What? In today’s digitally connected world, consumers are inundated with electronic communication. Mass customization systems are greatly increasing communication among consumers.
So what? Companies need to understand whether the type of communication influences consumers’ configuration process. We believe narcissistic communication holds the key to understanding the effectiveness of electronic word of mouth (eWOM).
Now what? Our research suggests that companies need to identify narcissists and be aware of their power to influence other consumers. They should also consider the potential negative effects of narcissism in influencer marketing and carefully integrate social sharing functions in product configurators.

Social product configurators allow consumers to receive feedback from peers on their mass-customized product (e.g., a configured car). Does the type of communication between consumers influence the configuration process? In their paper “Exploring the ‘I’ in Electronic Word of Mouth: Narcissistic Communication Determines What Others Customize and How Satisfied They Are,” Johanna Hasenmaile, Emanuel de Bellis, and Andreas Herrmann investigate the influence of narcissistic, I-centered communication on other consumers’ decision-making and satisfaction with the configured product. A series of four studies shows that narcissistic communication makes other consumers more likely to adjust their configuration. This in turn leads to less favorable configuration evaluations and to a greater desire to reconfigure the product.

Much present-day communication takes place online. Consumers are often flooded with messages from various entities, ranging from firms to other consumers. These messages may heavily influence consumers’ decision-making. One key form of such communication is electronic word of mouth (eWOM). Such Internet-based communication enables consumers to exchange ideas about products, services, brands, and firms (Rosario, Sotgiu, De Valck, & Bijmolt, 2016). Widely accessible Internet-based platforms have made eWOM proliferate in recent years (Berger, 2014).

Our research focuses on eWOM in the context of social product configurators. This is worthwhile as the integration of social elements in mass-customization (MC) systems is attracting increasing attention across industries and markets. For example, car manufacturers like Jeep, Land Rover, Porsche, or Volvo or companies like Nike now provide consumers web-based tools to easily share, discuss, and improve their configured product on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Typically, consumers configure their product based on their preferences (as with a standard MC system) and may then share a commented link to their configuration via their social media profile.

Little is currently known about the consequences of integrating elements of social interaction into MC systems. Prior research has identified positive effects of peer input on the evaluation of preliminary design solutions (Franke, Keinz, & Schreier, 2008). However, evidence also exists that social comparisons can lower the evaluation of self-designed products (Moreau & Herd, 2010). To date, Hildebrand, Häubl, Herrmann, and Landwehr (2013), as well as Schlager, Hildebrand, Häubl, Franke, and Herrmann (2018), have provided the only systematic studies on social product configurators. Hildebrand et al. (2013) found that receiving feedback on a self-designed product from other community members leads to less unique product designs and reduced satisfaction. However, none of these studies has investigated which communication styles in consumer feedback messages most strongly affect social product configurators. We expect that narcissistic consumers have distinct ways of communicating and therefore influence others’ decision-making and satisfaction differently than non-narcissistic consumers.

Besides the narcissistic clinical disorder, narcissism has been conceptualized as a relatively prevalent personality dimension (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007; Emmons, 1984; Raskin & Terry, 1988). Narcissism is commonly defined as an unjustified conceit, implying an excessive motivation to self-enhance (Lee, Gregg, & Park, 2013). Narcissists seek admiration (Baumeister & Vohs, 2001) and more actively engage in online communities (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008). Narcissism manifests itself in various characteristics of communication. For example, narcissists use more first-person singular pronouns (e.g., “I” and “me”), instead of first-person plural pronouns (e.g., “we” and “us”), so as to draw attention to themselves (Raskin & Shaw, 1988).

Our pilot study and three experimental studies with car configurators aim to analyze the influence, power, and consequences of narcissistic communication styles on consumers’ decisions and satisfaction in social product configurators. Preliminary results show that consumers scoring high (versus low) on narcissism are more likely to share their configuration online and use more I-centered communication to describe their configuration. In turn, consumers are more likely to adjust their configuration towards a sample configuration presented with I-centered communication, resulting in less favorable evaluations of their own configuration.

The current research is both theoretically and practically relevant. First, it contributes to the growing research stream on narcissism in social networks. We show that feedback from narcissistic (versus non-narcissistic) consumers in social product configurators most strongly influences other consumers. Interestingly, narcissists and non-narcissists are influenced equally by I-centered communication (this might be a promising area for future research). Second, our research expands existing research on the detrimental effect of community feedback on consumer satisfaction (Hildebrand et al., 2013; Moreau & Herd, 2010; Schlager et al., 2018). We illustrate that feedback from narcissists negatively impacts consumers’ satisfaction rate with their own configuration. Third, we contribute to the growing research stream on eWOM by showing message type determines whether information cuts through noise and actually influences consumers.

Moreover, the research has practical relevance, in particular because many industries have embraced the link between social networks and MC systems. First, besides the positive effects, we also illustrate the negative effects of integrating elements of social interaction into MC systems. On the one hand, narcissists can be an important factor within the MC buying process. This is true because such consumers are often opinion leaders within social communities and strive to share information with other consumers. On the other hand, eWOM from narcissists can decrease consumer satisfaction with the configured product and result in a greater desire to reconfigure the product. Second, our research has important implications for the nascent area of influencer marketing. This has emerged as one of the fastest-growing advertising segments in recent years. It raises two key questions: How narcissistic are influencers? Are influencers largely the same as narcissists? Whereas current research is unable to answer these questions, our findings suggest that firms should be aware of the potential negative effects of their influencer strategies.

Recommended action:

1) Find ways of identifying narcissists and be aware of their power to influence other consumers.

2) Consider the potential negative effects of narcissism in the area of influencer marketing.

3) Find the sweet spot between providing ideas and feedback via sample configurations and strengthening consumers’ opinion of their own configuration.

4) Foster non-narcissistic communication between consumers (e.g., by adjusting feedback functions or by prioritizing non-narcissistic feedback in search engines).

5) Carefully integrate social sharing functions to product configurators — are there more benefits than disadvantages?

To find out more about our research:

Contact Johanna Hasenmaile (, Emanuel de Bellis ( or Andreas Herrmann (


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Image Source: by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay