Do We Really Need “Unbiased” Customer Reviews?

Do we need unbiased reviewsSince the advent of digital commerce customer reviews became an integral and important part of marketing. As adoption of online retailing grew, the role of customer reviews, published on e-commerce (retail) sites and third party reputation sites, became irreplaceable. Consumers, product manufacturers, distributors and retailers greatly benefit from the appropriate mining of this customers’ experiences ore.

The fact that most consumers trust customer reviews more than advertising, does not escape attention of some marketing “geniuses” who try from time to time to manipulate consumers by generating fake reviews. Inevitably these attempts backfire resulting in devastating loss to a company’s reputation and crippling legal costs. However, greed and stupidity often produce very slow learners and such attempts will never stop.

Publicity about use of fake generates a lot of attention and gives rise to variety of beliefs, such as:

  • customers reviews are mostly fake and only fools trust them

  • customer reviews are mostly written by people who want to rant about their experience. Therefore most customer reviews are negative and have little value.

  • most customer ratings are inflated and cannot be taken seriously.

As someone who makes a living mining millions of customer reviews every year for a purpose of product marketing, I can testify that all of these beliefs are mostly unsubstantiated. I could provide evidence to this effect, but this post is not about customer reviews authenticity or accuracy. It is about a role of “encouraged” reviews in the marketing value chain.

I came across an excellent article “Is Amazon Doing Anything To Fight Latest Wave of Fake, Paid-For Reviews?” written by Chris Morris and published on Consumerist website recently. This article seemingly touched a nerve as it was shared via various social media channels over 1,000 times during the first day it was published. The article questions the practice of encouraging (compensating?) customer reviews contributors by providing products (to be reviewed) at discount or free of charge. There is nothing illegal or even unethical about this practice, as long as it is transparent and properly executed. The “reference” marketing practice has been a staple in B2B world for decades, even though it is common knowledge that there are financial incentives involved.

However, this question really made me think:

“Shouldn’t the very fact that someone received something for free call into question that person’s ability to provide an unbiased point of view?”

This poses a very valid question, at a first glance. Upon consideration however, I could not recall ever seeing an “unbiased” opinion in a context of customer’s experience. I can recall balanced opinions, but not an impartial ones. This is not an exercise in rhetoric, it is an inquiry into the practical value of customer reviews.

As a shopper I see the value of a product’s average score (sum of the Liekert scores given by customers in their reviews and divided by the number of reviews for the product) only as the first filter on my journey to reduce the uncertainty of the purchase. I eliminate any product with a low average score without further investigation. I completely agree with Chris

” ignore the star rating, not just the average rating for a product but for each individual review. What is a 3-star product for one person might be a 5-star product for another. Read the actual text of the review and decide for yourself if it’s of any relevance to your needs.”

The key to success is in finding reviews of the customers who “hired that product”1 to do a “job” that is similar to the job I have to do. Here I seek partiality, bias or relevance to me and my “job”. The sentiment, price paid, discounts, etc., as long as it’s transparent, is much less relevant.

For the product “owner” (or competitor) the opinions of people who did not pay for the product is much less important or interesting. However, even in this case I would not call them completely valueless as there are opportunities to learn and utilize this content for marketing intelligence and benchmarking.

I think the real question is – can I trust a person’s ability to provide an honest opinion about using a product if this person was “paid” for providing it. We all have opinions about all sort of experiences, whether we were paid for sharing them or not. If “paid” is the only criteria for trust, how do we still believe spokespeople, journalists, doctors and other professionals.

The quality of the actual content within customer review speaks volumes about the author’s authenticity, whether they are paid or not. Mindful people can easily spot the dividing line between Motivation and Manipulation. Even algorithms can be created to discount integrity challenged content.

1 “Customers want to “hire” a product to do a job, or, as legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” What Customers Want from Your Products




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