Para-Social Interaction In The Context Of On-Line Interactive Shopping

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					               ANZMAC 2000 Visionary Marketing for the 21st Century: Facing the Challenge

  Para-Social Interaction In The Context Of On-Line Interactive Shopping
                    Environments: A Conceptual Model
                                        Ming Ong Wong,
                                       Dr David R. Fortin
                        Department of Management, University of Canterbury

The interactive nature of the World Wide Web allows marketers to develop ongoing relationships with their
visitors by enhancing the interaction between the visitors and the persona of the site or the site itself. This type
of interaction between the visitors and the media personality is referred to as para-social interaction. Building
on previous research, this paper attempts to develop a conceptual model of para-social interaction in the context
of on-line shopping environments. Hypotheses pertaining to this phenomenon are proposed and the significance
of the model is discussed.


Shopping on the World Wide Web (WWW) represents a relatively new phenomenon, and has captured a high
level of attention from marketers and advertisers. With millions of commercial web sites competing for a market
share on the WWW, marketers need to seek new and innovative ways to differentiate their web sites from others.
Several commercial web sites feature hosts or fictional characters to draw consumers to those sites. Using these
hosts, fictional characters, or personae on web sites, marketers are able to hold consumers’ interest for
advertising and marketing opportunities (Hoerner 1999). Furthermore, the interactive features of a commercial
web site allow visitors to actively interact with and to form an ongoing relationship with the host, fictional
character, or persona of the site. This type of interaction between the visitors and the media personality is
termed the para-social interaction, often called “intimacy at a distance.”

Para-social interaction (or relationship), a new form of social interaction created by the mass media, is based on
the frequent and consistent appearance of a persona, or mediated personality. Para-social interaction phenomena
were originally observed in the early days of radio broadcasts and later with soap opera TV channels. Para-social
interaction has been referred to as an illusion of a face-to-face relationship (Horton and Wohl 1956), as a media-
simulated interpersonal form of communication (Cathcart and Gumpert 1983), as an imaginary social
relationship (Alperstein 1991), as pseudo-friendship (Perse 1990), and as an interpersonal interaction between
the media user and the media being consumed (Rubin, Perse and Powell 1985).

Marketers and advertisers have extensively applied the concept of para-social interaction to the TV shopping
network (Auter and Moore 1993). Some researchers and industry analysts consider parasocial interaction the
key to teleshopping’s billion-dollar annual sale success (Rubin 1986). A number of studies conducted in the
context of television shopping have shown that para-social interaction could positively affect consumers’
purchasing behaviour (Rubin 1986; Zaklan 1990; Grant, Guthrie and Ball-Rokeach 1991; Skumanich and
Kintsfather 1998; Stephens, Hill and Bergman 1996). Therefore, empirical studies on para-social interaction in
the home shopping context may suggest that para-social interaction may also be applicable in the context of the
WWW. Moreover, interactive shopping on the WWW is an area of communication that may lend itself well to
research on para-social interaction (Auter and Moore 1993). The discussion now turns to the articulation of the
conceptual model of para-social interaction for marketing on the WWW.

Para-Social Interaction and the Web Site Persona: A Conceptual Model

A web site can be construed as a persona because of the para-social signal it can generate, despite the fact that it
is not a true persona in the sense used in previous para-social interaction research. As stated by Hoerner (1999,
p. 146), “the design metaphor, flow of the web experience, and styles of textual and graphic representations of
the information all become elements of a web site persona and encourage parasocial interaction by the visitor/
user with that persona.” In other words, a web site is able to have a personality by virtue of its graphic design,
treatment of information, and level of interactivity. All these elements may combine to influence the level of
para-social interaction. In this light, a model of para-social interaction in the context of the WWW is proposed,
as seen in figure 1. The discussion that follows elaborates on each component of the model.

               ANZMAC 2000 Visionary Marketing for the 21st Century: Facing the Challenge

Figure 1. Para-Social Interaction in the Context of On-Line Shopping Environment

          Presence                    Motive to Seek                                              Future
          of Persona                   Interaction                                              Anticipation

        Vividness of
          the Site

     Person Interactivity
       (User-Persona)                                      Para-Social Interaction
                                                               (with the site)
     Person Interactivity
         (User-User)                                                                               Abrand

    Content Interactivity

    Content Interactivity            Enduring Product
        (Dynamic)                      Involvement

Presence of Persona and Vividness of the Site

It is proposed that the presence and attractiveness of persona(e) of a site, and the site’s level of vividness will
influence the level of para-social interaction. It has been found that para-social interaction is positively related to
the social and task attraction of the program personae (Rubin and McHugh 1987). Similarly, Turner (1993)
found a positive correlation between para-social interaction and the similarity between the self and the TV

