Don’t Believe the Hype – when online communities become opinion leaders

In the current climate of readily available internet-based forums, more and more firms are turning to digital communities in order to keep their finger on the pulse or even test new ideas. When giants such as Apple and Dell are exploiting the wealth of content published by people passionate about brands, products and services, it is surely time for more firms to embrace such an opportunity.

The film industry is no exception, as proven by a recent study comparing the influence of the opinions of professional critics and cinema goers in relation to the latest film releases and their subsequent success.

Online communities come in all shapes and sizes, from the bite-size posts of Twitter, the individual pages and collective groups of Facebook, and the broader editorial possibilities of blogs through to more tightly administrated forums. Of course the relevance of the content therein is very much dependent on the use made by contributors, and so firms choosing to exploit the various posts, opinions and resources shared must filter with care. However, online communities which operate in a genuine spirit of mutual trust and sharing of and search for knowledge could prove a goldmine for firms looking to float potential new product or service ideas or just get a feel for current consumer tastes and preferences. On the flipside, some industries are faced with the eventuality that it is actually the online (amateur) communities that shape the success or failure of some products or services more than some of the professionals working in the field.

A diverse pool of resources and knowledge

Within the various online communities that exist today, the level of interactivity varies hugely – for every avid community member who posts links, videos, images and opinions and researches those of their fellow community members, there are also those who purely rate a product or service without engaging any further with other community members, as well as those who simply read already-published content but provide little or nothing in return. This, though, is the beauty of the tool – online communities are rich areas of interaction replete with content from a highly heterogeneous group of contributors.
A recent study pitched the Fandango online community over a 16-month period with the film critic reviews available on Metacritic.com. The objective was not to provide a predictor of success but rather to establish the level of disparity between these two bodies of opinion and the resultant impact on box office revenues. In total, 373 film releases were placed under the microscope from a variety of angles: average ratings, percentage of positive evaluations, percentage of negative evaluations, box office revenue, total number of reviews, number of screens, and production budget. The impact of these two groups’ opinions on the films under investigation covered the 8 weeks following release. In only one case (week 4) were they truly aligned.
This case study reveals an additional, crucial finding – that this quality of diversity does not undermine the impact of the opinions expressed on the end product. On the contrary, it provides a more accurate impression of the overall, aggregated public view. In an industry such as cinema, this is key to the potential success or failure of a new release. In a market that is becoming ever-more consumer-based, it would be foolish for representatives of any type of firm to ignore the value of user-generated content when attempting to gauge the chances of a newly-marketed product or service being a smash hit or a flop, whatever the industry.

The influence of online amateur communities

The widespread trend for exploitation of online communities by firms is currently more noticeable in industries such as high-tech, where the need to test concepts and prototypes is especially keenly felt. However, the entertainment industry (in this particular case, cinema) is just as concerned, although the practice is thus far less common. Traditionally one would expect film critics to be the main opinion leaders on the quality and potential success of a new release. This, though, does not take into account the fact that a reviewer is basically doing his or her job – to present their particular view on a film just after it hits the screens. Factor in the “official line” peddled by trailers and PR generated by the production company and cinema goers are faced with the option of either being influenced by such campaigns or forming and then sharing their own opinion with their fellow film fans. Most importantly of all, the potential audience for any given film is a highly diverse one, in terms of demographics and also the extent to which they will feel either peer pressure or informational pressure to go and see a particular film.


This article draws inspiration from the paper Are online communities on par with experts in the evaluation of new movies? Evidence from the Fandango community, written by Pradeep Kumar Ponnamma Divakaran and Sladjana Nørskov and published in Information Technology & People vol.29 n.1 (2016).

Pradeep Kumar Ponnamma Divakaran is an assistant professor of Marketing at Rennes School of Business, France. His research interests include Digital Marketing, Consumer Behaviour, and New Product Management.

Sladjana Nørskov, member of the Department of Business Admisnistration, Aarhus Unisersity – Denmark.


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