Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196

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Computers in Human Behavior
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Twitter as a social actor: How consumers evaluate brands differently
on Twitter based on relationship norms
Zongchao Li ⇑, Cong Li 1
School of Communication, University of Miami, P.O. Box 248127, Coral Gables, FL 33124, United States

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Available online 2 August 2014
Social response theory
Consumer–brand relationship

a b s t r a c t
The consumer–brand relationship literature indicates that consumers follow certain norms in their
relationships with brands, and adherence or violation of those norms affects their brand evaluations.
However, whether consumers use similar principles to guide their interactions with brands in computer-mediated communication (CMC) environments such as social networking sites remains unknown.
To address this question, this study tests how consumers evaluate brands on Twitter depending on their
own Twitter usage intensity. Based on social response theory, it is argued that a CMC context (as represented by Twitter) acts as an independent social actor and people follow offline interpersonal relationship
rules in their interactions with brands on Twitter. Through a 2 (relationship type: exchange vs. communal)  2 (Twitter usage intensity: light vs. heavy) experiment, it is found that light Twitter users follow
exchange relationship norms and evaluate a brand with exchange relationship-oriented messages more
favorably than communal relationship-oriented messages. Heavy users, however, do not show such
Published by Elsevier Ltd.

1. Introduction
The notion that consumers form relationships with brands is
well documented in the literature (e.g., Aggarwal, 2004;
Aggarwal & Law, 2005; Aggarwal & Zhang, 2006; Esch, Langner,
Schmitt, & Geus, 2006; Foo, Douglas, & Jack, 2008; Fournier,
1998; Johnson & Grimm, 2010; Mathwick, 2002). Built upon interpersonal relationship theories, these studies have distinguished
two types of relationships: exchange and communal. A common
premise in this line of research is that consumers follow interpersonal relationship norms when interacting with brands and adherence or violation of those norms will affect their brand evaluations.
Most prior research on consumer–brand relationships was
within offline contexts. However, with the evolving complexity of
new media technology, there is a central argument in the computer-mediated communication (CMC) literature regarding the
lack of social cues and its impact on social norms. Some researchers suggested that the reduced social presence in the context of
CMC tends to weaken the salience of social norms (e.g., Daft &
Lengel, 1986; Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Siegel, Dubrovsky,
Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986), but others contended that the reduced
⇑ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 (305) 284 2138.

E-mail addresses: (Z. Li), (C. Li).
Tel.: +1 (305) 284 2355.
0747-5632/Published by Elsevier Ltd.

social presence makes certain social norms more salient, rather
than impaired (e.g., Lea & Spears, 1991; Postmes, Spears, Sakhel,
& De Groot, 2001; Spears & Lea, 1994).
Meanwhile, there is a growing body of research arguing that
media technology itself, functions as an independent source
(‘‘actor’’) of communication (Sundar & Nass, 2001). According to
social response theory and computers-as-social-actors (CASA) paradigm (e.g., Moon, 2000; Nass & Steuer, 1993), people can establish
relationships with computers (Sundar, 2004) and these relationships are subject to the same social rules of interpersonal relationships (e.g. Nass, Moon, & Carney, 1999; Nass, Steuer, & Tauber,
1994; Tzeng, 2006). Other research has further applied this rationale to the web context (Brown, Broderick, & Lee, 2007; Magee &
Kalyanaraman, 2010), and demonstrated that people apply social
norms that conventionally guide human-to-human interactions
to websites.
