The phenomenon of blogs, especially those regarding fashion and beauty has developed drastically over time. The companies have started to react to their rising influence by engaging certain bloggers through publishing and press events and including them into their advertising campaigns. They often send free products to influential bloggers and in that way have the possibility that their brand/product might be mentioned in the online discussion. As a result, blogs are now entering into serious competition for audiences, a competition that is clearly confirmed by emergence of special measurement and classification tools such as Ebuzzing (Lassus, 2013).
Chiarra Ferragni, the world’s most influential fashion blogger (Fashionista, 2016), has gained as much power as major established traditional publications in the fashion industry, such as Elle, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. With 8.9 million followers on Instagram at the moment, she has obtained huge influence on the social platform and in the fashion industry with only Vogue ahead of her. Aside from magazines, she also carries more impact than several well-known Italian fashion houses, such as Fendi, Bottega Veneta, Armani, and Salvatore Ferragamo (Social Traction, 2016).
When Serbian most popular fashion blogger, Zorannah, published her first book on the Belgrade Book Fair two years ago, she was the best-selling author, with hundreds of young girls waiting in line to get her autograph. This sudden and unexpected event was the main topic in Serbian media for days. This example illustrates a huge impact fashion bloggers have and also justifies selection of the topic and its significance.
The research on the topic is based on the literature review regarding relevant concepts that will be addressed in this study, including fashion blog (blog in general), fashion bloggers as a reference group and them being perceived as opinion leaders, social media platforms bloggers use, eWOM and its types, and consumer buying behavior process.
With the emergence of the Web 2.0, the traditional media world has changed, which resulted in a revolutionary shift in marketing towards the inclusion of social media (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011). Fashion blogs are a relatively new and powerful marketing tool, enabling fashion brands and their consumers to interact in a two-way dialogue (Hartvedt & Solberg, 2013). Today, people are actively and passively being exposed to advertising through different channels, and they might feel that advertising is something forced upon them, which could result in the opposite effect than the one expected by the marketers. Consumers are getting more and more skeptical towards advertising content that is perceived as non-authentic or intrusive (Hauge, 2010). Given blog’s C2C character (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011), consumers perceive the interaction with bloggers as “non-commercial conversation”, and more credible than when coming from marketers of a brand directly. Blog enables open and honest discussion, direct communication between a blogger and a reader, feedback, and comments that allow people to find out about what they are interested in from the people with the same interests as their own. The open discussion and two-way communication which is created on the blogs enables a blogger to be seen as trustworthy and furthermore, able to positively influence consumer’s attitudes towards a brand and direct them towards purchase.
Being active in blogs and social media and participating in the online discussions produces electronic word-of-mouth in online communities. EWOM and online consumer communities are gaining popularity among consumers because of the need for more information about a product, with blog being a particular type due to its more impersonal nature than the other online communities and its strong entertaining element (Kulmala, 2011). The concept of eWOM is very important to brands and marketers because when being affirmative, it proved have a positive effect on product revenue.
In the academic article Brand communication through digital influencers: Leveraging blogger engagement, the growing power of bloggers to influence their connected network is presented as a new communication venue for brands. The study investigates the role of bloggers in brand communication and reveals how brands can engage with bloggers who are considered as online opinion leaders (Uzonglu & Misci Kip, 2014). The power of bloggers as digital opinion leaders is portrayed in the way that they are able to influence and change the perception and behavior of their readers. More popular the bloggers (larger audience), more impact they can have on increasing brand’s perception among the consumers.
The primary goal of this study is defining how fashion blogger’s influence affects purchase decision among Serbian female consumers.
The research focuses on trying to determine factors that create connections between a fashion blogger and a consumer; whether fashion bloggers can influence purchase decision among Serbian female consumers and how consumers react to electronic and amplified electronic word-of-mouth generated on blogs and other social media platforms. Being one of the readers/consumers myself, I am very curious about this study and its results concerning my country. According to the everything mentioned above, fashion blogger’s influence is strong, and my intention is to offer the explanation why and how consumers fall under this influence. The focus of this study will be understanding of the following research questions:
- How can fashion bloggers influence purchase decision among Serbian female consumers (through generating eWOM on their blogs or online media platforms)?
