Driven mostly by convenience, wider choices and lower prices, more and more of us are now abandoning the high street in favour of the Internet. And where once we might have relied on the polished patter of a retail salesperson, we now have, via on-line reviews, access to the collective voices of hundreds of fellow consumers from around the world.
But what type of people post these reviews and why? Why is it that some people feel compelled to post thousands, or even tens of thousands of on-line reviews, while the vast majority rarely or never do? Is it a fair system? What is the psychology behind it, and what are the ethical implications of posting good, bad, or indifferent reviews?
I suppose the most obvious psychological motivation to post reviews is the rule of reciprocation. Having shopped on-line a few times before and benefited from the reviews left by others, some of us will feel a social obligation to contribute to the system which helped us. But how often and under what circumstances will we bother?
My own experience is that I receive roughly one review of my book for every 300 or so downloads. Whether this is above or below the average, I have no idea, but I am nevertheless extremely grateful for every one – or at least most of them. 🙂
In marketing circles, it has long been known that the most powerful advocate for any product is the customer. But not any customer will do. Imagine you have just bought a PC on-line. It arrives, you unpack it, and it works in just the way you expected it to. To quote a well-known UK ad slogan, “It does exactly what it says on the tin!” Will this experience lead you to leave a review? Unless you are one of the very few people who review everything they buy, probably not.
What if the PC was faulty and their after-sales support rude and obnoxious? Might you then be tempted to leave a negative review in order to warn others of the potential problems? Quite possibly.
But now consider that your newly arrived PC not only works, but is faster and better designed than you had ever imagined. Not only that, but it is also a thing of sublime beauty that makes you swoon just to look at it. OK, maybe you can’t imagine that last one unless you’re a gadget geek like me, but you get the idea.
This last example is what marketers call a “customer experience that beats expectations”, and it turns out to the be key to creating customer advocates. If you’ve ever been asked the question, “How likely, on a scale of 1 to 10, would you be to recommend this product to friends or colleagues?” it is because that company was trying to determine whether you were a net promoter (score of 9-10), a net detractor (1-6), or passive (7-8). After collecting your and other responses, they will have subtracted the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters to arrive at what’s called a Net Promoter Score.
Of all the possible ways of measuring customer satisfaction, this one simple metric has proven to have by far the greatest correlation to company performance. And if you think about, this makes sense. If your products are good but just like everyone else’s, you may have thousands of satisfied customers, but very few real fans? Without fans, you’ll have to spend much more on marketing just to attract more “satisfied customers”.
To create customers who are not just “satisfied” but who will actively promote your products, you have to do something exceptional – maybe it’s the product itself, maybe it’s the services wrapped around that product, maybe it’s the exceptional value compared to the alternatives. Either way, you will have beaten their expectations, and if you do that well enough, you will have unleashed the power of customer advocacy, word-of mouth will spread like wild-fire, and new customers will break down doors to find you.
I believe this promoter / detractor dynamic can have a polarizing effect on people’s propensity to post on-line reviews, filtering out the neutral and leaving only the promoters and detractors. But I don’t think it’s the whole story.
Credibility by association
In some cases, our motivation to leave a review may draw on a desire to be associated with a particularly cool product. “Look at me, I just bought this super-cool thing and so by association I must be super-cool as well!” The fact that so few products inspire this kind of mindset, is the reason most companies’ Facebook pages are such embarrassing failures, often attracting fewer likes than they have company employees – presumably indicating that not even all their employees like them. For an amusing satire of this phenomenon visit The Condescending Corporate Brand Page.
Sometimes, and I think this is perhaps most apparent in reviews for self-published books, readers realise how much reviews can really help a new author and so, having enjoyed the book, decide that a few minutes spent posting a favourable review would be a small price to pay for the reward of helping another human being. Such feelings may be enhanced if the book happened to be acquired as part of a free promotion.
As an author published via Amazon KDP, the enormous impact of reviews on both my morale and product sales is all too clear. The correlation between favourable reviews and sales rank is most obvious during periods when sales are slow. Although there can be a time lag of several hours in Amazon’s reporting, I have watched time and time again, how a single great review can boost my best-seller rank by 10 or 20 places, but with no obvious increase in sales volume to account for it.
On the flip side, one or two critical reviews (3 stars or fewer out of 5) on a newly published book can kill sales quicker than a Gerald Ratner. My 12th review in the UK, which appeared in the second week after launch, was a 2-star review, where all the others had been either 5- or 4-star. I cannot be certain that the halving of the hourly sales volume at that moment was a direct result of it, but it seems likely given the timing. Luckily for me, it was an isolated incidence and now, at the time of writing, over 7 months later, it remains one of only two 2-star reviews out of 115 (66 in the UK and 49 in the US). I do wonder however what its impact would have been, had it been the first or second review posted.
As a side note, I did receive my very first 1-star review last week, but I assume that was a case of mistaken identity since the reviewer seems under the impression that I have been pestering him for reviews via email. Not only would this be a very silly thing for an author to do, but also quite impossible, since Amazon provides no visibility for authors into who might have bought their books. Another explanation, I suppose, is that a glitch occurred in the Amazon system which sends out automatic “Would you like to review this?” emails following a purchase, and that as a result this gentleman received multiple copies regarding my book. Either way, it ‘s an unfortunate occurrence which I hope will at best be removed or at worst not repeated too often.
There have also been well-publicised cases of authors creating “sock-puppet accounts” in order to leave bogus positive reviews of their own work or indeed negative reviews of the work of competitors. Both of these scenarios strike me as clearly unethical and Amazon has recently tried to clamp down on it. Unfortunately this has resulted in thousands of genuine reviews being deleted as well. In time though, I expect that the system will evolve to at least average out such undesirable effects. It has to. The need is too great and stakes are too high for a solution not to be found.
It’s not personal, dude!
Having spoken to many other new authors about this, I know I’m not alone in saying that every single review matters deeply and personally. As an anonymous reviewer in the safety of your own home, it may seem no different to griping about your PC or some other mass-produced product, but in the case of books, the product usually represents months if not years of work from an individual, living, breathing human-being. I’m not for one minute suggesting that if a book sucks you shouldn’t warn other potential readers with a direct and informative account of why. In a way, it could be argued that we have a social responsibility to do so. But it also probably wouldn’t hurt to first question whether that is indeed your true motivation.
As painful as it can be, I must also admit that I have recognised some of the faults highlighted in my readers’ less favourable reviews. Some of these have led to minor revisions of the manuscript, and even where I have disagreed with the comments (which is mostly the case;), just knowing that some people have had that reaction will, I hope, make my next book even better.
I can also say that a single, honest, heartfelt, really glowing review from a total stranger can make my whole week 🙂