What is it about?

The study explores buyers' signaling of observable and unobservable supplier characteristics on the Alibaba e-platform. • Key B2B eWOM themes that the study identifies are: product/service quality, human touch, responsiveness, and resilience. • Findings demonstrate that human touch is vital in B2B e-platform environments too, not only in physical reality. • Buyers' signals aim at suppliers as well as at prospective buyers and implicitly buyers send signals about themselves too. • Signaling Theory is applied to address the signaling process, while Social Exchange Theory informs relevant cost-benefit assessments.

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Why is it important?

This study investigates the contemporary role of electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) in business exchanges through buyers' signaling of observable and unobservable supplier characteristics on the Alibaba e-commerce platform. Utilizing a qualitative pre-study of 20 interviews (five buyer–supplier dyads with two interviews per firm) and more than 8000 buyer reviews on Alibaba, we identify characteristic patterns of this type of B2B eWOM. Signaling Theory and Social Exchange Theory underpin the empirical investigation. To enable further conceptualization, the study distinguishes between online B2B reviews based on the extent to which they are controlled by organizational partners. Unlike some other forms of B2B reviews, reviews on Alibaba are uncontrolled and comprise a form of eWOM. Findings indicate that the relational patterns of B2B eWOM shared on Alibaba can be aggregated into three categories: human touch, responsiveness, and resilience. Besides these new categories, the importance of product/service quality has been confirmed. Through Alibaba reviews, buyers' signals are sent not only to suppliers as feedback, but also to other prospective buyers to influence their purchase decisions. Our study aims to contribute to the B2B literature on eWOM and signaling in business relationships. By showing that human touch occurs even in online-only buyer–supplier relationships, the study provides evidence that bonding, the development of mutuality, and relationship intimacy in buyer–supplier relationships does not always require in-person contact. Managerial implications are offered with a focus on the signaling of unobservable qualities, such as human touch, with the help of B2B eWOM.

Perspectives

Signaling Theory and Social Exchange Theory underpin the empirical investigation. To enable further conceptualization, the study distinguishes between online B2B reviews based on the extent to which they are controlled by organizational partners. Unlike some other forms of B2B reviews, reviews on Alibaba are uncontrolled and comprise a form of eWOM. Findings indicate that the relational patterns of B2B eWOM shared on Alibaba can be aggregated into three categories: human touch, responsiveness, and resilience. Besides these new categories, the importance of product/service quality has been confirmed. Through Alibaba reviews, buyers' signals are sent not only to suppliers as feedback, but also to other prospective buyers to influence their purchase decisions. Our study aims to contribute to the B2B literature on eWOM and signaling in business relationships. By showing that human touch occurs even in online-only buyer–supplier relationships, the study provides evidence that bonding, the development of mutuality, and relationship intimacy in buyer–supplier relationships does not always require in-person contact. Managerial implications are offered with a focus on the signaling of unobservable qualities, such as human touch, with the help of B2B eWOM.

Dr Omar S. Itani
Univeristy of texas at arlington

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This page is a summary of: B2B eWOM on Alibaba: Signaling through online reviews in platform-based social exchange, Industrial Marketing Management, July 2022, Elsevier, DOI: 10.1016/j.indmarman.2022.04.019.
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