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According to McAllister-Spooner (2009), Kent and Taylor’s (1998; 2002) Dialogic Theory has served as a theoretical framework for many studies which investigate web-based public relationships in different types of organizations, such as nonprofit activist organizations, Fortune 500 companies, colleges and universities, congressional websites, and litigation public relations firms. For example, Park and Reber (2008) investigated how Fortune 500 corporations use their Web sites to build relationships with publics, such as media publics, consumers, investors, and internal audiences. They results of their content analysis study suggested that these organizations try to enhance trust, satisfaction, and openness in their public relationships by following dialogic principles, such as providing useful information on their Web sites. Park and Reber concluded that corporations need to utilize their Web sites effectively with an understanding of the dialogic capacity to promote dialogue in order to develop mutually beneficial relationships with multiple publics.
In addition to Kent and Taylor’s (1998; 2002) Dialogic Theory, Kazoleas and Teigen’s (2006) Technology-Image Expectancy Gap Theory also focuses on technology and public relations. This theory suggests that the marketing and media coverage of technological advances create unrealistic expectations about organizations’ abilities to meet their stakeholders’ needs.
The unrealistic expectations can lead to crises or reputation damage if the organizations’ performance cannot meet the stakeholders’ expectations. Thus, organizations have to close the expectancy-reality gap by carefully monitoring their stakeholders’ expectations about their products and services and communicate with their target audience through modern technology without creating unrealistic expectations.
Kazoleas and Teigen (2006) also analyzed how internet changed the characteristics of communication when discussing the technology-image gap. They argued that technology has created four major changes in business communication. First, business communication moves from few-to-many communication to many-to-many communication. With the help of modern technology, smaller organizations can possibly present themselves as bigger organizations in the mediated environment. Second, there is a shift from producer-driven communication to receiverdriven communication. As a result, consumers become more demanding and more difficult to be satisfied. Third, communication becomes more access-driven because internet users can retrieve specific information from the Web quickly. Organizations must provide the information which their stakeholders want in order to satisfy their information needs. Fourth and finally, organizations are able to personalize the communication through Web-based communication.
Because of these technological changes, a new term, net relations, emerges. According to Kazoleas and Teigen, “Net relations is the management of relationships between an organization and all its relevant publics through the use of the Internet and the Web technology” (p. 422). Net relations combines direct marketing and public relations to deliver messages to the target audience.
940 Both Kent and Taylor’s (1998; 2002) Dialogic Theory of Public Relations and Kazoleas and Teigen’s (2006) Technology-Image Expectancy Gap Theory focus on technological impacts on organization-public relationships. However, neither of them has been applied in previous studies which investigate customer relations in e-commerce environment. In order to close this gap, the present study aims to explore customer relations in e-commerce environment and examine the applicability of existing public relations theories (Dialogic Theory of Public Relations and Technology-Image Expectancy Gap Theory) in e-commerce environment.
Methods The researcher conducted 9 structured focus group interviews (with IRB approval) with 69 (31male; 38 female) young consumers (mean age=20) in the United States in Spring 2009.
Participants were college students in a mid-west public University in the United States. The university is located in a college town. College students were chosen as participants because previous literature (e.g., Huang, Jung, & Salvendy, 2006; Lightner, Yenisey, Ozok, & Salvendy 2002; Wu, 2010) suggested that college students are the most active internet users and on-line shoppers. Convenience-sampling methods were used to recruit participants. The researchers’ colleagues helped the researcher recruit participants by offering extra credits to their students.
College students (young consumers) who are interested in on-line shopping signed up for participation. These 9 focus group interviews lasted approximately from 1 hour to 1 hour and half. The researcher and one of her graduate research assistant conducted these 9 focus group interviews. The group size ranges from 6 participants to 10 participants.
Structured interview questions were asked. The researcher arranged the focus group interview questions by using the funneling concept. According to Krueger and Casey (2009), the funneling concept is to move the discussion from broad to narrow or from general to specific.
The participants were asked the following questions. First, the participants were asked to talk about why they choose the on-line channel to shop. Second, the participants were asked to explain why they choose to shop from a specific on-line vendor. Third, the participants were asked to express their views about what on-line vendors can do to establish good and ethical relationship with new customers. Fourth, the participants were asked to tell the research about what on-line vendors can do to maintain good and ethical relationship with existing customers.
Finally, the participants were asked to tell the researcher how they determine whether they trust an on-line vendor or not. The focus group interview process stops until the point of saturation, which implies that participants in different groups express similar points of view and no new information can be gathered.
All of the focus group interviews were tape recorded with participants’ agreement. Then, the researcher and the researcher’s research assistant transcribed the results from the tape. Based on the interviewing results, a number of interesting results were found.
Findings and Discussion Reasons for Shopping On-Line The focus group interviews started from a more general question: “There are different channels for you to shop, such as internet (on-line channel), catalog shopping, and shopping at stores. Why do you choose to shop on-line?” Several participants mentioned that they choose to shop on-line because it is convenient. For example, a male participant mentioned, “It’s more convenient. You don’t have to leave your house. Sometimes, some stores are not in your area.