Nowadays, many companies are using social networking sites
such as Facebook and Twitter to interact with their consumers
(Holmes, 2011). The online social networks build a tight community where users form a strong relationship with the brand. However, it is unknown whether consumers would apply traditional
offline interpersonal relationship norms within such a unique
online environment. To fulfill this theoretical gap, this study
explores consumer–brand relationships in the context of a social
networking site, Twitter. Through a 2 (relationship type: exchange

In an attempt of solving these conceptual puzzles and advancing theoretical understandings of how consumers form relationships with brands online. 2008) and donation (Johnson & Grimm. thus. Many important but unanswered theoretical questions arise. 1994). 1998). Mathwick. 1994). People in a communal relationship do not seek a comparable benefit (Clark. 2002. Aggarwal. Daft & Lengel. Johnson. although there is no consensus on how they differ. 2002. Fournier. Light users. . acts as an independent social actor. However. It is argued that the Twitter website acts as a proxy for interpersonal relationships. Fischer. Similarly. 2002). The receipt of a benefit creates an obligation or debt that an equal benefit should be reciprocated. 1986). could reduce the impact of social norms and constraints and trigger deregulated abnormal behaviors (e. ‘‘online relationships appear to be as intimate and rich in emotional support as any experienced in off-line environments’’ (Mathwick. 2005. 2000. Aggarwal (2004) argued that a consumer’s evaluation of a brand is based on whether his/her interaction with the brand adheres or violates the norms of their relationship. 1993). people in the communal relationship condition preferred a longer delay between giving and receiving benefits because a delayed return request was regarded as unrelated to the original request. The reduced social presence in CMC makes certain social norms more salient. Mills. 1987). it will significantly influence how people evaluate brands that post relational messages on Twitter. while relationships among business partners are more exchangeoriented (Clark. 2001.g. 2008. confirming the exchange relationship norms of quid pro quo (Batson. Literature review 2. while exchange relationships are not necessarily long-term oriented. 2001. 1981). On the one hand. Clark et al. such as ‘‘What kind of relationship consumers expect when they interact with brands in a CMC environment?’’ and ‘‘Will people use offline interpersonal relationship norms to guide their interactions with brands online?’’ Unfortunately.. Aggarwal & Zhang. 1985). & Corcoran. 1993). confirming the communal relationship norms. Mills. 2001. because the CMC environment where the brands are placed is considered as a unique social actor.g. Without FtF interactions. and also harder for these emotions to be decoded and recognized by other people (Derks. Siegel et al.1. Harden. For example. 1986. 1981). In contrast. Aggarwal and Law (2005) showed that a certain prime could make a relationship norm salient. 2010. 2006. Clark. 2. such as a social networking site. It is argued that a CMC environment itself. Clark & Waddell. These two contradictory camps of argument present a great challenge for scholars to examine how CMC contexts affect consumer–brand relationships. tend to follow the exchange norms. exchange relationships and communal relationships (Clark & Mills. 1986).. Interpersonal relationship norms widely observed within offline settings will also dictate how consumers interact with brands online. 1999). Prior research has suggested that relationship norms dictate consumers’ interactions with brands. 2006). Clark & Mills. Johnson & Grimm. Exchange relationships vs. C. 1993). The absence of social cues in a CMC environment.. 1993. Heavy Twitter users are expected to establish a closer relationship with the Twitter site and follow the communal relationship norms. 2010). The high level of self-disclosure. thus consumers may form relationships with brands in a similar manner as relationships with other people. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 vs. & Mills. 1998. and behaviors in very different ways. In fact. When those relationship norms are conformed or violated. How consumers establish relationships with brands within an online environment remains unknown in the literature. Clark & Mills. 42). 2002). 1989). such research is much needed because computer-mediated communication (CMC) and face-to-face (FtF) communication are expected to influence people’s perceptions. 2002). and it seems quite ambiguous in regard to what specific relationship dominates consumers’ interactions with brands in the cyberspace.. 1984.. individuals in the exchange relationship condition were more inclined to an immediate request because such a request acted as a gesture of paying off the debt. Social rules and norms governing the giving and receiving of benefits distinguish the two forms (Clark & Mills. benefits are given in response to each other’s needs or welfare concerns (Clark & Mills. It is argued that the lack of social and non-verbal cues in a CMC context makes it difficult for a person to express his/her emotions (Rice & Love. 1993). 1991. consequently. romantic relationships. They are more likely to keep track of inputs and outputs in a joint task (Clark. Mathwick. on the other hand. rather than impaired (Lea & Spears. 