The Strategic Impact of References in Business Markets

Posted: 24 Oct 2012

Date Written: 2012


We investigate a business-to-business context and ask when and why a firm should announce a “reference program” that commits the firm to facilitating the flow of information about the efficacy of its products from early adopters to potential late adopters. We model a monopolist manufacturer with a new innovation that can be sold to two potential customers. We demonstrate here two benefits of a reference program that relate not to an increase in later adopters' willingness to pay but to an increase in the willingness to pay of the early adopters themselves. The impact on the early adopters' willingness to pay arises in two ways as a result of their observation of the firm's commitment to information transmission. First, in a model of symmetric uncertainty, we show that the announcement of a reference program facilitates dynamic pricing by the manufacturer in the sense that it allows the firm to provide temporary exclusive use of the technology to one of the customers. This creates more value, which the manufacturer can extract via a higher price. In this way, a reference program can serve as a partial substitute for an exclusive-use contract. In a model with asymmetric information, we demonstrate that under certain conditions, the firm is able to use the reference program as a signal — again, to the early adopting customer — that its technology is of high quality. However, such a signal requires significant discounts to early adopters to ensure separation. As a result, a pooling equilibrium dominates in which the manufacturer fosters references regardless of its quality. Finally, by allowing the firms' private information to be stochastic, we show that separation may be a dominant outcome.

Keywords: word of mouth, business-to-business marketing, game theory, signaling

Suggested Citation

Godes, David, The Strategic Impact of References in Business Markets (2012). Marketing Science, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2012; pp. 257-276; DOI: 10.1287/mksc.1110.0695, Available at SSRN:

David Godes (Contact Author)

University of Maryland ( email )

College Park
College Park, MD 20742
United States

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