PhD Research Proposal
Identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse: An analysis of social media usage within small medium enterprises (SMEs)
The broad field within which my MPhD topic falls Page 3
An outline of the subject matter of my proposed thesis (Abstract) Page 3
Reasons for interest in this field Page 4
The main theorists Page 5
The framework upon which my research will be based Page 10
How my thesis will extend their work Page 11
Methodology Page 12
Carrying out the research – the specific techniques Page 13
Timescale Page 16
An explanation of the original contribution to knowledge Page 16
References Page 18
Bibliography Page 23
The broad field within which my MPhD topic falls
Title: Identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse: An analysis of social media usage within small medium enterprises (SMEs).
An outline of the subject matter of my proposed thesis
With an increasing body of literature (Fill, 2009, Kozinets et al, 2010, Jobber, 2010) highlighting the importance and influence of word of mouth communications and how it can assist and enrich the communications process; it may be argued identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse is now just another facet of the ‘day job’ for many organisations, including SMEs. Woodside and Delozier (1976, p.12) for example link WoM with consumer risk, while others establish links with complaining behaviour (Blodgett et al, 1995: 32) product judgements (Bone, 1995, p.214) consumer attitudes (Bickart and Schindler, 2001, p.31) and as an integral aspect of the customer relationship (Wangenheim, 2005, p.154). Furthermore, as Goldenberg et al (2001, p.212) suggests the increasing use of the internet, enables surfers to communicate quickly with relative ease, establishing the contemporary version of this phenomenon, known as electronic word of mouth (eWoW) as an intrinsic marketing communication channel. However for many SMEs, as Bulearca, (2010, p.298) suggests using social media and especially micro-blogging sites such as Twitter is only a recent phenomenon, as it is mainly since 2008 that social networking sites ‘exploded’ in user numbers and marketing applications. It may therefore be considered that there is limited academic research into this area (Zhao and Rossen, 2009; Jansen et al, 2009) and much of it is focussed on the user side, with little known from the companies’ perspective. What is evident from recent studies (Singh et al, 2008, Harris et al, 2008, Dwyer, 2007, Young at al, 2007) as Sashi (2012, p.267) confirms is that new technologies and tools spawned by social media have altered the roles of buyers and sellers; unlike traditional market exchanges in which the seller largely controlled marketing mix decisions relating to product, price, promotion, place and developed strategies to meet the needs of customers, social media helps shift control of some of these decisions directly to customers (Sashi, 2012).Not only that but social media enables customers to participate in value adding and marketing decisions as Sashi, 2012, p,.267 intimates by connecting and interacting not only with sellers but also with other customers as well as non-customers, an important facet of eWoM.
The objectives of this research will therefore focus on mapping how far SMEs can and are adapting their practices to identify and engage audiences through conversational discourse, utilising social media channels and networks, and with what implications for the future of marketing strategies. In order to expand the expediency of current literature one strand of future research will include a broader analysis of social media practice among business professionals, (aged 35-45) in order to establish how this may influence the identification and engagement of audiences (prosumers) through social media networks. An analysis of views and experiences from industry experts is also proposed, as well as a more detailed case study evaluation of SMEs, specifically in terms of eWoM on Twitter and blogs, as well as how they may be used to meet strategic objectives, as compared with traditional marketing methods.
Reasons for interest in this field
As a marketing communications professional working for more than 15 years – I have worked both from a consultancy basis and within SMEs, so I can definitely relate to the challenges and opportunities available through social media and specifically how to manage electronic word of mouth (eWoM) communications. A specific difficulty, evident in working practice is the ability to engage, develop and maintain conversational discourse effectively with business to business groups via social media. I am also interested within a broader spectrum as to how social media is effecting and influencing interpersonal relationships outside of the work environment which will also be explored expediently as part of this study, together with the experiences of other marketing communications professionals to inform recommendations. I am particularly enthusiastic about having the opportunity to analyse the influence and impact of social media within SMEs, as marketing communications, specifically word of mouth, social media and the impact on
customer engagement and reputational management in the UK and Internationally are areas which I hope to continue research and teaching within. Also, within the context of the current financial crisis and continuously emerging social network sites, it can be argued that there is a need to redefine models of eWoM communications, in order to more effectively target stakeholders so as to better serve the needs of managers, entrepreneurs, firms and society.