- How does amplified and organic electronic word-of-mouth in the fashion blogs differently influence Serbian female consumers’ pre-purchase behaviors, and in turn, their purchasing decision?
The main importance of this research is in investigating a relatively new phenomenon that has proven to become of great importance at present. Pre-existing research on fashion blogs exists, but given that the concept of a fashion blog is relatively new, as well as the academic interest in investigating it, most of the studies available are very recent. Most of the academic articles that mention fashion blogs study blog in general, with only some focusing on the fashion industry only. One part of the available studies investigates fashion blog as a marketing tool related to social media, and eWOM they generate. Another part focuses on fashion bloggers as new celebrity endorsers or merely investigates the characteristics of successful fashion blogs/bloggers. The chosen subject of research is unique in a way that it focuses on a relatively new phenomenon that seems to be becoming crucial and efficient as a marketing strategy. It also focuses mostly on a consumer perspective, not only fashion bloggers themselves. Moreover, the research concentrates on young female consumers in Serbia, where any similar topic regarding this matter still hasn’t been conducted and the general literature considering blogs and especially fashion blog is scarce.
This research consists of the six chapters. The first two chapters represent the introduction part and the literature review based on already existing theories. The selected information and data are collected from books, academic articles, Master Thesis, online articles, journals, fashion magazines, blog observation as well as the observation of social media platforms fashion bloggers use, such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s regarding fashion blog and blog in general, and is also explaining the potential of using fashion blog as a marketing tool. The following, third chapter is regarding research model, where the research framework, research questions, and research hypotheses are presented. It also describes the relevant concepts of electronic word-of-mouth and consumer behavior and purchase decision-making process. The following, forth chapter is regarding research methodology. In this chapter, the methodology used has been explained, as well as data collection, data analysis, and classification of the findings. In the following, fifth chapter I discuss the results and present theoretical and practical implications, limitations and future research regarding this study. In order to examine the relationship between the fashion bloggers’ influence and the consumer purchase decision, a qualitative method is applied. A list of structured questions is deliberately designed in order to gain information regarding research questions from a Serbian consumer’s perspective. The qualitative part of the research methodology is based on conducting interviews with Serbian female consumers. The central focus of this research is investigating how independent variable – fashion blogger’s influence, affects dependent variable – consumer purchase decision.
Figure 1: Thesis Structure
Blog is a short term for web log, and it represents the earliest form of social media, what is usually defined as a particular type of website that most commonly displays date-stamped entries in reverse chronological order. Blogs represent the social media equivalent of personal web pages, and they can contain various content-focus and styles, from personal diaries describing the author’s life to summaries of all relevant information in one specific content area (Kaplan, 2010). Blog’s specific subjects or topics range from politics to sports, and apart from providing commenting on a certain topic, blogs can be portrayed as more personal online diaries and have multiple functions such as online brand advertising of a particular individual or a company.
In his book, Blog Marketing, Jeremy Wright defines a blog as “A website comprising blog posts, or content written by the blogger, which are typically organized into categories and sorted in reverse chronological order.” Usually, blogs allow readers to leave comments in the comment section under the blog post (Wright, 2006).
Most of the blogs are created and maintained by a single person – a blogger, and they contain links to other sites and the possibility for anyone to comment on individual blog posts (Rettberg, 2008). Everything is allowed on blogs; individuals can upload all kinds of news or information, including different types of content such as photos, graphics, and videos (McConnel et al., 2007). Blogs represent a place for self-expression, as everyone has the right to participate according to their preferences. This unlimited freedom regarding creating content, as well as the opportunity to comment and post feedback by the blog readers allows a two-way communication and in business terms, enables a new path for brands to interact with their customers (Hartvedt & Solberg, 2013). One of the most specific traits of a blog is that it is an open forum, where everyone is allowed to participate in an open discussion, follow what is being written and express their opinion freely. Another characteristic of a blog is that it allows ordinary people, not just experts of the field to become part of the public opinion. Blogs are a part of social media which means the media that is created through social interactions. The main power of a blog is that it provides the ability to get a many-to-many dialogue since it transforms people from content consumers to content producers (Hauge, 2010).
