Sponsorship disclosure and the varying effect of status on blogger credibility, brand attitude and purchase intentions

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Sponsorship Disclosure and the Varying Effect of Status on Blogger Credibility, Brand Attitude and Purchase Intentions

Chantelle A. Adonai Student Number: 10845283

Master’s Thesis

University of Amsterdam: Graduate School of Communication Masters Programme Communication Science

Supervisor: Corine Meppelink June 24th 2016

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Abstract

Blogs are increasingly popular tools for marketers. Bloggers can be sponsored to post product reviews on their websites, allowing a certain level of external control over positive electronic word of mouth (e-WOM) for a product or brand. Several bloggers are now very successful and have a large presence on the Internet. Consequently, they have the potential to be incredibly influential. However, in recent years the law has been adapted to include a requirement that advertising relationships are disclosed. This study uses a 2x2 between subjects design to investigate the effects of

sponsorship disclosure and status in a blog context on perceived credibility of the blogger, and subsequent effects of credibility on brand attitude and purchase intention. Results suggest that people do not view a difference when sponsorship is disclosed or not disclosed. Results also indicate that the bloggers status does not moderate the effects of sponsorship disclosure on perceived credibility of the blogger. However, credibility of the blogger is positively correlated with attitudes towards the brand and purchase intention. The findings are discussed in relation to further

research and implications for marketing professionals.

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Sponsorship Disclosure and the Varying Effect of Status on Blogger Credibility, Brand Attitude and Purchase Intentions

In recent times, the proliferation of media and era of web 2.0 has seen the emergence of several new channels of communication that are at the marketers’ disposal. Power has also shifted from the advertiser to the consumer, with the advertiser needing to carefully navigate the newly interactive nature of social media and increased consumer engagement (Fournier & Avery, 2011). One of these new developments is the “blogosphere”, an online social network of blogs, where content creators can write about their interests, passions and opinions, while connecting with their readers.

In the past decade, blogs have continued to grow in readership and influence, with some bloggers becoming comparable to celebrities in their own right (Mendoza, 2010). Consequently, it has become increasingly popular for marketers to sponsor content on blogger platforms for promotional purposes (Archer, Pettigrew, & Harrigan, 2014). As there are various motivations to starting blogs, including self-expression and life documentation (Huang, Shen, Lin, & Chang, 2007), bloggers are not necessarily viewed as having a profit motive, however, professional bloggers often collaborate with brands to generate income from the platform (Dunne, 2014).

Sponsored blog posts are articles that are written by bloggers who are compensated by the related brand or marketer to promote or deliver a consumer review of their product. Initially this type of arrangement could be hidden, but new regulations and scrutiny means bloggers are now required to disclose sponsored content, so that the marketing intentions behind it are transparent (Arango, 2009). In 2009 the Federal Trade Commission declared that bloggers must disclose when

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products are sponsored on their blogs. In 2013 this announcement was updated to include disclosures in all media, including social media (Schwab, 2013).

Product recommendations can be seen as a form of electronic word of mouth and online consumer review, both of which have been found to have significant effects on consumer responses (Gupta & Harris, 2010; Prendergast, Ko, & Siu Yin, 2010; Sen & Lerman, 2007). However, because a sponsored recommendation from a blogger is likely to be more positive and is used for marketing communication purposes, it should also be viewed as a type of online marketing, regardless of the position and motives of the blogger. For example, bloggers may state that they only work with brands they approve of. Nevertheless it could be argued there is persuasive intent behind this type of content.

To date, research on the effects of sponsored blog posts on the credibility of the source, and the attitude and behaviour of consumers has not been entirely

consistent (Colliander & Erlandsson, 2015; Liljander, Gummerus & Soderlund, 2015) and overall there has been limited research in the field in general. There is literature on the effects of consumer online reviews, which is similar conceptually. However, due to the influential nature of blogs, compensation for the content itself and the principles on which blogs were created (e.g. as a form of expression) there needs to be research which looks into these effects, specifically, to demonstrate whether

marketing manipulation alter the impact of word of mouth. Therefore the question this research examines is whether the disclosure of sponsorship by bloggers impacts their credibility and whether their status moderates this effect. Furthermore, it examines if there is a relationship between blogger credibility and attitudes towards the endorsed brand and purchase intentions (see Figure 1).