The main theorists who have made a contribution to this area of research
Identification of the relevant literature
An increasing body of literature has highlighted the importance and influence of word-of-mouth (WoM) communications and how it can assist and enrich the communications process (Fill, 2009, p.51/52). WoM has been related to many aspects of marketing. For example, Woodside and Delozier (1976, p.12) link WoM with consumer risk, while others establish links with complaining behaviour (Blodgett et al, 1995: 32) product judgements (Bone, 1995, p.214) consumer attitudes (Bickart and Schindler, 2001, p.31) and as an integral aspect of the customer relationship (Wangenheim, 2005, p.154). Historical definitions such as Helm and Schlei (1998, p.42) define WoM as: “Verbal communications (either positive or negative) between groups such as the product provider, independent experts, family, friends and the actual or personal consumer.’ As Fill (2009, p.52) highlights organisations now use WoM techniques commercially in order to generate a point of differentiation. Mazzarol et al (2007, as cited in Fill, 2009, p.52) identify the ‘richness of the message’ and the ‘strength of the implied or explicit advocacy’ as important triggers for WoM.
Latterly, organisations such as Stanomedia (2011) have developed this argument a stage further to suggest that when people communicate with each other by many more means than just orally “word of mouth” no longer fits in such a small definition, at least not for marketing purposes. Furthermore, as Goldenberg et al (2001, p.212) establishes the increasing use of the internet, enabling surfers to communicate quickly with relative ease, has established the contemporary version of this phenomenon, known as ‘Internet WoM or ‘word of mouse’, as an important
marketing communication channel. In what is sometimes labelled as ‘viral marketing’ as Goldenberg et al (2001,p.212) suggests, companies are currently investing considerable efforts to trigger an electronic word of mouth process and accelerate its distribution (Schwartz 1998; Oberndorf, 2000). And because channels like email, Facebook, Twitter or text messages most likely communicate information from ‘trusted’ sources the person receiving them is very likely to believe them and a situation is created in which the customer takes on the role of a type of ‘consumer-marketer hybrid’ (Kozinets, 2010, p.83). In this instance other participating customers have the power to approve “the communicator” or the people voluntarily sign up to listen, which means they already trust the organisation to some degree, (Stanomedia, 2011).
As Goldenburg et al (2001, p.212) suggests social media is able to foster the exchange of word of mouth messages, by creating a virtual community for consumers to interact with each other. When compared with the effect of external marketing efforts (e.g advertising) in this study, information dissemination is notably dominated by eWoM paths. Trusov, Bucklin and Pauwels (2009) also compared eWoM to ‘traditional marketing efforts’ when analysing methods to increase the quantity of users on a particular social networking site. On the whole it can be ascertained from this paper that eWoM referrals have a strong effect on new customer acquisition, influencing more individuals and lasting over a longer period than more ‘traditional marketing.’ Importantly, this study also offers managers a tool to improve the metrics they use for assessing the effectiveness of traditional marketing when WoM effects are present, while also offering a mechanism to quantify eWoM through outgoing messages. As a technique to measure the transition of conversational discourse, this methodology should prove advantageous to SMEs. Plus there is the opportunity to build on some of the ‘limitations’ from this data, including the analysis of more than just one large social networking site, which in this instance has prevented analysis of the effects of WoM for – and marketing actions by – competing sites. Modelling heterogeneity in order to clarify segmentation or specific audiences, is also an important aspect, to identify more detailed engagement strategies, pertinent for SMEs, particularly those operating within the business to business typology, which are primarily focussed on attracting, engaging with and building long-term relationships with specific interest groups, including ‘networked narratives’ (Kozinets et al, 2010) rather than ‘customers’ per se.
