Word-Of-Mouth Communications: a Motivational Analysis

D.S. Sundaram, Black Hills State University
Kaushik Mitra, Mississippi State University
Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University
ABSTRACT - The purposes of this paper are to reveal the underlying motives for consumers engaging in both positive and negative word-of-mouth (WOM) communication and to examine the relationships between motives and consumption experiences. The findings reported here indicate that consumers engage in positive WOM for altruistic, product involvement, and self-enhancement reasons and in negative WOM for altruistic, anxiety reduction, vengeance, and advice seeking reasons. Motives to engage in WOM are significantly related to consumption experiences.
[ to cite ]:
D.S. Sundaram, Kaushik Mitra, and Cynthia Webster (1998) ,"Word-Of-Mouth Communications: a Motivational Analysis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 527-531.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 527-531


D.S. Sundaram, Black Hills State University

Kaushik Mitra, Mississippi State University

Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University


The purposes of this paper are to reveal the underlying motives for consumers engaging in both positive and negative word-of-mouth (WOM) communication and to examine the relationships between motives and consumption experiences. The findings reported here indicate that consumers engage in positive WOM for altruistic, product involvement, and self-enhancement reasons and in negative WOM for altruistic, anxiety reduction, vengeance, and advice seeking reasons. Motives to engage in WOM are significantly related to consumption experiences.


Word-of-mouth (WOM), a form of interpersonal communication among consumers concerning their personal experiences with a firm or a product (Richins 1984), has undoubtedly always been a powerful marketing force. WOM has acquired significance because of its high incidence rate in the marketplace as well as the persuasive role it plays in influencing consumers’ attitudes and purchase decisions (Bone 1995). Both positive and negative WOM communications can have a strong influence on consumers’ behavior and on ensuing business performance (Arndt 1967). Studies show that positive WOM (PWOM) is likely to increase consumers’ purchase intentions for innovative products by reducing risks (Dichter 1966), help createa favorable image toward the brand and the firm (Arndt 1967), and subsequently decrease a firm’s overall promotional expenditures. Conversely, negative WOM (NWOM) is likely to dissuade potential buyers from considering a particular product or brand, thus damaging the company’s reputation and financial position (Holmes and Lett 1977).

Therefore, it is imperative for marketers to create an environment that is conducive for PWOM to develop and propagate. Further, marketing managers must understand how WOM operates in the marketplace and learn to manage it effectively. In an effort to provide managerial input to the marketers interested in stimulating PWOM and decreasing NWOM, this study investigates the critical consumption experiences that lend themselves to both PWOM and NWOM communications. Further, we explore consumers’ motivations to engage in the dissemination of WOM communications and examine the nature of the relationship between consumption experiences and consumers’ motivations to engage in unsolicited WOM communication.


WOM communication has received considerable attention in the marketing literature. However, the studies appear to be limited in scope as they have examined the consequences of WOM, the flow of WOM within the marketplace, and the moderating role of social and situational factors in the persuasiveness of WOM. Surprisingly, only a few studies have examined the antecedents of WOM communication. For the most part, these studies have simply concluded that product dissatisfaction is the root cause of NWOM (e.g., Day et.al. 1981). Richins (1983), however, in her study of the determinants of NWOM communication, identified several factors that trigger NWOM communication: retailers’ failure to provide appropriate complaint handling mechanisms, inadequate response to customer complaints, and inefficiency regarding product repair.

Another relatively unexplored area pertains to the motives underlying WOM communication. Over three decades ago, Dichter (1966) examined the motivations for engaging in only PWOM. Based on anecdotal evidence, he identified four categories of motivations for engaging in PWOM: product involvement (to relieve tension or excitement caused by the use of product), self enhancement (to gain attention, show connoisseurship, seek reassurance from others), other involvement (to help others), and message involvement (to share exposure to unique or intriguing advertisement or selling appeals). In view of the existing gaps in the WOM literature, two purposes of this study are to investigate the critical consumption experiences that lead to WOM communication and to explore the motivations underlying both NWOM and PWOM communication.