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Moreover, on a professional level, this research can provide insight that will help marketers to make decisions about how to use blogger endorsements to their advantage or to mitigate risks. For example it is important for marketers to know if using a blogger whose credibility has been compromised could result in less effective outcomes for their brand, and if sponsorship disclosure contributes to a decrease in their credibility beforehand. If this is the case, a more effective strategy might be to influence bloggers via non-compensatory means. Furthermore, professionals would benefit from knowing if blogger credibility is an important criteria to consider when determining with whom to collaborate.

Literature Review Electronic Word of Mouth and Consumer Reviews

Traditional (offline) Word-of-mouth (WOM) is a personal channel of

communication, involving direct communication between people who are part of the same social networks, for example, friends, family members, colleagues and

neighbours. WOM represents informal communication regarding products and services that influence consumer behaviour (Belch & Belch, 2015). In comparison and according to Hennig-Thurau, Qwinner, Walsh and Gremler (2004) electronic word of mouth (e-WOM) can be defined as “any positive or negative statement made by potential, actual, or former customers about a product or company, which is made available to a multitude of people and institutions via the Internet” (p. 39).

There are characteristics of e-WOM that are different to traditional WOM. Traditional WOM often takes place face to face and is private in nature. In contrast, e-WOM takes place in a computer-mediated context, and involves engagement with a network or community of other online users who are unknown to one another

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(Kozinets, De Valck, Wojnicki, & Wilner, 2010). The conversations are often visible to others and the potential audience is significantly broader. It is likely for this reason and findings that demonstrate the very influential nature of WOM (Brucks, 1985; Woodside & Delozier, 1976) that e-WOM also received considerable attention in marketing communication research.

WOM as a powerful source of information is well acknowledged (Plummer, 2007; Allsop, Bassett & Hoskins, 2007). However, e-WOM in particular is considered to have great relevance on consumer purchase decisions in this present day (Yali & Bayram, 2010). This is unsurprising given that e-WOM has been found to have several effects on the receiver, including perceptions of product value, likelihood of purchasing products, time on product consideration and trust (Gruen, Osmonbekov & Czaplewski, 2006; Gupta, & Harris, 2010; Awad & Ragowsky, 2008). An example of an influential kind of e-WOM is the online consumer review. An online consumer product review is a particular type of e-WOM where customers provide feedback on product attributes based on their own experience, which in turn can aid the consumer decision-making process (Park, Lee, & Han, 2007; Wei, & Lu, 2013).

Sponsorship and Blogger Credibility

Online consumer reviews do not always occur naturally. Inorganic WOM is when a third party (e.g. brand or marketer) encourages the sender to spread messages about the brand or product in exchange for benefits. In other words the sender is incentivised to send the message. Blogs (another form of e-WOM) often contain inorganic word of mouth, in the form of sponsored blog posts. A sponsored blog post is content supported by a brand or company as an advertisement for promotional purposes (Mutum & Wang, 2010).

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Thus, when a product review on a blog is sponsored, this indicates the blogger has been compensated in some way for providing it. Studies have shown that

consumer reviews can influence attitudes in an online environment (Lee, Park, & Han, 2008), including the moderating role of trust (Lee, Park, & Han, 2011; Sparks, & Browning, 2011) and that consumers use different cues to evaluate their credibility (Cheung, Sia & Kuan, 2012). Consequently, when it has been perceived that the sender of the message has been incentivized to deliver the message, one could expect to find different kinds of effects compared to when the message occurs without the involvement of a third party.

Belch and Belch (2015) describe source credibility as “the extent to which the recipient sees the source as having relevant knowledge, skills or experience and trusts the source to give unbiased, objective information” (p. 185). The source credibility theory of Hovland, Janis and Kelley (1953) states that people are more likely to be persuaded when the source itself is credible. The theory also identifies expertise and trustworthiness as two factors that underline the concept of source credibility itself. Expertise is defined as the extent the communicator can be viewed as a source of valid assertions and trustworthiness as the confidence that there is intent for the assertions to be valid. A source viewed as having expertise, is more persuasive than a source with less expertise, but equally, the influence of expertise will be reduced if the receiver thinks the source is biased, so according to the theory each construct plays an important role in defining credibility. Consequently, expertise and trust have been typically used to define and understand source credibility in research (Belonax Jr, Newell & Plank, 2007; Weathers, Swain & Grover, 2015).