While the main concerns of SMEs in relation to the identifying and engaging of audiences through social media are likely to be related to the generic characteristics of limited time/resources and expertise, the e-marketplace provides a favourable environment, including; lower operating and marketing costs, better opportunities to promote their products/services, and enrich their overall marketing communications mix, (Chong et al 2010, p.5). Overall, the principle benefits of the SME e-marketplace as reported by many academics and practitioners are cited in Chong et al (2010, p.6) including: reducing search costs by facilitating comparison of price, products, and services (Kandampully, 2003; Bakos, 1998; Kaplan and Sawhney, 2000); improving production and supply capability (Barua et al., 1997; Albrecht et al., 2005); improving personalisation and customisation of product offerings (Bakos, 1998); enhancing relationships with customers (Kierzkowski et al., 1996); reducing marketing costs as compared to traditional marketing media (Sculley and Woods, 2001); reducing numbers of marketing staff (Gloor, 2000); operating 24/7 and around the clock over 365 days per year (Ngai, 2003); facilitating global presence (Laudon and Laudon, 2002); exploring new market segments (Murtaza et al., 2004); and interactive conversational discourse is more effective in terms of services marketing communication (Petersen et al, 2007).
SMEs are often categorised as having fewer resources, as Centeno (2012, p.253) confirms, which may include not only financial, but also marketing knowledge (Gilmore et al, 2001, Mount et al, 1993) as well as marketing communications personnel to undertake the day to day implementation. Centeno (2012, p.253) acknowledges, paradoxically that SMEs may also have a short-term focus with flat and informal organisational structures, which may also be suitable for a more dynamic and innovative responses to the market (Gilmore et al, 2001, McGaughey, 1998). Importantly, one shift facilitated by social media channels for the benefit of SMEs as Qualman (2011, p.193) outlines is financial, in that the money previously dispersed to ‘middlemen’ is now being redistributed to the companies themselves and direct to consumers.
However for many SMEs, as Bulearca, (2010, p.298) suggests using social media and especially micro-blogging sites such as Twitter is only a recent phenomenon, as it is mainly since 2008 that social networking sites ‘exploded’ in user numbers and marketing applications. It may therefore be argued that there is limited academic research into this area (Zhao and Rossen, 2009; Jansen et al, 2009) and much of it is focussed on the user side, with little known from the companies’ perspective. Despite this, as Israel (2009, p.147) states a new business located in a spare bedroom or less-than-prime former industrial space can build a network of customers at little or no cost. However, as an interviewee from an SME within a recent study (Bulearca, 2010) reiterates ‘Twitter needs consistency and commitment, a clear understanding of its purpose, functionalities and tools, and a strategic implementation if it is to yield the best results. ‘Return-on-investment (or value) is also difficult to quantify as results are ‘more people orientated than financial’ and the tools provided by Twitter are still perceived as ‘very basic’, (Bulearca, 2010, p.304).
Chua, (2009, p.119) also outlines growing evidence that Social media mechanisms are being used by business as part of their customer relationship management strategies (Singh et al, 2008, Dwyer, 2007) as well as managing reputation and trust (Gordon, 2006, Gray, 2006), niche marketing (Singh et al, 2008) and gathering market intelligence (Habermann, 2005, O’Flaherty, 2008). Schoble and Israel (2006, p.232) take this a stage further in their analysis when they highlight that in their view blogging is vital for companies, not just in terms of outbound communications, but inbound as well, describing their role as multifaceted in terms of; a crisis firefighter, a superior research aggregator, a tool for recruiting, a product builder and customer service and support enhancement. In addition, blogging, it is argued by Schoble and Israel (2006, p.232) will help companies to ‘win’ not just by talking to people but also by listening. Recent examples of studies as cited by Chua (2009, p.120) includes; a 2007 Forrester survey of 119 chief information officers working in SMEs and larger companies in the USA (Young et al, 2007) in which 89% declared that they had adopted at least one Web 2.0 tool (out of blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, social networking and content tagging).
