27 Mar 2024

Behind the Research: Isamar Troncoso


by Shona Simkin

When posting an online review of a restaurant or hotel, have you ever hesitated upon noting that the owner or manager has responded to other comments? Isamar Troncoso wondered about that very issue, and decided to take a closer look. As an assistant professor of business administration in the Marketing Unit, Troncoso researches online platforms and teaches Marketing in the first year Required Curriculum. We talked with Troncoso about how she became interested in this field, what she’s researching now, and what she likes to do in her free time.

What is your area of research?
I study problems related to digital platforms and online marketplaces—how consumers behave, how they make decisions on these platforms, and how companies can obtain marketing insights in these settings. In one of my research papers, we investigated online review platforms such as TripAdvisor and what happens when business owners can publicly respond to customer reviews, particularly how different consumer groups might react to such responses differently. Our findings revealed some gender differences, such that women might be less likely to write negative reviews to avoid potential confrontations with business owners when they reply. We also noted that the types of responses men get are different from the responses women get.

Another of my research papers studies freelancing platforms like Upwork and examines how the pictures of the workers might affect their hiring outcomes. We were particularly interested in the role that appearances could play in different jobs, coming from the idea some people hold that what a software engineer looks like might be different from what an artist looks like. Our results suggest that part of the reason looks matters in these online platforms is that it's hard to decide who to hire. Employers usually receive applications from many candidates, many of them with five-star reviews. At some point, a subjective judgment, such as "looking like a programmer," might kick in to help employers break ties among highly qualified candidates.

How do you go about this research?
A lot of the questions I ask are from my experience as a user of these platforms; there is usually some change in the platform or some contrast with the non-digital world that sparks my curiosity. Then, I start thinking of field data and quantitative methods I can use to study my questions empirically, but I am generally open to using any approach I believe will help me understand a phenomenon better. For example, my research on freelancing platforms started with field data, but we also decided to do conjoint experiments in the lab to dig deeper into the "why."

In that project, we wanted to know to what extent appearance in hiring was related to gender, race, or other things in their photo (quality of the photo, accessories, background). The conjoint study allowed us to estimate this better by creating more variation in the data—women are still underrepresented in STEM degrees and related jobs, for example. We also used these experiments to create artificial variations of the current platform design, such as hiding the photo until after the first screening process or removing it altogether, to understand how appearances affect hiring decisions.

What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m working on another project that looks at the role of state-of-the-art visual tools like 3D virtual tours in a different context: online real estate platforms. We are very interested in understanding how these tools might affect what is often considered to be one of the biggest purchases people make in their lives (buying a home) —that is, do these tools mainly affect earlier stages of the purchase funnel like online search and screening, or can they also affect final outcomes like sale prices? And how much do these state-of-the-art visual tools add to relatively more traditional visual tools like static photos?

How did you get interested in this field?
I became super interested in marketing in general after taking an introductory class during my undergraduate studies. I was majoring in industrial engineering, and after years immersed in a very math-intensive curriculum, it was exciting to see a more interdisciplinary approach, mixing quantitative modeling with the psychology of human behavior and thinking about how to incorporate that into our core analysis. From there, I took other marketing elective courses and started engaging with research, which gave me more exposure to the questions we explore in this field. These questions always intrigued me because they are things that I, as a consumer, can easily relate to and am genuinely curious about.

Where are you from, and what do you like to do in your spare time?
I'm from Chile and moved to LA for my doctorate program. This is now my second rough winter in Boston—and it’s been a new experience.

In my free time I like climbing and eating—I’m a bit of a foodie, so together it is a good balance! I try to do indoor climbing a few times a week; to me, it is a nice combo of physical and mental challenges because I am scared of heights, so I have to push myself. It is also one of the few things that helps me disconnect—I can't think about anything else when climbing.

And I love trying new restaurants with my husband and experimenting with new recipes at home. I’m probably better at finding new restaurants than cooking at home—but once in a while I try cooking Chilean food that I can’t find here. Last Chilean holiday, I was really craving empanadas, so I looked for some recipes online, and they came out pretty good!

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