Good Customers, Bad Reviews
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Marketing Aug 5, 2013

Good Cus­tomers, Bad Reviews

Decep­tive prod­uct reviews aren’t always writ­ten by the ene­my — or even in anger

Health Gauge via Creative Commons

Based on the research of

Eric T. Anderson

Duncan I. Simester

Editor’s Note: This paper was recent­ly award­ed the pres­ti­gious Paul E. Green Award from the Jour­nal of Mar­ket­ing Research.

Cus­tomer reviews can make or break a prod­uct, influ­enc­ing what we buy and what com­pa­nies pro­duce. So with this much rid­ing on them, the prospect of decep­tive reviews — reviews that are not what they pre­tend to be — is quite unsettling.

One fear is that employ­ees from rival firms will pose as legit­i­mate cus­tomers and post neg­a­tive reviews about a company’s prod­ucts or ser­vices. Indeed, on some review sites like Tri­pAd­vi­sor, such con­cerns may have mer­it. Some research has shown that hotels from inde­pen­dent chains may write neg­a­tive reviews about rival hotels in the area,” explains Eric Ander­son, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Management.

But Ander­son and his col­league, Dun­can Simester of the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, have recent­ly dis­cov­ered a dif­fer­ent type of decep­tive review — one writ­ten not by a company’s rivals, but by its very best customers.

Evi­dence of Deception

Ander­son and Simester exam­ined cus­tomer prod­uct reviews post­ed to the web­site of a promi­nent appar­el com­pa­ny. The researchers first attempt­ed to con­nect reviews, which could only be writ­ten by reg­is­tered users, to indi­vid­ual pur­chas­es — a task made pos­si­ble because the retail­er was the exclu­sive sell­er of its prod­ucts, and held detailed trans­ac­tion records. These records linked pur­chas­es made through mul­ti­ple retail chan­nels to spe­cif­ic cus­tomers via cred­it card num­bers and oth­er iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion, leav­ing researchers fair­ly con­fi­dent that if a reg­is­tered user had made a pur­chase, they would know it.

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But then the researchers noticed some­thing unex­pect­ed: about 5% of the over 300,000 prod­uct reviews they sift­ed through could not be linked to actu­al pur­chas­es. So we spent a lot of time try­ing to fig­ure out who these cus­tomers are and what these prod­ucts were,” explains Ander­son. And after an incred­i­ble amount of sleuthing” — rul­ing out the pos­si­bil­i­ty the indi­vid­u­als had received the items as gifts, among oth­er expla­na­tions — we deter­mined that it was very like­ly that these cus­tomers had nev­er bought the prod­uct.” In oth­er words, the cus­tomers appeared to be lying.

It’s actu­al­ly thou­sands of cus­tomers writ­ing these neg­a­tive reviews. And so the ques­tion then is, well who are these guys?”

Lin­guis­tic analy­ses sup­port their con­clu­sion. Pri­or research has iden­ti­fied a num­ber of fea­tures that can be asso­ci­at­ed with decep­tive lan­guage — one of the more promi­nent of which is the use of elab­o­rate nar­ra­tives. And indeed, reviews that could not be con­nect­ed to actu­al pur­chas­es had a word count about 40% high­er than oth­er reviews. Anoth­er lin­guis­tic hall­mark of decep­tion: a sur­feit of excla­ma­tion points — not just one but mul­ti­ple excla­ma­tion points,” says Ander­son. It turns out that’s also very preva­lent in these 5% of the reviews.”

So how do these decep­tive reviews dif­fer from oth­er reviews on the site? The most strik­ing qual­i­ty is their neg­a­tiv­i­ty. The researchers found that review­ers for whom a pur­chase could not be ver­i­fied were twice as like­ly to assign the low­est rat­ing to a prod­uct than review­ers with ver­i­fied pur­chas­es. And make no mis­take — this 5% of dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly neg­a­tive reviews was enough to impact sales. We show in this case that the firm los­es about 1 – 2% of rev­enue,” explains Ander­son. That may not sound like a lot of mon­ey, but when you’re a real­ly big com­pa­ny, los­ing 1 – 2% of rev­enue because of [decep­tive] reviews is a huge figure.”