2003). Spears & Lea. Mills & Clark. Kiesler et al. communal)  2 (Twitter usage intensity: light vs. 1979. some research suggests that CMC is less personal and socio-emotional than FtF communication (Hiltz. communal relationships Two types of relationships are identified in the interpersonal relationship literature. CMC makes it easier for people to express themselves (Derks et al. could help form meaningful and close relationships in the cyberspace (Joinson. the study tests how consumers evaluate brands with exchange or communal relationship orientations. Aggarwal & Law. we adopt a unique theoretical perspective from social response theory in this study (Moon. Moon. Instead. They tend to keep track of the partner’s needs (Clark. The anonymity feature associated with CMC allows people to reveal themselves more intimately than within FtF contexts (Mathwick. 2008. On the other hand. other studies have shown that a CMC environment can indeed draw people together to open up and offer help (Joinson. Friendships. Reingold. 1979. Foo et al.188 Z. and family relationships are communal in nature. The effects of relationship norms on consumer behavior had also been examined in other contexts. Moreover. new technology (Foo et al.. 2008. 2014. the existing literature does not provide clear answers to these questions. and are more willing to express emotions (Clark & Taraban. 2001. Postmes et al. The distinction between exchange and communal relationships has also been applied to research of consumer–brand interactions (e. 1986. 2006. individuals tend to experience a sense of isolation and estrangement (Foo et al. 2008). Individuals participating in an exchange relationship prefer to receive a comparable benefit (Clark. It is worth pointing out that most prior studies examined the effects of relationship norms on consumer–brand interactions within an offline setting. 1994). 2004. Li & Li.. & Powell. such as loss aversion (Aggarwal & Zhang. but preferred to receive a comparable benefit when primed with an exchange relationship context.. Esch et al.. In contrast. Brands can possess human-like personalities (Aggarwal. 1979. Reingold. Distinctive behavior norms of these two relationship types have been revealed in previous research. McKenna & Bargh. 1991). and ask for repayment for benefits provided (Clark & Mills. 1993). Postmes et al. Individuals give each other benefits with the expectation of receiving a comparable benefit in return in an exchange relationship. 1984. and consequently affected how consumers evaluated brands. Mills and Clark (1994) have noted that communal relationships are associated with expectations of long-term relationship outcomes. Mills & Clark. p. attitudes. Dubash. It is argued that without the constraints of social status and physical appearance. & Bos. & Turoff. It was found that people preferred to receive a non-comparable benefit when primed with a communal relationship scenario. heavy) between-subjects experiment.... 2004. 1989). communal relationships impose no obligation between the relationship partners. Li.

Nass et al. communal relationships are usually found among friends. However. The rationale to make this assumption is based on the virtual community and interpersonal relationship literature. 1996). Mathwick. reciprocity (Fogg & Nass. 2000)... we 189 anticipate that consumers will use interpersonal relationship norms to guide their interactions with brands online. & Gilbert. Previous research has demonstrated that relationship norms are relatively robust to experimental manipulations: the effects of relationship norms . also apply to human–computer relationships (Sundar. 2. it is argued that the physical manifestation of media technology itself can serve as a communication source and this source is perceived as autonomous and worthy of human social attributions (Sundar & Nass. 2000. social networking sites enable people to find others with similar interests and emotional needs. 2003. Similarly.. Particularly. 1990. Wakefield.’’ thus following the communal relationship norms. Besides computers. & Basmanova. Most recently. 2000). & Lampe.Z. and dependence. romantic partners and family members where a high familiarity and intimacy are established.. Another explanation for this phenomenon is that people engage in ‘‘mindless’’ behaviors to avoid extensive information processing (Nass & Moon. 1994). & Gázquez-Abad. When consumers interact with a new brand (which they have no prior experience with) on Twitter.3. a virtual community ‘‘may be a marketing context that affords the opportunity for relationship building based upon something more than mere exchange’’ (Mathwick. Familiarity established through enduring usage of SNSs also leads to perceived mutual support (Sánchez-Franco. Li. 1994. 1994). 2007). people tend to view computer technology not just as a medium of communication. personality (Isbister & Nass. When a Twitter user establishes a relationship with the Twitter website. However. Specifically. Brown et al. Applying the social response to Twitter. Baker. With the evolving new media technology nowadays. Carballar-Falcón. p. and marketing relationships are maintained by ‘‘a mutual exchange and the fulfillment of promises’’ (Gronroos. Wang. people respond by exhibiting social behaviors and making social attributions toward the technology’’ (Moon. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 2. while exchange relationships are mostly among strangers and business partners (Clark et al. 2000). Several prior studies have demonstrated that users develop a relationship with a website by applying social norms that conventionally guide human-to-human interactions. however. we choose a popular social networking site. Extending social response theory and CASA paradigm to examine consumer–brand relationships within a CMC environment. 