Research exploring the effect of sponsorship on source credibility, specifically relating to blogs has thus far been limited and inconsistent. The available literature, to

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an extent, has indicated a difference in perception between overt (upfront) and covert (concealed) sponsorship strategies. Colliander and Erlandsson (2015) found that when blog readers were informed through a tabloid paper that a blogger had received

undisclosed sponsorship from a company in exchange for favourable product reviews, this resulted in negative attitudes towards the blog and the bloggers credibility. In this particular case sponsorship was covert. Conversely, research by Colliander (2012a,b) found that bloggers were able to preserve their credibility when they disclosed the sponsored nature of the post upfront. However, more recently Liljander, Gummerus and Soderlund (2015) found no effect for sponsorship on blogger credibility,

regardless of whether sponsorship was overt or covert, contradicting the findings of Colliander and Erlandsson (2015).

The relationship between sponsorship and blogger-perceived-credibility may not be so straightforward as suggested by incongruent findings. Nevertheless, trust is considered a fundamental element of credibility (Rieh & Danielson, 2007). Trust itself embodies factors relating to impartiality, reliability and sincerity (Ohanian, 1990). If a review has been incentivised, it is not impartial. Hence, the following hypothesis is proposed:

H1: The disclosure of a sponsored product recommendation results in lower perceived credibility towards the blogger than when the product recommendation is not

sponsored.

Bloggers and Status

Advertisers recognize that they can apply attractiveness to a source by using a celebrity endorser. Celebrity endorsement remains a very popular strategy for

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marketers and advertisers; with market research companies estimating figures such as 14 % of advertisements contain celebrities in the US, and this figure being higher for other countries such as Japan. Companies believe celebrities draw attention to their products and that if consumers believe a celebrity uses their product, sales will increase (Creswell, 2008). There is evidence to support the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement in terms of financial benefits (Mathur, Mathur, & Rangan, 1997), advertising attitudes and purchase intention (Petty, Cacioppo & Schumann, 1983; Bush, Martin & Bush, 2004).

With the rise of reality television and consumer-generated-content there also appears to have been a recent cultural shift in terms of what defines a celebrity (Keel, & Nataraajan, 2012). The status and popularity of some top bloggers have enabled them to cultivate a celebrity status. For example, Chiara Ferragni is the founder and blogger behind fashion and lifestyle website “The Blonde Salad”. She started her blog in 2009, and now the site has over 500,000 unique visitors every month, bringing in over 1.5 million dollars in advertising and referred sales. Her popularity on social media exceeds that of other traditional celebrities. Her Instagram account for example has 3.4 million followers, and her projected yearly earnings are reported to be in the multi millions (CBS news, 2015). Consequently, bloggers are now a plausible alternative to celebrity endorsers in particular product categories.

Blogger Status and Credibility

Social media is a tool used by bloggers to drive traffic to their sites and build and maintain their audience. Following on from this, there is a trend for brands to shift from traditional marketing paradigms to social media campaigns. Marketers believe consumers trust the opinions of others in their social groups, such as friends,

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bloggers and celebrities. Consequently, marketers cultivate relationships with social media influencers to get the attention of consumers (“Brands shifting from models”, 2016). This in itself is a lucrative business. For example, Danielle Bernstein, fashion blogger behind the “We Wore What” website, who at the time of interview had a following of 992,000 revealed she can charge up to $15,000 for one Instagram post featuring a product or brand for promotional purposes (Schaefer, 2015).

Moreover, when gauging the influence or status of a blogger, readers are unlikely to have easy access to information on web traffic, but instead the computer mediated information relating to their following across social media platforms. The number of friends users have on social networking sites has been frequently used to assess online popularity. People with big followings have also been found to be judged more popular and socially attractive (Utz, 2010). Internet users utilize online social networking sites and online ratings to help them judge the credibility of information and its source (Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010). Curvilinar

relationships have been found for the relationship between followers and credibility, on Facebook and Twitter respectively. Too few or too many followers results in the social media user seeming less credible (Westerman, Spence & Van Der Heide, 2012; Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell & Walther, 2008).

However, a more recent study by Edwards, Spence, Gentile, Edwards and Edwards (2013) showed a positive linear relationship was found between scores based on a users ability to drive action in social networks and credibility. Furthermore, there is also evidence that people use reputation and endorsement heuristics to make

judgements about credibility online. Metzger, Flanagin and Medders (2010) focus group results suggest relying on the source or sites reputation was the most prevalent heuristic used for assessing credibility. Moreover, results indicated that people also

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use endorsement heuristics, implying they tend to see sources and information as credible if others do also, with little inspection of the site content or source itself. Similarly, Sundar (2008) termed the “bandwagon heuristic” referring to the tendency for others to assume that if others think something is accurate or good, others will too.

