By Lauren Grewal, Ph.D.
The internet is full of information. At any given point in time, a consumer looking to choose a hotel, restaurant, or product to purchase can find essentially limitless information to help inform their decisions. Considering how much information exists online, understanding subtle and inconspicuous cues that can influence the effectiveness of online content for consumers’ judgments and subsequent behaviors is valuable.
In a new study, my co-author Andrew Stephen and I examine one cue that can influence consumers: the device on which an online review was written. Some online review websites let consumers know when an online review is written not on a computer (the current default), but on a mobile device. For example, TripAdvisor includes an indicator of a small phone icon and writing “via mobile” above the actual review text.
Our key hypothesis was that this seemingly innocuous image of a phone and the “via mobile” text would be more effective at driving perceived helpfulness and purchase intentions than reviews without this additional indicator (all else equal). In our research, we analyzed around 1.5 million online reviews written by consumers on TripAdvisor between 2012 and 2015 and examined how “helpful” reviews were seen as being. Specifically, we examined whether reviews with the “via mobile” indicator were, on average, rated as more helpful than reviews without the indicator while controlling for a number of other variables that could impact helpfulness (e.g., review length, Top contributor, etc.). Overall, we found that mobile-written reviews are indeed rated as more helpful than nonmobile reviews.
We had some additional hypotheses about why mobile reviews would be more persuasive than non-mobile reviews, and some thoughts on the boundaries of this “mobile-effect.” To examine these, we performed five main experiments to have a more controlled environment to examine the effect of mobile (vs. nonmobile) reviews. Across these experiments, we replicated the main finding from the TripAdvisor data that mobile (vs. nonmobile) reviews are seen as more helpful. We additionally extended this finding by determining that mobile (vs. nonmobile) reviews are more likely to improve purchase intentions of the reviewed product or service. This occurs even though the text across the two conditions of reviews is identical.
When examining why this effect occurs, we found that consumers have an underlying lay-belief that it takes more physical effort to write a decent review on a mobile device compared to a computer’s keyboard, which thus endows the review with more credibility (as research has shown a positive link between perceived effort and quality/value). Essentially, the mobile indicator is used as a heuristic cue (i.e., a cognitive shortcut), that allows consumers to determine whether a review is more or less credible, which then highlights if there is value to the information contained in the review and consequently has a greater impact on subsequent consumer attitudes and behaviors.
We do acknowledge some caveats to this effect, however. As the mobile indicator is just a heuristic cue that can be used by consumers to infer some perceived level of effort and credibility (vs. an objective indicator of quality), we examined scenarios where this perception is outweighed by competing contradictory information. For example, mobile (vs. nonmobile) reviews are not more successful at encouraging purchase intentions when effort is not linked to credibility (i.e., effort is seen as a result of compensation). Additionally, we found that mobile is only more effective than nonmobile reviews at encouraging purchase intentions for positive (vs. negative) reviews. Specifically, building on work regarding the negativity bias, which states that consumers value negative information more than positive information, as negative reviews contain information that consumers are placing more weight on, there is less need for heuristic cues to aid decision making than there are for positive reviews. We found evidence of these processes across both our experiments and in additional analyses run on the TripAdvisor data.
While this research focused on purchase intentions in the domain of online reviews, there are a number of avenues for future behavioral research. Considering first future research ideas, one potential avenue to examine is how the creation of mobile (vs. nonmobile) reviews impacts the actual subsequent purchase behavior of the reviewer. Possibly reviews written on mobile generate different emotional responses for consumers, or they have their own heuristic cues about when and why they choose to write a review on a mobile device which has ramifications for their feelings about reviewed products and services. On the other hand, mobile-generated content online more generally (outside of online reviews) could possibly impact consumer behavior. For example, mobile content that is shared or read through different social media platforms may have real positive behavioral consequences on sharing behaviors, click-through rates, and real purchase to linked products and services (possibly for the original poster of content and those viewing the content) if there is a belief of credibility for this content, especially considering the era of “fake news” that we live in.
As well as aiding theoretical understanding of factors that impact the effectiveness of online word-of-mouth and online reviews, this research has implications for practice. Perhaps for online websites that are dealing with crises of faith due to the proliferation of fake news and content, especially online review platforms, having reviews and content sorted to emphasize mobile-written content first could aid in credibility perceptions. In addition, businesses could encourage consumers who plan to write a review to use their mobile (vs. nonmobile) devices for writing reviews, as there is only a benefit for positive reviews, but not necessarily any greater repercussions for those writing negative reviews.