In “Where we fit” we explore the shifting role of people in the marketplace. In this post we discuss how the ratings and reviews can obscure their most important feature: the people that write them.
When I lived in Philadelphia there was a little neighborhood pocket with two competing Indian restaurants and I was thinking about eating at one of them. It boasted a healthy 4.1/5 stars, but curiously seemed to only have ratings at the extremes—five stars or just one. The five star reviews extolled the virtues of the restaurant, with the kinds of keywords that really resonate with a city-dwelling millennial like “authentic,” “delicious,” and “fresh.” Looking at the one star reviews, you might think they were talking about a different restaurant, with suspiciously many calling out the “frozen” curries and dishes that “taste like paint.”
I ultimately chose to eat there (4.1 can’t be wrong!) and mentioned the weird reviews to my server. Turns out this restaurant and its nearby competitor were engaged in cyber warfare of sorts. Periodically one would wage a negative review campaign against the other, churning out only slightly different versions of the “paint” and “frozen” accusations. The other would respond by mobilizing their own task force to neg their competitors while padding their own reviews with positive comments. Very few of the reviews in either direction were real.
Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em
Reviews have become a near-ubiquitous reference for consumers across practically all categories. Reviews are about trust—they offer reassurance about the quality of things we buy. Given a world where choices abound and practically anyone can sell anything of any quality online, the popularity of reviews makes sense. Consumers want to know they can trust a product or experience will deliver and reviews can take a very complicated array of experiences with a product or service and distill them into a single, easily compared and understood number. But as the restaurant example shows, that number has become divorced from reality. And it’s not just with restaurants.
Whenever W5 talks to consumers about how they evaluate a potential purchase, the typical answer is, “I always check the reviews, but you can’t really trust reviews these days.” They know the many reasons why as well, citing people are more likely to leave reviews when they are upset with a product or experience or companies incentivize or otherwise “juice” their review stats to stay competitive. Consulting firms exist solely to manage the online reputations (read: reviews) of their clients, generating positive reviews while responding to, or outright hiding, negative ones. Reviews are no longer a window into a product, they are product in and of themselves. How can we save reviews?
Putting people back into reviews
If we want to salvage reviews, we must refocus our attention on what exactly they do—communicate a subjective experience. In a big-data world reviews claim to offer objectivity, in the form of a single aggregate rating, to what is inherently a subjective experience: using and enjoying a product. This whole transformation of experiences into a single number can be useful from a population perspective, but it doesn’t account for the vast differences in expectations and needs that play a huge role in shaping those experiences with a product. Consumers do not just want to know what is said about a project; they want to know who said it and why.
The author of the review, with their own personal goals and expectations, is almost as important as the review itself. If a consumer wants to know if they will like something, the average of everyone else’s experiences will tell them very little. They get far more use and guidance hearing the experience of someone with expectations and needs similar to their own. A paragraph from a mom about how her new table holds up to her messy children is far more informative to another mother than a 3.8 rating on the manufacturer’s website, no matter how many ratings it is averaging together.
Subjectivity in reviews should be embraced, not obscured. Rather than erasing the people behind the reviews by focusing on aggregating ratings and generating as many reviews as possible, business should focus on drawing attention to those people. Give customers reviews by people with whom they can identify. Tell people what moms specifically think of a product or which coffee maker college students prefer. Doing so helps consumers authentically relate to feedback and fosters the trust that reviews were meant to provide.