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Would you dare make a family dinner reservation at a restaurant without first checking Yelp? When was the last time you picked a hotel without looking at reviews on TripAdvisor? And if you were shopping on Amazon for a new 4K HDR TV, would you choose a model with an average rating of 2 stars or a similarly priced one with a 4.5-star rating?
Make no mistake: online customer reviews and ratings influence consumer behavior.
- According to market research firm YouGov, approximately 4 in 5 American consumers read online reviews before making a purchase decision.
- Meanwhile, according to Search Engine Journal, only 13 percent of consumers will consider buying from a business that has a 1- or 2-star rating.
As a result, an increasing number of companies are taking steps to proactively monitor and manage online reviews — in the hopes of having higher ratings, better brand reputation, improved search engine performance, and more sales.
Reviews vary, and so do their impact
Not all customer reviews are the same, though — particularly in terms of where they come from and how they’re generated.
There are unprompted reviews that come from users who decided to publicly share their thoughts about a product or service without being asked to. Sometimes, these users remain anonymous, or their reviews are published under screen names that may or may not be their names in real life, like on Yelp. Other times, the names are likely real, but there’s no way of telling whether the users actually purchased the product or service they reviewed.
On the other hand, there are verified reviews that are tied to transactions that really happened, like what you see on Amazon, where buyers typically receive e-mails asking them to review the product or service they just bought. If and when they do write a review, it’s displayed on Amazon as having come from a verified purchase.
Review sites like OpenTable and Agoda have a similar system. The reviews displayed on a restaurant or hotel’s listing don’t necessarily come with a message saying these were written by verified guests, but neither OpenTable nor Agoda accepts unprompted, unverified reviews. Users have to have transacted with a business before they can write and post reviews.
It’s reasonable to assume that unprompted reviews will have a different impact from verified reviews.
But just how different?
A recent study by PowerReviews and Northwestern University’s Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center sought to explore the nuances of customer reviews written by verified buyers and reviews by anonymous users.
What effects do these two types of reviews have on ratings scores and reputation? How do they differ in terms of sentiment? And what can companies do maximize the opportunities presented by online reviews and customer feedback (regardless of source)?
Here are some interesting findings from the study:
Verified reviews produce higher ratings than unprompted reviews
Based on the study’s data sample, the average rating of verified reviews is 4.34 stars (out of 5) — which is right in the range of the ideal average star rating (4.2 to 4.5 stars) for purchase probability. These ratings also tend to remain steady over time.
Unprompted reviews, meanwhile, have an average rating of 3.89 stars; over time, the ratings tend to drop.
Verified reviews also have a higher percentage of 5-star ratings, while unprompted reviews claim a larger share of 1-star ratings.
The researchers suggest that these differences could be attributed to social biases as well as levels of extremity in opinion.
- When verified buyers decide to review a business after being prompted by a review request e-mail, they are typically taken to a landing page that doesn’t reveal what others have said about the given product or service. They can write freely, without being influenced by the opinions of other customers.
- Unprompted reviews, on the other hand, are often posted by users who first have to navigate to a kind of product page or business listing where previous reviews can be seen and evaluated. On some websites, including Yelp, previous reviews are even displayed alongside the actual review and rating form. Based on the theory that “users who are self-motivated to write a review without being prompted are more likely to have extreme (often more negative) opinions,” the researchers suggest that “the consumer gives an even lower rating than they planned in order to bring the average star rating down.”
Unprompted reviews are often lengthier
According to the PowerReviews and Northwestern University study, unprompted reviews are 85 percent longer in character count than verified reviews. The average length of an unprompted review is 376 characters, compared to 203 characters for verified reviews.
Once again, this can be because unprompted reviewers are likely to have opinions that are more extreme than that of verified customers — and therefore take the time to expound on their feedback.
Key insights for businesses
Develop a review request program
PowerReviews says that as much as 70 percent of reviews come from post-transactional review request e-mails. This is why it makes sense to develop a review request program. By encouraging your customers to share their feedback through reviews, and by tying these reviews to transactions that actually happened, you can systematically improve your ratings and generate the kind of social proof that helps drive sales.
Dive deeper into customer feedback found in unprompted reviews
At the same time, businesses shouldn’t see unprompted reviews written by self-motivated users as being totally undesirable. While they are likely to come with lower ratings than do verified reviews, it is still extremely important for your business to pay close attention to this kind of customer feedback and dive deeper into it, when possible.
These unprompted reviews are from users whose opinions are probably more extreme and whose thoughts are expressed more lengthily and possibly in more detail — which means they present a valuable opportunity for you to gain useful information and insights into the customer experience.
By responding to unprompted reviews and looking beyond ratings to dive deeper into feedback, you can understand customers better and meet their needs and expectations.
As mentioned earlier, some online review sites only accept verified reviews, while others allow pretty much anyone to leave a review without proof of purchase. You can argue that the latter kind has led to the rise of fake reviews, which serves neither businesses nor consumers.
At the end of the day, however, authenticity is what consumers are after. And it’s what makes a set of 10 verified 4-star reviews ultimately more powerful than a set of 10 anonymous 5-star reviews.
Apart from developing a review request program that preserves your credibility and promotes trustworthy customer feedback, reject the idea of gaming the system and posting fraudulent reviews. At a time when consumers value authenticity over perfection, your business should do the same.