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The strategic role of corporate online references: building social capital through signaling in business networks

Tóth, Z and Naudé, P and Henneberg, SC and Diaz Ruiz, CA (2020) The strategic role of corporate online references: building social capital through signaling in business networks. Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing. ISSN 0885-8624

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Abstract

© 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited. Purpose: This paper aims to conceptualize corporate reference management as a strategic signaling activity in business networks. While research has extensively outlined how firms develop and maintain social capital through business-to-business (B2B) relationships, less is known about how they signal their participation in business networks to develop this social capital. Therefore, this paper conceptualizes B2B references, in particular corporate online references (COR), as a tool through which firms “borrow” attractiveness from their business network. Through the lens of structural social capital theory, COR is shown to capture advantages related to interconnectedness between firms. Design/methodology/approach: The paper reports on a two-step qualitative and quantitative research design. First, the authors undertook a qualitative study that reports on the COR practices of senior business managers. A quantitative study then uses social network analysis (SNA) to audit a digital business network comprising 1,098 firms in a metropolitan area of the UK, referencing to each other through their corporate websites using COR. Findings: The analyses find that COR practices contribute to building structural social capital in networks through strategic signaling. Firms do so by managing B2B references to craft strategic signals, using five steps: requesting, granting, curating, coding and decoding references. While the existing literature on business marketing portrays reference management as a routine and operational management practice, this investigation conceptualizes reference management, in particular COR, as a strategic activity. Originality/value: To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to use SNA to represent B2B references in the form of COR as a network, which overlaps with (but is not entirely identical to) the business network. Further, the study re-conceptualizes reference management as a strategic signaling activity that leverages the firm’s participation in business networks to build structural social capital by borrowing attractiveness of prestigious business partners that leverages existing structural social capital. Finally, the paper coins and conceptualizes COR as an exemplar of referencing management and offers propositions for further research.

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