Reviews, even with the best intentions, seldom help brands and businesses. This sounds heretical, but let me explain.

TripAdvisor is an amazing site. In a sense, together with the reviews on Amazon, and any other site that uses a rating system, it embodies the essence of the digital economy: easy access to other people’s opinions and feelings. 

And yet, I never use it. On purpose.

I recently went to Slovenia and stayed at a spa hotel. It was an amazing experience. Buildings left over from its founding in the times of the Hapsburg Empire; signs in Russian reminding you of the country’s Communist past as part of Yugoslavia, and a German heart specialist offering free consultations for senior guests in his clinic full of Scandinavian furniture. The cake shop sold only traditional Slovene pastries. A grandiose mix of history, culture, cuisine, and brilliant marketing.

Yet on TripAdvisor you would find reviews by the 27-year-old dad of three who was annoyed by the number of old people in the pool, the 42-year-old woman who complained about being charged for her bathrobe, and the 38-year-old businessman who fretted about the bad WiFi. None of which mattered to me: I don’t mind other people in the spa, I do not give a damn about bathrobes, and since I was doing my digital detox, I couldn’t care less about the WiFi.

What I am trying to say is that reviews are mainly useless, even the good ones.

Our experiences with brands are entirely personal and unique. Reviews say more about the reviewer than the brand. If they are bad and biased they are useless. If they are perfectly crafted and insightful, they are probably sponsored in one way or another.

On the other hand, if the review is subjective it is useless because it doesn’t tell me anything about my potential satisfaction with the brand. If the review is ostensibly objective, it is useless because it is probably fake. An author I know wrote 50 reviews of his own book and sent them to his circle of friends to post for him on Amazon. They rate very highly and look entirely genuine. The book sells reasonably well, may I opine.

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Inherent Vice

Even if the review is not fake and really well written, it carries the bias and intent of the reviewer. Some reviewers do it to increase their digital clout, others to show off their expertise in a field.

What’s more, reviews have a time problem, or rather a deterioration problem. Imagine visiting a holiday resort based on a rave review and when you arrive, finding that nothing matches the description.

Should you trust an old review, or only look at the latest ones? Amazon’s (and others’) algorithms display a mix of reviews ranked by relevance and timeliness. If the reviews can be liked (“was this review useful? they ask), certain reviews – with a certain bias – get pushed inexorably to the top, leaving no room for change over time.

The Objective World

Indeed, because of the human condition, our distinct lives, experiences, and motivations, are all so different, that there is no such thing as an objective review of anything. A middle-class Chinese family from Wuhan, an African-American Lesbian from Detroit, a rich Brazilian businessman from Sao Paolo, or a German automotive engineer from Stuttgart with two children, can hardly have the same view of the same hotel, tourist site, product, or service. Not even a book will they read with the same eyes.

People exclusively concerned with content in one language and country hardly notice this. It’s ok if an item in Sweden has only reviews by Swedes. They which match a cultural norm — and thus a heavy cultural bias.

Back to my sojourn in Slovenia: most of the reviews were by Austrian and German tourists, and are thus inherently useless to, say, an American, or a Japanese tourist.

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The Curse of Honesty

And yet, the Internet’s data giants keep telling us that reviews are meaningful, and marketing experts insist that this form of user-generated content is good for exposure and to increase brand loyalty. But there is a big caveat.

Sites like TripAdvisor are so powerful, they can completely destroy a business. It did happen to an acquaintance of mine. He opened a B&B on the East Coast of Taiwan some years ago. In the beginning, he didn’t know much about Western tastes, and when an American couple stayed there, disapproved of the breakfast (not because it was bad, but because it was Taiwanese style and not to their taste), and found the room too hot, they left a scathing review on Google. Because reviews and browser content is often auto-translated, reservations fell dramatically.

Bad reviews don’t have to be malicious, they can be entirely honest. But because of our different cultures, experiences, and expectations, they can have a hugely negative impact on a business or brand.

The Curse of Personal Preference

In an experiment with my students I asked them to rate a particular sports brand, Nike, and then divided the class into three group: those who had a clear affinity to the brand, those who had no affinity, and the broad middle.

I then asked them to write a review of an Adidas product. To no one’s surprise, the group with the Nike fans rated the competitor’s product less favorable than the other two groups.

We already know what we like, or think what we like, and our relationship with brands is very much based on this so-called “confirmation bias”. We are much happier when we see our bias confirmed than when we are confronted with the cold reality of data.

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The Curse of Data

One reason for this enormous power of reviews is the aggregation of data and the bias of previews existing reviews.

In another experiment with book reviews I conducted with some of my students, I divided the class into two groups. One group had to review a book which had an average of 1.4 stars and some very negative reviews on Amazon, the other a book with 4.8 stars. Only it was exactly the same book, and the reviews made up. Group A with the 1.4 stars rated the book 1.8 points lower than Group B.

Data scientists are coming up with ever-smarter ways of deploying, interpreting, and visualizing data, but when it comes to brand loyalty and marketing, data can work very much against the interests of brands, especially when powerful incumbents are using the data to their advantage.

Conclusion

In summary, while in some cases reviews may work in favor of a brand, the motto is buyer beware! Reviews can have a terrible impact on your marketing performance and the overall brand image.

Of course, bad reviews can also be great material for counter-intuitive marketing.

More about that here: The Importance of Customer Feedback and What to Do With It

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