
within the network. Users felt that social media was a good way of obtaining
information from the firms, such as how best to use the product, how to access a
particular channel, or factors impacting on user experience:
What I like best of such interaction is we are always being informed, especially
during service interruption when I always wonder what happen to phone service
without the need to make call to their call centre. (Interviewee 33)
Users also appreciate receiving progress updates separately from having the problem
solved:
I sent out a question on Twitter, and within the hour they responded they were
looking into it, and a bit later that it was solved. (Interviewee 27)
Social media is also a good way to provide information to the firm. Interviewees
liked companies that reach out to customers for suggestions, and that have structures
in place to feed customer comments back to the firm. Furthermore, interviewees liked
to exchange information with other social media users:
Really good presence ...there is a lot of interaction going on – B2C and C2C.
(Interviewee 9)
‘Emotional’ support was another highly valued benefit, with 24 mentions identifying
various sources of value. The most cited benefit was being listened to and feeling that
the company cares about them:
Two words: They Care. (Interviewee 12)
It is also about being treated as a valuable customer:
The objective [is] to help people with pets rather than selling insurance. The focus
is at building positive and personal relationships with existing and prospective
customers. (Interviewee 42)
Moreover, respondents value being able to express themselves, using terms such as
‘rants’ or ‘venting anger’. Several mentioned feeling good about getting an apology
from the organisation, and appreciated the use of self-deprecating humour:
I was quite taken by [large supermarket]’s handling of ...sandwich comments.
This is legendary and pitched perfectly ...;-) (Interviewee 37)
Some comments go beyond listing the support available to customers who interact
with organisations on social media to emphasising the effectiveness and superiority
of this channel to access that support. One aspect identified by the users was the
speed with which they could get in contact with the organisation. For example, some
users quoted specific time references, such as replying to a complaint in 15 minutes
or overnight:
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 535
[Telecoms company] is great in responding on Twitter ...Even on a Saturday
night. (I don’t think their team is so big, this must have been done in spare time.)
(Interviewee 28)
Another factor mentioned is the ability to obtain support on social media where other
channels have failed. For instance, it may be faster to get information via Twitter than
from the company’s website, and problems get solved on social media but not via call
centres:
While on hold to [telecommunications operator], tweeted about experience and
got problem sorted via Twitter whilst still on hold. (Interviewee 5)
The ability to access support, and to do so quickly and better than through other
channels, is much valued by customers. It solves problems that they might be
experiencing in the present, and pre-empts other customers’ need for help:
They also leave the original complaint viewable on their wall ...By leaving the
complaint on the wall, the company is communicating to their customers that it
cares ...it can nip a social complainer’s problem in the bud ...before it leads
to a larger problem. (Interviewee 24)
The remaining 10% of mentions referred to ‘social’ support, particularly
opportunities to engage with the organisation, other users, and even the broader
community, as illustrated by this quote:
This small business ...has a good way of engaging with the customers, or even
non-customers like me (I really want to go there, were it not so far away and
Iwouldbethereallthetime)...they post news ... pictures of the cakes ...
they interact with whoever is online and post on fb life about what is happening
on the shop and the surrounding space (bookstore) ...they say when they buy
new equipment ... they share links to websites and Facebook pages of local
artists they discover ...and to charity initiatives. It’s a small organisation but
they engage really well with the fb community. (Interviewee 39)
Other forms of social support mentioned by users were feeling part of a select group
–eitherintheformofameetingofmindsorbyorganisationsinvitingthemtojoina
proprietary social network or company-hosted virtual community where consumers
could discuss issues with each other:
[Hotel] chains like [company A] and [company B] are ... taking their loyalty
card customers into their own proprietary feedback space (e.g. virtual Lobby).
(Interviewee 15)
Discussion
The findings of this study provide empirical support to the view that social media
users obtain a broad range of benefits from interacting with organisations online,
as suggested by Wang and Fesenmaier (2004). In turn, these benefits may translate
into marketing advantage for the organisation, as proposed by Hamilton and Hewer
(2010). Indeed, it is interesting to note that some of the examples mentioned by
the interviewees are for industries traditionally scoring low in terms of customer
satisfaction - such as utilities, insurance, or low-cost airlines – further highlighting
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536 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
the potential of social media platforms to create social capital for the customers of
these organisations. The issue is, then, how that can be achieved.
The first research question investigated the types of online relationships most
valued by social media users. While Putnam (2000) posited that online social
networks are equally suitable for formal and informal networks, this empirical
investigation shows that, in the case of interactions with commercial organisations,
there is a clear preference for formal networks. The difference between these
findings and the literature on social capital and information technology reflects
the type of nodes in the social network. Putnam (2000) refers to interactions
between individuals, whereas this study considers interactions between individuals
and organisations. The emphasis on formal networks mirrors findings from the social
capital literature considering interactions with organisations in an offline setting (e.g.
