Research

Are Online Critics and Negative Reviewers Secretly Loyal Fans in Disguise? You’ll Be Surprised

July 29, 2013

45 percent of customers say they’re more likely to visit businesses that respond to their reviews

Online Reviews Survey

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So who exactly is responsible for those scathing online reviews and one-star ratings? Who are the ones complaining about everything from faulty in-room Wi-Fi and cramped parking spaces to hipster pizza toppings and bland shrimp risottos?

You’ll be surprised. According to two marketing professors, the people who write bad reviews on websites like Yelp, Google, and TripAdvisor are often a business’s most valuable and loyal customers.

Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail,” a research study published recently by Northwestern University’s Eric Anderson and MIT’s Duncan Simester, examines over 325,000 online reviews – using data to match individual reviews to purchases made – in order to assess the behavior of online critics and negative reviewers. The results of the study suggest that bad reviews are not necessarily written by cranky, impossible-to-please customers or by competitors trying to game the system; more often than not, these are written by the “most valuable and loyal” customers of the business being criticized. These customers tend to spend the most money, too.

But that’s not even the most surprising part.

(Check out: “Caught Red-Handed: Businesses Shamed After Posting Fake Online Reviews”)

According to the same study, 5 percent of the reviews examined were written by people who hadn’t even purchased the product or service in question. In other words, the person who wrote “the baby back ribs were too small, I’m never going back to this BBQ joint again” hadn’t actually ordered anything, let alone sampled the ribs. These fake reviews, moreover, were “significantly more negative on average” than the 95 percent written by people who actually did make a purchase.

What’s the motivation behind these fake reviews, then?

Well, the motives and reasons of these critics won’t be quite what you think. Also, they have very little to do with malicious competitors badmouthing other businesses: they are not friends of the business’s enemies. In fact, the study suggests that fake negative reviews are often written by devoted fans who believe they’re acting as “self-appointed brand managers”: who will let their favorite businesses know when they’ve taken a wrong turn, yet who will still continue buying even after they’ve posted their criticisms online. The researchers cited the example of Harley-Davidson customers who were not happy that the motorcycle manufacturer had introduced a perfume.

As Simester himself put it: “Your best friends are your worst critics.”

David Streitfeld of the New York Times Bits blog wrote: “To put it another way, they (the bad-review-writing critics/devoted fans) are venting. The review forum gives them a simple and direct means of doing so: I hated this product, so listen to me.”

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