The attractiveness of the persona of a site is also closely related to the level of vividness of the site. According
to Steuer (1992), vividness refers to the number of sensory dimensions, cues and senses presented (colours,
graphics, etc), as well as the quality and resolution of the presentation (bandwidth). It has been found that
vividness is positively related to the level of social presence, which is the feeling that communication exchanges
are sociable, warm, personal, sensitive and active (Lombard and Ditton 1997; Short and Christie 1979). The
concept of social presence is closely related to para-social interaction, as they both constitute an important factor
of interpersonal relationships. The above discussion thus leads to the following hypothesis:

H1a,b: (a) The presence of a persona on a web site and its attractiveness, (b) as well as perceived level of
vividness of the site, positively affects the level of para-social interaction by the visitor/ user with that site.

Person Interactivity and Content Interactivity

The interactive nature of the WWW allows visitors to a site to actively interact with the site or with other visitors
at the same site. Specifically, there are two forms of interactivity: person interactivity and content interactivity
(Hoffman and Novak 1996). Person interactivity is defined as “interactivity between people that occurs through
a medium or is unmediated, as in the case of face-to-face communication” (Hoffman and Novak 1996, p. 52-53).
This conceptualisation is related to the facility for individuals to communicate directly with one another
regardless of distance or time (Blattberg and Deighton 1991; Bretz and Schmidbauer 1983). Person interactivity,
which makes user-to-user interaction (e.g. chat room) or user-to-persona interaction (e.g. e-mail) possible on the
web, is crucial for the development of para-social interaction. This phenomenon is similar to the relationship a
person has with phone-in viewers, who have the opportunity to speak live with a host, and is also related to the
concept of teleparticipation proposed by Skumanich and Kintsfather (1998). It is found that those who listen to
on-air calls may identify with callers, giving the listeners a sense of being part of a like-minded community of
friends. In addition, participation in the host-caller exchange may enhance the viewer’s sense of para-social
interaction with the host (Cathcart and Gumpert 1983). Stephens et al. (1996) also observe a similar
phenomenon in the case of the QVC home shopping channel.

               ANZMAC 2000 Visionary Marketing for the 21st Century: Facing the Challenge

Content (or machine) interactivity occurs between human and medium to access hypermedia content (Hoffman
and Novak 1996). According to this view, information or content is not merely transmitted from a sender to a
receiver; instead, "mediated environments are created and then experienced" (Steuer 1992, p. 78). This feature
allows visitors to a web site to actually create their own contents on the site (Hoffman and Novak 1996). In
essence, a visitor can be both an audience as well as a message producer. By providing visitors with the
opportunity to generate their own contents, visitors are likely to feel that the persona values their contributions
and their perception might therefore be positively enhanced.

Another characteristic that is associated with content interactivity is the ‘dynamic’ aspect of the content, which
refers to whether the content of a web site is updated or refreshed frequently (Hagel III and Armstrong 1997;
Parsons, Zeisser and Waitman 1998). In the context of a television program, para-social interaction is reflected
as an ongoing relationship between the viewers and the program (Rubin and McHugh 1987). Para-social
interaction is developed through viewing of the program or persona over time. Each episode of a program serves
to reinforce this relationship. It is the frequent appearance of the persona that fosters the development of para-
social interaction. This phenomenon may also apply to the on-line shopping environment. When consumers are
satiated due to lack of novelty in the relationship, they will exit the relationship. Moreover, dynamic content
represents a form of anticipated relationship benefits for consumers. The greater the expectations for future
positive reinforcement, the greater the consumer propensity to stay in a relationship (Sheth and Parvatiyar 1995).
The discussion leads to the formulation of the following hypotheses:

H2a,b: The level of person interactivity, as characterised by (a) user-persona interactivity and (b) user-user
interactivity, positively affects the level of para-social interaction by the visitor/ user with that site.

H3a,b: The level of content interactivity, as characterised by (a) the ability to allow users to generate their own
content on a web site, and (b) dynamic of the content (site updated and refreshed frequently), positively affects
the level of para-social interaction by the visitor/ user with that site.

Moderators: Motive and Involvement

The formation of para-social interaction is based on the basic human need for social interaction (Isotalus 1995;
Nordlund 1978). According to the uses-and-gratification paradigm of communication research, audiences use
media to gratify their cognitive and affective needs (Dobos and Dimmick 1988; Rubin and Rubin 1985; Rust and
Varki 1996). It is believed that these needs establish a manifestation of communication behaviour, and thus
para-social interaction. It is suggested that some communication motives, such as the motive to seek social
interaction or the need for affiliation, will result in higher level of para-social interaction, while others do not.
Para-social interaction may not be a result of other goals, such as the motive to seek information. Thus, it is
suggested that the level of para-social interaction may be dependent on the type of motives for seeking
interaction with a web site.

