Brent Coker Internet consumer psychologist Dr Brent Coker

What the most popular websites on the internet are doing, that the rest of us aren’t

1. May 2013

When I was studying for my PhD, I remember watching a research talk by a Professor who had come up with some new theory to explain what makes someone adopt a new technology. At the end of the talk during question time, someone in the audience asked the Professor whether his theory worked across cultures –do the Chinese for example adopt technologies the same way as Americans, according to his new theory. The Professor replied that humans are humans, and that aside from some cultural differences in behaviour, fundamentally all human beings think the same way. Therefore, his theory should hold, and all people no matter what country they’re from should adopt technologies the same way.  The belief that all humans fundamentally think the same way is in fact not unusual amongst psychologists. But still, I couldn’t help thinking about it…

It was around the same time when I developed the Webreep Model. My hunch was, and still is to this day, that people from different cultures do react differently when they use technologies. The differences between cultures to anthropologists are plainly obvious –we use different languages, we wear different costumes, we eat different foods, and we all have our traditions. So surely then, some of these differences must affect how we behave when it comes to technology.

The last time we pulled aggregated Webreep data was to see how online consumer behaviour had changed over the past five years. This year, we decided to compare what was happening between different countries.  I was thrilled to see some quite remarkable differences between the countries; some very interesting findings indeed.

Spain for example have abnormally low perceptions of website attractiveness, 59% lower than the French, 57% lower than the Germans, and 60% lower than the Americans. This combined with the very strong correlation with satisfaction suggests the reason for this highly critical evaluation of websites is likely related to common belief systems. The data suggests the Spanish care about Style more than the other countries.

Another intriguing finding is that the French have significantly higher word-of-mouth scores than everyone else. One of the more sinister stereotypical beliefs about the French is that they are reluctant to talk with outsiders, especially if you don’t speak French.  I’m quietly pleased with this particular finding because it suggests the French are actually very chatty. Perhaps equally intriguing was the very high correlation the French have between website attractiveness and satisfaction. Clearly, the French value attractiveness, even if it is just a website. Sensitivity to attractiveness is associated with romanticism, a symptom it seems stemming from French culture. In last year’s data we detected a strong correlation between website attractiveness and trust, which we also find quite clearly in the French data.

Of interest to Marketers of course is what are the shared characteristics of the most successful websites. We define success as those websites which have the highest amount of satisfaction. Satisfied customers are more loyal, tend to spend more, and likely to refer others. Those websites that had the highest scores for satisfaction, loyalty, and word-of-mouth were those that were the easiest to use. Ease of use trumped all other constructs in the Webreep model in terms of sprouting strongly loyal satisfied customers. I have yet to analyse the data to see how different this is compared to 5 years ago, but my recollection from last year’s analysis is that there is more emphasis on ease-of-use than before. This is interesting in light of recent websites that have trumped their competitors by following a recipe of superior usability. comes to mind (hey Jason), when they beat Wasabe in making something that on the face of it appears to be doomed to failure (You want customers to give you their bank details, and then do their budgeting!?), but turning it into a phenomenal success. A big part of their success I believe was their automated intuitive simplicity.

The report is out, and once again we’ll be at Worldcomp in Vegas next month to spread the word. Hit me up if you want to meet for a beer.


The Webreep report can downloaded here: The Webreep Online Consumer Behaviour  Country Comparison Report 2012



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Regretful purchases made online: How to increase accuracy of evaluation

23. March 2013


I just had published in the Journal of Economic Psychology research showing how we might make more accurate decisions when purchasing online. Specifically, when we read positive reviews before negative reviews, our chances of making a regretful purchase are much higher than if we read negative reviews before positive reviews. Those people who read negative reviews first, before reading positive reviews, have far less likelihood of regret, and higher levels of satisfaction with the purchase down the road.

Let’s face it –we all read customer reviews online to help us make a decision on whether or not to buy. We assume customer reviews are impartial –obviously the vendor selling the product is not going to tell us their deficiencies –we have to learn what we might be in for from those who have already bought.

