Why do people write reviews?

In the latest Technology Quarterly in this week’s edition of the Economist, there is an article about reviews online. This piece explores well why people read and trust reviews, and the value of both positive and negative reviews. John McAteer, Google’s retail industry director is quoted as saying:

No one trusts all positive reviews

For him you need some negative reviews as well as everybody knows that no product could per perfect. And this is certainly true. In fact, negative reviews can help people decide if a product might be for them, especially if they don’t associate themselves with the negative reviewer (“it wasn’t for them, but it might be for me”).

The article also looks at the value of having multiple reviews and cites a great experiment conducted by Bazaarvoice showing how products with more than ten reviews saw “drastically” higher conversion rate both for the products actually reviewed and for other products from the same brand.

So the value of reviews to brands and customers is clear. What is explored in less depth in the article is why people would write reviews in the first place. The example of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Amazon is cited, which has over 3,200 reviews. Why, the article asks, would people continue to write reviews? They quote Clay Shirky in response to this:

Mr Shirky suggests that in many cases, writing a review is more like writing fan mail (or hate mail) for a product, and the people who post them do not really expect it to be read.

I think this issue needs to be explored in more depth. There are a number of reasons people might write a review:

  1. They are paid to do so (as per the recent case of Belkin hiring people to rate their products five star)
  2. They are forced to do so in order to gain some other incentive (TopTable requires you to rate restaurants you have been to in order to gain points for their loyalty scheme)
  3. They write reviews to increase their standing in a community (where, perhaps more reviews give them more credibility or access to more features in the online community)
  4. They write reviews because they want to look good / impressive / intelligent amongst their peers
  5. They write reviews because they had benefit from some and they want others to benefit in the same way from their advice
  6. They write reviews because they have something to say

I am sure there are examples of all six out there – from people gaining financially or socially from the review, through people wanting to share their knowledge, to people just wanting to air their opinion (whether or not people read). But, I suspect people write reviews more for the reasons at the bottom of the list than at the top. And it is certain that the reasons nearer the bottom of the list lead to more genuine reviews.

Why do people write reviews? Well most likely because they are given the opportunity to voice their opinion. They want want to help others or may just have something to say. But once we give them the chance of doing so they will. That’s one of the real benefits of social media. It encourages us all to share our thoughts and opinions and then gives us other tools so we can sort these and only the most interesting or relevant rise to the top. Give people the chance to write a review and many will do just for the chance to air their views. Show the benefit they can get from reviews and even more will write their own. Allow voting on reviews or promotion of good reviews and you will get a higher quality of comments in return.

In social media people model behaviour. They want to express themselves and if you give them the tools and permission to do so, and you show them how to express themselves then they will do. You really don’t need to pay or incentivise them, in fact this can generate a lot of much lower quality reviews. What you do need to do is understand your customers, why they might want to review and how. Then offer them the ability to do what they want to do anyway.

Reviews are useful. They increase conversion, time spent on site and have a positive halo effect for other, associated, products. And people want to write the reviews in the first place. You just need to get the social architecture right so they feel they can.