Online user reviews, though consumers rely heavily on them in their buying decisions, are not nearly as valid as they seem.[clickToTweet tweet=”Online user reviews are not nearly as valid as they seem.” quote=”Online user reviews are not nearly as valid as they seem.”]
That’s according to a new study completed by Bart de Langhe and his team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
In addition to outright fakery, a lack of objectivity further skews consumer reviews. Consumers simply react to a single experience, rather than making a scientific comparison. In addition, there tends to be a disproportionate number of reviews from people who feel strongly about a product, and often, too small of a sample to serve as a valid foundation.
The study, “Navigating by the Stars: Investigating the Actual and Perceived Validity of Online User Ratings,” looked at how accurate user reviews were when compared with the Consumer Reports ratings for 1,272 different products available in 12 different vertical segments.
According to the authors, consumer trust in user ratings is based on an “illusion of validity” that arises from a disconnect between the trust consumers place in reviews and the objective quality of the reviews themselves. The study showed that user reviews do not converge with Consumer Reports scores, which are acknowledged as unbiased and objective. And decisions are often made based on a small number of reviews which may be unfairly weighted towards a small handful of consumers who have had negative experiences.
Media outlets from Forbes to Fast Company, and from Time to Ars Technica, jumped on the story, noting that consumers will do better by seeing reviews as a supplement to information from other sources rather than being the final word.
But even de Langhe himself says consumers, and presumably marketing professionals as well, should slow down because it doesn’t make sense to just give up on the power of reviews and their usefulness.
Instead, user reviews need to be evaluated properly, and small businesses looking to implement a review strategy as part of their growth plan need to make sure they’re true.
Just How Many of Those Five-Star Reviews Are the Real Thing, Anyway?
The vast majority of potential customers research the products they buy online and rely on evaluations from other users. While they perceive user reviews as useful, the inaccuracy of that perception may be misleading them.
The problem isn’t just that some of those reviews are pay-for-play fakes, placed fraudulently by companies who want their brands to shine or, alternately, by malicious sources who frame the online conversation negatively.
What de Langhe’s team emphasized are the underlying limitations of even the most honest reviews because of subjective experience, the influence of a brand-name glow, smart ads that help to shape the experience, or even self-selection reflected in the writers. Then, too, there’s the glow of a new acquisition without a way to know how the user feels in a year or two.[clickToTweet tweet=”How to improve the reliability of your company’s product user reviews:” quote=”How to improve the reliability of your company’s product user reviews:”]
One way to improve the reliability of your company’s product user reviews–and deliver the information your customers can trust–is to attract more of them. When products or services have higher numbers of user reviews, the significance of those reviews takes on greater weight.
That’s one of the reasons why a trustworthy and transparent user review system will build this metric into the algorithm design for rankings and ratings. In other words, a payroll company or software product with 60 reviews will fare better than one that has only 20 reviews.
But volume doesn’t mean accuracy, and that’s just one of several measurements we can use to evaluate overall review strength. The review strength, in turn, is just one of five information categories that contribute to a comprehensive data assessment, as this image shows:
- Review strength. A five-star review from an anonymous contributor which contains two words (“Great product”) should receive less weight than one with a more thoughtful and detailed response about the product’s attributes.
- Sentiment strength. What factors exist outside of the reviews themselves? This review platform considers offline usage of brand and domain name in the news, and the quality and quantity of website links.
- Engagement strength. Companies which engage directly with reviewers, even in the case of a negative review, and which provide more unbiased insights and content are more likely to retain the confidence of consumers.
- Verified status. Reviewers willing to verify their status and post under their true identity are more likely to create valid and more thoughtful reviews.
- Profile strength. Does the review platform include a profile of the vendor along with the reviews, with details such as website link, management team, and major clients?
Organic Growth of User Reviews
As with polls and other surveys, where the results are more reliable when you have statistically significant sample sizes, a bigger pool of user reviews improves the value of those opinions to both your customers and your company.
Here’s where it can get tempting to pump those numbers up as quickly as possible, but the reality is that none of the shortcuts are worth it when it comes to your reputation. Get more user reviews, but be sure to get them organically and legitimately, from verified users on legitimate review platforms.
For that matter, get user reviews strategically too, by aligning any marketing or social media campaign to collect reviews with your overall brand and corporate identity. It’s always a good idea to make it easy for people to create your reviews, because that’s more attractive to the mainstream user.
People who are blissfully delighted are, at one end of the spectrum, energized to share that experience with others. Disappointed and angry customers often are even more motivated to tell that story! When you make it easy for customers to create review content, and invite them to do so, you’ll get a full range of opinions.[clickToTweet tweet=”Disappointed and angry customers are even more motivated to tell that story! ” quote=”Disappointed and angry customers are even more motivated to tell that story! “]
In encouraging customers to create reviews, first consider what not to do:
- Don’t pay for reviews, don’t offer incentives
- Don’t buy them from third party black-hat providers that offer reviews-as-a-service.
