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ONLINE REVIEWS

Can bad reviews be good for your business? New research says ‘yes’

By our News Team | 2022

Marketers have assumed that when people say positive things about a product, purchase interest increases. But it’s not necessarily true.

Negative online reviews and one-star ratings are generally known to be bad for brands. So much so, that there are entire businesses devoted to reversing the damage. But a new study from the University of British Columbia in Canada has found that this isn’t always the case.

Dr Lisa Cavanaugh, an Associate Professor at the university’s Sauder School of Business, and her research team have found that negative online comments have little effect in cases where brand relationships are strong and consumers personally identify with a brand’s products. In some instances, they found negative reviews can actually have positive effects for brands.

“When consumers personally identify with a brand, they see facets of themselves in that brand,” Dr Cavanaugh said. “When a reviewer leaves a disparaging comment about an identity-relevant brand, consumers feel compelled to protect the brand, and by extension themselves, by scrutinising the source of the negative review.”

Online Reviews

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The researchers found that the social proximity (e.g., demographic or geographic location) of a negative reviewer plays a critical role in how consumers respond to a negative review.

For the study, researchers conducted 16 different experiments using identity-relevant brands, which are companies that consumers tend to feel strongly about and personally identify with – such as Apple and American football (known as NFL football).

In one experiment, researchers surveyed NFL fans, asking them about their reactions to negative or positive online reviews of an NFL-branded sweatshirt. They found that if the reviewer’s profile reflected a different social demographic, or a distant location, a negative review could actually boost the participant’s interest in buying the sweatshirt even more than a positive review did.

Negative reviews from a socially distant reviewer had little impact

A similar case was also observed where a negative review from a person in distant social proximity increased the likelihood participants would buy an Apple watch. And in another experiment involving President’s Choice packaged coffee, participants who read a negative review by a socially distant reviewer demonstrated a 6 to 12 percent boost in their interest in purchasing the product.

“Marketers have generally assumed that when people say positive things, purchase interest increases and when people say negative things, purchase interest decreases,” says Dr Cavanaugh, who co-authored the study with Boston College’s Dr Nailya Ordabayeva and  Sauder Business School Professor, Dr Darren Dahl. 

“But when negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions – and that is a game changer.”

Dr Cavanaugh explains that when we read negative reviews coming from someone we perceive as socially closer (e.g., maybe they share a national identity or they like the same music) we tend to listen and accept what they have to say. This causes us to downgrade our assessment of the product, as well as our willingness to purchase it.

“But when that negative review comes from a socially distant person, it is an entirely different story. You will scrutinise the source of the review and look for reasons not to believe it, specifically when it’s an identity-relevant brand,” she said.

Businesses shouldn’t get too comfortable with poor reviews, however.

Researchers observed that if consumers don’t personally identify with the product or brand. If it’s a toilet brush as opposed to an Apple computer, for example, they won’t be driven to defend it, so poor reviews will still pack a punch.

This study was published in the Journal of Marketing. You can read the full research here.

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