The way information about brands—good and bad—is spread has changed, with firms, consumers and news media playing new roles in the emerging online echoverse.
Analysing 18 million tweets, 5000 press releases and 65,000 news articles about the top four United States banks would make most people’s heads ache, but it was an opportunity for Massey Research Professor Harald van Heerde.
Professor van Heerde was approached by University of Maryland Distinguished Professor Roland Rust, former editor of the top journal in the field, the Journal of Marketing, to join a project about the crises in the American banking system. Rust contacted van Heerde because of his expertise in modelling big-data sets, and his previous experience of working in the area of product-harm crises. The former Vice-President of the Bank of America, Dr Kelly Hewett, now at the University of Tennessee, and computational linguistics expert Dr William Rand, from the University of Maryland, brought complementary skills to the research.
The four researchers examined brand-consumer interactions for the Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo from 2007 to 2013, a tumultuous period for American banking institutions. The study examined how messages about brands across various channels interact in a complex set of feedback loops the researchers call the echoverse, the universe of brand communication where everything can echo everything else.
The echoverse has three actors—firms, consumers and news media—and is the entire communications environment in which a brand/firm operates, with actors both contributing and being influenced by each other’s actions. It has changed over time, particularly in light of the increasing influence of social media on brand communications.
“Firms use press releases, Twitter and advertising to reach consumers; consumers can use Twitter to talk back; the news media also reports; and all of this affects consumer sentiment and business outcomes,” Professor van Heerde says. “So there are a lot of things to track.”
The research team had to collect one of the most comprehensive data sets in the brand communication literature: over 18 million tweets, more than 5000 press releases and 65,000 news articles across seven years.
“What also complicated things is that most of these aspects are textual rather than numerical, so we needed a way to convert text into numbers, capturing the volume of communication but also the content. And then finally we had to look at the dynamic interplay between everything through some advanced statistical models, which was my contribution,” Professor van Heerde says.
The researchers used text mining and computational linguistics to measure the volume and valence of traditional media news stories, online word of mouth and firm communications. They then used time-series modelling to relate these communications to consumer sentiment and business outcomes.
The quartet shared their findings in the May 2016 Journal of Marketing lead article Brand Buzz in the Echoverse.
They found although one-to-many company communication (i.e. advertising and press releases) still has a role in the modern online context, one-to-one communication (i.e. direct customer responses via social media) can be very effective. By contrast, customer communication has trended in the opposite way, with social media also enabling one-to-many communication. The evolving echoverse requires managers to rethink brand communication strategies, with online communications becoming increasingly central.
In an article for the University of Maryland’s website, Professor Rust says managers are used to a one-to-many model of communication. “But more and more, they have to move to a one-to-one approach to be effective. On the other hand, consumer word of mouth used to spread one-to-one. More and more consumers are [now] one-to-many in their brand communications.”
You can’t just be in your silo. You have to manage all of your brand communications as a big system.
DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR ROLAND RUST
Echoverse actors can grab the megaphone and attract attention, influencing individual echoverse components. This results in a reverberating system. “You can’t just be in your silo,” Professor Rust says. “You have to manage all of your brand communications as a big system.”
Their analysis suggests company tweets can calm a spiral of negative news. “Having an active Twitter strategy to counter firestorms that develop online or in the news media seems an effective approach to essentially deprive the fire of oxygen,” the researchers say. A personalised Twitter strategy, focused on responding to individual customers, may be more effective than a broadcast Twitter strategy that essentially uses social media as a promotional medium.
The study also found press releases can be surprisingly effective—positive press releases can lift the tone of online word of mouth. Also, it found that traditional advertising bypasses the echoverse, instead influencing consumers’ long-term perceptions and preferences.
Professor van Heerde has also examined product recalls and what brands should do in response to such a situation. With Associate Professor Kathleen Cleeren (University of Leuven, Belgium) and Professor Marnik Dekimpe (Leuven and Tilburg University, the Netherlands), he looked at the effectiveness of marketing activities after a product recall in the light of negative publicity and blame. The research looked at 60 case studies in 40 categories from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and the findings were published in a 2013 Journal of Marketing article.
Professor van Heerde develops or applies new econometric models based on large empirical data sets to address managerially relevant issues. These models measure the effects of marketing activities on performance. He finds the ability to work on exciting new research with excellent scholars from around the world particularly satisfying.
“This gives me the opportunity to learn new things, which I can then use in teaching, and to travel to meet scholars and work together. I also like participating in review boards or panels to help emerging scholars in the development of their own research.”