1997). social conventions that traditionally regulate interpersonal behaviors are applicable to human interactions with technology (Moon.. 2001). Kwon. they will refer to the relationship they have with Twitter to make judgments and decisions. we hypothesize interaction effects between relationship type (exchange vs. Pentina et al. Hypotheses Based on the above review of literature. Nass & Steuer. researchers have also applied social response theory to the web context by arguing that a website can function as an independent social actor (e. Kumar & Benbasat. Compared to non-users. 2007). As argued by Morgan and Hunt (1994. developing and maintaining successful relational exchanges’’. (2007) argued that an online community website acted as a social proxy. they may consider it to be a ‘‘friend. Zhang. The most prominent social response research is conducted by a school of researchers endorsing the computersas-social-actors paradigm (CASA). 2011. users are more familiar and more experienced. Reingold. Many relationship-oriented constructs such as trust. for example. 2012). The mutual support among members of an online brand community suggests the possibility of communal relationship norms (Mathwick. Moon. evolutionarily biased toward a social orientation’’ (Moon. light users barely ‘‘know’’ Twitter. The CASA paradigm contends that people respond to computers as an independent source of information and a social actor in its own right and that they automatically and unconsciously apply social attributions and expectations to computers (Nass et al. In this sense.2. 2007. 2011). 2011).. (2013) found that perceived self-Twitter personality match strengthens trust towards the Twitter brand. 1999. 1994. such as politeness (Nass et al. 2007. Traditional communication models often assume the message source to be the message originator. Thus. long-term based relationship with computers and such a relationship is psychologically different from users’ relationships with the person(s) behind the computer terminal (Moon. Brown et al. found that users attributed perceptions of morality to certain websites and such perceptions further impacted the websites’ persuasiveness. Sundar & Nass. because heavy users ‘‘know’’ Twitter well. which will be explained in more detail in the following method section. Adopting the communication source typology by Sundar and Nass (2001). Nass et al. Moreover. & Green. but also as a source of communication (Sundar & Nass. C. 2003.. 2001. p. the objective of all marketing activities is ‘‘establishing. The traditional relationship marketing perspective suggests an exchange orientation. Steinfield. & Wang. 2013) and virtual agents research (Chattaraman. self/other attribution (Moon.g. Moon & Nass. relationships formed in a virtual community might go beyond the exchange orientation (e. 2000). and the directions of these interactions depend on specific relationships they form with the CMC environment (the social actor). to represent a CMC environment in our study since most companies start to use social media to communicate with their consumers nowadays (Holmes. Wakefield. the social exchange is between each Twitter user and the Twitter website. Nass et al. Magee & Kalyanaraman. 2001. Tzeng. representing the network community as a whole. Magee and Kalyanaraman (2010). gender stereotypes (Nass. p. and self-disclosure (Moon. Pentina. 2000). 2000). 2002. Martínez-López. Wagner. The reason why people interact with computers and websites in a way as if they were persons is largely based on how they interpret message source. making it possible to develop close and intimate relationships (Derks et al. Mills & Clark. 22). Past research has found that usage of social networking sites (SNSs) corresponds with the familiarity with such sites (Ellison. 2002).. 1998. p. & Wakefield. social response theory has been applied to social media (Huang & Lin. p. One theoretical rationale accounted for such social responses is that ‘‘humans are social animals. Twitter. Relationship type was manipulated through the type of messages posted by a retail brand on Twitter.. communal) and Twitter usage intensity (light vs. Joinson. heavy) on brand evaluation. 2004). Hargittai. two user groups are classified in this study: heavy users and light users. and media are just channels for communication between the message sender and the receiver (Sundar & Nass. 5). In other words. credibility. Social response theory and CASA paradigm According to social response theory. 2011. 42).. 2001. Thus.g.. It is argued that heavy Twitter users are more likely to follow the communal relationship norms. 1997. 2002. 1993). Baker. this relationship can be either exchange or communal. while light users are more exchange relationship oriented. 2008). 2006). ‘‘when presented with a technology possessing a set of characteristics normally associated with humans. The common thread across all these studies is that individuals can establish an evolving. so they are more likely to consider it to be a ‘‘stranger’’ and observe the exchange relationship norms. Many prior studies have demonstrated that people apply social rules and norms to their interactions with computers. Postmes et al. 2000. 325). 1994). From the interpersonal relationship perspective. 2000). Therefore. 127). 1993. we argue that Twitter functions as a proximate message source and an independent social actor. 2010.