Research and theory on the relationship between social media following and credibility has not been extensive but what exists seems to point towards the

increasing significance of group and social-based assessment of credibility and the function of cognitive heuristics in appraising the credibility of information on the internet. Bloggers with high status are more prominent and have a large social media following and influence online. Based on the preceding review the following is proposed:

H2: Bloggers with high status are perceived as more credible than bloggers with low status

To date, the moderating role of status in relation to bloggers has received little attention in communication research. Consequently literature on the moderating effects of blogger status within a sponsorship and blog context is very limited. However we can use source credibility theory (Hovland, Janis and Kelley, 1953), persuasion knowledge theory (Friestad & Wright, 1994) and heuristic cues of credibility to surmise the interaction between blogger status and sponsorship on the perceived credibility of the blogger.

Persuasive knowledge models suggest that sponsorship disclosure activates persuasion knowledge, which in turn can make readers generate theories and beliefs on the motives and appropriateness of the persuasive attempt (Friestad & Wright,

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1994). If the reader believes the review to be part of an incentivized persuasive attempt and not genuine, this should have some effect on the perceived

trustworthiness of the source (Colliander & Erlandsson, 2015). However, source credibility is typically noted as having the second important dimension of expertise. This means the reader could still perceive the source as knowledgeable and qualified to give their assertion, which in theory should reduce the negative impact of

disclosure on perceived credibility overall.

The statuses of bloggers are mainly differentiated by the extent of their digital influence. High status bloggers have a very large social following and thus the image of broad social approval and influence (Eytan, 2016). Furthermore, among their readers and followers, bloggers are viewed as leaders in taste, a source of inspiration, knowledgeable and authoritative online (McQuarrie, Miller& Phillips, 2013;

Uzunoğlu & Kip, 2014). Perception of their relevant knowledge and experience (in their chosen field) supports that, in part, their credibility is formed by their perceived expertise.

Furthermore, as highlighted in the preceding review, in an online setting people use the endorsement of others as a cue by which to judge the source’s credibility (Metzger, Flanagin, & Medders, 2010). The assertion of a high profile blogger may seem less trustworthy in the context of sponsorship, but their validity and expertise as a source is reinforced and supported by the visible endorsement of others in the form of followers compared to a low status blogger (Edwards, Spence, Gentile, Edwards & Edwards, 2013). Thus the overall credibility of bloggers with high status should be less vulnerable to the negative effects of sponsorship, due to the substantial endorsement of others that qualifies their assertion. Based on this

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H3: Blogger credibility is more negatively affected by sponsorship disclosure when blogger status is low than when it is high.

Brand Attitude and Purchase Intention

Source credibility is widely seen as an important factor in persuasive communication. Source credibility theory (Hovland, Janis & Kelley, 1953) asserts that when information originates from a credible source it influences opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour through a process of internalization. Internalization occurs when the receiver of the message adopts the view of the credible source because they believe the information from the source is correct. The internalized opinion is

integrated into their belief system and can remain even if the source itself is forgotten (Belch & Belch, 2015).

Accordingly, studies that investigate the main effect of source credibility on persuasion suggest a superiority of high credibility sources over low credibility sources, and though the trustworthiness and expertise dimension of credibility may have different levels of influence, it seems that high source credibility results in positive attitude and behavioural outcomes as reviewed by Pornpitakpan (2004). Additionally, recent research has shown a positive effect of source credibility on attitudes and purchase intention in WOM communication (Wu & Wang, 2011; Fan & Miao, 2012) and online consumer review contexts (Lee, Park & Han, 2011; Baek, Ahn, & Choi, 2012).

Wu and Wang (2011) used positive e-WOM to investigate the effects of source credibility on brand trust, brand affection and purchase intention. For both products used in the stimuli (notebooks and shampoo) the message from the source

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with higher credibility resulted in better brand attitudes, regardless of the level of product involvement, highlighting its robustness. Furthermore, Lee, Park and Han (2011) found that trust has an impact on online consumer reviews. Purchase intention is higher among consumers when there is greater perceived credibility toward the online consumer review. Taking the preceding assessment into account the following hypotheses are proposed:

H4: There is a positive relationship between perceived credibility of the blogger and brand attitude

H5: There is a positive relationship between perceived credibility of the blogger and purchase intentions.

