“You are not alone”: Effects of highlighting social aspects on responsiveness, joining, and profile information sharing in an information portal

Authors


Abstract

Many information portals are adding social features to enable benefits of Web 2.0. Such additions are undertaken with hopes of increasing the usefulness of the information and enhancing the overall user experience. Invitations and welcome pages that highlight these social features are expected to encourage use and participation. We studied the effects of emphasizing social features on users' responses to invitations, decisions to join, and willingness to provide profile information. The results of a quasi-experiment found no effect of social emphasis in invitations on receiver responsiveness. However, subjects receiving invitations highlighting social benefits were less likely to join and provide profile information. Social emphasis in the initial welcome page for the site was also found to have a significant effect on whether individuals joined and how much profile information they provided and shared. Unexpectedly, subjects who were welcomed in a social manner were less likely to join and provided less profile information. This suggests that even in online contexts where social activity is an increasingly important factor, highlighting the presence of social features may not always be the optimal presentation strategy.

INTRODUCTION

Library websites, digital libraries, news sites, and other information portals are all incorporating social features such as user profiles, peer commenting, collective filtering, and social networking. These features allow users to connect to one another and provide a richer user experience that combines information resources and social activities. As social features are added to information portals, it is also common to highlight their presence in user recruiting messages and introductory materials.

Researchers have considered how individuals use online social networking systems that allow them to create profiles, document social connections, and share information with others (see Boyd and Ellison, 2007 for a review). From this work it is clear that the presence of social features can affect how people interact with information resources. However, past research has not specifically investigated how highlighting social aspects of an information portal impacts user behavior.

The impact of highlighting social features on new user enrollment and subsequent behavior will be of interest to designers and managers of information portals. The growing emphasis on social features suggests that information portal creators and administrators expect that adding and highlighting social features will be helpful for increasing user enrollment and motivating participation. This study aims to test this assumption.

Our goal is to consider the implications of highlighting social features when introducing an information portal to new and potential users. Specifically, we will examine how frequently used ways of highlighting social aspects of an information portal affect new users choices and behavior. To do this, we conducted a quasi-experimental field study of an information portal for Dental Informatics researchers.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND HYPOTHESES

Many websites emphasize the presence of social features when they invite and welcome new users. Two common methods of highlighting social aspects are to mention them in initial invitations sent out to potential users and in welcome pages seen by new users when they first encounter the site.

Many websites, including information portals, recruit new users through prepared but customizable invitations. Whether they are sent in impersonal batches or one-to-one by current users, invitations are often the first exposure that individuals have to a new site. As such, these invitations provide potential users with important signals that they use to form expectations about the benefits and costs of engaging the site. Hence it is likely that highlighting social aspects of a portal in an invitation message will affect prospective users' responses to the invitation, whether they ultimately join the portal, and their willingness to provide information about themselves if they do join the portal as an identified user.

A welcome page greets prospective members who find out about a portal through invitations or other means. These pages are another place where social features may be highlighted. Just as with invitations, it is expected that the nature of the material presented in a portal's welcome page will impact new users' decisions to join and their willingness to provide information about themselves.

In this paper we will consider the following research questions:

  • 1How does highlighting the social aspects and benefits of an information portal affect prospective and new users' decisions to respond, join, and share information about themselves?
  • 2How does highlighting the social aspects and benefits of an information portal in an initial invitation message affect prospective and new users' decision to respond, join and share information about themselves?
  • 3How does highlighting the social aspects and benefits of an information portal in a welcome page affect prospective and new users' decisions to join and share information about themselves?

Drawing from previous studies of social groups, online communities, and social networking sites we propose the following hypotheses related to these research questions.

