Academic journal article Journal of Electronic Commerce Research

The Role of Virtual Communities as Shopping Reference Groups

Academic journal article Journal of Electronic Commerce Research

The Role of Virtual Communities as Shopping Reference Groups

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Virtual communities are self-selecting groups of individuals engaged in sustained computer-mediated interactions around common interests or goals, governed by shared norms and values, and serving individual and shared needs. This work proposes and empirically tests the model of social influence on individual shopping preferences in the context of virtual communities. This work proposed and supported a new motivational construct for joining virtual communities that integrates a social psychology approach with the media uses and gratifications paradigm. The findings confirmed the role of this motivational construct in explaining the degree of social identification and norms internalization within a community, and suggested that the influence of virtual communities on their members' shopping choices is exercised through the mechanism of social identification. These research findings highlight the importance for companies of developing interactive websites that support relationship formation and opinion sharing capabilities.

Keywords: virtual community, motivations, social identity theory, buying choice

1. Introduction

Virtual communities represent a new type of social formation on the Internet. They expand the power of technology to connect individuals by providing unprecedented opportunities of social interaction and relationships development among people with shared interests irrespective of geography and time. It has been estimated that 84% of US Internet users (close to 100 million people) belong to virtual communities, including professional associations, hobby groups, political organizations, and entertainment communities (Pew Internet 2005).

The interest of marketing professionals and scholars in virtual communities is caused primarily by their potential to affect sales by spreading electronic word of mouth (Hennig-Thurau et al. 2004), serving as self-selected highly specialized target markets, and being valuable sources of information about trends, preferences, and new product ideas (Muniz and O.Guinn 2001). Other possible effects of virtual communities are related to their social nature, and include adding interactivity to electronic storefronts to increase their attraction to recreational shoppers (Bhatnagar and Ghose 2004, Lee 2005), and serving as reference groups that can influence their members. shopping preferences (Zhou, Dai and Zhang 2007).

The existing literature on reference group influence in consumer behavior generally addresses face-to-face direct membership groups where interaction occurs on a regular basis (Brinberg and Plimpton 1986) and socially distant (aspiration) groups that do not readily provide opportunity for interaction (Cocanougher and Bruce 1971). Research on the role of virtual communities as shopping reference groups is practically nonexistent. In this paper, virtual communities are defined as self-selecting groups of individuals engaged in sustained computer-mediated interactions around common interests or goals, governed by shared norms and values, and serving individual and shared needs (Bagozzi and Dholakia 2002; Dholakia, Bagozzi and Pearo 2004). Due to their increasing presence and expanding membership virtual communities hold a strong potential for marketing, and therefore deserve attention. Such characteristics of virtual groups as open, non-discriminatory participation, possibility of anonymity, and low visibility of product usage suggest that virtual communities potentially employ mechanisms of influencing shopping decisions that are different from those of other reference groups.

This work proposes and empirically tests the model of social influence on individual shopping preferences in the context of virtual communities. In the conduct of this research we utilize social identity theory (Tajfel 1978, Ellemers, Kortekaas and Ouwerkerk 1999), normative influence research (Postmes, Spears and Lea 2000), and the concept of susceptibility to reference group influences (Bearden and Etzel 1982) to suggest that virtual communities influence their members. …

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