Study stimuli To avoid potential confounding effects of familiarity with existing brands. Participants and study design This study is a 2 (relationship type: exchange vs. N = 84. Thus.71) showed significantly more interest in shoes than males (M = 3. As a matter of fact. There will be a significant interaction effect between Twitter usage intensity and relationship type on attitude toward the brand. Clark. Prior research has suggested that a person’s involvement with a product may affect his/her motivation to process related product information (e. To ensure that the two versions of Twitter account only differed in their relationship orientations. Light Twitter users will have a more favorable attitude toward the brand posting exchange relationship-oriented tweets than communal relationship-oriented ones. but such a difference will not be evident for heavy users. Due to this consideration. a pretest was conducted to evaluate the manipulation of the two relationship conditions. was measured. none of whom participated in the main experiment. 2005). Esch et al.. we focused on female participants solely in this research.. 2004. 3. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 can be observed without study participants actual forming a relationship with the brand or partner (Aggarwal 2004. 1985). Forty participants from the same university were exposed to the two stimulus conditions. 2006). Twitter usage intensity. 1986.66.1. 292). 3. Recall that relationship type was manipulated through the type of messages posted by the brand on Twitter.3. 2007). the persuasive effects of those messages will be jeopardized.. Such evidence leads us to believe that relationship norms can function as a contextual variable influencing consumers’ information processing strategies (Aggarwal & Law. efforts were made in the following aspects: (1) the brand’s Twitter homepage looked similar. prior research has shown that social cues perceived through a website can lead to an increased evaluation only for consumers highly involved with the product category. it may not generate as much negative effects as it would when the exchange relationship norms are breached. and such an influence is stronger for women than for men (Wang et al. Aggarwal. so as to avoid potential priming effects by the manipulation check questions. 2004. word-of-mouth (WOM) intention.. relationship norms can be made salient by priming an unrelated scenario (e.g. In contrast. 2005). The brand would respond and retweet consumers’ posts without the selfserving bias of encouraging future purchases. participated in the experiment in exchange of extra course credit points. Cacioppo. Light Twitter users will have a higher WOM intention toward the brand posting exchange relationship-oriented tweets than communal relationship-oriented ones. They were asked eight questions that either . & Schumann. the exchange relationship-oriented tweets in our study reflected the traditional relationship marketing context: the brand would post information and interact with consumers and expect some economic benefits in return. that consumer–brand relationship may not fully replicate the interpersonal relationship due to the nature of commercial contexts (Aggarwal.03 on a seven-point scale). but such a difference will not be evident for heavy users. A total of 86 undergraduate female students (age: M = 19. communal relationship-oriented tweets were primarily focused on establishing a close relationship with consumers without explicitly expecting a comparable benefit in return. When a brand sends ‘‘wrong’’ messages to consumers via Twitter that violate expected relationship norms (e. and (5) same user names were used in the tweets in both versions. they are expected to prefer communal relationship-oriented messages when evaluating a brand on the Twitter platform. Li. H3. but such a difference will not be evident for heavy users. There will be a significant interaction effect between Twitter usage intensity and relationship type on WOM intention. 1983.2. It needs to be pointed out. it cannot be assumed that ‘‘consumers who perceive communal components to their relationships will necessarily respond negatively to extrinsic rewards. we specifically hypothesize that: H1. 1993). sending communal messages to light users). (2) the post date and time of each tweet were kept consistent. On the other hand. Brown et al.’’ Thus. Clark & Mills. 2004. but to emphasize more on customer relations and services (see Fig. Clark & Mills 1993). both containing 10 tweets.73. 2007. 