With the emergence of the new internet web 2.0, the online communication has also changed. In contrast to web 1.0, where the online communication was mostly channeled one-way, from the website owner to the visitor, now the focus in on a two-way dialogue – a multiple-way communication between the website owner and visitors and between visitors themselves (McConnel et al., 2007). The new focus has now changed from the company to customers. Blogs, and also bloggers have become incredibly powerful over the time, and especially in recent years that now like Wright states, blogs have the power of creating businesses, influencing the way media looks at itself and even changing the course of political history (Wright, 2006). The content on blogs as a massive communication channel is more user-generated, interactive and dynamic (Hauge, 2010). With the emergence of new media, many companies try to integrate blog into their marketing strategies and utilize blogs in order to reach the customers (Hartvedt & Solberg, 2013).
Another major advantage of a blog is that the costs of maintaining one are relatively low, and they have the potential of reaching the broad audience, which is very favorable for the companies. Even though it seems that the bloggers are communicating only with the people who are posting feedback on the blog posts, they are actually indirectly communicating with the many, since both the posts and the post comments are being read by others (Gulbrandsen & Just, 2011). Consequently, realizing all the advantages of a blog, companies have started using it as a very effective tool for spreading online word-of-mouth and reaching potential customers (Hartvedt & Solberg, 2013). As a consequence, a lot of companies are even sponsoring the blog posts which can result in negative feedback and even hurt their business.
However, there is no way to control what is happening on the blog and what/how the readers would comment. What blog readers (customers) require and what will differentiate a good quality blog from the unreliable one are authentic voice, honesty, and authority from the blogger’s side (Wright, 2006). Otherwise, sponsored blogs could hurt not only the company but also undermine blogger’s credibility. In case consumers realize or even suspect that there are certain hidden motives behind a certain post that promotes a product, they will perceive a blog as biased, and won’t be persuaded. On the other hand, if the consumers sense that the motives for endorsing a certain product are honest, and not influenced by some external stimuli, there is a higher possibility that the consumer will believe the product possesses mentioned attributes (Hartvedt & Solberg, 2013).
Currently, the largest segment of the blogosphere consists of fashion blogs, meaning the blogs that focus on fashion brands, current trends, fashion, beauty and lifestyle products, e-commerce, street style, and personal style (Halvorsen et al., 2013). Fashion blogging is an international subculture that consists primarily of young women who post photographs of themselves and the products they own, post comments on clothes, accessories and fashion-related products, and use various techniques to promote themselves and their blogs (Marwick, 2011). As mentioned earlier, the content of blogs is created by all the participants, including blogger and its readers. This user-generated content is especially notable in fashion blogging. While before women used to seek fashion advice and beauty tips in traditional media, such as magazines and TV shows, they are now more and more turning to bloggers, making bloggers “real time fashion journalists” (Kärki, 2015). This relatively recent and sudden change has empowered ordinary women to create their own media content, and given the nature of blogs to connect people with similar interests, the most interested audience consists of people similar to the bloggers themselves (Kärki, 2015). Of course, this does not mean that fashion blogs have completely replaced traditional marketing channels and more established methods of fashion marketing. Blogs are being complementary means of fashion marketing strategies alongside the existing ones.
There is not an exact definition of a fashion blog since fashion bloggers often include content that focuses on topics additional to fashion-related only, such as beauty, lifestyle, traveling, books or food. According to Marwick, a fashion blog represents a blog about fashion, but the term is generally used to refer to “personal style blogs,” in which people post photographs of themselves posing in different outfits (Marwick, 2011). For the purposes of this research, a wider definition will be used, in which fashion blogs’ content includes beauty and lifestyle topics alongside the strictly fashion-related ones. It will also include the content fashion bloggers post on their other social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook.