Figure 1. Conceptual model.

Method Participants

114 responses were received in total. Participants were recruited online via Facebook and other social networking sites including YouTube (64.9% women, 35.1% men, Mage= 34.21, SD=12.24). This sample was considered to be a fairly

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representative of the general population in terms of demographics and experience with blogs. There were 94 respondents in total with useable data and participants were incentivised to take part by an invitation to enter a prize draw to win an H&M

voucher. 24.5 % of respondents indicated that they read blogs often and 11.7% indicated they read blogs very often.

Materials and Procedure

An experiment was judged to be the most appropriate way to study the effects of sponsorship and blogger status on perceived blogger credibility, attitudes towards the brand and purchase intentions. A 2x2 between subjects design was used and data was collected using an online survey in May 2016. An online link was posted to the survey on social media networks. Respondents were first presented with a short and formal invitation to participate in the study. This was followed by a request for their consent to participate.

Subsequently, participants were presented with demographic questions that collected information on their age, gender and the frequency with which they read blogs. The experiment started with a brief introduction and definition of blogs. Sponsorship was not included in the description to avoid prior bias. There were four conditions, each were randomized. Before each condition participants were presented with information about the author (blogger) to manipulate the status variable. This included statistics relating to the amount of regular and unique visitors a month, and social media statistics (e.g. how many followers). These figures were formulated by drawing on examples from the social following of large and smaller scale bloggers. The social media following and website visits for the high status manipulation was based on figures from Chiara Ferragni of “the Blonde Salade” and the statistics used

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for the low status manipulation was based on a comparison of lesser known blogs such as “In My Sunday Best” and “the loves cats inc” (see Appendix A).

The blog post was designed for the experiment by adapting an existing blog post but changing the information and creating a new blogger identity. By adapting an existing post, the content retained authenticity and realism in terms of writing style, but prevented participants from recognizing the blogger. For the product

recommendation Lush was chosen as the brand because it is well known and available internationally, including online. A well-known brand was chosen so that consumers would be already familiar and acquainted with the brand and feel it is accessible. The product reviewed was a body scrub taken from its real and current merchandise range. The review was wholly positive and ended with a recommendation to purchase the product and praised the brand. To manipulate the sponsorship variable, the blog post ends with a disclaimer that discloses the sponsored nature of the post, as is typical on most blog sites. In non-sponsored conditions the disclaimer was not included (see Appendix B).

Measures

The survey consisted of 20 items in total (see Appendix C). Chronbach’s Alpha of each scale was examined to ensure an acceptable level of reliability and consistency of the scale. The Chronbach’s Alpha of each construct exceeds 0.7, which was considered satisfactory for the analysis. Following the experimental condition, information was also collected to check awareness for the featured brand and the effectiveness of the experimental manipulation. The manipulation for sponsorship was measured by asking “did you see the sponsorship disclaimer in the blog article?” and the manipulation for blogger status was measured by asking, “Did you think that

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the blogger had a high status?” Two way ANOVA analysis and regression analysis to test for group differences and the relationship between perceived credibility and the dependent variables was run using SPSS.

Perceived credibility. The variable perceived credibility consisted of two factors, trustworthiness and expertise. Each were measured using 5 items respectively on a 7 point semantic differential scale developed and validated by Ohanian (1990) from “dependable” to “undependable” and “expert” to “not an expert”. Composite score was calculated for the scale (M=4.30, SD=1.28). Chronbach’s Alpha for the 10 perceived credibility items were .95.

Brand attitude. Five items were used to measure attitude towards the brand and were measured on a 7-point semantic differential scale from “appealing” to “unappealing”. Items were taken from a validated scale developed by Spears and Singh (2004). Composite score was calculated for the scale (M=4.62, SD= 1.38). Chronbach’s Alpha for the 5 brand attitude items was .96.

Purchase intention. Five items were used to measure purchase intentions and were measured on a 7-point semantic differential scale from “definitely” to “never”. Items were taken from a validated scale developed by Spears and Singh (2004). Composite score was calculated for the scale (M=3.24, SD=1.67). Chronbach’s Alpha for the 5 purchase intention items was .97.