Findings from consumer behavior, sociology, and cognitive psychology studies suggest that consumption experiences produce affect (i.e., subjective feelings), which in turn acts as a powerful source of human motivation (Westbrook 1987). The resulting motivation determines the nature of post-consumption behavior such as WOM communication, complaints, and repurchase intentions (Westbrook 1987). Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that consumption experiences and motivations are closely related in the process of WOM transmissions. Recognizing the possibility that consumers’ underlying motivations to engage in WOM may differ depending upon the nature of consumption experiences, a third purpose of this study is to examine the nature of relationship between consumers’ motivations and consumption experiences for both PWOM and NWOM communications.


Critical Incident Technique (CIT) was employed for data collection. Application of CIT methodology involves identifying the critical incidents hat are the target of investigation, collecting data, and using content analysis to interpret the data (Flanagan 1954). Data for this study were collected by thirty-nine trained senior undergraduate business students who each collected data from ten individuals intercepted in a variety of business establishments. The respondents were asked to provide details on a recent PWOM and a NWOM communication. The respondents were asked to recall a personal conversation they had within the last two months in which they spoke positively (negatively) about a product with someone other than a member of the family. Further the respondents were required to refer to incidents based on their personal consumption experiences. Then, the respondents were probed about the product discussed, approximate time period of conversation with the other person, specifics of the WOM conversation, and motivations behind the WOM.

Data Analysis

The authenticity of the data was verified by contacting a random set of respondents from each interviewer’s data set. The re-contacted respondents were asked to verify their participation in the study and to identify the product in their narrative. Although all data were deemed authentic, some responses were removed because they were respondents’ complaints to store representatives or narrations of WOM messages heard from others. Further following Flanagan’s (1954) suggestions, the responses that lacked sufficient detail in terms of specific discrete incidents were deemed unacceptable and removed. Forty-nine responses were eliminated, resulting in a total of 731 useable responses. Of these, 363 responses were PWOM and 368 were NWOM communications.

The demographic profile of the sample indicated that 46 percent of the respondents were male and 54 percent were female. The age of the respondents ranged from 20 to 72 years, with an average age of 40 years. More than 69 percent of the respondents had received some college education and 80 percent were employed full- or part-time. Seventy-two different products were cited in the reported WOM communications. The products ranged from inexpensive products (e.g, shampoo and kitchen knives) to more expensive products (e.g., snowmobiles, automobiles, VCRs).

The responses to two probing questions, "Exactly what did you tell the other person," and (2) "What motivated you to share this particular experience?," were analyzed via a content analysis procedure. This procedure involves the scientific investigation of both the latent and the manifest contents of a communication message through the objective and systematic application of categorization rules to capture the underlying dimensions of the messages (Kassarjian 1977).

Two judges, A and B, trained in the coding process, independently read through the responses and identified the critical/discrete consumption incidents and motivations within the respondents’ reported stories. Following the completion of coding process, the judges verified whether all the critical incidents and motivations had been identified; differences were resolved through discussion. Next, two additional judges, C and D, sorted the critical consumption experiences and motivations into mutually exclusive categories. Four business graduate students participated as judges. All four of them were unaware of the objectives of the study during the time period they acted as judges. Categorization of critical consumption experiences and motivations were done separately because they address the two different dimensions of WOM communications.

Category Development

The categorization process was carried out in two steps to check for adequacy of sample size and content validity of the categorization. Flanagan (1954) suggested that sample size can be considered adequate when the addition of 100 responses does not result in the emergence of additional categories. Support for content validity of categorization is available when the criticalincidents in the holdout sample are fully represented by the categories identified in categorization of the classification sample (Flanagan 1954). Therefore, to perform these two checks, 100 responses from each of the PWOM and NWOM communication stories were randomly selected and retained as holdout samples and the remaining responses were included in the classification sample.

Through an iterative process of sorting and resorting, Judges C and D grouped the consumption experiences in the classification sample into mutually exclusive categories until each category contained items that were similar to each other. After completing the first round of sorting, these two judges and one of the principal researchers compared the number of categories and named the categories to achieve as much conformity as possible in the final categorization schema. Categorization of critical consumption incidents resulted in the emergence of four major categories.

Following a similar procedure, judges C and D categorized the motivational items into mutually exclusive categories. The categorization of motives for engaging in WOM communication resulted in four categories each for both PWOM and NWOM communications.

