Characteristics of the individual-environment relationship as determinants of website effectiveness/Las caracteristicas de la relacion individuo-entorno como determinantes de la eficacia del sitio web.

Author:Lopez, Ines
 
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  1. Introduction

    Over the past few years, the Internet has been one of the hottest areas in advertising and communication research (Chung and Zhao, 2004). Scholars have studied every aspect of this new medium since this phenomenon has grown at a speedy pace in the last years, and there seems to be little doubt that e-commerce will become mainstream in the future, not just a fad (Lee et al., 2004; Flavian and Guinaliu, 2007).

    According to Peterson et al. (1997), the Internet provides the capability of inexpensively storing vast amounts of information in different virtual locations. The Internet possesses a powerful capacity for efficiently and effectively searching, organizing, sharing, and disseminating this stored information, as well as information generated dynamically through various protocols (Peterson and Merino, 2003) with no time and spatial restrictions (de Pablos and Pelechano, 2006). Nevertheless, quality criteria should be followed regarding the design and use of information technology to assure that communication is really effective (Gonzalez et al., 2005). In this context, the website represents a very important change in marketing communications on the Internet (Ghose and Dou 1998), as it has the potential to provide high levels of information in addition to creating virtual product experiences (Klein, 2003). Websites, therefore, represent one of the most important forms of interactive advertising (Sicilia et al., 2005; Cristobal, 2006). When visiting a website the consumer has control over the flow of information, and s/he can choose what information to see and the order in which that information will be presented (Hoffman and Novak, 1996; Bezjian-Avery et al., 1998; Ariely, 2000). Furthermore, marketers can use feedback from consumers to improve their advertising message and intended target, and strategically adjust their customer support, product line, and services provided (Pavlou and Stewart, 2000). Moreover, considering the need to focus on long-term relationships (Galguera and Mendez, 2004), websites can be used as a relationship marketing tool since they can contribute to attract, maintain and intensify customer relationships (Martin and Quero, 2004).

    Despite the importance the Internet has reached, the personal antecedents of attitude have not been conclusively identified in the online context yet. For that reason, this research aims to contribute to a better understanding of the characteristics of the individual-environment relationship that determine consumers' attitudes towards the website and towards the product. More specifically, this paper develops a conceptual model to examine the effect of self-efficacy, affect towards the Internet, and product familiarity in attitudes and purchase intention derived from website navigation.

    The structure of this paper is as follows. Existing literature on websites as communication tools is reviewed, identifying three main characteristics of the individual-environment relationship. Based on this revision, hypotheses regarding the role of these antecedents are formulated. Next, the research methodology is summarized, followed by the testing of the hypotheses and the discussion of the results.

  2. Theoretical background and conceptual model

    Researchers do not agree when trying to determine whether traditional advertising models can be applied to the Internet. Some of them argue that conventional proposals need some kind of adaptation (Cho, 1999; Rodgers and Thorson, 2000), whereas others maintain that traditional communication models may be directly applied to the online environment (Berthon et al., 1996; Bruner II and Kumar, 2000). Latest literature (Sicilia et al., 2005) follows the latter stream of thought, assuming that a website may be considered a form of advertising, similar to a print or television advertisement, because the message and content is planned by the advertiser (Sheehan and Doherty, 2001; Hwang et al., 2003), and websites perform similar functions as ads do (Balabanis and Vassileiou, 1999). Accordingly, if today's websites are to resemble and reflect the characteristics of traditional ads, then attitude towards the website should lead to consequences similar to those found in attitude research (Jee and Lee, 2002). In fact, this proposition has proved to be robust through the studies carried out by Richard (2004), Richard and Chandra (2005), Sicilia et al. (2005) and Sicilia and Ruiz (2005). They introduce a change in nomenclature so that Aw (attitude towards the website) can represent Aad (attitude towards the advertisement) in traditional models and Ab (attitude towards the brand) may be equivalent to the attitude towards the products or brands showed on the website (Ap). Therefore, from a marketing communication perspective, website effectiveness may be measured through attitude towards the website, attitude towards the product, and purchase intention, as applied to traditional advertising (Bruner II and Kumar, 2000; Stevenson et al., 2000). Additionally, literature has shown that website effectiveness perceptions are influenced by brand value, since effectiveness measures are not objective but subjective (Lozano and Fuentes, 2005).