H1: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in an invitation will increase the likelihood of a user responding to the invitation, joining the site, and sharing information

Past research has shown that people join online groups and social networking sites for a variety of informational and social reasons (Ridings and Gefen, 2004; Butler, Sproull, Keisler, Kraut, 2007; Spallek, Butler, Schleyer, Weiss, Wang, Thyvalikakath, Hatala, and Naderi, 2008). Providing signals about the types of activities, features, and resources available in a social setting affects formation of potential participants' expectations (Brinthaupt, Moreland, Levine, 1991). These expectations play an important role in individuals' decisions to engage the groups or site. The contents of early presentations about a portal are likely to affect participation choices that individuals make latter in the process of engaging a site.

Emphasizing the information benefits a portal provides is likely to increase the likelihood of responding for those who are interested in information resources. Similarly, those who are interested a platform for relationship formation, self-presentation, and interaction, are more likely to respond if social features are highlighted. Moreover, some commentators also argue that support for these types of social activities also results in better quality information, richer user experiences, and the opportunity to ask questions and receive clarification of issues related to the information resources (cite?). Hence it is possible that even for individuals seeking informational outcomes highlighting social features will signal that a portal is likely to provide desirable benefits. Therefore it is proposed that:

H1a: Emphasizing social aspects of a site in an invitation message will increase the likelihood of a prospective user responding to the invitation.

Responding to an invitation is an indication of an individual's interest in engaging a portal. In most cases, gaining full access to the information resources and social facilities of a site requires a more explicit action of joining. Just as intention to use a system and actual use are related but distinct choices (Lin, 2000), so too are responding to an invitation and joining the associated portal. However, the emphasis on social aspects of in an invitation creates impressions that last beyond the initial act of responding to that invitation and will have an impact on individuals' joining decisions. Therefore, it is expected that:

H1b: Emphasizing social aspects of a site in an invitation message will increase the likelihood of a prospective user joining the site.

As part of using websites, users are often asked for basic data about themselves such as e-mail addresses, first and last name, and other contact information. On traditional e-commerce sites and information portals, it has been assumed that the collected profile data will securely stored and used only for provision of related services for the individual user. In these contexts, it is has been found that users are more willing to provide personal information if they anticipate receiving benefits, such as increased convenience or easier access (Hann and Hui, 2007; Norberg, Horne, et. al. 2007).

With the addition of social features to a website or portal, user information takes on a new function. Self-disclosed personal information is the primary basis for the user profiles which identify and characterize individuals for one another (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). In portals that have social features, user profiles are the basis for formation of interpersonal trust, relationship creation, reputation formation, and identification of potential interaction partners. User profile information contributes in a variety of ways to the benefits that the individual can expect to receive from participating in the socially-enabled portal. Therefore, it is expected that highlighting benefits associated with a socially enabled portal will also increase individuals willingness to provide profile information.

H1c: Emphasizing social benefits of a site in an invitation message will increase the amount of profile information a prospective user will be willing to provide and share.

Overall these arguments imply that highlighting the social aspects of an information portal in an invitation message will positively impact individuals' responsiveness to the invitation, decisions to join the portal, and willingness to provide information for a personal profile.

H2: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in a welcome page will increase the likelihood of a user joining the site and sharing information

How new users are welcomed to site plays a significant role in their future engagement and behavior. Studies of online communities have found that receiving a timely, inclusive response from a prominent community member increases the likelihood that an individual will return as an active contributor (Arguello, Butler, et. al., 2007). Similarly, it has been argued that the creation of timely, friendly welcoming messages for new editors in Wikipedia contribute to their ongoing engagement with the site and the associated community (Choi, Alexander, et. al. 2010). This work implies that how new users are welcomed can shape how, or if, they participate in the future.

Social aspects of a portal may be highlighted in welcome pages as well. The welcome pages can directly mention social activities and benefits or it can indirectly highlight the social features of a site by include messages from a particular person, such as site administrator or current user. Whether direct or indirect, emphasis on the social aspects of a portal contributes is expected to contribute to both the formation and confirmation of the social benefits of engaging the site. As a result, it is predicted that:

H2a: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in a welcome page will increase the likelihood of a user joining the site

A portals welcome page is part of one of the first interactions that a new user has with that site. As such, the contents and form of a welcome page serves to establish users' expectations for both the site and for their own behavior. On one hand, the welcome message can reinforce individuals' developing beliefs about the benefits they can expect to receive from continues engagement with a group of community. In doing so, welcome messages can increase users willingness to share requested information Hann and Hui, 2007). A welcome message that includes self-disclosure by a current member or site administrator may also provide a model for future behavior. Thus, whether emphasized in a direct description or indirectly through displayed behavior of the author, highlighting social aspects of a portal are expected to increase individual's willingness to provide profile information.

H2b: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in a welcome page will increase the amount of profile information that a user is willing to share

Together these arguments, drawn from prior research, suggest that welcome pages which incorporate a site's social aspects will have a positive impact on individuals' willingness to join and provide profile information.

H3: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in both an invitation and a welcome page will increase the impact on users' willingness to join and share information

Responding to an invitation, joining, and sharing information are all part of a cumulative process. This process of portal engagement is similar to the process by which individuals joining groups are socialized (Moreland and Levine, 1982). At each point of interaction with the site, individuals expectations of the benefits and costs associated with continued participation are modified. When prior expectations are confirmed, their impact on behavior is magnified. Conversely, when prior expectations are disconfirmed or contradicted individuals certainty is reduced, potentially reducing confidence in their assessment of the site, system, or group and reducing their willingness to continue participation. Hence it is anticipated that:

H3a: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in both an invitation and a welcome page will increase the impact on users' willingness to join

H3b: Emphasizing social aspects of a portal in both an invitation and a welcome page will increase the impact on users' willingness to share profile information

METHODS

To test the proposed hypotheses a quasi-experimental field study was conducted. The information portal used in the study was the Dental Informatics Portal (http://www.dentalinformatics.com/). The website has information resources for dental informatics and dental technology field as well as social features to allow users to connect with other people to share ideas, problems and research opportunities (see Figure 1). The community is managed by University of Pittsburgh, School of Dental Medicine. It includes archives of publications, a member and project directory, informatics links, and a forum. The presence of both information and social features in the website provided the opportunity to differentially highlight these aspects and measure the hypotheses effects.

Figure 1.

DIOC Homepage Screenshot Source: http://www.dentalinformatics.org/ (accessed 04/26/2010)

Participants for this study comprised of prospective users of the Dental Informatics Online Community (DIOC) website. Email, invitations were sent in November and December 2007 to a sample of individuals drawn from the following groups authors of dental informatics publications, informatics conference attendees (list of conferences), researchers in other areas like bioinformatics with interest in DI and funded researchers in informatics and dentistry. The target population of 11,424 individuals was created to include individuals with a range of previously expressed interest and level of engagement with the field of Dental Informatics. Subjects were included from both sources whose members who were likely to be interested in dental informatics (e.g. Dental Informatics authors and DI working group members) and sources whose members were less likely to have previously engaged the Dental Informatics disciplinary activities (e.g. Funded dental researchers, MLA members, and funded informatics researchers). See Table 1 for a list of sources that were used to define the population of potential users.

As might be expected individuals responded from different subpopulations responded with different rates. In general, subjects from Dental Informatics focused groups that involved significant engagement were more likely to respond to the invitations. In contrast, individuals drawn from general professional organizations memberships directories were less likely to respond to the invitation.

Table 1. Sources of Potential Users
Group description
Self-identified potential DIOC participants (collected at AADR & ADEA 2006)
Self identified interest in an Dental Informatics online community (collected online)
AMIA Dental Informatics working group member list
IMIA Dental Informatics working group member list
2003 Dental Informatics conference participants ADEA Technofair authors (2004, 2005, 2006)
Authors of 620 DI papers in the DIOC paper archive
Bioinformatics researchers with dental interest
MLIS community membership
Medical Library Association (MLA) membership directory
Funded informatics researchers
Funded dental researchers

Conditions

The study design involved a between subject manipulation of invitation message and welcome page. The invitation for participation was sent through email with the contents customized to highlight different aspects of the Dental Informatics portal. Invitation messages were one of the following three types:

  • Informational (n=3,809): The informational resources of website (learning center and publication archives) were highlighted.