Some of the reasons fashion blogs have become so influential in the recent years are that they are more impersonal than other online communities because they communicate with their audience through comments and additional feedback. After observing some of the most successful Serbian fashion bloggers, as well as world-wide famous bloggers, a huge amount of the content is being created according to the audience requests. For instance, Serbian most influential fashion blogger Zorannah often asks her readers for the ideas on what kind of posts they would like to see next, regarding brands, products, videos, etc. Moreover, successful fashion bloggers have become so popular that the audience wants to learn more about their personal life, meet them in person and even wants to purchase products designed by the bloggers themselves.
Another reason is that, via means of Internet, high fashion is being brought to the masses. Because of the blog discussions that are publicly open to everyone on the Internet, consumers are now able to access all kinds of brands and products, to get familiar with the price, discounts, promotions and to exchange brand experiences. As a result, an average fashion consumer is more educated, active and confident (Okonkwo, 2007). In the highly competitive fashion industry, retailers have to live up to the consumers’ demands, since they are becoming more selective and more aware of what products are right for them. This way, consumers are getting more power in defining the fashion industry, and retailers are forced to put consumers first and not the brand (Hauge, 2010). Rocamora investigates the changes in the fashion media since the evolution of fashion blogs, where she agrees with the previous statement, addressing the influence fashion bloggers have in the fashion industry that are creating the trends (Rocamora, 2012).
As mentioned previously, both fashion bloggers and their readers/followers find the blogs to be more independent than the traditional fashion media (Marwick, 2011). They are also more independent and individualistic. In her study, Alice Marwick states that ordinary people, including not model-like looking women and also modest bloggers, are allowed to express their opinions, share their knowledge and experiences and trade information. She defines it as “democratic” engagement with fashion as opposed to the strict “elitist” fashion world, where the participants are the population ignored by Vogue or Style.com (Marwick, 2011).
One of the major marketing strategies for professionals is using advertising endorsers in the campaigns (Chi, Yeh and Tsai, 2011). Most of the time, in order to make consumers memorize the product, companies are hiring celebrities to promote different kinds of products or services with the expectations that the benefits will exceed the costs (Atay, 2011). Over the time, celebrity endorsements have proven to be very successful since they help build brand recognition, produce purchase intention and therefore, eventually increase the sales (Chi, Yeh and Tsai, 2011). Famous celebrities or experts share their expertise and experience, and apart from recommending a certain product and bringing attention to it, advertising endorsers are also further increasing product recognition and influencing consumer’s purchase behavior (Chi, Yeh and Tsai, 2011), Billions of dollars are yearly spent on celebrity endorsement contracts, which only proves an enormous and important role celebrities play in the advertising industry, given the price companies are willing to pay (Dimed & Joulyana, 2005). According to research, advertising endorsers possess three crucial characteristics: expertise, credibility, and attractiveness (Ohania, 1990 as cited in Chi, Yeh and Tsai, 2011).
Surprisingly, in the last couple years, there has been a slight change in selecting the ‘right’ endorsers by the marketers. According to the research, blogger’s endorsements are actually obtaining more influencing power than the celebrities. It has been found that 20 percent of women who use social media are motivated by a blogger they are following in comparison with only 13 percent who are motivated by celebrity endorsements. The same research also states that 55 percent of U.S. female blog readers have already bought a product fashion blogger recommended (Business News Daily, 2011). Along with the growing phenomenon of consumers turning to the online communities as a source of information, bloggers’ influential power has also increased, which led to the rising popularity of ‘sponsored content’ on the blog posts (Bianchi, 2016). Bloggers have a stronger positive effect on intention than the celebrity endorsers, making bloggers more effective as marketing messengers (Bianchi, 2016). Some of the reasons for this unexpected and sudden change is that fashion bloggers represent a source of inspiration and identification, given their different styles and ethnicity/age groups, and their perceived similarity with the readers (Ranzini, 2015).
