How we share information is affected by the medium that we use to communicate it. We can see this concept manifest in customer reviews and advertising response behavior. The technology through which customers write reviews and interact with your organization influences the content produced and information shared.
We discussed the findings of the interface of technology and human beings with Professor Shiri Melumad on a recent podcast. Professor Melumad is an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and has worked a lot in a relatively new research area about people’s relationship with mobile phones.
We Are More Emotional on Our Phones Than Computers
Professor Melumad published a paper last year that examines how the way we express ourselves in different types of user-generated content is affected by the device we use to write them. The focus was on customer-generated reviews, like restaurant reviews. The research team discovered that in specific contexts, like restaurant reviews, we express ourselves more emotionally when using our smartphone than our PC to write the review.
To me, this makes sense at an intuitive level. My smartphone feels a lot more personal to me than my PC. Moreover, as many of you might know, my love of Apple and their iPhone is connected to my identity.
Professor Melumad had the same feelings going into the research. However, her evidence showed that the smartphone’s form drove the emotionality more than the relationship we have with it. The phone has a smaller keyboard and screen. When using it, people have increased challenges in generating content. We tend to write less on our mobile than we would on a computer. We also get to the point more quickly, which favors our emotional evaluations of that experience. For example, writing “I loved it,” or “I hated it,” gets the message out quickly without a lot of supporting reasons why.
The way we express ourselves in different types of user-generated content is affected by the device we use to write them
Professor Melumad also said the situation also influences the review. The challenge with feedback and reviews is they are frequently solicited but infrequently completed. However, when an experience is extreme, a customer is more likely to review it. If I have a fantastic or terrible experience at a restaurant, I am more likely to write a review than if it was okay or even pretty good. It also means that you don’t get a representative sample of surveys. However, Professor Melumad says that this problem exists regardless of the device used.
Also, your situational proximity to the experience you review matters. Professor Melumad says that the research team analyzed data like scrape reviews from TripAdvisor. The research team learned that another part of what’s happening to increase emotionality in these reviews is the temporal proximity to the experience. You tend to gush more right after something great happened, and vice versa. If you write the content on your computer at home, you have likely calmed down a bit, and your review reflects that.
However, Professor Melumad and the team took great pains to control the temporal proximity variable in their research. In the lab, researchers randomly assigned participants to write a review on their phone or their computer about their most recent dining experience. Everyone was in the lab, which controls for temporal proximity, so any differences in emotionality the research revealed were not because reviewers were still at the restaurant.
Professor Melumad says a vital driver of the emotionality between the two types of reviews is that we write less on our phone (she estimates around 20 words is the average length). Therefore, we’re trying to convey the main takeaway when we write on our phone.
I am fascinated by the significance of emotion as drivers of customer experience and behavior. Professor Melumad’s research signals the importance of considering the emotional aspect of an experience. However, will that always be the case? Or will rational information ever take precedence in the short version of the review?
Professor Melumad says there will always be boundary conditions to this effect. For example, reviews of refrigerators will not be as emotional as reviews of a controversial video on current affairs. There will be a context in which your emotional evaluation of something is not going to be what you think is the most important takeaway from that experience. There will be other situations where it is.
Professor Melumad says there are two important takeaways here. The first is that positive emotions drive the greater emotionality of smartphone-generated content. This takeaway supports another well-established finding that word-of-mouth communication favors the positive. Professor Melumad says this slant toward the positive is because people have self-presentational concerns where they want to seem more positive than negative. So, the owner of a restaurant or other service provider would want to encourage customers to write reviews on their phones by sending them surveys or other mobile prompts.
The second key takeaway from this study is that the reviews written on phones were more persuasive. The team showed participants a set of reviews without sharing what technology customers used to write them. Then, researchers asked the participants how compelling the reviews were. The results suggested that the emotional, smartphone-generated reviews drove perceptions of increased persuasiveness. Suppose you want to increase the likelihood that a report written by a customer will contain a selective inclusion of emotionality that’s specifically positive in tone. In that case, you may want to encourage them to write it on their phones.
We Love Our Phones
In another paper, Professor Melumad’s research shows that people tend to be more self-disclosing of personal and intimate information on their phones relative to their PCs. Moreover, the team found this across a wide range of domains, including the participant’s willingness to respond to sensitive questions in a survey. For example, in one study, she asked participants to admit to and describe an embarrassing product purchase they made, and they did—on their phones.
Professor Melumad used tens of thousands of ad campaigns online on mobile and PC for her research. The call-to-actions (CTAs) solicited personal information, like your email address, substance abuse history, bankruptcy history, or home address. When delivered on their phones, people are more willing to provide that information than on their computers. Not only that, but Professor Melumad also says that this fantastic effect had robust results.
The team finds two parallel explanations for this effect. One has to do with what I mentioned earlier about how my phone was more personal to me than the PC was. Professor Melumad says this is because of a unique combination of properties that our phones exhibit:
- We have the phone with us almost always because it’s small.
- We rely on our phones to give us the ability to use it whenever and wherever we want.
- We employ the phone for personal contact with friends and family.
This unique combination of properties means our phone provides greater psychological comfort on average than when we engage in the same task on our laptop. Professor Melumad says when the participants in their study felt more comfortable, they were more comfortable sharing personal and intimate information.
If you’ve been on public transport before, you’ve probably seen people completely immersed on their phones doing very personal things. This behavior is called Attentional Blindness. A task on our phone is more challenging for us than our computer because of the smaller keyboard and screen. Engaging in that task on our phone requires more cognitive resources. Attentional Blindness describes how we focus our attention on what we are doing, which blocks out what is happening around us and distracting thoughts unrelated to the task. Professor Melumad says there is less mental space to worry about how others might react or what other people nearby are doing, or even how the personal information disclosed on the phone could be misused.
Our phone provides greater psychological comfort on average than when we engage in the same task on our laptop.
So, What Should You Do With This Information?
Many applications can be helpful for Professor Melumad’s findings to manage customer behavior. In particular, it has implications regarding reviews, social media, and customer research.
It can help with critical health-related disclosures. We hear a lot about contact tracing these days, meaning people who have tested positive for Covid-19 should disclose the list of people with whom they have had physical contact. Professor Melumad believes contact tracing would be successful as an app because of the ability to target mobile-based customers and people’s willingness to disclose personal information on their phones. The same goes for doctors’ appointments. People could answer questions on their phones and be more willing to disclose sensitive, health-related information.
From a managerial perspective, Professor Melumad says these findings have pertinent information for customer welfare, also. A firm that is looking at posted reviews about their experience should focus on smartphone-generated reviews. These reviews may be more persuasive and influential to readers. Also, smartphone-generated reviews are more self-disclosing, which implies one could get an accurate sense of customers’ preferences and opinions. These reviews are diagnostic of how people sincerely feel. Moreover, if you can encourage people to complete surveys on their phones or give your personal information with CTAs for ads, you will improve the data and response rates.
For my part, I’ve never really thought about the effect of using different technology. It’s just another example of how small things can affect customers and their feedback.
Professor Melumad’s research also fits into a broader category of Behavioral Sciences research that emphasizes the importance of small changes in affecting people’s behavior. Here we have identical actions on devices that are functionally equivalent and a lot of ways. However, because of the physical properties of the technology or the emotional features of people’s relationships with the technology, you have different outputs. So, as we’ve said before, it is critical to focus on the little stuff in your experiences. It matters whether you target mobile customers or PC browsers, so figure out what you want to get out of your customers when you make these decisions.
To hear more about this idea in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.
Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX