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Customer Management | Peer-Reviewed Research

Consumer's Report

How You Talk About Products You Don't Like Can Speak Volumes

Based on research by Vikas Mittal, Yinlong Zhang and Lawrence Feick

How You Talk About Products You Don't Like Can Speak Volumes

  • Negative word of mouth can tank a product, even if the criticism is unearned.
  • In general, women are less likely than men to share unfavorable feedback far and wide.
  • How you see yourself and how much you care about the effect your words have on others plays a big part in how likely you are to spread unfavorable word of mouth.

A new product just came out, backed by a high-voltage marketing strategy. But then something unexpected happened. Perhaps there was a glitch in the first run. Perhaps a competitor ran a negative ad campaign. But for whatever reason, the word on the street is that the product doesn’t live up to expectations. In a few months, negative word of mouth has devastated its chances of success.

How did this happen?

Understanding how word of mouth functions is critical to any firm’s chances of success. If your product is perceived as useful, word of mouth becomes a force multiplier for sales and enhanced reputation. If it’s seen as inferior, word of mouth travels in the opposite direction. But word of mouth isn’t always an accurate representation of a product’s strengths. New research shows that it can say more about the people doing the talking — about how they see themselves, how much they care about the impact of their actions on others, and whether they are male or female.

Rice Business Professor Vikas Mittal, along with Yinlong Zhang at UT San Antonio and Lawrence Feick at the University of Pittsburg, undertook a series of studies to investigate the different ways people spread negative feedback within (and outside of) their social circles, starting with the differences between women and men.

The researchers hypothesized that because women tend to focus on those closest to them, they’d be unlikely to bad-mouth a product to people outside their inner circle. Conversely, the team predicted that men, who tend to be more self-focused, would spread negative word of mouth to anyone who would listen.

Their research provides critical insights into how the grapevine can make or break a product. In three different studies, they discovered that women tended to be more concerned about spreading negative word of mouth if they believed that doing so would negatively affect their image in the eyes of others. The first study revealed that women were indeed less likely to voice their concerns about a product to casual acquaintances than to people they had known for some time. Men, on the other hand, tended to have no problem at all sharing negative feedback with everyone — close friends and casual acquaintances alike.

In the second study, the researchers investigated whether people who were less concerned about how others saw them would be more likely to spread negative word of mouth. Respondents were told first to think about how their actions would affect other people, then to consider only how their actions would affect themselves. The team found that women were much less likely to share unfavorable opinions when the others were casual acquaintances than close friends and relations. This effect was particularly high among women who were concerned about their own image; men, on the other hand, were unaffected by such concerns.

In the final study, the research team looked at how different kinds of self-image impacted people’s tendency to broadcast critical opinions of products. They were curious whether people who saw themselves as independent would be more willing to spread criticism than those who saw themselves as interdependent with others.

The results of this survey were consistent with the previous two: People who considered themselves independent were more likely to spread negative word of mouth to all acquaintances — close or casual — than those who saw themselves as inextricably linked with their communities.

What does this mean for us? If you want honest product reviews — especially critical opinions — check with a diverse group of friends: close and casual, male and female, independent and community-minded.

It’s important to note, however, that the study focused primarily on the likelihood that people would engage in negative word of mouth, not on the specific content of the criticisms they shared. Moreover, the digital age enables people to share their thoughts anonymously, which makes it harder to determine who is behind any critical feedback. And anonymity itself may make both men and women more uninhibited when it comes to talking trash about products — and thereby tanking their chances of success.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing and Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Zhang, Y., Feick L., Mittal, V. (2014). How Males and Females Differ in Their Likelihood of Transmitting Negative Word of Mouth. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(6): 1097-1108.

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