Words Matter! Towards Pro-Social Call-to-Action for Online Referral: Evidence from Two Field Experiments

Information Systems Research, Forthcoming

Fox School of Business Research Paper No. 18-032

50 Pages Posted: 24 May 2018 Last revised: 26 May 2019

See all articles by JaeHwuen Jung

JaeHwuen Jung

Temple University - Fox School of Business and Management

Ravi Bapna

University of Minnesota - Minneapolis

Joseph Golden

Collage.com

Tianshu Sun

University of Southern California - Marshall School of Business

Date Written: May 23, 2019

Abstract

The underlying premise of referral marketing is to target existing, ostensibly delighted customers to spread awareness and influence adoption of a focal product amongst their friends who are also likely to benefit from adopting the product. In other words, referral programs are designed to accelerate organic word-of-mouth (WOM) exposure using financial incentives. This poses a challenge, in that it mixes an intrinsically motivated process (stemming from the desire to share a customer’s delight with a product or a service) with an extrinsic trigger in the form of a financial incentive. Prior research has shown that mixing intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can lead to sub-optimal outcomes, which in turn presents a conceptual dilemma in the design of referral programs. In this paper, we demonstrate how firms can benefit from framing calls-to-action for referral programs in such a way as to move closer to the original intent of organic, intrinsically motivated WOM marketing, and yet at the same time reap the benefits of using a financial incentive to increase referral rates. In particular, given a fixed incentive scheme and ceteris paribus, we show the efficacy of a pro-social call-to-action over some of the more commonly used calls-to-action observed in practice. We posit, and causally demonstrate via a large-scale randomized field experiment involving 100,000 customers, that an intrinsically pro-social element in framing the call-to-action to initiate the referral process is a necessary condition for success. When contrasted with egoistic and equitable framing of calls-to-action, the pro-social framing yields a significantly higher propensity to initiate a referral, as well as a significantly higher number of successful referrals. Additional mechanism-level analysis that interacts the treatments with customer characteristics such as repeat purchase, net promoter score, and time since last purchase, additional field experiment with more attractive referral reward, as well as an Amazon Mechanical Turk experiment, confirm the importance of an altruistic element in generating a higher quality of advocacy and reducing referral frictions. Subjects in the pro-social group report lower levels of guilt associated with sending a referral and are more able to identify family and friends’ benefit as a motive for sharing referrals and therefore, more selective in sharing referral message.

Keywords: online referrals, intrinsically pro-social framing, randomized field experiment, call-to-action

Suggested Citation

Jung, JaeHwuen and Bapna, Ravi and Golden, Joseph and Sun, Tianshu, Words Matter! Towards Pro-Social Call-to-Action for Online Referral: Evidence from Two Field Experiments (May 23, 2019). Information Systems Research, Forthcoming; Fox School of Business Research Paper No. 18-032. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3177845 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3177845

JaeHwuen Jung (Contact Author)

Temple University - Fox School of Business and Management ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

Ravi Bapna

University of Minnesota - Minneapolis ( email )

321 19th Ave S
Information and Decision Sciences
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

Joseph Golden

Collage.com ( email )

Tianshu Sun

University of Southern California - Marshall School of Business ( email )

3670 Trousdale Parkway
Bridge Hall 310B
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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