Kumar & Worm, 2003). Thus, in terms of Lee’s (2009) call for empirical research
on the type of social networks that emerge in online environments, we suggest that
the characteristics of the nodes – namely, whether it is an individual or a commercial
organisation – and the associated behavioural expectations determine the resulting
pattern of interactions, not the technology.
Specifically, respondents appreciate the selective use of alternative channels of
communication to complement the social media conversation. Examples mentioned
include providing links to specific pages of the website where further information
could be found, and following up on problems via e-mail and phone calls. Therefore,
this study provides the needed empirical support for the role of different forms of
communication in creating social capital (cf. Lee, 2009). It is shown that electronic
communication brings together geographically and emotionally distant actors that
are task orientated, as proposed in the social capital literature (e.g. DiMaggio et al.,
2001), whereas personal communication is best for empathy, to show willingness to
listen, and to support particularised trust (cf. Coleman, 1994).
The preference for formal networks is also in line with literature considering
the fit between type of social network and the purpose of the interactions (e.g.
Williams & Durrance, 2008). While interviewees derive a broad range of benefits
from interacting with organisations online, the dominant motivations identified in
the study are to obtain tangible support and to exchange relevant information, in
line with previous research on the forms of support available to individuals and
organisations participating in online social networks (e.g. Lee, 2009; Schuler, 1996).
The preference for clearly assigned roles and structured approaches to social media
conversations, too, is in line with this functional emphasis. As per Hung and Li’s
(2007) study of virtual consumer communities, the presence of moderators in online
consumer networks helps limit low-value content.
The functional bias of the relationships with organisations on social media also
helps to understand the emphasis on reliable interactions. Reliability is not mentioned
in the social capital literature as a source of value, but it is present in other,
relevant marketing bodies of literature. For example, reliability has been shown
to be a key determinant of perceptions of quality in many empirical scenarios,
including the case of Internet-based interactions with organisations (e.g. Liao &
Cheung, 2008; Zeithaml, Parasuraman, & Malhotra, 2002). Moreover, the related
concept of ‘expectations’ has been studied widely in commercial interactions, and
has been shown to be an important source of social capital (e.g. Batjargal, 2003).
Hence, the findings are supported by existing research in marketing and in social
capital.
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 537
The split between preferences for horizontal or vertical interactions raises
interesting questions regarding the profile of the interviewees and the pre-existing
relationships with the named organisations. Network theory shows that horizontal
structures are characteristic of networks whose members communicate frequently
and develop emotional intimacy and mutual empowerment (Joshi, 2006). Vertical
structures, in turn, are common among open networks of actors not equal in terms
of interest, who communicate infrequently and who are focused on task completion
(Burt, 1997). The former are associated with particularised trust and help reinforce
intra-community linkages, whereas the latter occur where there is generalised trust
and support experimentation (Lee, 2009). In other words, the stated preferences
could be the result of personal characteristics, cultural factors relating to trust or the
pre-existing relationship between the respondent and the organisation. However, the
research approach followed in this study does not allow further investigation of this
matter.
In terms of personalisation, the clear preference for targeted and relevant
interactions might be an encouraging sign for marketing managers, particularly those
favouring permission marketing campaigns. By responding to conversations initiated
by social media users, marketers are engaging with an interested audience who has
already provided their consent for marketing information (Petty, 2000). However, it
is important to investigate this matter further, given the very small number of actual
comments concerning this dimension and the high importance that customers place
on controlling the terms of their relationship with marketers (Phelps, Nowak, &
Ferrell, 2000).
The second research question examined the support that social media users
perceive to derive from interacting with organisations on online platforms. Most
of the comments collected referred to one or other forms of support available to
social media users because of firms’ presence on such channels. That is, not only is
support available to and valued by social media users, but it can take many forms
and is not restricted to B2C exchanges. Even though some users appreciated having
access to promotions and product trials, and showed readiness to provide feedback
to the organisation, by and large the benefits mentioned focused on users’ needs.
This supports Huang’s (2010) view that social media users do not appreciate the
commercialisation of Web 2.0 platforms.
While many comments concerned utilitarian benefits such as tangible and
informational support, other, softer, benefits were highly appreciated as well, in line
with previous social capital research on virtual consumer communities (e.g. Wang
& Fesenmaier, 2004). Respondents also appreciate when social media conversations
between a consumer and a business are available to other members of the social
network, thus helping prevent future problems. This finding echoes the proposition
by Wellman and Gulia (1999) that the visibility of online interactions increases social
capital within the network.