In their research, Uzonglu and Misci Kip make a comparison between bloggers as digital influencers – opinion leaders in the online environment, and the offline opinion leaders recognizes in a two-step flow theory developed by Katz and Lazarsfield (1955). They are stating that the bloggers can be considered the new opinion leaders, given their capability to disseminate message rapidly and easily with a potentially viral effect (Uzonglu & Misci Kip, 2014). They emphasize the importance for brands to engage with bloggers, leveraging their engagement, in order to ensure authenticity and trustworthiness present in the online communities. Bloggers represent a new force in the marketing communications and are capable of taking a key role in providing opportunities for product promotion, especially regarding new products, or when introducing an existing product to a new market (Uzonglu & Misci Kip, 2014).
According to Easey, “fashion marketing is the application of a range of techniques and a business philosophy that centers upon the customer and potential customer of clothing and related products and services in order to meet the long-term goals of the organization”, (Easey, 1996). Given the more and more globalizing environment, new and more advanced technology, as well as more demanding customers, fashion is a fast and constantly changing industry, which therefore requires new marketing strategies (Kulmala, 2011). As Kulmala states, fashion marketing may involve anything from retailing to consumption and from operational issues to Internet marketing. The Internet represents one of the most recent and crucial changes that are affecting the needs and behavior of fashion consumers (Kulmala, 2011).
Consumers are losing interest and turning away from information overload in brand messages delivered through traditional advertisements to the alternative communication tools, blogs, and social networks (Halvorsen et al., 2013). In blogs, consumers have the opportunity to take part in a conversation, and in that way, blogs are changing the process of marketing from exposure to active participation (Wright, 2006). Blogs are allowing an interactive way of communication, where marketers can build a relationship with their consumers, which is not possible through traditional marketing channels (Parise and Guinan, 2008). Fashion bloggers are perceived as a reference group that represents an important source of influence in user’s search for fashion product and their consumption (Halvorsen et al., 2013). As mentioned previously, due to informal and spontaneous communication on blogs, people are more likely to be affected by a certain recommendation than through some other marketing channels. Fashion bloggers are seen as more trustworthy than professional marketers since they don’t seem to have any benefits from giving a good review about a certain product. However, given the popularity and influence of fashion blogs, companies are trying to engage in collaboration with successful bloggers. Over the time, more and more bloggers have started to receive free products from brands in return for a positive review or a long term collaboration. This type of sponsored posts, when discovered by the readers, may hurt the blogger-reader trust and result in the loss of followers (Halvorsen et al., 2013). However, as long as the bloggers are honest about the sponsored post and publicly admit to being invited to the events, receiving gifts or being paid for the reviews, readers usually accept it (Wright, 2006). Only a few bloggers can actually make a living out of blogging. Apart from being invited to different kinds of events, celebrations, vacations and being sent free clothes and other products, some bloggers can cash in their popularity and influence, and consider blogging their main career. Two years ago in an interview, Serbian most popular fashion blogger, Zorannah, has revealed that her monthly income is 5000 euros, while just recently she admitted that it had increased a lot over time. This example shows that being a professional blogger could pay off, given that an average salary in Serbia is less than 400 euros. Nevertheless, some companies still don’t hire bloggers because they perceive blog marketing as a possible risk, in terms of not being able to control the marketing message since the bloggers’ reaction cannot be guaranteed, while others see that as a way of exploring new opportunities (Parise & Guinan, 2008).
Word-of-mouth information generated on a blog is often seen as more reliable and trustworthy than that received through more formal marketing channels, for instance, commercials or ads (Halvorsen et al., 2013). The word-of-mouth created through a blog is usually quite persuasive and has been proven as one the most influential factors in a decision-making process (McConnell et al., 2007). The concept of eWOM and its presence in fashion blogs and characteristics, as well as importance and influence on the purchase decision, are explained in the next chapter.
In order to develop a research framework, research questions and the set of hypotheses for this study, I have firstly focused on the relevant concepts that are explained and described below. First of all, I focused on the concept of electronic word-of-mouth marketing or social media marketing, as the online equivalent of word-of-mouth marketing. It is defined as a marketing strategy that differs from naturally occurring word-of-mouth, in that it is actively influenced or encouraged by organizations, by generating a message in a network, encouraging regular consumers to engage in word-of-mouth and employing word-of-mouth participants (Lang & Hyde, 2013). Secondly, I have focused on consumer behavior and purchase decision-making process theory. The five stages of the process have been separately described, including problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase decision and post-purchase behavior, whereas the last phase wasn’t taken into consideration for the research framework, given that it doesn’t concern the research topic. Finally, these concepts have been integrated into fashion blog environment with a special focus on Serbian blogosphere.
