Evaluating Customer Comments

November 28, 2017

Reviews and opinions include more negative comments when people are sharing with friends than when they’re sharing with strangers.

By Karen-Janine Cohen

Evaluating products and describing experiences on the internet may be like chatting over the fence or exchanging pleasantries at a PTA meeting. It’s probably – not the objective product analysis and reviews many companies assume they get through Facebook, Yelp, Amazon or their own web pages. That is what research by Zoey Chen, an assistant professor of marketing at the School shows, and it may give businesses new ways to think about customer comments.

Chen’s work shows that people behave differently when posting comments that will be seen by friends versus those destined to be viewed by a wider audience that consists of strangers. Of course, commenters are sharing opinions, but what they say and how they say things are colored by some self-serving motivations. Reviews and opinions are more positive when individuals interact online with strangers – as the posters put their best foot forward, a common social goal when meeting people for the first time, when the impulse is to create a good first impression. On the other hand, comments are both more candid and more negative when online posters talk with close friends, because negative emotions breed intimacy and social connection, also a social imperative.

It’s not so much about sharing intellectual insights, but something more basic and ancient in human relations: building and nurturing close relationships. “People choose strategy based on who they are talking to. At the end of the day, we want social acceptance and social connections,” Chen says. The research is laid out in the paper, “Social Acceptance and Word of Mouth: How the Motive to Belong Leads to Divergent WOM with Strangers and Friends,” which is in the October issue of Journal of Consumer Research. Businesses may want to keep her findings in mind as they build websites or make decisions based on customer reviews and feedback

The Study

Chen asked test participants to recall the last restaurant they went to. Half were asked to email a description of the experience to close friends; the other group wrote reviews destined for distant acquaintances. The writers were more forthcoming with friends, especially when it came to negative impressions. When writing for distant acquaintances, they highlighted more positive impressions.

It’s all about how we want others to perceive us, Chen says. When it comes to dealing with strangers or acquaintances, she explains, “we are showing people the best self.” A good example is a first date, where we trot out all the great things about ourselves – hoping to be seen as a good catch. Yet as a relationship develops, other skills are called for. “Beyond that point, we share things that could maintain the emotional connection [that has been built],” she says. The same fine-tuning of social interaction holds true when we communicate on the internet. When posting a review or opinion to all, people try to appear competent and positive (a nice person); but confiding more to friends is part of the emotional toolbox of intimacy.   

Chen became interested in online word-of-mouth interactions when working on her doctorate. She wanted her research to connect with what she enjoyed. One such activity was finding new restaurants, and she often found herself parsing Yelp reviews. Chen noticed that, while people would talk about the restaurant itself, they would also share information unrelated to the underlying product (such as why they were visiting the restaurant – perhaps for a birthday party or date) and work in other bits about their lives. She wondered: “Why are they sharing this personal stuff? What drives us to share the kind of information we share?”

That became the first question in her consumer research oeuvre, which examines the details of online interactions for clues to motivation and behavior, and how companies might use that data to better serve their customers. “A lot of companies would admit that consumer conversations and sentiments are extremely important,” Chen says. “The main thing is that word-of-mouth is not random. Firms think it is random, but it is very strategic. They should be cognizant of what people as individuals are trying to get from sharing the information.” Word-of-mouth, she stresses, is not necessarily “truthful” or “objective.” Instead, it’s systematically influenced by people’s own goals of making and maintaining relationships.

Key Insights:

  • Companies tend to accept reviews and comments as totally objective and accurate portrayal of experiences. But that might not be correct.
  • There are systematic biases in what people talk about, especially if the post is a conduit for experience.
  • When sharing information with strangers, people attempt to self-enhance, which leads to sharing of positive experiences; when sharing with friends, people attempt to emotionally connect and prefer content that serves this purpose (such as negative emotional articles, poignant content).
  • Companies should be cognizant about what individuals are trying to gain from re-sharing content. For instance, will people who are pursuing social connections want to share or forward an edgy company video?

Why Platform Matters When Posting – And When Understanding Comments

  • Facebook is clearly friend-centric, filled with sharing.
  • Twitter skews more funny or arch, with a broader mix of friends, acquaintances and wider circles or readers.
  • Amazon and Yelp comments are generally geared toward a large audience, composed of strangers to the poster.
Listen to Zoey Chen talk about this research on “Marketing Matters.”
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