Analysis of the empirical data indicates emotional and social support to be
an important source of value in interactions between firms and consumers on
social media platforms. The role of affective emotional responses upon consumer
behaviour and customer experience is now well documented in the academic and
practitioner literature (Bagozzi, Gopinath, & Nyer, 1999; Holbrook & Hirschman,
1982; Shaw, 2007). Equally, it has been shown that social bonding is instrumental
for the development of commitment and long-term relationships (Baron, Conway,
& Warnaby, 2010). Furthermore, it has been shown that positive eWoM is mostly
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538 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
influenced by customers’ identification with, and commitment to, the organisation
(T. J. Brown, Barry, Dacin, & Gunst, 2005). In addition, therefore, to solving
customers’ problems and sharing useful information in the short term, it is crucial
for firms interacting with social media users to connect at an emotional level and
to bond socially if they are to move away from a focus on specific transactions, as
advocated by the relationship marketing literature (e.g. Baron et al., 2010).
A number of comments related to aspects of effectiveness, in terms of faster
and better access to support through the online social network rather than by
other means. While effectiveness is not a resource mentioned in the social capital
literature, Adler and Kwon (2002) introduce a related concept. Specifically, they
refer to ‘ability’, that is, the competencies of the nodes of the network that magnify
the resources available to the network. In this sense, there is a class of factors that
may moderate the value of the resources for some members of the network. The
issues raised by the interviewees also echo themes in the service excellence literature,
namely that the ability to react quickly to customer demands – termed ‘agility’ – is a
source of competitive advantage and, ultimately, growth (Christopher & Peck, 2003).
The analysis did not offer insight regarding social media users’ preference towards
strong versus weak ties, or bonding versus bridging networks. This could be because
the research approach adopted is not the most suitable to identify particular strength
of ties or degree of homophily, and that actual exchanges between firms and
individuals should be considered instead.
Conclusions and implications
This paper reports on a research initiative with the aim of identifying how
organisations should respond to brand-related comments on social media platforms.
The initiative stemmed from the realisation that the Internet has produced a new
‘net generation culture’ (Hamill et al., 2010) characterised by empowered consumers
who operate within online networks and, yet, there is insufficient knowledge of these
consumers’ expectations towards organisations’ behaviour on such networks. At the
same time, the practitioner literature offers plenty of examples of companies that
failed miserably in their attempts to respond to participate in conversations about
their brands made on social media.
One of the concerns raised in the marketing literature is that social media users
view these platforms as private spaces (Diffley et al., 2011) and, therefore, might not
welcome commercial organisations’ attempts to interact with them on social media.
This research shows that this is not the case. Customers have gone beyond accepting
that firms eavesdrop on social media conversations. Instead, they expect companies to
interact with them and to offer support across an array of platforms, even those not
traditionally thought of as a business channel, for example Facebook. Customers pull
firms into social media conversations – for example, tagging companies on Twitter,
or posting questions on the company’s Facebook page. It has been said that a firm’s
absence from social media is quickly noticed by its customers (Fisher, 2009). This
research suggests that, in fact, companies absent from social media miss a valuable
opportunity to deliver tangible value to its customers and to develop emotional ties.
To c a p i t a l i s e o n t h e o p p o r t u n i t y t o c r e a t e g o o d w i l l , fi r m s s h o u l d h a v e c l e a r
strategies in place regarding how to respond to customers’ comments, in order
to meet customer expectations and deliver reliable experiences. Customers expect
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Canhoto and Clark Customer service 140 characters at a time: The users’ perspective 539
companies to use the various social media platforms proficiently, working around
their limitations. While platforms like Twitter may be a good listening tool,
conversations ought to be continued in other media more suitable for dealing with the
issue in question, for example the telephone. These expectations add complexity to
marketing strategy and the management of customer relationships over time (Crosby,
2011). Managers also need to consider carefully what kind of multichannel customer
management structure to put in place to meet these expectations. But, as this research
has shown, even very small companies can benefit from interacting well with social
media users.
This study also suggests that personal and cultural elements might influence the
type of interaction preferred by social media users. Ibarra et al. (2005) called for
further research into how network structures vary with individual, national, and
international sociocultural situations. Such a call is particularly relevant in the social
media context where there are very few geo-political barriers for participation and
where trust plays such an important role. In particular, further studies should consider
traits such as relational orientation and privacy concerns, as emphasised by the
permission marketing literature (e.g. Sheehan & Hoy, 2000; Yeo, 2012).
Social media is seen as the effective channel to interact with the firm. It can
solve customers’ problems, give them access to useful information, make them feel
valued, and provide engagement opportunities. It has huge potential in customer
service and can support the development of long-term relationships. This is even
more likely when the organisation is agile and can respond effectively via social
media. Agility requires investment in business processes;, in recruiting, training, and
motivating the right people; and in mastering the flow of information through the
value chain (Clark & Baker, 2004). Managers tempted not to invest in agility skills
because of cost-cutting pressures should be reminded that agility is a key ingredient in
customer service and sales growth (Bygballe, Bø, & Grønland, 2012). However, the
prioritisation of social media over inbound channels creates perverse incentives and
may even lead to counter-productive behaviours from customers (Schrage, 2011).