As mentioned previously, emergence and development of Web 2.0 has affected the modern life and influenced the Internet user’s behavior. Online communities have become a popular destination for Internet users to search and collect information about other consumers’ opinion, evaluations and shopping experiences (Kozinets, 2010). Online information search is fast, and also information asymmetry is decreased (Tseng & Hsu, 2010). This phenomenon is defined as an electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) effect.
Electronic word-of-mouth communication can be defined as “any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet”, (Hennig-Thurau et al., 2004). With the rise of the Internet, electronic word-of-mouth takes an important part in customer’s product evaluation (Doh & Hwang, 2009). Online communities as the primary source of electronic word-of-mouth are gaining popularity among consumers, because of the need for information and because in that way the perceived risk in making purchase decision by many customers is being reduced (Kulmala, 2011). Online communities’ members often possess the knowledge and provide advice and solutions to the problems of the inexperienced potential customers. The electronic word-of-mouth information can be found everywhere online, on the Internet and in new media services, such as websites, forums, electronic newsgroups, blogs and other online communities (Kulmala, 2011). Before making a purchase, potential customers try to learn more about a certain product by visiting websites or forums where the products are being discussed. The influence of electronic word-of-mouth is also expanding because of its anonymous nature and a wide range of content (Doh & Hwang, 2009). Since the consumers are influenced by other people’s opinions, reviews, and experiences, electronic word-of-mouth if found to have the biggest impact on purchase decision today (Katz et al., 1955; Manafy, 2010).
It is also important to address the difference between the traditional word-of-mouth and the electronic word-of-mouth. Traditional word-of-mouth usually occurs between the two consumers, while on the other hand electronic word-of-mouth message is disseminated between several people (Kulmala, 2011). Word-of-mouth has always influenced consumer behavior, but its meaning and importance have increased with the Internet (Lee & Youn, 2009). Since the electronic word-of-mouth communication occurring in the online community mainly provides user-oriented information that gives information about a particular product, brand or a service regarding its usage, and also measuring their performance from a user’s perspective, it is stronger and has a more efficient persuasive effect than traditional marketing tools (Tseng & Hsu, 2010). Even though the message received in the online environment means that the sender and the receiver most probably don’t even know each other as they would normally do in traditional word-of-mouth, consumers are looking for clues that would form the opinion about the sender’s trustworthiness and credibility. For instance, certain platforms where the product reviews written by a professional marketer are perceived as less trustworthy than the ones written by a non-professional (Lee & Youn, 2009). Professional marketers are being paid to write good (or bad) reviews about the product, while the real consumers would mostly write honestly about their impressions and opinions. That is what makes a key difference between a blogger and a brand itself and what makes a personal blog more influential than a company’s website (Kulmala, 2011).
In her research, Kulmala investigates electronic word-of-mouth in consumer fashion blogs. She defines two types of blogs according to their topic and content, that is to say, according to the electronic word-of-mouth present in the blog – organic and amplified (Kulmala, 2011). Organic electronic word-of-mouth is naturally created, while amplified electronic word-of-mouth has marketer’s influence behind it. Organic eWOM occurs when people are either satisfied or dissatisfied with their purchase (product, company, service) and they share their expressions publicly with others (WOMMA, 2011). There is no direct influence from the company involved. Amplified eWOM occurs when professional marketers are involved, in a way that they are influencing and directing the message through different channels, such as marketing campaigns, opinion leader programs and viral marketing in order to boost their sales (Kulmala, 2011). After observing a number of Serbian blogs over the last year, I can say that most of the time, paid campaigns and sponsored posts are not too hard to spot. However, there are times when even though it might seem like that (and most probably is), a blogger can reassure their readers if they are convincing enough and if they are perceived as trustworthy altogether. Naturally, as mentioned already, people will more believe a recommendation if the message contains organic eWOM than if it is obviously influenced by marketers.