Judges A and B then categorized the incidents in the holdout sample, primarily looking for the emergence of new categories. Because the incidents in the holdout sample did not produce new categories, it was assumed that the original sample size was adequate. In addition, the outcome of the categorization of the holdout sample resembled the original classification schema, thus providing support for content validity. The interjudge reliabilities, an estimate of the degree of consistency in categorization, were 0.91 and 0.87 for the categorization of critical consumption incidents from PWOM and NWOM communications, respectively, and 0.90 and 0.87 for categorization of motivations reported in PWOM and NWOM communications, respectively. These values exceed 0.80, the minimum recommended value for interjudge reliability (Kassarjian 1977). The categorization of consumption experiences by motivations for both PWOM and NWOM communications are shown in Table 1 and 2.


Categorization of Consumption Experiences

Grouping the critical consumption experiences resulted in the following four categories: (1) product performance, (2) response to product/purchase problems, (3) price/value perceptions, and (4) employee behavior. The following section describes briefly the categories.

Product performance. For PWOM, the consumption incidents that constituted this category included experiences of superior product performance ("the picture and sound quality of the new television are excellent") and unique benefits ("in my new car, I can set the heat differently at the passenger and driver sides"). The unacceptable consumption experiences in which the product failed too soon ("the handle came off the new knife the third time I used it"), caused inconvenience ("the wheel on my baggage broke and I had to drag my bag as it was too heavy to lift"), damaged other products ("the videotape was of poor quality and it ruined my VCR"), and delivered performance far below expectations ("X brand cleaning liquid did not clean at all") were a part of this category for NWOM. In the sample, about 37.5 percent of the reported PWOM and 22.8 percent of the NWOM conversations involved consumption experiences that related to product performance.

Response to problems. Consumers tended to speak favorably to others when the company supported the customer by exchanging the product ("the store exchanged the ski without asking questions even though I had used it for a day"), refunded the money, and made successful efforts to get the product repaired when a problem occured ("when the new mother-board I bought to upgrade my computer resulted in problems, the store sent a technician to my home at no additional cost"). For NWOM, this category included experiences such as delayed response ("the company took forever to replace the failed keyboard"), failure to honor the warranty, unacceptable refund or exchange policies, and failure to acknowledge product problems or blaming customers for problems ("the pedal on my new bicycle broke and the salesperson blamed me for mishandling the bike"). Nearly 21 percent of the PWOM and 34 percent of the NWOM conversations were due to consumption experiences that can be categorized as response to product problems.

Price/value perceptions. The price/value issues that triggered PWOM consisted of purchases (1) in which the product was perceived to be reasonably low priced ("the gloves are really good and weren’t expensive"), (2) that were considered good buys for the money paid (providing both tangible and intangible benefits), and (3) that were at substantially reduced prices through sales, discounts, or coupons. On the other hand, the purchases resulting in NWOM messages were those (1) in which the product was perceived to be priced too high given the quality, and (2) considered to provide poor value for the money paid (I paid good price for this set of non-stick utensils and within a month the coating started coming off"). In the sample, 19 percent of the PWOM and 24.4 percent of the NWOM conversations involved consumption experiences that fall in the category of price/value perceptions.





Employee behavior. For PWOM, the experiences that constituted this category are those in which consumers perceived that employees were helpful, responsive, and friendly ("Salesperson in the carpet store gave me useful hints on carpet maintenance"). Likewise, consumers tend to engage in NWOM when they think employees are rude, inattentive, and discourteous ("I had bought a car-stereo from the store X. I decided to install it myself as they wanted $50 for the job. When I asked the store technician a few questions on installation, he refused to talk to me saying nothing is free"). Twenty-three percent of the PWOM and 19 percent of the NWOM communications were due to perceptions regarding employee behavior.

Categorization of Motivations

The grouping of motivations for engaging in PWOM communication resulted in four major categories: (1) altruism, (2) product involvement, (3) self enhancement, and (4) helping the company.

Altruism. Altruism is the act of doing something for others without anticipating any reward in return. In about 28.7 percent of the PWOM conversations, altruistic motives were found to guide people to share consumption experiences with others. These individuals had the intention of aiding the receiver to make a satisfying purchase decision.