The simplest approach is often the best: a follow-up thank you email, with a note that says something to the effect of, “If you enjoyed our product, please take a moment to post a review.” Then provide a link to one or more review sites where your products are registered. It may be as simple as asking for reviews on the website and providing links to review sites.
For example, Otto’s Pub & Brewery in State College, Pennsylvania makes a polite and unobtrusive request, followed by links to Yelp!, Google, and Facebook.
It takes time to gather enough user reviews to appear established, but when you look at that from the customer’s viewpoint, it’s easy to see why the average age of reviews is a factor, too. Generally speaking, a sophisticated and well-written ranking algorithm will value newer reviews more than those with a long shelf life. It’s harder for a potential customer to trust a handful of online reviews written four or five years ago, on a system that looks like the effort was abandoned and neglected long ago.
On the other hand, think about your own priorities when you’re researching a significant purchase for yourself or an investment for your firm: Doesn’t it instill more confidence when there’s a proven track record to see?
That’s why it’s important to keep user content and user reviews at the heart of your marketing and engagement strategies. While an algorithm can’t wash out the subjectivity that de Langhe and his team identified in their study, it can support the steadfast, day-to-day commitment to collecting it over years. The access to consumer data across the trajectory of time also contributes to the company’s knowledge of changes in the market, in patterns of consumer behavior, even specific trends or problems to address.
Responding to User Reviews, Both Positive and Negative
Another option for managing the unpredictable, subjective–even irrational–user review and its undue influence on perceptions about your products is to be responsive to the online community. Engage directly with reviewers, answer their questions, and thank them for the great reviews.
But more importantly, if the review is less than favorable, a sincere response will help erase some of the negativity. The Venetian resort in Las Vegas excels at this sort of direct engagement. Even though there is always a large number of reviews for this popular resort, the responses aren’t boilerplate, and you can tell that some thought has been put into the responses.
Here’s an example of how the Venetian responded to a positive review on TripAdvisor:
While most of the Venetian’s reviews are positive, the hotel manager takes an opportunity to respond to the negative ones as well, and in the process, lets readers know that the resort is responsive to any concerns.
If the post that a social media or marketing manager sees doesn’t seem factual, or clearly skews on the basis of subjective experience, the first thing to remember is that user reviews are, by definition, supposed to be based on the customer’s experience. It’s why you’ve invited your clients and potential customers to interact with each other in the first place. So, accepting the individual experience of a user is your job!
Can You Control Content You Don’t Create?
If, as the study suggests, user reviews are mostly useless and based on an illusion, how can a company engage in a realistic review strategy that offers real value to consumers?
With increasingly sophisticated consumers anxious to do their own online research, the demand for meaningful reviews is high. Taking advantage of the marketing power of user reviews calls for a thoughtful, five-step approach:
- Attract more users to write reviews. There’s power in numbers, and a larger body of reviews will present consumers with a more accurate depiction of your product or service. Following the strategy of simply making the “ask” whenever possible (on a website, in an email acknowledgment, etc.), the number of reviews will grow organically.
- Keep it real. Pay-for-play or fake reviews are easily detectable. The value of a review strategy comes when you have real people talking about you.
- Make it easy for them to contribute. If you’re asking consumers to review your products, provide them with links to review sites.
- Use a legitimate review platform. Thin or transparently self-serving review sites carry little power. Promote a review platform that encourages verified reviews.
- Engage with users. There will always be a poor review, no matter what. It’s more important to show you’re responsive than to obtain a wall of nothing but five-star reviews.
Having said that, though, it’s smart to connect with the user who may at first seem like an outlier. A conversation with the user, and with those in the review community, may do more than just show them that the company cares or wants to fix a problem.[clickToTweet tweet=”Being responsive to users gives you a chance to gauge the accuracy of the customer’s experience” quote=”Being responsive to users gives you a chance to gauge the accuracy of the customer’s experience”]
Being responsive to users gives you a chance to gauge the accuracy of the customer’s experience and helps you to understand what that means before that “illusion of validity” colors the actual experiences you seek.
Small businesses understand the importance of incorporating user reviews into their marketing strategies. In developing this strategy, ask yourself these questions:
Do you provide potential customers easy access to richly detailed information outside of reviews upon which to base their decisions? Do you take time to respond to both positive and negative user comments and truly engage with your customers in a one-on-one dialogue? And, finally, what are you doing to encourage satisfied customers to leave a review?
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