In order to implement successful marketing strategies, both domestically and globally, it is vital for the marketing professionals to try to fully understand reasons and ways consumers decide whether to select and purchase particular products or services. They should also acknowledge what factors determine whether the customers are satisfied or dissatisfied with the products or services. The statements above apply to all the marketing managers, including enterprises, non-profit organizations, and government agencies involved in regulating marketing activities (Quester et al., 2013). Consumer behavior is a very wide area of research, and most generally, it can be defined as a discipline considered with how consumers select and use goods and services. Michael Solomon defines consumer behavior as “the study of the processes involved when individuals or groups select, purchase, use or dispose of products, services, ideas or experiences to satisfy needs and desires”, (Solomon, 2009, p. 4). Solomon emphasizes that the consumer behavior is, in fact, an ongoing process, and not just what happens at the moment of purchase (Solomon, 2009, p. 4). Since the basic marketing concepts state that the companies exist in order to satisfy customers’ needs, the understanding of consumer behavior is crucial and the knowledge about consumer should be incorporated into every part of a successful marketing plan, while consumers’ response is the indicator of whether the marketing strategies are applied successfully (Solomon, 2009, p. 6).
The are many theoretical consumer behavior models in the scientific literature, which tend to explain how and why consumers have specific behavior patterns. The purpose of the consumer behavior models is to explain the reasons that influence consumer’s decision to purchase a certain good or service (Quester et al., 2013). The one that will be used in this research is a universally recognized consumer behavior model, the stimulus-response model (Kotler & Keller, 2014). As Kotler and Keller explain, in this model marketing and other stimuli firstly enter the consumer’s consciousness, then they combine with the specific consumer’s characteristic through a number of psychological processes, which in the end results in decision-making processes and the final purchase decision (Kotler & Keller, 2014). The model helps marketers determine what is happening in the consumer’s consciousness between the stimuli and the response, that is to say, from the moment the external marketing stimuli is received to the point when a customer makes their final purchase decision. There are four key consumer psychological processes, including motivation, perception, learning and memory; and the three types of consumer’s characteristics – cultural, social and personal characteristics, that fundamentally influence consumer’s response (Kotler & Keller, 2014).
There are five stages in the consumer decision-making process:
- Problem Recognition
- Information Search
- Evaluation of Alternatives
- Purchase Decision
- Post-purchase Behavior
Some scholars differentiate the two segments of the decision-making process. The first segment is the pre-purchase phase, which includes the first three stages of the above-mentioned decision-making process, problem recognition, information search and evaluation of alternatives. The second segment is the post-purchase phase, that consists of the last two stages of the decision-making process, including all the activities and experiences that follow the purchase, customer satisfaction, post-purchase use and disposal of the product or services (Kotler & Keller, 2014).
Problem recognition is the first stage of the consumer’s purchase decision process, and it occurs when an individual realizes they have a need to fulfill (Blackwell et al., 2005) or when an individual has a desire for something new (Kardes, 2011). During this stage, we realize that there is a certain problem that is on the way to the preferable state. This stage can also be defined as the difference between the two main components: the desired state, and the actual state (Bruner, 1988). Whether we will try to solve the problem depends on two factors; the importance of the problem and the magnitude of a difference between what we already have and what we actually need (Hammer et al., 2015). There are easily identified and solved problems, such as the need of water, and there are more complex problems that are more difficult to solve, such as the need for a new house. If the consumer decides to take action and solve the identified problem, the next step of the decision-making process, information search occurs (Hammer et al., 2015). It is important also to stress that not all of us will react in the same way when the problem occurs since different factors influence the problem recognition stage, such as social factors, cultural factors, reference groups, and environmental factors (Darban & Li, 2012).