Our aim is to make an accurate decision about a purchase, because online what we see is what we get. But this method of evaluation is not perfect –we’ve all suffered regret after buying something online –even if we did our best to make an accurate decision by reading other people’s reviews. Many people assume it wasn’t their fault –there was no way they could have known without physically inspecting the product beforehand. There might be some truth to that, especially for ‘experience’ type goods (second hand cars, business suits), but there is another factor at play here that is impacting the accuracy of our purchase decisions online –our sub-consciousness.

When we are evaluating a potential purchase, our attitude shifts in real time dependent on the information we’re exposed to. For example, when reading negative reviews our attitudes move towards negative, and when we read positive reviews our attitude moves towards positive. However, we also know that our sub-consciousness plays a part in influencing our judgment. Some psychologists refer to this as having ‘dual attitudes’. Our subconscious attitude can influence our conscious attitude, without us being aware of it.

What my research has found is that a subconscious positive attitude can have a stronger effect on our conscious attitude, than can a subconscious negative attitude. For this reason, positive reviews tend to continue to influence our current judgments longer than negative reviews. And so, when we read positive reviews, our sub consciousness remains positive and continues to influence our judgments when we read negative reviews. The result is that when we read negative reviews they don’t appear to be as negative as they actually are. This in turn leads to a less accurate decision, and more chance of making a regretful purchase.

The solution to making a more accurate decision to purchase when shopping online: read negative reviews before you read positive reviews.



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Keeping negative Facebook comments leads to more trust in your brand

9. March 2013


Many companies spend a lot of time controlling what’s said on their Facebook pages. Deleting negative comments is one way to ensure customers don’t form negative impressions about the brand. On the face of it, this makes sense. Public comments that are all positive should instil trust towards the brand, building associations with high quality. Positive comments mixed with negative suggest flaws in the brand’s ability to provide a consistent high quality product or service. Or does it?

I have long argued that natural communications about your brand should not be tampered with. It is rare that a brand does not have some unhappy customers on occasion. These customers should be given the chance to publically display their disgruntlement. In other words, brands should never tamper with their Facebook page by deleting negative comments, only allowing the positive comments to shine through. Ideally, responding to negative comments creates an opportunity to show the world that you care. The result is greater feelings of trust, honesty, and genuiness towards your brand.

Consumers form relationships with brands, much like we form relationships with other people. In the same way we form impressions of other people, we also form impressions of brands. Who wants a friend that is not genuine in the way they communicate with us? We want honesty, because honesty suggests that person cares about us. Our closest friends will tell us what they think, and will also help us when we need it. Only telling people what you think they want to hear is not a good way to build lasting strong relationships.

To demonstrate how this works, we conducted an experiment at the University of Melbourne. We exposed three separate groups to three separate Facebook Pages. Group one saw a Facebook Page where the comments were 100% positive. Group two saw a Facebook page where the comments were a mixture of positive and negative. Group three saw a Facebook page where the negative comments where responded to by the brand.


Figure 1: All Positive Comments

Figure 2: Mixed Comments with Reponse




The results were as follows. As we would expect, participants in the Positive group viewed the Positive comments as being more positive. This response mirrors what many brands expect.



However, simply viewing a brand as positive does not necessarily speak to more valuable traits such as honestly, trustworthiness, and genuineness. These traits lead to long lasting strong relationships. As we predicted, those who viewed the Facebook page with a response from the brand viewed that brand as more genuine.



When we look at the differences between honesty and trustworthiness, we see a stronger effect.






These results suggest widespread practice of deleting negative Facebook comments about your brand may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The results suggest that publically responding to negative comments can have a dramatic impact on perceptions of honesty, trustworthiness, and genuiness towards the brand. Interestingly, even simply keeping the negative comments does not result in any significant decrease in honesty, trustworthiness, and genuiness. 