1). Because heavy users are more communal oriented. The stimulus messages (tweets) that reflect either an exchange or a communal relationship orientation. light users are likely to prefer exchange relationship-oriented messages on Twitter. All these variables have been used in prior research with a similar context (e. Method 3. when the communal relationship norms are violated on Twitter. There will be a significant interaction effect between Twitter usage intensity and relationship type on purchase intention. and purchase intention. H2. 3. Female students were purposively recruited because we wanted to isolate the effects of norm conformity or violation on brand evaluation from potential confounding influence of product involvement. The first factor.. Mdiff = 2. The other factor.76. are expected to trigger the relationship norms in our experimental setting. t (82) = 4. Based on a separate test from the same student population. Two versions of the brand’s Twitter homepage were created. heavy) full factorial between-subjects design. a Twitter account was set up for a fictitious online shoe retailer.23) at a medium-sized southeastern university in the U. Specifically.190 Z.001. though. The brand would respond and retweet consumers’ posts to emphasize the shopping benefits and encourage future purchases (see Fig. Based on these understandings.g. relationship type. Light Twitter users will have a higher purchase intention toward the brand posting exchange relationship-oriented tweets than communal relationship-oriented ones. 2010). Pretest Previous research has demonstrated that relationship norms are relatively susceptible to contextual influences: relationship norms can be elicited by priming an unrelated scenario prior to the brand evaluation (Aggarwal.g. C. Three outcome variables will be used to test such hypotheses including attitude. thus. As argued by Johnson and Grimm (2010. These tweets were modified based on real posts on Twitter and they reflected either an exchange or a communal relationship orientation.63. (4) the message valence was kept balanced in both versions so as to avoid potential positivity effect (eight positive tweets and two negative tweets in both versions)..95. Aggarwal & Law. 2). p. SD = 1.S. female students (M = 5. Specifically relevant to our study.g. p < . SD = 1. communal)  2 (Twitter usage intensity: light vs. The stimulus brand used in this study was a shoe retailer because of its close association with our study sample. Zaichkowsky. was manipulated in the experiment.. (3) the length of each tweet was kept at similar levels in both versions to avoid potential message length effect. SD = 2. Petty. Johnson & Grimm. describing relationship with a close friend as communal relationship manipulation) prior to the brand evaluation (Aggarwal 2004.

C. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 Fig. 1. Exchange message condition.Z. 191 . Li.

Li.192 Z. C. . Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 Fig. 2. Communal message condition.

major.83). Aggarwal & Law. 2005): the exchange items were reverse-coded and combined with the communal items to form a net communality score. As seen in Table 1..94) was measured with four items such as ‘‘I would say positive things about this company to other people. & Gunst.00) than light users (M = . p < . Barry. Results To test the three hypotheses. Based on principles of social cognition and interpersonal relationship development. F (1. p < .1. All questions came from established measures and the same analytical process was used as in past research (Aggarwal. The test results suggested a significant main effect of relationship type.07. p < . 2004. The pretest results showed that participants in the communal condition (M = 5.05. To prepare for the ANOVA analyses. In addition. F (1. they were debriefed and thanked.01.Z. Mdiff = 1. p < . 3.32). one of the independent variable. age. As also seen in Fig.. WOM intention To test H2. Siegel et al.05. participants were asked to fill out a paper-and-pencil pre-experiment questionnaire that contained measures of their Twitter usage intensity and demographics (gender. Twitter usage intensity. attitude was significantly higher in the exchange relationship condition than the communal relationship condition. High ratings on the score would indicate a communal-oriented relationship perception. 5.92. 1994). They were told that they would review a previously archived Twitter page of the shoe retailer. A significant main effect of Twitter usage intensity. 82) = 10. To further interpret the interaction effect. F (1.3.64. 82) = 4. another ANOVA test was conducted with purchase intention being the dependent variable and relationship type and Twitter usage intensity being the two fixed factors.39. the results indicated that for light users. 