  • Social (n=3,809): The social features of the website (e.g. people directory) and possibilities of engagement with other users were highlighted.

  • Combined (n=3,806): Both informational and social capabilities of the website were highlighted (in that order).

Participants who responded to invitation (n=557, response rate of about 5%) were presented with a welcome page of one of the following three types:

  • Non-Social (n= 188): Participants were provided with a short description of the site, a form, and a request to provide profile information and join the community (Figure 2).

  • Social-Admin (n= 186): A site administrator/project manager in the portal welcomed the participant. The name and a thumbnail profile picture of the administrator were presented along with a short welcome paragraph. This is followed by the data entry form and a request to provide profile information and join the community (Figure 3).

  • Social-Member (n=183): An existing member welcomed the participants. The name and a thumbnail profile picture of the individual were presented along with a short welcome paragraph describing the individual's use of the site. This is followed by the data entry form and a request to provide profile information and join the community (Figure 4).

Measure Construction

The dependent variables used to test the hypotheses were constructed as follows:

Figure 2.

Non-Social Welcome Screenshot

Figure 3.

Social-Admin Welcome Screenshot

Figure 4.

Social-Member Welcome Screenshot

  • Responded (binary): ‘0’ if the invitation recipient did not click on the personalized link in the email, ‘1’ if the invitation link was clicked and the participant reached the welcome page.

  • Joined (binary): ‘0’ if the participant did not join the website, ‘1’ if the participant provided the required information in the sign-up form and clicked the “Save Profile” button. The required information included last-name, first-name and email address.

  • Profile Information Provided (count): the number of profile elements provided by the participant during signup. These including required information (name, email) as well as optional elements: title, position, phone-number, address (street, city, state, postal code, country).

  • Profile Information Shared (count): the number of optional profile elements participants decided to share with other website users. The participants were asked if they wanted to share the following profile information: email address (opt out), phone number (opt in), address (opt in).

Participation counts in various activities in the order in which these occurred are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. Participation steps and participation counts
Step 1: InvitedStep 2: RespondedStep 3: Joined & Provided Profile Information
11,424557282

The number of individuals responding (557) and joining (282) was sufficient to allow for analysis of the effect of social highlighting on responding, joining, and providing/sharing profile information.

Preliminary analysis indicated that there was no significant difference between the social invitation and the combined (informational + social) invitation conditions with respect to the dependent variables. To analyze the effect of social highlighting in the invitation, the invitation conditions were reduced to the following indicator of invitation type:

  • Non-Social Invitation (n=3,809): The informational resources of website (learning center and publication archives) were highlighted.

  • Social Invitation (n=7,615): The social features of the website (e.g. people directory) and possibilities of engagement with other community members were highlighted (with or without mentioning the informational benefits).

Similarly, preliminary analysis found no significant difference between the Social-Admin and Social-Member conditions. To analyze the effect of social highlighting, the welcome conditions were also reduced to the following indicator of welcome type:

  • Non-Social Welcome (n=188): Participant were just provided with a form and requested to enter profile information and join the community.

  • Social Welcome (n=369): An identified person (either a project manager or a current participant) welcomed the participant. The name and a thumbnail profile picture of the individual were presented along with a short welcome paragraph.

These measures of the dependent variables (responded, joined, profile information provided, and profile information shared) and independent variables (invitation type and welcome type) were the basis for testing the proposed hypotheses.

ANALYSIS AND RESULTS

A descriptive summary for each of the conditions is provided in Table 3.