Why Gangnam Style has Gone Viral

5. October 2012

The ridiculous success of the music video “Gangnam Style” over the past few weeks has me intrigued. At the time of writing the video has 360 million views on YouTube, up 100 million from when I checked last week. On the face of it, the success of the video appears to contradict what we know about viral. But on closer examination, it follows a familiar pattern…

Not so long ago scientists dismissed YouTube movies that went viral as a function of randomness. But in the past couple of years, evidence has been mounting to suggest successful viral events may be explained and predicted. In other words, we know enough now (in theory at least) to produce communication in such a way that it will have a high likelihood of going viral. In order to understand why Gangnam Style went viral, we need to cover the fundamentals.

The first thing to know about viral marketing techniques is that there are two elements of the communications continuum that need to be addressed. The first is curiosity –someone must be motivated to want to view the movie. This is achieved in most part by controlling emotion.  The second is motives-to-share. One must have a reason to want to tell others about the movie, and therefore pass it on. This is achieved by creating message congruency. There is another, called seeding (I also call this network involvement ratio) -but in this article we will restrict ourselves to motives-to-share and emotion.

The secret to creating curiosity that is sharable is keeping someone’s attention. There are two general categories of emotion that are known in viral communications to stimulate attention. The first is pleasure, which might manifest itself as humour, affection for something cute, impressed amazement, or even intense want. The second is shock, which might manifest itself as anticipation, intense surprise, embarrassment, or a violation of cultural norms.

For a viral movie to be successful, it needs to balance both of these categories of emotion, in a certain way. Specifically, each emotion must chop and change in short bursts. To illustrate, consider the success of the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” advertisement. The scenes changed rapidly, moderating humour and surprise in short bursts. This affect is also obvious in TNTs “Push for Drama”, where shock is mixed nicely with humour using the classic reverse psychology theme of “don’t push this button” Moderating and changing the two categories of emotion like this creates a short sharp emotional roller-coaster, fundamental for keeping the level of attention needed to evoke curiosity and therefore motives to share.

The “Gangnam Style” video also uses this pulsating emotional roller-coaster effect, but in a music video format. Incidents of humorous behaviour are peppered in between short scenes of emotional discomfort that surprise and delight the viewer. The effect is replicated in the music, creating a clever composition that sticks in the head (rather annoyingly for some!). The choppiness of the chorus interspaced with the intensity of the lyrics creates a sense of tension; much like a horror movie builds tension by altering the speed and intensity of the score. But in a much more complex way, interspacing tension with pleasure.

The second element to consider is message congruency. If we don’t relate to the audience, they will switch off. To create this relevancy, viral movies are often produced to attract appeal from a specific audience. One little trick we can use to maximise this effect and appeal to a broad audience is to show emotional responses in the form of facial and body expressions. In psychology we speak of “emotional contagion” whereby a person’s emotional state is influenced by the emotions of those around them. Imagine watching TNTs “Push for Drama” without seeing the responses of those who pushed the button. I am almost certain the movie’s success would have been much less. For Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, we are experiencing congruency from facial expression and action. The unique dance moves for example have captured the world’s attention because they convey a unique mix of emotion (close to shock and humour). Psy’s facial expressions also convey very strong meaning, particularly in the chorus “Oppan gang-namseutayil!”

In summary, whether by accident or not Gangnam Style is using strong techniques of viral marketing that we have observed already, in similarly successful viral movies. Emotion is key to creating this viral effect, but the art is in how the emotion is crafted. Chopping and changing between uncomfortable humour and surprise works. Emotional contagion caught from the expressions and actions of others also works. What is unique about Gangnam style is that it is neatly captured in a music video. Have we finally turned the corner towards a new wave of music marketing? The times. They certainly are a-changing.


Brent Coker ,

About Brent Coker

Brent Coker

Hi. I’m Dr Brent Coker, an internet consumer psychologist, and inventor of Webreep. Here I blog mostly about my research, and how customers behave on the web! 


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