Results

Data

The raw data was analysed and cleaned for any anomalies or errors. Descriptive and frequency statistics were run to check that the minimum and

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to identify any missing data, identify variables that may not have been entered correctly and to assess for normal distribution of the data.

Manipulation Checks

Two items were used to check the level of sponsorship type and blogger status respectively. First, respondents were asked “did you see the sponsorship disclaimer in the blog article?” answering yes/no to check the manipulation of sponsorship type. A Chi Square Test was performed to test for group differences between the levels of sponsorship on the manipulation. The relation between these variables were

significant, X2 (1, N =89) = 24.96, p < .001. Participants in the sponsorship condition were more likely to have seen the sponsorship disclaimer in the blog article than participants in the non-sponsorship condition.

Secondly, for the manipulation of blogger status, participants were asked to answer yes or no to “did you think that the blogger had a high status?” The results indicate that there is no significant relationship between the presented background of the blogger and participant’s belief in the bloggers high status. X2

(1, N = 88) = 1.11, p = .293. Based on the findings the manipulation for blogger status was not successful.

Hypothesis Testing

To test the first part of the research model, a two way ANOVA was conducted to compare the main effects of sponsorship, blogger status and the interaction effect between sponsorship and blogger status on perceived credibility of the blogger.

A two-way analysis of variance was conducted on the influence of two independent variables (sponsorship type and blogger status) on the level of perceived credibility of the blogger. Sponsorship type included two levels (present, not present)

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and blogger status consisted of two levels (high, low). The means and standard deviations are presented in table 1.

Table 1.

Means and Standard Deviations for Levels of Sponsorship and Status Dependent variable: Credibility

High Status Low Status

Sponsorship M SD M SD

Yes 4.30 1.16 4.61 1.27

No 4.23 1.43 4.04 1.28

The two way analysis of variance showed no significant main effect for sponsorship F(1,84) = 1.373, p = .245; no significant main effect for blogger status F(1,84) = 0.048, p = .826 and there was no significant interaction between

sponsorship and blogger status F(1,84) = 0.825, p = .366. Thus, the results do not support the first three hypotheses, that sponsored product recommendation will result in lower perceived credibility towards the blogger and that credibility is more affected when blogger status is low.

Regression analysis: Simple linear regression was used to test if perceived credibility of the blogger significantly predicted attitude towards the brand. A moderately positive correlation was found between credibility scores and brand attitude (r= .48). A significant regression equation was found (F(1,86) = 25.197, p < .001), with an R2 of .227. Hence, there appears to be a statistically significant positive linear relationship between credibility and brand attitude (see table 2.)

Simple linear regression was used to test if perceived credibility of the blogger significantly predicted purchase intention. A moderately high positive correlation was

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found between credibility scores and purchase intention (r= .54). A significant regression equation was found (F(1,86) = 35.475, p < .001), with an R2 of .286. The results indicate a statistically positive linear relationship between credibility and purchase intention (see table 2). Thus, the results support H4 and H5 that there is a significant positive relationship between perceived credibility and brand attitude and a significant positive relationship between perceived credibility and purchase

intentions. Table 2.

Summary of Linear Regression Analysis for Credibility Predicting Brand Attitude and Purchase Intention Brand Attitude Purchase Intention Variable B SE B β B SE B β Constant 2.493 .458 .170 .543 Credibility .513 .102 .476 .712 .121 .535 Discussion

This study aimed to examine whether disclosing sponsorship impacts blogger credibility and if there is a relationship between credibility and brand attitude and purchase intention. The possible moderating role of blogger status was also investigated. This was done using an experimental design with stimuli constructed for the purposes of the experimental manipulation. The results suggest that there is no significant difference between the effects of sponsorship versus no sponsorship on

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blogger credibility. Findings also suggest there is no moderating role of blogger status. However, perceived credibility of the blogger was found to predict brand attitude and purchase intention.

Most important is the absence of evidence found for the hypothesised main effect. The results suggest there is no difference between how people perceive the credibility of sponsored blog posts compared to non-sponsored blog posts. This was an unexpected outcome, but it does contribute to the limited landscape of research in the area and thus adds to our understanding of the processes that may be involved when evaluating content on a blog platform. Our results further indicate there is not a straightforward relationship between sponsorship and blog credibility, and support the findings of Liljander, Gummerus and Soderlund (2015) and Colliander (2012a,b) who found no effect of blog marketing on blogger credibility or trust.