4. F (1.01. H2 was supported. SD = 1. it confirmed that the manipulation of exchange and communal relationships was successful.90. Thus.’’ and ‘‘I feel I am part of the Twitter community. Spears & Lea. 2007). Thus.1. Then. 1992) argued that communicators in CMC are driven to develop social relationships.04. they were given a post-experiment questionnaire that contained the dependent measures. Measures Twitter usage intensity (a = . participants were directed to click the start button on the computer screen. to measure their purchase intentions. Postmes et al.. Discussion 5. pairwise comparisons were performed.001. Li. participants were asked to respond to one question (‘‘How likely would you be to buy shoes from this company in the future?’’) on a 7-point scale with 1 being ‘‘very unlikely’’ and 7 being ‘‘very likely.94. H1 was partially supported. an ANOVA test was conducted with WOM intention as the dependent variable and relationship type and Twitter usage intensity as the two fixed factors. they were given a cover story that the study was designed to help an online shoe retailer evaluate its social media communication strategy.52. the two-way interaction term was also significant. SD = . Mdiff = . However. p = . Some prior research argued that in a CMC context. 82) = 4. a series of ANOVA tests were performed. 1991. p < . the absence of social cues would reduce the impact of social constraints and lead to abnormal and asocial behaviors (Kiesler et al. 2001.34. Study procedure Upon arrival at the computer lab. further analysis on the interaction effect revealed that purchase intention was significantly higher for light users in the exchange condition than the communal condition. was median split. 1986). Challenging this notion. p < ..’’ adapted from the Facebook usage intensity scale (Ellison et al. 4. 4. Mdiff = 1. F (1. t (74) = 15. ‘‘The company gives service to get business’’) or the communal relationship norms (e. it was concluded that H3 was supported. no significant main effect was detected for either factor. Upon completion. Participants were categorized into two groups. Mdiff = . 2005). but heavy users’ purchase intentions did not differ between the two conditions. Attitude toward the company (a = . After participation consent was obtained. t (36) = 2. 82) = 7. An independent samples t test confirmed that heavy users used Twitter more intensively (M = 4. the social information processing model (Walther. Thus. Lastly. WOM intention was significantly higher in the exchange condition than the communal condition. other research suggested that the reduced social presence would make social norms more important in CMC (Lea & Spears. 3. p < . p < .5. socially rich and positive relationships can be developed within .01.2. Attitude toward the brand To test H1.’’ and ‘‘I would recommend this company to someone who asked my advice’’ on a 7-point Likert scale (Brown.g.05. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 tapped into the exchange relationship norms (e. heavy users’ WOM intentions did not differ between the two relationship conditions.’’ 3. p < . Purchase intention Finally.05.83. an ANOVA test was conducted with attitude toward the brand as the dependent variable and relationship type and Twitter usage intensity as the two fixed factors. WOM intention (a = . Dacin. which led them to the stimulus Twitter account page of either exchange or communal relationship. p < .g. 82) = 3. However. Thus. Next.001. p < . heavy users’ attitudes did not differ between the two conditions. were detected. 3.76) reported significantly higher net communality scores than those in the exchange condition (M = 4. As seen in Fig.81.83.60. ‘‘The company helps customers in times of need’’). 193 4. thus making this a between-subjects factor. C. Follow-up pairwise comparisons revealed that for light users. SD = .46. Theoretical implications The existing literature has offered somewhat contradictory arguments and empirical evidence on the influence of interpersonal relationship theories in CMC contexts. SD = 1.05.73. Participants’ viewing of the stimulus page was selfpaced.. and a significant two-way interaction effect.70.41. After viewing.4.01. indicating that participants perceived the company in the communal tweets condition to be more communal relationship-oriented than the company in the exchange tweets condition. 2007). each participant was randomly assigned to a computer equipped with the same operating system. and a significant main effect of Twitter usage intensity.94) was measured with six items such as ‘‘Twitter is part of my everyday activity. The interaction was marginally significant. Recent research adopting this model has found that despite the reduced non-verbal cues in the virtual sphere. F (1. and class rank). light users and heavy users. 1984.91) was measured with a two-item 7-point semantic differential scale including ‘‘dislike/like’’ and ‘‘negative/positive’’ (Ki & Hon. 82) = 5.. but they favored communal-oriented messages more than light users. and vice versa.