While, Harris et al (2008) conducted a telephone survey of 400 SMEs in the UK concerning their use of Web 2.0 tools, including 30 case studies of small firms which were early adopters of blogs, although the study did not explore specifically how blogs could be used to support marketing objectives. Singh et al (2008, as cited in Chua, 2009, p.120) presents a general discussion of the marketing potential of blogs for businesses primarily focused on large firms, which includes a couple of anecdotal examples of small businesses which have made effective use of blogs for marketing.
What is evident from these studies as Sashi (2012, p.267) confirms is that new technologies and tools spawned by social media have altered the roles of buyers and sellers; unlike traditional market exchanges in which the seller largely controlled marketing mix decisions relating to product, price, promotion, place and developed strategies to meet the needs of customers, social media helps shift control of some of these decisions directly to customers (Sashi, 2012).Not only that but social media enables customers to participate in value adding and marketing mix decisions as Sashi, 2012, p,.267 intimates by connecting and interacting not only with sellers but also with other customers as well as non-customers, an important facet of eWoM.
Chua et al (2009, p.119) makes a significant point in relation to future research paradigms with SMEs, as it is argued that much of the existing eBusiness research tends to treat them as a homogeneous group (Parker and Castleman, 2007, Castleman, 2004 and Martin and Matlay, 2001). Part of the challenge in investigating social media usage in SMEs is therefore to at least in the first instance form a better understanding of the complex internal and external SME contexts governing whether or not the adoption of social media makes sense for specific types of SMEs, and for specific purposes such as facilitating and mapping eWoM conversational discourse and whether this is more appropriate for certain purposes such as establishing and maintaining customer engagement in predominantly B2B SMEs.
It is suggested that in order to expand the expediency of current literature that one strand of future research could include a broader analysis of social media practice among business professionals, ‘prosumers’ (aged 35-45) in order to establish how this may influence the identification and engagement of audiences through social media networks. An analysis of views and experiences from industry experts is also proposed, as well as a more detailed case study analysis of current engagement levels with online conversational discourse in SMEs, specifically in terms of eWoM on Twitter and via blogs and how they may be used to meet strategic objectives, as compared with traditional marketing methods.
The conceptual/theoretical framework or approach upon which my research is based
In summary this research is intended to analyse and develop a new model for SMEs in terms of approaches to identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse that considers the suitability of specific social media mechanisms i.e micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and blogs. Due consideration will be given to the importance of eWoM in terms of attracting and retaining customers, as well as return on investment measurements. As Jones (2010, p.150) suggests the Web 2.0 world poses a number of challenges to small businesses and the ways in which they communicate; how best to operate successfully in this new landscape is an issue that small businesses have to address at an individual level, from experience and on a ‘need to manage’ basis. It is concluded by Jones, (2010, p.150) that a more grounded, empirically informed, evidence-based case-study analysis of specific small business practice of using Web 2.0 is the best way forward for impact assessment and further research areas are recommended as: ‘real-world’ small business practice of Web 2.0 use, via in-depth case study analysis; the role of Web 2.0 in the co-creation of value for small businesses; evaluating consumers and prosumers views of small business Web 2.0 marketing activities. It is the intention of this research to investigate and analyse these areas, as well as understanding current practice withn SMEs as informed by marketing communications ‘experts’, which will add a third analytical dimension in order to deliver a detailed overview of this subject matter.
An outline of how my thesis will extend, elaborate upon or provide a critique of their work
Key research questions
The research questions will be refined after the full literature review and (baseline study), from the following:
- What are the challenges and opportunities for SMEs in terms of identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse, in light of the concept of the ‘participative web’ (OECD, 2007) that empowers users to contribute to developing, rating, collaborating and distributing internet content and customising internet applications?