    Concerning consumer behavior in a specific medium, Bagozzi and Dholakia (1999) stated that "After a goal has been chosen and a goal intention formed, the next task that the consumer faces is the problem of how to reach the goal". When the goal has been frequently pursued, the decision maker could use a stored rule to reach it. However, when s/he faces a new or difficult goal, s/he will have to assess different means to achieve it.

    As appraisal tasks to be evaluated, Bagozzi (1992) identified self-efficacy and affect towards means as factors to have into account when choosing the best course of action. First, the ability a person believes s/he has to manage a task can have an influence on the final decision about whether to pursue the goal or abandon it. Second, it is also important the individual's opinion about the medium s/he is going to use so as to carry out the required actions. Therefore, these two elements must be considered as factors influencing consumers' attitudes when exposed to a medium.

    Furthermore, given that attitudes derived from online consumer behavior refer to both websites and product attitudes, it was considered suitable to introduce an additional characteristic of the individual-environment relationship linked to the attitude towards the product. That is to say, in this study we are interested in identifying the factors influencing attitude towards the product as well as attitude towards the website. Product familiarity has been selected since it is widely recognized predictor of trust in the literature (Bhattarcherjee, 2002) that leads to positive evaluations (Sen and Johnson, 1997) as well as a determinant of attitude towards the performance of a behavior (Cho et al., 2004).

    To sum up, there are three main characteristics linked to the relationship between the individual and the environment that we propose as antecedents of communication effectiveness through a website: self-efficacy, affect towards the medium and product familiarity.

    Web-specific self-efficacy

    Prior research (LaRose et al, 2001; Eastin, 2002) has shown that the desire to use an e-service is not enough to carry it out. The individual must also believe in his/her ability to complete it successfully. That is the reason why self-efficacy turns out to be an important factor to take into account when trying to determine consumer behavior concerning the Internet medium. New Internet users feel less comfortable surfing on the Internet, are less satisfied with their abilities and are more prone to consider certain situations as stress-generating (GVU, 1999). It is then said that individuals have weak self-efficacy perceptions (Eastin and LaRose, 2000). This element may not be so significant in offline settings since it is easier for the consumer to learn how to make a purchase there. Nevertheless, specific characteristics of the online environment such as complexity, novelty and knowledge barriers can lead to self-efficacy deficits (Eastin and LaRose, 2000).

    Bandura (1997) defines self-efficacy as the belief "in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments". Within social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1982 and 1997), self-efficacy is a form of self-evaluation that influences decisions about what behaviors to undertake, the amount of effort and persistence put forth when faced with obstacles, and finally, the mastery of the behavior. Thus, people who have low self-efficacy should be less likely to perform related behavior in the future than those with high degree of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1982). It is also important to point out that this concept is not based on the real skills a person possesses but in what people believe they are capable of doing with the skills they have. Therefore, it is a factor to take into account when assessing consumer behavior and, particularly, attitude formation and change.

    Self-efficacy judgments are related to expectancies over the results (Eastin and LaRose, 2000). The latter are defined as the belief that a behavior will lead to certain results (Oliver and Shapiro, 1993). Hsu and Chiu (2004) distinguish between general Internet self-efficacy and web-specific self-efficacy. The former is defined as "an individual's judgment of efficacy across multiple Internet application domains" (ability to follow links on the Web, documents download ...) whereas the latter refers to "an individual's perception of efficacy in using a specific WWW application (service) within the domain of general Internet computing" (company or product-specific information search within a website). Therefore, although both concepts of self-efficacy are relevant in online shopping, web-specific self-efficacy is directly related to attitudes derived...

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