two potential relationships could be established in the setting of our study. Furthermore.21 (1. studies that examine the effects of social response in a social networking site context are quite limited. The most salient social cues are usually the relational target of social response and people tend to orient toward the most proximate source of information (Sundar & Nass.55) 4. 3. Johnson & Grimm. the role of message sender should be weakened. Two-way interaction effects on WOM intention and purchase intention.05 level. a growing number of scholars have argued that exchange and communal relationships can coexist within a marketing context (Esch et al. Twitter. social networking sites have brought new challenges to examining mediated communication processes because the effects of message source on these sites may be more complex than those in a traditional CMC context (e.. such as offering directions to a lost stranger. communal and exchange relationships are distinct constructs that should be . our study found that when the exchange relationship norms were violated.19 (1. if Twitter weighed more heavily as an independent social actor and an information source in its own right. Huang and Lin (2011) proposed a top-down model that the social cues perceived through the group-level context (i.e. heavy and light Twitter users should follow the same relationship norm (i. There are two possible explanations for these findings. Mills and Clark (1994) cautioned that under certain circumstances it is possible to have both relationships with the same partner. and suggested the relationship between users and the Twitter community overrode the relationship between users and the brand. we adopt social response theory and CASA paradigm in this study and aim to offer an alternative explanation for online interactions and relationship formations within CMC contexts. Individuals are usually assumed to perceive their relationships as either exchange or communal.11) 4. Facebook site) predict the individual-level arousal to engage in social behaviors.05 (1. Although heavy users should follow communal relationship norms when interacting with a new brand on Twitter.30 (1. According to social response theory. the brand). Twitter might be perceived as a communication medium (i. when there is a minimum cost of benefit relative to a great need.g.. a relationship would be established between the Twitter user and the Twitter community.36 (1.26 (1. 2004. In the interpersonal relationship literature. Fig. Esch et al.g. 1993).41) 5. Although the idea that people treat computers/ websites as social actors is not new.84) Note: Interaction effect is significant at p < .75 (1.55) 3. The exchange in a marketing context often involves monetary benefits (Aggarwal..14 (1. message poster) and technology source (e. Given that the stimulus brand in our experiment was fictitious. Our study findings showed support for this explanation. Li. how an individual source (e.. communal relationships can be found in situations that normally elicit exchange behaviors. C. Facebook) react upon each other and which source attribution is more salient under certain situations is a theoretical question yet to be answered. However. One argument is that consumer–brand relationships in a commercial context do not fully replicate interpersonal relationships.13 (1. Another explanation is that communal and exchange relationships may coexist in the same context. a carrier of visible sources through the social networks). Users tend to establish relationships with this social actor.19) 2. However. 2006. there was no such negative consequence when the communal relationship norms were broken. it significantly decreased messages’ effectiveness. they might hold exchange relationship expectations at the same time. 2000). websites).20 (1.194 Z. exchange) with the brand. for example. our study showed that people tend to use the relationship they have with Twitter as a norm to evaluate brand messages on the website.12) 4. suggested that exchange and communal relationships are different aspects or facets of the overall brand-consumer relationship. people’s reactions to the new media technology are triggered by certain social cues (Moon. Johnson and Grimm (2010) argued that in a consumer-organization context.e. However. Consistent with Huang and Lin (2011).e. 2010). 2003).29) 4. To shed new light in this debate.16) 2. 2010).48) 4. including both friendly and romantic relationships (Tidwell & Walther.52) 5. and heavy and light Twitter users would show different relationship expectations and follow different relationship norms.. online networks... In their study of social response to Facebook.g. Johnson & Grimm.e. (2006). This model suggests that the macrolevel relationship between users and the social media community presides over the interpersonal relationships between individual users.. For example. Utz. Specially. In this case. and the relationship would be established between each Twitter user and the message sender (i. Similar to the macro-level (group) and micro-level (individual) relationships suggested by Huang and Lin (2011). In addition. In general. 2000). thus the effect of norm violation may be muted in this context (Aggarwal. 2002.30) 4.09 (1. First. Li / Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 187–196 Table 1 Mean scores of exchange and communal message conditions for light and heavy users. We argue that a CMC environment such as a social networking site can act as an information source and an independent social actor. communal and exchange relationship perceptions are generally treated as mutually exclusive categories or opposite ends of a continuum (Clark & Mills. Light users Attitude WOM intention* Purchase intention* * Heavy users Exchange Communal Exchange Communal 5.78 (1. 2004).

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