Table 3. Summary of User Behavior by Condition
 Respond/InvitedJoined/WelcomedProfile elements providedProfile elements shared
Non-Social Invitation194/3809 (5.09%)108/194 (55.7%)5.571.11
Social Invitation363/7615 (4.77%)174/363 (47.9%)4.790.99
Non-Social WelcomeN/A108/188 (57.1%)5.711.18
Social WelcomeN/A174/369 (47.3%)4.730.96
Total557 (4.87%)282 (50.6%)5.061.04

ANOVA was used to comparing outcomes for various manipulations (social/non-social, invitation and welcome) and test the proposed hypotheses.

One-way ANOVA found no significant effect of invitation type on likelihood of initial response.

Two-way ANOVA analysis (Table 4) showed marginal main effect for invitation emphasis (p<0.1) on joining, with a smaller percentage of participants receiving social invitation ultimately joining the site. A significant main effect for welcome type on joining was found (p<0.05). Subjects who saw a welcome message that emphasized the social aspects of the site by presenting a message from an identified individual were less likely to join.

Table 4. ANOVA of Joining by Invitation & Welcome Type
 DfSum SqMean SqFPr (>F)
Welcome Type11.211.214.860.027
Invitation Type10.760.763.050.081
Welcome × Invitation10.000.00.000.961

Two-way ANOVA analysis (Table 5) found marginal main effect for invitation type (p<0.1 level) on the number of profile elements that users provided. Participants receiving an invitation with social emphasis provided fewer profile information elements. The analysis showed no main effect for invitation type on the number of profile elements that users chose to share.

Significant main effects for welcome type were found in the ANOVA analysis (Table 5, 6) for the number of profile elements provided (p<0.03) and the number of profile elements shared (p<0.04). Subjects presented with a social welcome provided fewer profile elements and chose to share less profile information with other users.

Table 5. ANOVA of Profile Elements Provided by Invitation & Welcome Type
 DfSum SqMean SqFPr (>F)
Welcome Type1136135.965.120.024
Invitation Type188.688.553.330.068
Welcome × Invitation12.32.250.080.771
Table 6. ANOVA of Profile Elements Shared by Invitation & Welcome Type
 DfSum SqMean SqFPr (>F)
Welcome Type16.036.034.360.037
Invitation Type11.791.791.290.256
Welcome × Invitation10.980.980.710.400

No significant interaction effects of welcome type and invitation emphasis (p>=0.4 in all cases) were found in any of the ANOVA analyses.

DISCUSSION

Individual profiles, user reviews, and explicit social networks, are being added to many websites and information portals. Addition of these capabilities creates the opportunity for portal designers to highlight social features when communicating with potential and new members. This study sought to examine how emphasizing social aspects of an information portal in invitation messages and welcome pages affects users' decisions to respond, join, and provide information about themselves.

While it was hypothesized that emphasizing social features in invitation messages sent to potential users would increase responsiveness this was not supported. While this result might be interpreted as implying that highlighting social features in an invitation has no impact on portal user behavior the presence of marginal support for a relationship between invitation type and joining suggest that is may be that the impact of emphasizing social features is contingent on higher level factors such as overall interest in the topic or prior experience with the community of users that are likely to be associated with the described portal. Future work should consider the possibility that invitation messages may have different effects on the choices and behaviors of individuals with different levels knowledge, experience, and interest.

The ANOVA results also provide support for the idea that highlighting social aspects of portal in the welcome screen will significant affect individuals willingness to join, provide profile information, and share that information with others. However, instead of increasing the likelihood of these engagement activities, as predicted by Hypotheses 2a,b, and c, the empirical findings indicate that emphasizing social activities in the welcome pages results reduces the likelihood of individuals joining and lowers the number of profile elements that they are willing to provide and share. Highlighting the social aspects of the information portal reduces new users' willingness to engage the site and provide the information needed to support its social features!

There are variety of possible explanations for the unexpected negative relationships between welcome type and user engagement. First, it may be the case that at the time the study was conducted (2007) the target population (dentists and dental informatics research) seen online social activity to be risky and unnecessary. If this is the case, highlighting the social aspects of the portal may have led these risk averse users to decide that participation joining and providing profile information for the site would expose them to unacceptable risks with little or no benefit. Additional studies of the impact of portal presentation on potential users' choices in other domains are needed to determine if these negative results generalize.