Hence, marketing managers need to reflect on the long-term consequences for
customer management strategy of how they respond to customer comments.
Some users appreciated when their messages were shared (e.g. re-tweeted). Some
firms may try to use this to their advantage by broadcasting positive eWoM to their
followers. However, firms need to approach this with caution, as such behaviour
may also been seen as spam (Bajenaru, 2010) or an attempt to bribe opinion leaders
(Mason, 2008).
In addition to the contributions to marketing management outlined above,
this study also contributes to the social capital literature. The study investigated
empirically the effect of the Internet on social capital, as requested by Wellman
and Gulia (1999). As far as social media is concerned, this study supports the view
that Internet technology amplifies social capital. Specifically, it proposes that social
media amplify the tangible, informational, emotional, and social support available
to members of online social networks. The study also provides empirical evidence
for the type of social networks that emerge in the online environment, as called
for by Lee (2009), and specifically considers the interplay between individuals and
organisations in the development of social capital, as defended by Ibarra et al. (2005).
Furthermore, the study contributes to the understanding of the role of social media
communications alongside other communication channels (cf. Lee, 2009).
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540 Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 29
Putnam (2000) proposed that online technology is particularly suitable for
horizontal networks. However, this study found an equal preference for horizontal
and for vertical networks. This suggests the need for differentiated approaches
to the market, a principle long established in marketing (Yeo, 2012), specifically
customer relationship management (Haenlein, Kaplan, & Beeser, 2007). However,
the sample size and the data collected in this study are not sufficient to elaborate
on what could be the basis for a possible segmentation of the market. Similarly, the
findings suggested that social media users appreciate personalised interactions. Yet,
the research approach and the sample size are not enough to conclude whether this
is, indeed, a key factor. Moreover, it is not clear whether the one stated preference for
low personalisation is an exception or, instead, indicative of a subgroup of customers
or contexts where personalisation is inappropriate. Further research should consider
different methodological approaches that can help clarify these questions.
This study focused on the very important issue (cf. Podolny, 2001) of consumer
perceptions of their interactions with organisations on social media. However, as
has been noted by Ibarra et al (2005), perceptions are consequential in terms of the
future structure of the social network. Therefore, future research should consider
alongitudinalstudyoftheinterplaybetweenperceptionsandsocialcapitalina
commercial setting.
Data collection took place on social media. Even though invitations for
participation were posted on three social media platforms – namely, Twitter,
Facebook, and LinkedIn – the vast majority of the responses came from only one of
these platforms, Twitter. As the simultaneous use of multiple social media platforms
in data collection is such a nascent practice, it is not possible to benchmark these
response rates against other studies. However, the varying levels of response can be
understood when taking into consideration the motivations for using specific social
media platforms. Kietzmann et al. (2011) proposed that Facebook and LinkedIn are
largely used to build or maintain relationships. Consequently, Facebook interactions
focus on self-promotion, and LinkedIn interactions on self-branding. Twitter, on the
other hand, is largely used for conversations (Kietzmann et al., 2011) often between
people who have never met. Therefore, it is possible that Twitter users felt more
inclined to respond to a request from someone they had not met.
Social media are a major development in online marketing and are having a
revolutionary impact on many industries (Hamill et al., 2010). This paper showed
that organisations can tap the potential of these platforms for customer service, and
offered insight into customer expectations and preferences.
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About the authors
Ana Isabel Canhoto is senior lecturer in marketing at Oxford Brookes University, UK, and
programme lead of the MSc in Marketing. She researches, writes, and advises organisations on
how to identify and manage difficult customers, and terminate bad commercial relationships.
She is also interested in the use of social media to build customer profiles. Prior to joining
academia, she worked as a management consultant in the telecommunications industry and as
a portfolio manager at a leading media and entertainment company, among others.
Corresponding author: Ana Isabel Canhoto, Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus,
Wheatley, Oxford OX33 1HX, UK.
T+44 (0)1865 485858
Eadomingos-canhoto@brookes.ac.uk
Moira Clark is professor of strategic marketing at Henley Business School, head of marketing
and reputation, as well as director of The Henley Centre for Customer Management. Her
major area of research and consulting is in customer management, social networking, customer
retention, and internal marketing. Her work has been published in a variety of publications,
including the Journal of Retailing,theAcademy of Marketing Science,andtheInternational
Journal of Management Reviews. Prior to her academic career, Moira was an international
marketing consultant and a marketing director for a multinational organisation.
Emoira.clark@henley.reading.ac.uk
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