- What factors create successful online conversational discourse through social media usage/networks?; Understanding: current practice and future developments from the perspective of marketing communications professionals
- How can eWoM be effectively harnessed by SMEs to help promote their business offerings, in terms of differentiation from competitors; communicating with publics and stakeholders to co-create value, raise their profile, build trust and enhance reputation, research and better understand the markets in which they operate; generate trade with other businesses and overall develop and grow their business as compared with traditional marketing materials and in order to meet marketing objectives?
- How can SMEs better understand the role of prosumers in entrepreneurial marketing? Evaluating prosumers’ views of small business social media activities, including the influence of ‘participative web’ activity in the co-creation of value for SMEs, but also considering the impact on social outcomes, orchestrated by a mutual dependence on social networks
- What are the implications for the future of social media usage by SMEs? What deters SMEs from adopting eWoM techniques? What factors create successful eWoM social media programmes? What is the process of audience engagement and SME implementation and monitoring? What is defined as an effective return on investment and how does this contribute to meeting overall marketing objectives? This could include: analysis and development of a new business model that supports SMEs in the planning and development stages of any social media strategies in order that they can effectively map participation, outcomes and value propositions as a way of building international competitive advantage and generating economic dynamism, growth and jobs to support the knowledge economy.
At this point, the working title: ‘Identifying and engaging audiences through online conversational discourse: An analysis of social media usage within small medium enterprises (SMEs)’ is not in the form of a research hypothesis. The questions outlined earlier do, however, help to identify key areas for further analysis and investigation.
In order to put the influence of SMEs on the UK economy into perspective the latest statistics from the Federation of Small Businesses (2011) are included below:
- There are 4.5 million small businesses in the UK
- SMEs account for 99 per cent of all enterprise in the UK, 58.8 per cent of private sector employment and 48.8 per cent of private sector turnover
- SMEs employed an estimated 13.8 million people and had an estimated combined annual turnover of £1,500 billion
- Businesses with employees account for a quarter of all enterprises – a fall of 29,000 since 2010
- There are 876,000 businesses in construction – a fifth of all UK enterprises
- London has 748,000 enterprises – more than any other region
- The South East has the second largest number of enterprises with 745,000. Combined with London, a third of all businesses are based here
- 45.3 per cent of businesses are registered for VAT and/or PAYE
- The number of sole proprietorships increased by 87,000 in 2010 and the number of companies, 6,000
Micro: 0-9 employees, small: 10-50 employees, medium: 50-249 employees (updated November, 2011).
Carrying out the research – the specific techniques of investigation and analysis I plan to use
The utilisation of qualitative and quantitative data, a ‘sequential mixed methods’* (Cresswell and Plano Clark, 2007, cited in Creswell, 2009, p. 14) approach to research will be utilised throughout the compilation of this study. As Jogulu and Pansiri (2011, p.688) state the mixed methods research approach, also referred to as the third path (Gorard and Taylor, 2004, as cited in Jogulu and Pansiri, 2011, p.688), or the third research paradigm (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004, p14) is widely used and recognised by management scholars.
Cresswell and Plano Clark (2007, p.5) define mixed methods as: a research design with philosophical assumptions as well as methods of inquiry. Further substantiating this vision, by stating: “As a methodology, it involves philosophical assumptions that guide the direction of the collection and analysis of data and the mixture of qualitative and quantitative data in a single study or series of studies” (Creswell and Plano Clark (2007, p.5). Its central premise as cited by Creswell and Plano (2007, p.5) is that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches in combination provides a better understanding of research problems than either approach alone.
In addition, it is argued by Jogulu and Pansiri (2011, p.688) that a mixed methods approach, advocates the use of both inductive and deductive research logic, which is a great strength in itself, as having an inductive-deductive cycle allows the equal undertaking of theory generation and hypothesis testing in a single study, without compromising one for the other.
It is also expected given the relatively new concept of social media usage in SMEs that any methodology will be to some extent exploratory and inductive. Initial analysis will focus on the implementation and analysis of online questionnaires based on a standard format (e.g. Likert scale model) to obtain mainly quantitative responses, which will be complimented by a qualitative approach in the form of case-study analysis which will include in-depth interviews and observation, as detailed in the provisional diagram below.