You need to shop on-line to get what you want”. In another focus group session, a female participant said, “I am too lazy to go to the store. It’s easier for me to shop on-line”. Some other 941 participants mentioned that they shop on-line for economic reasons. For example, a female participant mentioned that “I want to save the gas. Gas price is very high right now”. A male participant said, “Sometimes, it is cheaper. There are on-line only deals”. A female participant echoed and said, “I agree. They give you on-line coupons all the time”. In addition to convenience and economic reasons, several participants mentioned that having more varieties of products is the reason for them to shop on-line. A female participant said, “I shop at Victoria’s Secret a lot. They only have under-wears and sleep-ware in their store. If you want to buy sweaters, dresses, or shoes from them, you need to shop on-line”. Another female participant agreed and said that “Yes. There are broader varieties. Even for panties, some of them are only available on-line. I did not see them at Victoria’s Secret’s stores”. Another reason for the participants to shop on-line is that on-line vendors can customize the products to meet each customer’s needs. A male participant said, “You can personalize things if you want. You can put your name on a T-shirt when you order it on-line. Just give them your name. They will do it for you”. This participant’s answer supports Kazoleas and Teigen’s (2006) argument that organizations are able to personalize the communication with publics through Web-based communication. On-line shoppers may also become more demanding and expects personalized communication and products.
Reasons for Shopping from A Specific On-Line Vendor The researcher also asked the participants about the reasons why they choose to shop from a specific on-line vendor. The findings suggest that there are various reasons for consumers to choose to shop from a specific on-line vendor. Several male participants mentioned that they choose to shop from East Bay because they ask customers specific questions during the shopping process to make sure that customers order the right items. A male participant said, “I shop at East Bay a lot. They asked me a lot questions when I was shopping.
They want to make sure that I bought the right item and do not have to ship it back. Like shoes, there are different widths. I was asked what’s the width I need”. Another male participant followed and said, “They try to help you make the right decision at the first time by asking specific questions. But, they also let you know how to ship it back if you don’t like it”. What the participants said seem to support Kent and Taylor’s (1998; 2002) dialogic principles of web design because these young consumers expect two-way communication when they are ordering products on-line. They prefer on-line vendors ask them questions about product details in order to make sure that they order the right items and would like to find useful information about how to return products if needed.
Some participants’ answers seem to support the assumption of the Technology-Image Expectancy Gap Theory that making customers’ expectation real is essential. Participants mentioned that they prefer to shop from a specific on-line vendor because the vendor makes their
expectations real. For example, A male participant said:
They need to make my expectations real. It would be great that if they let me know if there is a delay of delivery. I ordered a pair of gloves from East Bay. Somebody called and told me that the product is a back order. If I pay now, I may need to wait one or two weeks. He asked me whether I want to wait or order something else. I told him I’ll wait.
It’s good. Some companies just let you wait forever.
A number of participants mentioned that they choose to continuously shop from a specific online vendor because they can get something which exceeds their expectations. A female participant said that “I got something extra which exceeds my expectations from Victoria’s Secret. For example, I got panties as free gifts even I did not order them.” Another female 942 participant said, “I have good experiences, too. When I ordered something from Amazon, I got coupons for next purchase and free bookmarks. It’s always good to get something exceeding my expectation”. These participants’ answers support Davis et al.’ (1999) argument that higher levels of customer satisfaction result when on-line shoppers get services or products which exceed their expectations.
The he combination of the Dialogic Theory and Technology-Image Expectancy Gap Theory explains parts of the reasons why the participants choose to shop from a specific on-line vendor. However, there are other reasons. First, getting a good price is important for young consumers. A male participant said, “I shop where they have sales”. A female participant echoed and said, “Yes. I like coupons and discounts”. Second, the vendor’s reputation helps consumers to make the decision. A female participant said, “They need to have a good reputation and treat their customers right”. A male participant said, “I think Best Buy has a very good reputation. I had good experiences shopping at their stores before. Since there is no Best Buy around, I shop at bestbuy.com”. Another male participant said, “I google when I need to but something on-line. I choose to shop at the first few sites which pop up. The first few pop-ups are usually well-known and have better reputations”. Third, peer influence is another reason for female participants to choose from a specific site. A female participant said, “I shop from the site my friends recommend”. Another female participant in that group agreed and said, “I do, too. I trust my friends’ recommendations”.
Customers’ Expected Relationship Building Strategies After asking few general questions, the participants are very engaged with the discussions
about on-line shopping. Then, the researcher asked the participants a more specific question:
“From a customer’s point of view, what can an on-line vendor do to establish good and ethical relationships with new customers?” Interestingly, many participants mentioned that they expect the vendors give first time shoppers special discounts. A female participant said, “Bargains.
Some sites give first time shoppers discounts. If there competitors do give me first time shopper’s discounts, I would expect them give it to me”. Another female participant echoed and said, “Yes. Both Amazon.com and Barnes Nobel sell books. I just buy from the cheaper one or the one gives me coupons or discounts”. These participant’s answer seems to extend the Technology-Image Expectation Gap Theory. Kazoleas and Teigen’s (2006) argued that corporations should carefully monitor their stakeholders’ expectations about their products and services. These expectations may be formed by the messages they presented from modern technology. The e-commerce environment is now very competitive. Customers can quickly gather product and price information on the web from different vendors. Therefore, on-line vendors may also need to know how their customers’ expectations are affected by their competitors’ special discounts and offers.
Several participants also mention that the vendor should make customers’ expectations about product quality real by providing useful information. A male participant provided an interesting example and said, They need to meet my expectations. I used to buy a diamond pendent for my girlfriend on-line. It was a Valentine’s Day gift. The diamond looked big and glorious on the site.