The power of word of mouth (WOM) communication and its influence on consumer decision making is well established in academic literature. The recent adoption of online communication by many consumers has facilitated a fundamental change to the structure of many WOM interactions by exposing consumers to electronic WOM (eWOM) from virtual strangers. The current study seeks to uncover whether traditional findings on social ties and WOM communication hold for eWOM information.
Data were collected from 482 college students with varying levels of expertise with eWOM forums, specifically RateMyProfessors.com in the USA. Participants completed a 20‐question survey related to university professor and class choice.
The study finds that students seeking information on which professor to take weight the information they obtain from eWOM forums to be equally influential in their decision as their own primary experience with the professor. Furthermore, the information gained from the eWOM forum is more influential in their decision than speaking with friends in person (WOM). While existing research suggests that strong tie referral sources are more influential than weak tie information sources on decision making, this research finds that some weak tie information sources are rated as more influential.
A limitation of the study is the focus on one eWOM forum, RateMyProfessors.com. Future research would benefit from expanding the number and type of eWOM forums.
While the emergence of the Internet and social networking has spawned an interest in the overall study of eWOM, this study is the first to evaluate eWOM in the context of tie strength, homophily and decision making. The study also investigates whether existing theories of interpersonal communication hold in an online context.