The first stage of this research paradigm is to collect primary quantitative survey data via two different online questionnaires aimed at: marketing communications professionals (chartered institute of public relations members) and prosumers (aged 35-45) as a sample segment of ‘participative’ social media users. According to Easterby-Smith et al (2009, p.90) there are three main types of survey: factual, inferential and exploratory. Inferential surveys as Easterby-Smith et al (2009, p.91) confirms are aimed at establishing relationships between variables and concepts whether there are prior assumptions and hypotheses regarding the nature of these relationships.
For the purposes of this study SMEs in South East England, including the following counties: Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire and Cambridgeshire will be targeted in order to provide a targeted analysis of case-studies.
Eisenhardt (1989, p.534) defined case study ‘as a research strategy that focuses on the dynamics present within a single setting.’ According to Eisenhardt (1989) there are three ways case studies could be used to accomplish the researcher’s aims – case studies provide description whilst testing and/or generating theory. Case study data can also come from a variety of sources. Stake (1995) identified six sources from which qualitative research data are collected for case studies. First, the nature of the case, particularly its activity and functioning, second, its historical background, third, its physical setting, fourth, other contexts, such as economic, political, legal, and aesthetic; fifth, other cases through which the case is recognised; and sixth, those informants through whom the case can be known. Interviewing ‘experts’ in the subject, such as senior managers, marketing/PR and communications managers, as well as observation at various intervals, will form a key element of the case-study preparation.
Collecting primary data as a priority is suggested as there is unlikely to be a large volume of published statistics or texts available that encompasses a detailed picture of how SMEs have adapted their practices and priorities to encompass social media activity, as well as the monitoring of its effectiveness as compared with traditional marketing materials as a means of meeting strategic objectives.
|Literature review||20,000||6 months|
|Data gathering||12 months (overlapping with methodology)|
|Data analysis||20,000||8 months|
|Conclusion, implications and recommendations for further research||15,000||5 months|
|Introduction and abstract||5,000||2 months|
|Amendments and revisions||2 months|
|Total||75,000 (200 pages approx.)||36 months (3 years)|
What specifically do you hope this thesis will discover or explain that will make it an original contribution to knowledge?
Social media as a research paradigm, with its many facets is still very much in its infancy. As McQuail, (2000, as cited in Daugherty et al, 2008, p.16) highlights ‘consumers are active and in charge of their media experiences, making it more important than ever to understand motivational factors’ in this instance that drive consumption and interaction with organisations and individuals. This power shift as Severin and Tankard (1992, as cited in Daugherty et al, 2008, p.16) describes, challenges media theorists (and organisations, specifically SMEs) to change the way they traditionally have identified (and engaged with) audiences, with a lesser focus on examining the theoretical effects of media and a greater focus on understanding why and how consumers use media. From the SME’s perspective, engaging
audiences through online conversational discourse, deploying the tools of Web 2.0, will facilitate communications in new ways with their varied stakeholders. As Jones (2010, p.149) states communication methodology has changed significantly to promote mutual value between the organisation and their ‘audience’: ‘Where once businesses communicated to their customers and other stakeholders, they now communicate in partnership with them.’ The views, experiences and recommendations of marketing communications experts will also be considered in order to inform current and future practice.
In light of this, this study is designed to examine and analyse the opportunities, challenges and barriers to utilising social media channels effectively by SMEs, within the B2B context primarily, by testing existing implementation and quantifying the outcomes from the perspective of senior internal employees and marketing communications experts. An important element of this analysis is to explain the influence and expedience of eWoM as a means of influencing engagement and the distribution of messages via a primary framework analysis, utilising the case-study examples. Plus, to underpin this study a broader investigation of social media usage by professionals aged 35-45 will be undertaken to ascertain attitudes, motivations, objectives and outcomes to inform engagement and eWoW behavioural traits as well as the impact on wider social relationships. This approach is intended to broaden understanding and primary data related to the use of social media specifically within the B2B context to better inform future implementation and practice.
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