Product involvement. The purchase and use of products that are perceived highly important or relevant tends to create excitement and WOM is employed to vent the positive feelings. Personal interest in the product, excitement resulting from product ownership, and product use were cited as reasons by 33.3 percent of the respondents for engaging in PWOM.

Self-enhancement.Respondents appeared to have the need to share their positive consumption experiences through WOM communication in an effort to enhance their image among others by projecting themselves as intelligent shoppers. About 20 percent of the respondents had initiated PWOM to show connoisseurship, to project themselves as experts, to enhance status, and to seek appreciation.

Helping the company. The final motive for engaging in PWOM communication is the desire to help the company. Although this is an act of altruism, a separate category was created because the objective here was to help the company rather than the receiver of the WOM. In these conversations, the source of the messages suggests explicitly that the receiver patronize a particuar company. Nearly 18 percent of the PWOM conversations were initiated with the motive of helping the company.

The grouping of motivations for engaging in NWOM communication produced the following categories: (1) altruism, (2) anxiety reduction, (3) vengeance, and (4) advice seeking. The motivations for engaging in PWOM and NWOM communication differed except for the motive of altruism which was found in both types.

Altruism. Almost 23 percent of the respondents indicated that their motive for engaging in NWOM communication was to prevent others from experiencing the problems that they had encountered. The motive was to help others by warning them about negative consequences of a particular action.

Anxiety reduction. A considerable number of respondents had used NWOM communication as an avenue to vent their anger. About 25 percent of the respondents indicated that sharing their negative experiences with others helped in easing their anger, anxiety, and frustration.

Vengeance. NWOM communication was used by 36.5 percent of the respondents to retaliate against the company associated with the negative consumption experiences. Consumers shared their negative experiences with the motive of deterring others from patronizing the businesses that they perceived did not care enough about customers, did not listen to customer complaints, and consequently should not be allowed to operate. The respondents guided by the motive of vengeance explicitly advised others not to patronize a particular business.

Advice seeking. Consumers who had encountered negative consumption experiences and were unaware of the means to seek redress tend to share their negative experiences to obtain some advice on how to resolve their problems. Seventeen percent of the respondents were found to be motivated to seek advice when engaging in NWOM communications.

Relationship between Consumption Experiences and Motivations

Chi-square tests were performed to examine the nature of the linkage between the critical consumption experiences and the underlying motivations. As the results indicate that motivations for engaging in WOM vary depending on the type of consumption experiences for both PWOM (chi-square =92.2, p=.00) and NWOM (chi-square=93.4, p=.00) communications, the frequency distribution of the motivations among the four types consumption experiences were examined to obtain further insight.

The Table 1 indicates that nearly 44 percent of the consumers who encountered experiences that fall in the category of price/value perceptions are driven by the motive of helping the receiver and 32 percent of them share the experiences because of self-enhancement. Among the consumers who engaged in PWOM due to satisfying product performances, the motives of product involvement (52%) and self-enhancement (26%) are predominant. Of the consumers who engaged in PWOM that were triggered by satisfaction with employees, 37 percent had the motive of helping the company, and 27 percent had the motive of helping the receiver; about 29 percent of the respondents engage in WOM because of a relatively high level of product involvement. The consumers who received satisfactory responses to product failure problems speak favorably about the company with a motive of helping either the company (28%) or the receiver (41%).

Table 2 indicates that more than one-third of the consumers who were dissatisfied with product performance engage in NWOM communication with a motive of helping the receiver and others share their experiences because of vengeance (31%) or to seek advice (22.6%). Of the consumers who received unsatisfactory responses to product failure, 45% engaged in NWOM to seek vengeance, 21 percent engaged in NWOM to help the receiver, and 20 percent engaged in NWOM to seek advice. The consumers that engaged in NWOM due to unacceptable price/value perceptions cited anxiety reduction (56.2%) and intention to help (20.2%) as their motives. Examination of the motives of consumers engaged in NWM due to dissatisfaction with employee behavior indicated that 56.5% of them had a motive of vengeance, i.e., trying to dissuade others from patronizing a particular company.


