Lately I’ve come across a few articles debating the veracity of online reviews and what some big names like Amazon are doing to shorten the number of false reviews. Apparently, one woman reviewed 30,000 books on Amazon, if this reviewer had nothing but positive things to say about the books she supposedly read, the same thing can’t be said about many business reviewers on sites like TripAdvisor. This had led to a #noreceiptnoreview movement, with restaurants and hotels asking TripAdvisor to stop accepting reviews unless there’s a scanned receipt.
For consumers, online reviews are one of the biggest perks of the online world. Not that long ago, people could only collect information from a limited number of people, now there’s a world of reviews written by ‘people like us’ that anyone can access. It gave people some power over brands, and put more pressure on brands to be transparent, to be better and improve. However, at the same time, online reviews can turn into an unfair game for brands. Reviews offer an illusion of truth but some people estimate that one-third of all reviews are fake.
It’s known, at this point, that people are more prone to write a review if they had a negative experience, and less likely if the experience was positive. The reason for that, apparently, is that we tend to remember negative moments more than positive ones. According to Clifford Nass, “we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events – and use stronger words to describe them – than happy ones”, this is called negativity bias. Humans are loss averse and having a bad experience in a restaurant or a hotel, for example, means that things didn’t go as planned. If everything had gone smoothly, it probably went according to expectations, so we don’t feel there’s ‘review material’ in there.
On top of that, this trend goes beyond brands – there seems to be a urge to review pretty much everything and to voice our opinions about anything we encounter, look at this example:
More than 7000 people reviewed this beach in Miami and 102 think that it’s terrible, with a person claiming this is ‘the most fake place on Earth’. And there’s also, of course, this research that suggests that Google favours its own reviews.
Can we say that things got a bit out of control here? They probably did, so what should brands do to adjust themselves to this reality? Maybe it is time for brands to stop following the philosophy that the ‘consumer is always right’ when it comes to reviews, and avoid using a subservient tone. If brands should be transparent, honest and fair, why shouldn’t consumers do the same? This isn’t to say that negative reviews should be ignored, it’s quite the opposite really, but instead of being scared of them, brands should learn with them as much as possible and act accordingly.
What can brands do to make this game a little fairer? Here are some suggestions:
A two-way review system
Companies like AirBnb and Uber are peer to peer businesses that rely heavily on reviews from both sides. According to this paper, online reviews on AirBnb are more positive than on TripAdvisor. One of the reasons advanced to explain this fact is that people tend to give better evaluations if they know they will also be evaluated. Of course not every brand can implement a bilateral review system, but maybe this logic can be incorporated into some services.
Start a conversation
When someone writes a negative review, I often see brands apologising immediately and saying that someone from the team will get in touch.
It goes without saying that someone from the team should get in touch, but this doesn’t seem to be always the case, and this answer doesn’t say anything specific about that brand in particular. It’s a very generic answer that can be given to anyone, regardless of the complaint. What if, instead of replying in a ‘mechanical’ way, brands took that opportunity to start a conversation with the customer who wrote the review? Whether the reviews are positive or negative, this is an opportunity to dig deeper and understand what happened. Asking questions and trying to understand the situation shows a genuine interest and can put on the spot customers that weren’t fair in their reviews.
Keep track of what people say about the brand
Being on top of what’s being said about the brand is a way of understanding how people see the brand, anticipate possible reviews and react more quickly. A way of doing it is setting up Google alerts for a brand, so when a brand is mentioned online, an email with a link to the content is sent.
Checking the latest reviews is another way of being on top of things and gain some time to react, this can be done doing a time limited search on Google, for example:
Use any (relevant) opportunity to build the brand
Negative reviews are perceived as more diagnostic and informative than positive and neutral reviews, and some studies suggest that they can even dilute a strong brand equity (read more here). However, brands with a stronger brand equity seem to be less susceptible to online reviews, so the weaker a brand is, the more likely it is that customers will value the reviews they are reading, and sometimes one negative review can be enough to make them go away. A strong brand equity seems to trump online reviews more than the other way around (read more here).
The less information a consumer finds about a brand, the more likely he is to rely on online reviews. Having a clear positioning in mind and knowing where and when to talk, and what to say, can then help diluting the effect of negative reviews as it will give customers more relevant information to consider before making a decision.
Search for relevant keywords for your business and analyse how your brand can answer to those questions so customers will also come across information you’ve created and not only other customers’ reviews. The idea here is not to trick people, but to provide them information that you believe to be useful for them.
Have a personality
Sometimes brands are so afraid of online reviews that they feel they need to justify themselves and apologise immediately. As said before, not all reviews are based on real experience, so the first step should always be to guarantee that the situation actually happened. If a company is sure that it didn’t happen, it can ask the website to remove the review. But, if it actually happened, there’s more than can be done besides apologising and saying that a member of the team will be in touch. The brand personality should be kept in mind – if it’s a fun and young brand, the tone shouldn’t be too corporate, for example. And if the negative review had a positive effect by improving something in the business, why not talking openly about it? The point I’m trying to make is that sounding frightened won’t really help build brand equity, however a brand should be humble enough to recognise what happened and restore the customer’s confidence.
Use reviews as a market research tool
If people are happy to share the experiences they’ve had with a brand, that means there’s a world of information ready to be accessed. This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted. Going through the reviews that people write about our brand, the product itself, or even competitors, can provide a lot of information about how people perceive the brand, the expectations they have, what they like and don’t like, how they use a product, what competition is doing better and which gaps are there in the market.
One way of doing that is searching directly on forums and limiting search by time ( to find the most recent reviews):
Encourage the happy customers to share their experience
If people are more willing to share the negative experiences, customers doing research might not get a full picture when going through reviews. One thing that can be done to change that is to encourage more customers to leave a review, not only customers who’ve had a positive experience but also those that were previously unhappy with a situation that has now been fixed. Ideally reviews should be asked when there’s been a recent engagement with the brand and everything went smoothly. According to the reciprocity principle, people are more likely to do something in return if they feel something has been given to them before, this can be considered to choose the best moments to ask for a review.
And last but not least: listen, learn and improve
Above all, online reviews are very valuable for brands as they’re a free way of getting feedback. Instead of trying to camouflage the reviews and pretend they never happened, the way to go should always be to accept the reviews, use them as a way of improving the business, let customers know about the changes and track the progress.
Online reviews are a strong driver of consumer behaviour, however things can get a little too harsh for brands. Online reviews should be part of any brand activity plan if brands want to use them as an advantage and make things a little fairer:
- Use reviews as feedback;
- Improve products and services based on reviews;
- Keep the brand values in mind when dealing with online reviews;
- Keep track of what’s happening and what people are saying;
- Get as much information as possible from each review.