Another factor that may moderate the effects of antecedent variables on the level of para-social interaction is
involvement. Although the definitions of involvement offered by researchers differ somewhat, involvement is
generally referred to as the perceived value of a ‘goal-object’ that manifests as interest in that goal-object (Mittal
and Lee 1989). This goal-object can be a product itself (as in product involvement), an issue or the content of a
web site (as in issue involvement), or the process of browsing the site or interacting with other users on the site
(as in process involvement). Each of the different types of involvement will lead a consumer to focus on the
message (Petty, Cacioppo and Schumann 1983). It has been found that involved television viewers pay attention
to and think about the message, get “caught up in the action of the drama” (Bryant and Comisky 1978, p. 65). It
is suggested that the antecedent variables, such as the design metaphor, flow of the web experience, and styles of
textual and graphic representations of the information, will have very little impact on the development of para-
social interaction by the visitors who do not have a ‘reasonable’ level of involvement. The following hypothesis
is thus developed:

H4a,b: The positive relationship between the antecedent variables and para-social interaction (a) will become
stronger or weaker depending on the type of motive for seeking interaction, and (b) will become stronger with
increasing levels of involvement.

               ANZMAC 2000 Visionary Marketing for the 21st Century: Facing the Challenge

The Effects of Para-Social Interaction on Attitudes

As stated previously, para-social interaction is referred to as the sense of intimacy or friendship with a media
personality, or as the interpersonal interaction of the media user with the media being consumed. Therefore,
level of para-social interaction between a consumer and a commercial web site is expected to influence the
consumer’s attitude toward the site. Research has shown that persons engaged in para-social interaction believe
they know a person from seeing him or her on television (Horton and Wohl 1956; Rubin, Powell and Perse
1985), and also look to the television personality for guidance (Rubin et al 1985). Similarly, a persona may
become an opinion leader for the viewer (Levy 1979). It has also been found that a high degree of para-social
interaction with a television persona will strengthen the viewer’s cognitive and affective involvement with the
program. This involvement will then increase the viewers’ attention, and their emotional responses (Perse
1990). Para-social interaction may motivate viewers to have a regular relationship with a media personality
(Horton and Wohl 1956). These findings may suggest that visitors engaged in para-social interaction with a web
site will develop a favourable attitude toward the site and toward the products advertised on the site. Moreover,
para-social interaction is expected to enhance the visitors’ level of future anticipation with the site.

Moreover, a positive correlation has been found between para-social interaction and the number of items
purchased in a major television service (Grant, Guthrie and Ball-Rokeach 1991; Skumanich and Kintsfather
1998). A case study of QVC home shopping channel, by Stephens, et al (1996), has also shown that the hosts
systematically form para-social relationships with viewers and use these relationships to encourage viewers to
purchase products from QVC. The above discussion leads to the following hypothesis:

H5a,b,c,d: The level of para-social interaction by the visitor/ user with a site is positively related to (a) the level
of future anticipation, (b) attitude toward the site, (c) attitude toward brands on the site, and (d) purchase

Significance of the Model

This paper represents one of the first attempts in linking the theory of para-social interaction and consumer
behaviour in the context of on-line interactive home shopping environments, and in exploring the underlying
factors that may influence para-social interaction and its impact on consumers’ attitudes. The model may
stimulate future research into the area of on-line consumer behaviour and advance our understanding of the
phenomenon. It may also shed light on the differences and similarities of para-social interaction effects across
media, as consumers react differently to different communication media.

Moreover, the model presented in this paper will provide unprecedented value to managerial practice in terms of
marketing on the WWW. More specifically, the present paper may provide insights into the impact of various
features (e.g., interactivity, vividness) of a web site on consumer behaviour, and thus provide guidelines to
marketers for the design of an effective web interface from the consumers’ perspective.

The development of para-social interaction on the WWW may also present an avenue for marketers to engage
and build relationships with their customers within on-line interactive shopping environments. As para-social
interaction represents a form of ongoing relationship and interaction between audience and the persona or
program, examining this phenomenon in the context of the WWW may thus provide marketers with insights into
an alternative form of relationship building strategy. By understanding the antecedents and predictors of the
development of para-social interaction in the on-line shopping environment, marketers are able to devise their
marketing strategies accordingly to attract and to maintain relationships with their customers.

Perhaps this framework of para-social interaction in the context of the on-line shopping environment will be of
use to future research in this area, as marketing on the WWW will most certainly continue to grow as
consumers’ acceptance and use of the Internet for transactions evolves in the years to come.


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