Blogs are seen as more credible than other media sources (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). They are typically independent of traditional media, and often started by individuals with a genuine passion for their subject matter (Huang, Shen, Lin, & Chang, 2007). Therefore, while sponsored product reviews involve an element of bias, it is possible the blogger may continue to be regarded as reliable and sincere. As an alternative to traditional media, blogs are fundamentally expected to have a bias (a unique outlook), and readers of blogs believe bloggers are open with regards to their biases (Johnson & Kaye, 2004). The upfront disclosure of sponsorship could serve as further validation of this openness.

In the experimental design the presence of sponsorship was overt (sponsorship was disclosed alongside the post). Consequently, the results may lend support to the assumptions and research of Colliander and Erlandsson (2015) and Colliander (2012a,b), which indicate that sponsorship strategy plays a key role in how people

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judge the credibility of bloggers. More specifically, that when sponsorship is overt (unconcealed) to the blog reader, the perceived credibility of the blogger is not adversely affected. In other words, their findings suggest that overt sponsorship does not have a significantly negative effect on credibility because it is viewed as an honest admission, in contrast to covert sponsorship, which is viewed as more deceptive.

A more nuanced explanation for the insignificant findings regarding sponsorship might be found within Attribution Theory. Attribution Theory is the study of processes that individuals use to explain the causes of behaviours and events. A particular attribution error, termed correspondence bias refers to the human error of assuming someone is behaving in a way that corresponds to their unique disposition, and neglecting the alternative situational causes for this behaviour (Jones & Harris 1969; Gilbert & Malone, 1995). The strength of attribution error and correspondence bias has been demonstrated in advertising (Hardy, 2016). Put simply the result could suggest a tendency to assume that the way the blogger is behaving is a true reflection of their opinions and beliefs.

Gilbert and Malone (1995) explored and reviewed the causes of this correspondence bias and identified several mechanisms that cause the effect. Two interesting and distinct causes include lack of awareness and unrealistic expectations. Applying this to the current study, for participants to be able to avoid correspondence bias they must be aware sponsorship may play a causal role in the behaviour of the blogger. Furthermore, to make an accurate attribution about the bloggers beliefs they should also have a good idea about how sponsorship typically affects the bloggers actions. Further research could explore the moderating role of prior blog marketing knowledge, as this was not controlled within the current study.

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Of course the results could also imply that sponsorship disclosure is not the most significant peripheral cue or factor used by readers to evaluate the credibility of the blogger and their recommendation. People use peripheral cues to assess the credibility of online information across various contexts (Beldad, van der Geest, de Jong, & Steehouder, 2012; Sparks, So & Bradley, 2016; Xu, 2014). Subsequently, valence, message quality and source identity are some of the factors that have been found to affect consumer attitudes and purchase intentions (Kusumasondjaja, Shanka & Marchegiani, 2012). Messages that are well structured in regards to the balance of positive versus negative information are viewed as more persuasive in certain contexts (Crowley & Hoyer, 1994) and source identity by way of demographic information appears to enhance source credibility and lead to an increase in sales (Forman, Ghose, & Wiesenfeld, 2008). Further research could explore their moderating role in a sponsored context.

No interaction was found between sponsorship, blogger status and credibility as predicted. We need to be careful when interpreting this result because the status manipulation failed. However, taken together it is possible this points towards a larger problem of finding a definitive concept for blogger status. It may also suggest in line with source attractiveness models (McGuire, 1985) that prior exposure and affection towards the source are more important factors to endear participants towards a source. Due to the sample and manipulation used in the current study this kind of environment was not recreated.

As expected there is a quite strong predictive relationship between blogger credibility and attitudes towards the brand and purchase intention. Participants who view the source as more credible are more likely to accept the message and feel positively towards the brand and more likely to have the intention to purchase. This

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supports the idea that as a source effect credibility is reliable and important for persuasion (McGuire, 1969). Following this result it is strongly advised that marketing professionals take into consideration the credibility of a blogger when making decisions about who is appropriate to promote their products and services. Limitations

This study has a number of limitations. Firstly the status manipulation failed. There are a few possible reasons for this. Social media following was used as a determinant of higher or lower status. However, the word status itself may be subject to different interpretations. Hence, for some individuals, popularity on social media may not be linked to what they perceive status to mean. Moreover, participants with less knowledge or experience of social media sites and apps could be unfamiliar with the significance of social media followers. Still, even with knowledge, to those unfamiliar with the statistics of others whose job it is to have a large presence on social media, the following of a low status blogger could also be perceived as very high.

