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Doctoral student Zoey Chen published research on online reviews in the Journal of Marketing Research.

PhD Profile: Zoey Chen Examines Word-of-Mouth Effects in Marketing

As a foodie who enjoys trying new restaurants, Zoey Chen became fascinated with the consumer reviews posted on Websites such as Yelp. Reading them eventually inspired her to study factors (including immediacy) influencing the impact of online reviews.

“Prior research shows that positive online reviews are less valued than negative reviews,” explains Chen, a fifth-year doctoral student in marketing at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business who has already published two articles on word of mouth in leading academic journals.

In her own research, recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Chen finds that temporal cues in reviews (words showing that they were written soon after product/service consumption) can lend more credibility to positive critiques (i.e. “We just had the best lunch at…”).

“If people learn you just went to an establishment and had a positive experience, they might think it’s more about the experience than the individual, she says.

Chen notes that positive reviews could be considered less informative than negative ones because the writers might be perceived as bragging about the good decisions they make in their lives. “Their motivation for writing might be self-enhancement, signaling their expertise,” she says. “But negative reviews are generally seen as reflecting more about the product or service than the lifestyle choices of the writer. Therefore, they tend to be seen as more credible.”

Timing Is Everything

Helpful temporal cues included in reviews might be language such as “this morning” or “I just got back from (fill in blank),” explains Chen. She co-authored the paper, “Temporal Cues and Negativity Bias in the Impact of Online Word of Mouth” with Nicholas Lurie, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut.

Chen co-authored the paper, “Temporal Cues and Negativity Bias in the Impact of Online Word of Mouth,” with Nicholas Lurie, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut. The two published their study in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Chen says their findings could be helpful to companies, many of which are increasingly confused and upset about how to deal with negative online consumer reviews. One way to overcome consumers’ over-reliance on negative word of mouth would be to boost the value of positive opinions through temporal cues. Businesses could encourage satisfied customers to include language indicating that they wrote their reviews right after product consumption (i.e. “We just had the best lunch…”), she says.

Chen and Lurie, who examined more than 65,000 restaurant reviews on Yelp and conducted lab reviews, conversely found that temporal cues don’t have a significant effect on how a negative review is perceived.

Pushing the Envelope

Earlier this year, Chen generated some major media attention for a study on how controversial ad campaigns can back fire on companies. That’s because people tend to avoid discussing controversial subjects, she explains.

“While negative attention can sometimes make consumers more interested in a topic, you should avoid evoking more than a moderate level of controversy if you want to generate more word of mouth,” says Chen, who collaborated on this research with Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Going Too Far

As an example of employing controversy in advertising, PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” slogan is likely a better conversation starter than the organization’s “Holocaust on a plate” campaign, Chen says.

She found that people often avoid controversial topics (i.e. abortion) or brands (i.e. Walmart) out of fear of offending others. Her study, titled “When, Why and How Controversy Causes Conversation,” is due for publication in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Chen analyzed online news articles, finding that items on more controversial subjects generated less commentary. She also conducted lab experiments revealing that people might feel more comfortable broaching controversial subjects if social acceptance is less of a concern (talking to friends or communicating anonymously to strangers).

Academic Pursuits

Chen, who plans to pursue an academic post after graduating from Tech in spring 2014, earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance from New York University in 2009. During her studies there, she realized that being a professor might be a good fit for her.

“I thought that being able to use your brain to do interesting research sounded like the best job in the world,” says Chen, who has enjoyed the teaching opportunities she’s had at Tech. “Marketing appealed to be because of my interest in psychology.”

A native of Atlanta, Chen chose Tech for her studies partly out of its proximity to her family and largely because of its reputation. She’s found the environment to be highly conducive to her career goals. “The other students and faculty are very supportive, and I have access to great resources,” she says.

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