Even though the problem recognition stage is recognized as the crucial first stage of the consumer decision process, it has been the most under-researched one (Bruner, 1988). The reality is that purchase cannot even occur if the problem is not recognized (Bruner, 1988). In this study, I will try to investigate and find out how can a fashion blogger influence this stage of consumer decision process. Precisely, from a marketing perspective, I will try to determine if blogger generated eWOM can trigger the problem recognition stage and whether the eWOM influence is stronger when consumer perceives it as organic or amplified. In other words, regarding the literature review, I will try to investigate how effective a blogger can be in provoking a certain desired state as opposed to the actual state of the consumer. According to Bruner, there are three main factors influencing the desired state – reference groups, novelty and thinking, whereas reference group is defined as “an important source of information concerning what one desires”, and likely to influence the desired state (Bruner, 1988). For the purposes of this research, a blogger will be perceived as part of the reference group and investigate the further blogger-consumer relation (Halvorsen et al., 2013).
Once a problem is recognized, consumers start looking for the relevant information in order to solve it. The effort consumers are willing to invest into the information search depends on the complexity of the purchase; a high involvement purchase requires more attention, while low involvement purchase does not require too much effort (Hammer et al., 2015). There are two types of factors during the information search, internal and external (Blackwell et al., 2005). Internal searches imply that consumers are finding a solution based on their memory, previous experience or general knowledge. External searches mean that the consumers are looking for information through other sources, such as friends, family members, media, personal observation and the Internet (Hammer et al., 2015). Today, online environment has become an important source of information, and consumers are more and more turning to the online communities in their information search.
Once a consumer has collected and evaluated the relevant options in a category, they have to select one (Solomon, 2009). In this third phase, consumers are taking into consideration product’s characteristics, as well as their personal needs and desires in order to determine which alternative matches best with their demands (Darban & Li, 2012). Sometimes, the choice is based on a simple method, for instance buying the least expensive product, while some evaluations are more complex and require more effort. Similar to the previous information search stage, the amount of time depends on a customer (Hammer et al., 2015). According to Burnett, there are four contributing factors that influence the evaluation of alternatives stage. They include money and time costs, the already collected information on the product/service, amount of perceived risk if the wrong decision is made and the costumer’s attitude toward a certain choice (Burnett, 2008).
Once consumers have gone through the first three phases, found the relevant alternatives and evaluated them, they are facing the decision whether to continue with their purchase or abandon it (Hammer et al., 2015). Apart from determining what exactly to buy, a customer must also consider when, what, how and where to buy. After making a final decision, whether it is positive or negative, the consumer moves on to the last stage of the consumer purchasing process (Hammer et al., 2015).
In this last phase, customers are evaluating the quality of their choice and comparing their perceptions of the product with their expectations (Darban and Li, 2012). In case customers are satisfied with the results of their purchase and ended up with a positive experience, they are likely to repeat the purchase. Each following purchase after a positive experience will result in a customer being more confident about their decision and most likely would skip the pre-purchase stages during the next purchase. On the other hand, if a customer is dissatisfied with a product or a service, or any other part of the buying process, a negative perception will be created, and a consumer will most likely not engage in a repurchase (Burnett, 2008; Kotler & Keller, 2014).
After elaborating the theory concepts above, I have developed the research framework for this study. I have developed a research framework in order to investigate whether fashion blogger influences purchase decision among Serbian female consumers (via electronic word-of-mouth generated on blogs and other social media platforms), throughout the process of a consumer buying behavior theory. According to the theory, I have assumed that the fashion blogger will influence each of the first four stages of consumer buying behavior, where the first three stages of the process also known as the pre-purchase stage. The assumption was that if the pre-purchase stages are influenced by eWOM, purchase decision will be influenced in turn.
Figure 5: Research framework developed for this study
Given that the two types of eWOM can be detected on blogs, I have tried to investigate different levels of influence among organic and amplified eWOM. The research framework represents the process that starts with a blogger, goes through the consumer buying theory pre-purchase stages and finally ends with a purchase decision. The organic/amplified eWOM is perceived as an independent variable, the pre-purchase behavior is perceived as a mediator variable (given that it explained the relationship between the two variables, first and the latter), and purchase decision is perceived as an independent variable.
 Word of Mouth Marketing Association; founded in US, 2004
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