Another possible explanation of the negative relationship between welcome type and user engagement relates to different ways individuals evaluate information sources in the presence and absence of explicit information about the people involved. Studies of individuals' responses to reviews in ecommerce settings have found that when no information is provided about the personal characteristics of a review's author, readers are more likely to assume the author is similar to them (Naylor, Lamberton, and Norton, 2010). As a result, anonymous reviewers are more likely to be perceived by readers as trustworthy, reliable sources. Conversely, if review authors are identified and described then the likelihood of the reader emphasizing differences increase, reducing their acceptance of the author and the review. In the context of information portals, this egocentric anchoring behavior might result in new users assuming higher levels of similarly (and hence trustworthiness) when particular individuals are not identified – and thus being more willing to join and provide profile when encountering an impersonal welcome screen. While this explanation is speculative is it consistent with the findings of this exploratory study. Further work with explicit measurement of new users' inferences about other users is needed to assess this explanation of the impact welcome page construction on user behavior.

LIMITATIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

As with any study this work has numerous limitations that should be taken into account when interpreting its findings. As noted above, the study considers only a single target populations and a single point in time. A particular topic area and type of information portal is studied. Only two mechanisms for portal presentation (invitation messages and welcome pages) are considered. Specific social features and particular individuals are emphasized in the “social” conditions. All of these factors contribute to the potentially idiosyncratic nature of the data collected for this study and the associated findings. At a minimum, additional studies of portal presentation in other contexts are needed to determine the generalizeability of the reported results.

These limitations notwithstanding, the findings suggest highlighting social benefits can have a significant impact that needs further examination. The study had a low (5%) response rate that varied considerably between various target groups. Targeting a homogenous group or counter-balancing manipulation between the various groups may help in getting more conclusive results about invitation emphasis in the future.

Implications for theory

Are information portals and social spaces similar or different things? The temptation is to treat them as the same since they are just different flavors of websites. However, the results presented here suggest, at least in terms of individual choices and behaviors that they may operate in different ways. If users perceive information portals and social spaces to be fundamentally different things, subject to different risks and to be evaluated in different ways, then making sense out of users responses to different designs requires that they be treated differently. It also raises important questions about what types of signals trigger perception of a system as an information source or a social space and what it means to combine them.

Implications for practice

The results described above also offer a practical warning for developers and managers thinking about “going Web 2.0”. “Adding social features” may not be a simple matter of adding capabilities to a technological infrastructure. Instead it may be the case that doing this will fundamentally change how users perceive and respond to the site. This may be desirable or not, but it should be done deliberately, with a knowledge of the potential consequences.

CONCLUSIONS

On one hand, there is the temptation to cast new technologies as revolutionary changes – fundamentally shifting how organizations, societies, and everything operate. The internet changes everything. Wiki's change everything. Social networking systems change everything.

On the other hand, there is a temptation to assume that new systems are just incremental modifications to systems we already use. Social networks are information sources that can be “queried” (albeit with a different syntax). Online communities are just information systems that are “used”. Individual profiles are just data that is entered and collected.

The results of this study suggest that either extreme is misguided. Assuming that everything changes misses opportunities to build on existing concepts and understandings to develop our ability to build, manage and evaluate new systems and technologies. Yet, treating everything as being in the same class misses the reality that sometimes things are different – and that seemingly small changes in the technical features may result in significant different classification and response to a system.

This study is just one step in examining the complex boundary between information sources and social spaces – a boundary that is paradoxically blurring and remaining intact as social computing technologies and information systems converge.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Titus Schleyer, Xiaoqing Wang, and Jacqueline Pike for suggestion on the design, execution, and analysis of this study. This work was funded by support from NLM (1-G08-LM-8667–1A1) and NSF (OCI-0951630).

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