If you’ve ever struggled to convince a client on the benefits of allowing negative comments about their products, here’s one for you. A piece in Harvard Business Review (thanks @euanwilcox) reveals that getting bad reviews early on can actually be good in the long run.
The findings come from a study of 51,854 reviews contributed to Amazon, covering 858 books from 2000 to early 2004. Researchers Ye Hu and Xinxin Li found that recent user comments often focus more on addressing the previous reviews than evaluating the book itself. Meaning that books that initially received negative reviews often ended up with broadly positive reviews at the top, and vice versa.
Why? The authors cite two main reasons: expectations and self-selection:
Your friend’s assertion that “The Tree of Life” is the greatest movie you’ll ever see is pretty much a guarantee that you’ll be scratching your head afterward…An expectation disconnect is one of the factors that prompt readers to post reviews…
Self-selection refers to readers’ motives for taking the time to write. Some contribute reviews in order to correct what they see as misperceptions; others do so just because they like to be contrary in order to stand out. Either way, the result tends to be disagreement with the initial wave of reviews.
This follows previous research into Amazon reviews suggesting that the specificity of a review can be as telling as whether the overall sentiment is positive or negative.
I’m currently planning a trip to Japan and seem to be spending an alarming amount of time on TripAdvisor. As any TripAdvisor addict will attest, trying to choose between hotels can soon result in a state of analysis paralysis.
Everyone has their own criteria when it comes to choosing hotels (a pillow menu isn’t really a deal-breaker for me), however, conventional wisdom dictates that our decisions should be based on whether the positive reviews broadly outweigh the negatives – right?
According to some recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, not exactly. While the overall sentiment of reviews is obviously important, our decisions are also being subtly influenced by how specific these comments are.
The study, quoted in Art Markman’s Ulterior Motives blog, highlights that when an experience reinforces a deeply held attitude, we tend to respond by making a general analysis of the brand or product’s overall quality. Conversely, when our experience contradicts our existing view we focus on specific product attributes:
For example, in one study, people try out either Bic pens (which people tend to think of as cheap and low quality) or Parker pens (which people tend to think of as expensive and high quality). The pens were manipulated so that they did not work. Then, they had to pick a statement that best described their feeling about the pen. For the Bic pen, people selected abstract statements (like “This Bic pen is bad”). For the Parker pen, people selected more specific statements (like “This Parker pen would not write”). Art MarkmanJuly 5, 2010
So far, so straightforward – it’s common sense that our existing prejudices would play a role in the way we review products. More interesting in the context of social media is how this phenomenon affects the readers of these comments.
The next phase of the study focused on the influence comments had the purchasing intention of others who read them. It found that positive comments were more likely to motivate others to buy when they were abstract in nature (e.g ‘this pen is great’) as opposed to specific (e.g ‘this pen writes well’). Similarly, negative comments were less damaging to purchasing intention when they were specific in nature (eg ‘this pen writes badly’) than when they were more abstract (eg ‘this pen is awful’).
Just as reviewers do not consciously choose abstract or specific language based on their desire to influence, most of us do not consciously place more emphasis on reviews that are abstract as opposed to specific. However, even if we are oblivious to these nuances, the research suggests that the phrasing of these reviews can be highly influential.
This has implications for way we analyse attitudes to our brands online. Automated sentiment analysis tools – already compromised by their inability to detect sarcasm – fail to take into account the way language choices influence the reader. These findings suggest that by taking a deeper look at the way people phrase their reviews we might be able to gain some interesting insights into their broader attitudes about the brand or category and tailor our response accordingly.
The research is also relevant to the way we encourage people to talk about our brands online. More progressive companies are starting to aggregate social media mentions and reviews on their own sites – even when they these are critical about their products. While brands shouldn’t attempt to manipulate the content of these reviews, this research suggests that the way we frame the debate is worth some thought, particularly given that most decision making is based on minimising risk rather than optimising choice.
When much of the internet seems dedicated to earnest posts detailing ’10 ways to double your blog traffic in five minutes’, it’s refreshing to hear an example of someone whose online popularity was completely accidental.
