Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. — Teddy Roosevelt
Throughout my years in graduate school, I have been obsessed with trying to understand one specific human behavior:
When and why people try to persuade others of their opinions (i.e., engage in “word of mouth”)
In fact, I was recently featured on a podcast, Opinion Science by Dr. Andy Luttrell, talking about some of the essential, psychological factors behind people’s motivations to spread word of mouth. So whether you’re just curious about it or whether you want some marketing advice on how to increase it, I recommend you check out the episode!
For today’s post, however, rather than focus on those core principles behind word of mouth, we’re going to discuss how the current “corona-climate” might be affecting your desire to talk to others about your opinions and beliefs.
HARD TIMES, CLOSED LIPS
Currently, over 10 million US Americans have filed for unemployment – the most significant spike in unemployment the US has ever seen. And recent research by Anna Paley and her colleagues shows that such economic struggles can have a direct and significant impact on our word of mouth behaviors.
Overall, these researchers find that the when we feel financially constrained (i.e., feel restricted monetarily), we’re significantly less likely to talk about our consumer purchases.
For example, in one study, Dr. Paley and her team found that the more participants felt financially constrained, the less likely they were to enter a real chat room discussing their recent consumer purchases (vs. a chat room discussing local/state parks).
Importantly, though, the researchers find that financial constraints do not reduce our likelihood of talking about any consumer experience – only those we actually paid for.
In another study, the researchers induced half of their participants to feel financially constrained (i.e., by making them list financial constraints in their life) or didn’t (i.e., the control condition). Afterward, the participants imagined receiving tickets to a comedy show, either (a) for $100 a ticket or (b) for free. Afterward, the participants reported how likely they would be to share about the experience on social media.
As it turned out, financial constraints again made people less inclined to talk about the show — but only when they paid for the tickets. When the tickets were free, both groups of participants wanted to talk about it.
Often, we engage in word of mouth because it feels good to express our opinions. However, when we’re experiencing economic hardship, we don’t like to talk about our purchases because it serves as a reminder of our financial hardship. So, if you have made some online consumer purchases during this pandemic, I’m guessing you haven’t been spreading as much word of mouth about them as you normally would!
IF I SEE IT, I SHARE IT
Like most people, you’re probably reading this post from the comfort of your home – where you have likely been doing everything else in your life these last few weeks. But when it comes to word of mouth, being cooped up inside can restrict your word of mouth.
In one study, researchers brought pairs of participants into the lab. Pretending the researcher needed to make copies, the experimenter then left the room and let the participants “talk between themselves” for approximately 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the researchers secretly recorded what participants talked about.
Importantly, during these conversations, sometimes the researchers left interesting objects in the room (like books on studying abroad) and other times they left more boring objects in the room (like textbooks on accounting). However, the researchers found that the “interesting-ness” of the objects didn’t really influence whether participants talked about those topics (e.g., travel). That is, only the objects that were present (vs. not present) in the room influenced what they talked about.
The researchers confirmed these findings in other studies, too, looking at natural conversations people engage in. Overall, although people are a little bit more likely to talk about interesting (vs. not interesting) topics, they are by far more likely to talk about topics present (vs. not present) in their environment — either physically or digitally!
TALK, TALK, TALK
When it comes to when and why we engage in word of mouth, today’s strange times can certainly have an impressive (and often surprising) influence on what we discuss. If you want to learn more about what effects this pandemic are having on people’s word of mouth — as well as a description of some of my very own published research — see below!
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: Already, I mentioned the podcast where I discuss some of the essential factors behind word of mouth. However, I also wrote another article on this topic on the Psychology Today blog I co-host with a professor of psychology. Check it out if you want to learn more!
Berger, J., & Schwartz, E. M. (2011). What drives immediate and ongoing word of mouth?. Journal of Marketing Research, 48(5), 869-880.
Paley, A., Tully, S. M., & Sharma, E. (2019). Too Constrained to Converse: The Effect of Financial Constraints on Word of Mouth. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(5), 889-905.