Meet the Deceivers

In con­sid­er­ing who these review­ers are, and why they may have left decep­tive reviews, it is impor­tant to remem­ber that writ­ing reviews is inher­ent­ly an anom­alous activ­i­ty,” explains Ander­son. Not many peo­ple write reviews. So we’re already down into few­er than 5% of con­sumers actu­al­ly tak­ing the time to write reviews. And now we’re find­ing 5% of that 5% are doing these some­what decep­tive reviews.”

Even so, he explains, it is not the case that just a few bad apples are respon­si­ble for the decep­tion. It’s actu­al­ly thou­sands of cus­tomers writ­ing these neg­a­tive reviews. And so the ques­tion then is, well who are these guys? And the big sur­prise to us was: they’re real­ly good cus­tomers! In fact they are way bet­ter than the aver­age cus­tomer.” These decep­tive review­ers are such good cus­tomers, in fact, that they have on aver­age each pur­chased over 100 items from the retailer.

The ele­phant in the room here is, of course, why? Why would a loy­al cus­tomer write a review of a prod­uct she nev­er even pur­chased? One expla­na­tion is that these cus­tomers are upset with the com­pa­ny and wield­ing neg­a­tive reviews as pun­ish­ment. Yet it is hard to see how they could be too upset, as these cus­tomers con­tin­ued to pur­chase prod­ucts from the retail­er even after leav­ing their decep­tive reviews. Nor is there good evi­dence that these cus­tomers were sim­ply rack­ing up reviews to estab­lish social stand­ing and cred­i­bil­i­ty. These review­ers tend­ed to have pur­chased plen­ty of prod­ucts for which they did not write reviews.

Instead, the researchers argue, these review­ers are act­ing as self-appoint­ed brand man­agers. They’re such good cus­tomers that they now feel like they should be guid­ing the com­pa­ny,” says Ander­son. And when the com­pa­ny makes mis­takes in the eyes of the con­sumer, they want to cor­rect them.” Again, lin­guis­tic analy­ses offers some sup­port for this view: the pool of decep­tive reviews con­tained telling­ly high num­bers of phras­es such as car­ry more” or go back to” — phras­es sug­ges­tive of requests aimed at the firm, rather than advice for fel­low customers.

Dis­cour­ag­ing Decep­tive Reviews

What then can a com­pa­ny do to dis­cour­age cus­tomers from leav­ing decep­tive prod­uct reviews? Resist the urge to take legal action against cus­tomers who engage in this behav­ior, says Ander­son — even if you can prove their reviews to be ground­less and harm­ful. After all, these may be some of your best cus­tomers. Instead, think redi­rec­tion. Seek these cus­tomers out and offer them oth­er avenues for express­ing dis­plea­sure, dol­ing out advice, and oth­er­wise feel­ing heard.

The broad­er issue, though, is one of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Because so few cus­tomers leave reviews in the first place, retail­ers are left with feed­back from a pop­u­la­tion that they know is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their cus­tomer base, even with­out decep­tion thrown into the mix. That’s a prob­lem,” says Ander­son, and the com­pa­nies know this.” The pair of researchers has since teamed up with experts in boost­ing engage­ment and turnout for polit­i­cal cam­paigns. The hope is that the two teams of experts can learn from one anoth­er: per­haps tricks for increas­ing vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion can be used to increase review­er par­tic­i­pa­tion, and vice versa.

Pho­to cred­it belongs to Health Guage. Pub­lished under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

Featured Faculty

Eric T. Anderson

Hartmarx Professor of Marketing, Professor of Marketing, Director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice

About the Writer

Jessica Love is the editor in chief of Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Eric T. Anderson and Duncan I. Simester (2014) Reviews Without a Purchase: Low Ratings, Loyal Customers, and Deception. Journal of Marketing Research: June 2014, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 249-269.

Read the original

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