Secondly, this study used a convenience-sampling method. Participants were not mainly drawn from a natural blogging audience which would have meant results could be more generalised to real life situations and have greater relevance. Furthermore, due to a smaller than anticipated sample size, it is possible this decreased the chances of obtaining a significant effect. Finally data was not collected on prior blog marketing knowledge or understanding of what sponsorship means, therefore we could not assess if this had any effect on how participants understood the implications of the disclosure. As such we could not make any deeper inference about possible mechanisms that could be underlying a correspondence bias effect.

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Suggestions for Future Research and Practical Implications

Due to the types of questions raised and the problems with manipulating blogger status encountered in the method, there is a benefit for more explorative analysis initially, in the form of content analysis or survey research to summarize the main characteristics and features of blogger and blog marketing views among the blog reader population. Fresh insight could enable a more effective manipulation of the blogger status variable.

More ambitious research is required that attempts to replicate the authenticity of blog readership. Drawing from a population of blog followers and exploring the effects of sponsorship using bloggers known to them allows for more insight to be drawn, taking into account the closeness of relationships and natural environment. Equally it would be interesting to use samples drawn from individuals who are bloggers themselves. Bloggers are more likely to have a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between blogging and sponsorship. In line with persuasive knowledge theory (Friestad & Wright, 1994) insight could be obtained from a comparison of results between blogger and reader, who would have different levels of understanding and knowledge about the implications of sponsorship and balancing the relationship between creative freedom and monetary incentive.

Conclusion

The findings of this study have potentially serious implications for marketers and professional bloggers. As endorsement deals and brand partnerships become increasingly common and larger in scale, so too does the scrutiny behind the transparency of these deals. Some media outlets have exposed what are believed to be underhand advertising practices on behalf of both parties (TFL, 2016) that violate the

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Federal Trade Commissions Act regarding the proper use of disclosure. This highlights that the arrangements between brands and bloggers are currently a relevant and important issue in marketing.

Our findings suggest there is no difference between how people perceive the credibility of bloggers whether sponsorship in blogs is disclosed or not. However, previous research that specifically has looked at differences between overt and covert sponsorship strategy has found evidence to indicate it is only when sponsorship is covert that it adversely affects credibility (Colliander & Erlandsson, 2015). Thus, the findings in this study still offer support for that theory to an extent.

Should this be the case in practice, marketers and bloggers will need to prioritise transparency in their collaborations and sponsorship deals or risk harming attitudes towards their brand and their credibility respectively. The significant and positive correlation between credibility towards the blogger and brand attitude and purchase intention highlights the joint need to take this precaution.

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Appendix A

High status manipulation text

Jenny is a very popular and successful fashion and beauty blogger with a large

following. Her site ’By Jenny’ gets 800,000 unique visitors and 12 million page views a month. On social media she has a following of:

760,111 likes on Facebook 2.7 million followers on Twitter 5.7 million followers on Instagram 498,170 followers on Bloglovin

Low status manipulation text

Jenny is a fashion and beauty blogger with a modest following. Her site ‘By Jenny’ gets 300 unique visitors and 4000 estimated page views a month. On social media she has a following of:

473 likes on Facebook 1,698 followers on Twitter 3,608 followers on Instagram 310 folllowers on Bloglovin

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Appendix B

Blog post – sponsorship disclosure

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Appendix C

Survey items used to measure constructs Brand attitude

Please describe your overall feeling about the brand in the article you just read: Appealing: Unappealing Good: Bad Pleasant: Unpleasant Favorable: Unfavorable Likable: Unlikable Purchase intention

Please describe your overall feelings about purchasing the product and from the brand mentioned in this article:

Definitely: Never

Definitely intend to buy: Definitely do not intend to buy Very high purchase interest: Very low purchase interest Definitely buy it: Definitely not buy it

Probably buy it: Probably not buy it Blogger credibility

Please rate your feelings about the blogger who wrote this article by checking the appropriate space. My perception of the blogger is that she is...

Dependable: Undependable Honest: Dishonest

Reliable: Unreliable Sincere: Insincere

Trustworthy: Untrustworthy Expert: Not an expert Experienced: Inexperienced

Knowledgeable: Unknowledgeable Qualified: Unqualified

Afbeelding

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