How Can Companies Leverage Crowded Environments To Increase Word Of Mouth?

Nowadays, mobile communication devices allow us to share information with others while we are in the most different — more or less crowded — locations, such as restaurants or libraries. Does the crowdedness of a place make us in fact more likely to engage in word of mouth?

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

We propose that the more people are around us in a given place, the more likely we become to share information with others through social media. The reason, we argue, is that crowded environments induce us to feel less in control of our immediate surroundings, and that sharing information helps us restore our lost sense of control.

We found evidence for this thesis in six studies.

In our first study, we monitored Twitter activity in a sample of Italian cities for two months, and we tested whether there was a correlation between urban density and the number of tweets shared by active Twitter users in each of these cities. Consistent with our hypothesis, twitter users in cities with higher urban density, in fact, twitted more.

In our second study, we observed a similar positive relationship between social density and information sharing in a different setting. We recruited students on one campus of NOVA University Lisbon on different days of the week and at different times of the day, in order to capture varying levels of crowdedness. Students read an article about Lisbon on a tablet, and could click a button if they wanted to share this article with others on their favorite social network. Interestingly, the more crowded the campus, the more likely students were to share the article on social media.

So, in our first two studies we observed a positive correlation between social density and word of mouth; however, these studies were not sufficient to establish a cause-effect relationship. For example, it is possible that students on campus during peak hours are more extraverted — and therefore are more likely to communicate with others. In other words, it is possible that individual differences — such as extraversion — drove the observed effects, rather than density per se.

To rule out this possibility, we recruited Rotterdam School of Management students to participate in an experiment (our third study), in which we randomly assigned them to two different classrooms — one more crowded and one less crowded — so that students in the two different classroom conditions would have similar personal characteristics. Once again, students surrounded by more people were more likely to share the article we presented them with. Since individual characteristics were similar amongst both groups, we could conclude that social density was the main trigger of the word-of-mouth increase.

The remaining studies tested the core of our theorizing — Does social density decrease perceived control, and does engaging in word of mouth help restore this lost sense of control? Our forth study provided a first link between social density and control. RSM students assigned to more and less crowded lab rooms indicated how likely they would be to share information about a product, and answered questions measuring their chronic need for control. Consistent with our intuition that a need for control underlies information sharing in crowded locations, we observed that the more crowded rooms induced greater information sharing especially among students who felt a stronger need to restore control.

In our fifth study, we further reasoned that if people in crowded locations share information because they want to restore their lost sense of control, then increasing people’s perceptions of control via alternative means before engaging in word of mouth should reduce this effect. In this study, U.S. participants from an online subject pool followed our instructions on their mobile devices while they were in different locations. First, participants rated how crowded their current location was; next, we used a “trick” to induce some of these participants to perceive a temporary boost in their personal control. Specifically, all participants completed an easy dot-to-dot puzzle on their mobile devices, and — regardless of their real performance — we told some of them that they produced a correct final solution (a picture of a dog), whereas we showed others an unintelligible scribble as their solution. As planned, this false feedback made the former participants feel more in control of the puzzle outcome than the latter. Finally, all participants read an article and indicated their likelihood to share it. Participants in crowded locations were more likely to share this article; however, as predicted, only participants who saw a scribble as their solution expressed higher intentions to share the article — not their counterparts with a temporarily inflated sense of control.

Finally, in our last study, U.S. participants imagined sitting in a subway car with 120 versus 10 other people. Of note, some participants also imagined sharing an article on Facebook, while others did not. As expected, participants who imagined to be in the more versus less crowded subway car reported lower perceived control; however, when participants in the crowded scenario imagined sharing an article on Facebook their lost sense of control was replenished, as they reported to feel more in control than their counterparts who did not share.

Overall, these findings have great practical relevance, because they suggest that companies could leverage crowded environments in order to increase word of mouth — for instance, via geolocation technologies and targeted communications on mobile devices. Moreover, our results also indicate that once consumers in crowded places satisfy their need for control, further opportunities to restore control have diminishing returns. Thus, it is essential to time marketing communications accurately when targeting consumers in high-density settings, as the first competitor to do so is more likely to reap the word-of-mouth benefits.


Professor Irene Consiglio

Professor Irene Consiglio is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at NOVA SBE. She received her Ph.D. in Marketing from Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University and she was a visiting Ph.D. at Harvard Business School. Her expertise lies in the fields of consumer behavior, brand relationships and marketing. Her work is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and the Journal of Consumer Research. Her work has been featured on Scientific American, National Public Radio, U.S., as well as in popular international marketing and news blogs (e.g. The Consumerist).

Professor Matteo De Angelis

Matteo De Angelis is Associate Professor of Marketing at LUISS University, Italy, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Kellogg School of Management and Visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin, USA. His articles have been published in several leading marketing journals such as Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Business Ethics, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Business Research and Psychology & Marketing. He is also author of the Book titled Sustainable Luxury Brands edited by Palgrave Macmillan.

Professor Michele Costabile

Michele Costabile is a professor of Management and Marketing at the LUISS “Guido Carli” University in Rome, where is also Director of the Master of Science in Marketing. Formerly he taught at the University of Calabria as assistant, associate and full professor, and at SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, as adjunct professor. He has been a visiting scholar at Northwestern University — Kellogg Graduate School of Management — and research assistant at Harvard University — Graduate School of Business Administration. He is author and co-author of many books and papers published in Italy and abroad on the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Service Research, Journal of Interactive Marketing.

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