Online reviews are vital for businesses, with more than eight in 10 people reading reviews for local businesses, according to a survey by BrightLocal. The average person reported they spent almost 14 minutes reading reviews before deciding to visit a business’s website or the business itself.
But what happens when consumers are met with reviews that trash a business? According to research published in Journal of Marketing, really negative reviews may actually help a business. Researchers Thomas Allard, Lea Dunn, and Katherine White came to this conclusion after studying more than 3,000 consumers through six studies and four supplemental experiments.
“Our findings suggest that unfair negative reviews consistently result in more favorable responses to the reviewed firm than fair negative reviews and, at times, even better than positive reviews,” said Allard, assistant professor of marketing at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, in a press release about the study. “We highlight the role of empathy for the firm as a motivator for increased favorable firm intentions. We also identify how firms can leverage empathy from consumers reading reviews, even for those reviews that do not naturally evoke empathy.”
They found that after people look at, for example, one- and two-star hotel reviews on TripAdvisor, it exposes what people perceive to be unfair elements. Consumers were then more likely to empathize with businesses and purchase from or patronage those businesses. How could businesses engender positive feelings from negative reviews?
“These negative, unfair reviews are influencing other consumers to give the company a chance.”
Businesses need to respond to all reviews in a personable manner by showing there are people behind it. They can do that by showing employees, using first names, and responding as a person rather than a brand. Businesses should also spotlight people who were involved in the creation of the product or service via profiles in their marketing, as McDonald’s did when showing off a lettuce farmer or Lush Cosmetics did by showing product creators.
“Companies can provide clarity on their mission, values and demonstrate consistency in how they approach matters,” White told Inverse. “In addition, giving the company a consumer ‘face’ by showing the people who work for the company — either with photos or names of employees enhances empathy.”
Some companies even went a step further and embraced negative reviews, such as Drake Hotel in Toronto, Yosemite National Park, and Vienna Tourism, which used quotes from ridiculous one-star reviews in their advertising campaigns.
“The most surprising part was that consumers who were reading these third-person reviews were experiencing empathy for a company/employee, which they had not come into contact with before,” White said. “Unlike the research showing that negative reviewers lead to negative consumer reactions, we show that these negative, unfair reviews are influencing other consumers to give the company a chance.”
This research documents how negative reviews, when perceived as unfair, can activate feelings of empathy toward firms that have been wronged. Six studies and four supplemental experiments provide converging evidence that this experienced empathy for the firm motivates supportive consumer responses such as paying higher purchase prices and reporting increased patronage intentions. Importantly, this research highlights factors that can increase or decrease empathy toward a firm. For instance, adopting the reviewer’s perspective when evaluating an unfair negative review can reduce positive consumer responses to a firm, whereas conditions that enhance the ability to experience empathy—such as when reviews are highly unfair, when the identity of the employee is made salient, or when the firm responds in an empathetic manner—can result in positive consumer responses toward the firm. Overall, this work extends the understanding of consumers’ responses to word of mouth in the marketplace by highlighting the role of perceived (un)fairness. The authors discuss the theoretical and practical implications of the findings for better management of consumer reviews.