Social influences on purchase intention within virtual consumer communities

A social capital perspective

During my master ‘Information and Knowledge Management‘ at the VU University, I attended the course ‘Interactive Marketing’.Within this stream, I wrote a scientific conceptual paper about the social influences that exist within virtual consumer communities and how these influences can affect the purchase intentions of  community members. Since I think the developed model and underlying logic can be interesting and useful from various perspectives, I will describe the papers key findings and propositions.


A significant number of studies have focused on the buying behavior of consumers within online environments. Despite the large numbers of virtual communities focused on consumer-related objectives, little is known about the effects of these communities on consumers’ purchase intentions. Past studies primarily examined virtual community participation, but little is known how community members influence others regarding purchase decision processes. This study integrates consumer influence theories and social capital theory to construct a model for investigating how social capital within virtual consumer communities affects normative and informational social influences, which in turn affect consumers’ purchase intentions. By developing a theoretical model and proposing an online survey design strategy, it lays a foundation for future empirical support. The implications for research and practice and future research challenges are discussed.

Extended version:

The paper tries to enhance understanding of social influences on purchase intention within the context of virtual consumer communities. Virtual communities can be a significant source of social influences on purchase intentions (Bickart and Schindler, 2001). They are based on social interactions, where relationships are built and interests are shared (Lin, 2008). Previous research enhanced understanding of participation antecedents of virtual community members (e.g. Wu, et al., 2009), but “little is known about the role that virtual communities play in information search, information processing, and consumer decision-making” (de Valck et al., 2009, p. 186). This is especially relevant in the context of virtual consumer communities, which “explicitly center upon consumption-related interests” (Kozinets, 1999, p. 254). Members within these communities seek and share information regarding products, stores and brands.Because of this lack of insights within the area of virtual consumer communities, this paper suggests an enhanced understanding of social influence effects on purchase intention within these communities. The concept of customer intention is dominantly based on the (TRA; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1975). TRA accounted for social influence effects on intentions by the inclusion of the subjective norm concept. However, this theory lacks a further distinction of social influences beyond subjective norms. In line with Lee et al. (2009), this study utilizes >Bearden et al.’s (1989) interpersonal influence concept, which is based on the conformity antecedents of Deutsch and Gerard (1955): informational social influence and normative social influence.

The paper examines social capital dimensions as the antecedents of these social influence concepts within virtual consumer communities, since social capital facilitates information exchange by providing resources within networks (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998) and within electronic networks/virtual communities in specific (Wasko and Faraj, 2005; Chiu et al., 2006). Consequently, virtual communities can be a perfect place for sharing information and can act as catalysts for social capital. By using Tsai and Ghoshal’s (1998) social capital framework and applying it within virtual consumer communities, this study deepens understanding of the social influence effects of social capital within virtual consumer communities on consumers’ purchase intention. Hence, this objective leads to the following research question:

“How and to what extent does social capital within virtual consumer communities affect the social influences on consumers’ purchase intention?”

Consequently, by drawing upon marketing, social capital, sociology and psychology literature, the paper developed a theoretical model to address the research question, as shown in the next figure.

Conceptual model for social influences on purchase intentions within virtual consumer communities (image is clickable for larger size and better quality).

All hypotheses are described and operationalized in the complete paper. If you’re interested, please contant me if you’re interested in the whole conceptual paper.

Theoretical contributions

The paper offers three key contributions. First, it examines social influences on purchase intentions within virtual consumer communities, which adds to current literature that lacks an understanding of how virtual community members can influence consumers’ purchase intentions. Second, this study establishes this by distinguishing the concepts of informational and normative social influence, where most TRA-based theories only utilize normative social influence concepts. Third, the study utilizes and analyzes its effect of social capital dimensions as antecedents of the two social influence concepts within the context of virtual consumer communities.

Contributions for practice
The study presented in this paper has interesting implications for online marketers and other practitioners interested in social consumer influences within virtual communities. The rise of virtual communities allows consumers to interconnect with each other and share information regarding products, brands and companies (de Bruyn and Lilien, 2008). Due to these viral effects of consumer information, the influence of individual consumers on purchase intentions of others will grow. This development of increasing individual influence power creates needs for organizations to further segment its consumer orientation nearly to an individual level. This can be done via virtual consumer communities, since they “comprises a viable trading and marketing platform that enables commercial interaction between sellers, buyers, and intermediaries” (Wu et al., 2009, p.1).

This offers organizations, brand representatives and marketers possibilities to interact with their target group instead of employing ‘push’ oriented communication strategy. As such, when marketers interact with consumers on virtual communities, they can enhance their influence effectiveness by keeping in mind the social capital antecedents as outlined in this study. As a consequence, marketers need to develop stronger ties with consumers, create a trustworthy perception, satisfy the expectation of other members concerning the norm of reciprocity, create a perception that consumers can identify with, develop a shared language to interact with consumers and act within the community in line with its common vision. In this way, marketers interact with community members in such a way that they employ word-of-mouth marketing, which can influence consumers their purchase intentions as such (Winer, 2009).

At the moment, I am working on the proposal for my master thesis, which will partly be based on the above outlined conceptual paper.

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