Our study found that satisfying product performance and employee-consumer contact experiences accounted for about 60% of PWOM. Further, inadequate responses to product problems and consumers’ poor value perceptions during post-purchase evaluations accounted for about 58% of the NWOM. These findings suggest that providing superior product performance experiences by selling only high quality, reliable, and durable products and ensuring satisfying employee-consumer contact experiences are likely to spark PWOM in the marketplace as these two types of experiences constitute major components of PWOM communications. Otherwise, not solving product problems to customers’ satisfaction prompt them to engage in NWOM conversations. Consumers who fail to perceive that their purchase was not a "value buy" based on post-purchase cost-benefit evaluations are likely to share the experience with others in the form of NWOM.

An understanding of the types of experiences that are likely to trigger WOM communications is useful to managers interested in orchestrating WOM messages. For example, knowing that inadequate responses to product problems are likely to increase NWOM and satisfying responses spark PWOM, the marketers should emphasize on programs that improve their response to customer problems. Consistent with past research, our findings suggest also that friendly, empathetic, responsive, and caring employee behaviors are associated with PWOM. These findings indicate that businesses develop programs to ensure that employees are caring, empathetic, and friendly towards consumers.

The results of our investigation on motives underlying communications shed light on the WOM process. Consistent with Dichter’s (1966) proposition, this study found that consumers are likely to engage in PWOM communication because of altruism regarding the receiver, product involvement, and self-enhancement. Apart from confirming Dichter’s (1966) categorization schema, this study uncovered some additional motives for engaging in PWOM. For example, some consumers engage in PWOM because they desire to help the company. Consumers who are extremely pleased with their consumption experiences with a firm are likely to engage in helping behaviors by giving positive messages to others about that company. Consistent with other research findings (e.g., Ford 1995), our study also found that nearly 50% of WOM messages geared toward helping a firm are triggered by courteous employee behaviors.

Another contribution of this study is the development and support of the categorization schema for motives behind NWOM. Consumers appear to talk negatively to others about their marketplace experiences with motives of altruism, vengeance, anxiety reduction, and solicitation of advice.

Analysis of the relationships between consumption experiences and motives indicated that consumption experiences related to product performances, employee behaviors, price-value perceptions, and the firm’s responses to problems give rise to different motives for engaging in WOM communication. However, variations in motives were observed depending on the types of consumption experiences. For example, consumers’ motives of helping the company are triggered mainly by satisfying contacts with employees and responses to their problems. Moreover, altruistic motives of helping the receiver are triggered mainly by price/value perceptions and responses to consumer problems. Further, high product involvement motives for engaging in PWOM are primarily triggered by satisfying product experiences. Similarly, motives for self-enhancement arise primarily from superior product performances. Interestingly, while the other-oriented altruistic motives (helping the receiver or the copany) arise mainly from firm’s responses to problems and employee behaviors, the more self-oriented motives (self-enhancement and product involvement) are triggered mainly by superior product performances. These findings have important managerial implications. By improving employees’ behavior with customers and by providing efficient and timely responses, managers can elicit PWOM communications which can directly help the company. Furthermore, delivering unique and superior product performances may encourage some consumers to speak about their experiences. The resulting WOM may draw the attention of potential buyers to the company and eventually benefit the company.

With respect to the relationship between consumption experiences and the motivation to engage in NWOM communication, inadequate responses to customers’ problems and unsatisfactory employee behavior were found to be related to the motive of vengeance. In addition, unsatisfactory product performance and the motive of vengeance were related. The findings reported here suggest also that the consumers who experienced poor value perceptions utilize NWOM as a mean of anxiety reduction. Further, consumers who were unhappy with product performance and who did not receive adequate help from the company are likely to engage in NWOM to seek advice from others. These findings suggest that managers can minimize NWOM communication by ensuring quality product performance, solving customer problems without delay, and ensuring employee competence. Given that motivations are a function of consumption experiences, managers can influence NWOM by eliminating negative consumption experiences.

Future research might re-examine the categorization schema in this study and make it more generalizable by including service consumption experiences and motivations. Further, future research might examine how the content of WOM (the type of consumption experience transmitted) affects the decision making process of the receiver.


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