Gregory Levey’s article on The Nervous Breakdown (thanks to Big C for this) explains how he created a Facebook group to promote his book “Shut Up, I’m Talking”, a memoir about his time as a speechwriter for the Israeli government.
Levey saw his Facebook fans grow from about a hundred friends and family to over 750,000 – significantly more than better known authors such as JK Rowling (95,000) and Dan Brown (499,000).
The source of this new found popularity? Unfortunately for Levey, it wasn’t an explosion of interest in his book. Rather, it was his choice of title:
Even though the fan page shows the book’s cover and its synopsis, and informs visitors that it was published by Simon & Schuster, the vast majority of these supposed “fans” were somehow totally unaware that it was referring to a book at all. They had simply joined because they were fans of the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”
They were the sort of people, I soon discovered, who were also fans of such inane but popular Facebook fan pages as “Punching Things” and “I hate it when I get fingerprints all over my phone.” But each time one of them would become a fan of Shut Up, I’m Talking, their circle of Facebook friends would blindly do the same – causing its frighteningly viral spread.
If Levey were to message his 750,000 fans via Facebook, he’d surely pick up some extra sales. However, given that few expressed any interest in middle eastern politics, his conversion rate would probably be fairly low.
Levey’s experience is a great example of how, contrary to the claims of viral agencies and e-book peddlers, building a following can be a pretty unpredictable affair. Furthermore, a successful online community has more to do with quality than quantity.
On the plus side, the popularity of Levey’s Facebook group highlights how readily people identify with an insight that rings true – however trivial it might seem. In fact, maybe we’re all missing a trick – sounds like the smart money’s in fingerprint-resistant mobile phone covers…
If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth checking out Seth Godin’s eBook What Matters Now.
Available as a free download from Seth’s blog, the eBook brings together ideas, predictions and a healthy dose of navel-gazing from 70-odd top bloggers, marketers and entrepreneurial types.
My favourite entry so far is a reality check from Howard Mann. Reactionary? Maybe, but worth bearing in mind nonetheless:
There are tens of thousands of businesses making many millions a year in proﬁts that still haven’t ever heard of twitter, blogs or facebook. Are they all wrong? Have they missed out or is the joke really on us? They do business through personal relationships, by delivering great customer service and it’s working for them. They’re more successful than most of those businesses who spend hours pontiﬁcating about how others lose out by missing social media and the latest wave. And yet they’re doing business. Great business. Not writing about it. Doing it.
I’m continually amazed by the number of people on Twitter and on blogs, and the growth of people (and brands) on facebook. But I’m also amazed by how so many of us are spending our time. The echo chamber we’re building is getting larger and louder. More megaphones don’t equal a better dialogue.
We’ve become slaves to our mobile devices and the glow of our screens. It used to be much more simple and, somewhere, simple turned into slow. We walk the streets with our heads down staring into 3-inch screens while the world whisks by doing the same. And yet we’re convinced we are more connected to each other than ever before. Multi-tasking has become a badge of honor. I want to know why.
I don’t have all the answers to these questions but I ﬁnd myself thinking about them more and more. In between tweets, blog posts and facebook updates.
UPDATE 18/12/09: Get your free Flavors.me invite code here:
Just go to flavors.me/signup and enter invite code ‘nextlevelideas’ to try it out for yourself.
In the spirit of seamless segues, I’m kicking off the new blog design by mentioning a forthcoming social media enterprise that is also all about the content – Flavors.me.
Currently in beta, Flavors.me is a surprisingly simple way to create a homepage bringing together all the stuff you’ve created on blogs and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Last.fm etc.
Other than the Americanised spelling, what stands out about Flavors.me is its Apple-inspired design philosophy. The antithesis of MySpace, its strict but stylish templates ensure a consistent look and feel and keep the emphasis firmly on showcasing content from elsewhere. While sites like FriendFeed have covered similar ground, flavors has a greater emphasis on creating a personal web presence than simply aggregating feeds.
Does anyone really need yet another social media presence? Maybe not. But if you’re looking to create a simple homepage or microsite that easily integrates Twitter, Flickr etc, Flavors.me is worth checking out.