Good reviews might work against you online

Lonely people respond differently to reviewsAre you watching The X-Factor…? Of course you are…! You’d be daft to miss the exploits of teen heart-throb Frankie Cocozza – especially as his mentor “chief judge” Gary Barlow said that he was really bad on stage last week, but that he had made a “comeback” this weekend. And then you had to watch some VT footage of the scruffy-haired 18-year-old admit to partying during the week – goodness a youngster who likes a drink or two, whatever next? It won’t be long before the judges remind us – once again – that baby-faced Frankie has several girls’ names tattooed on his buttocks.

It’s all part of a game, of course. The producers and the judges all know who they really want to win the “contest”, who they know will sell the most records – and they spend each weekend reviewing the acts in a bid to influence the voting. Of course, they’d deny that, but it is rather transparent. The notion is that if they keep saying someone is brilliant we’ll agree and vote along the “right lines” – but as soon as they detect we are aware of the persuasion they suddenly start saying the act is dreadful, in the hope that we’ll then vote in sympathy. By carefully playing out this tightrope balancing act, they should get the winner they want.

It is the same technique you can see online. Websites show off the positive reviews of their products and services in the hope that social acceptance will make us buy what’s on offer. But as soon as the sales flatten out, in they stick a negative review to make it all seem “normal” and thereby make us more likely to be persuaded. It’s the X-Factor Trick, played out online.

But new research suggests that the whole notion of reviews could be a real problem for websites – and also for the X-Factor crew. According to the study from the University of Iowa, we respond to reviews differently according to whether or not we feel socially isolated. It turns out that if someone perceives themselves as lonely, they are much less likely to opt for something that has loads of reviews. Generally, we construct our own preferences based upon majority view. It’s all part of social acceptance theory – if we opt for something which is not the majority view, we feel “outside” the group and this is a threatening position. So, if loads of people review something positively, we tend to accept it and like it too.

But if we are lonely people, we find that difficult to do, according to this new study. What it really shows is that by accepting the group view, we have to admit that we are already outside that group because of our social isolation. If loads of people say something is great, socially isolated people do not like it. But if only a small minority of people think the item is great, then the socially isolated find it easier to accept.

This is a real problem online. The theory is that you need loads of positive reviews – but that will put off the socially isolated buyer because they will not feel part of that larger group and therefore will not buy. If you only have a few reviews, you’d fare better with the socially isolated buyer. But here’s the problem – the research found that for the truly social person, a handful of reviews is not enough. The person who has loads of contacts and friends needs to see vast numbers of reviews, to help confirm their “groupiness”.

So, it all means that some people need to see loads of reviews and others need to see only a handful. What it ultimately requires is software to check out the social status of the people visiting your website and then delivering the appropriate number of reviews according to how socially centred or isolated the potential buyer is. Do that and you will sell more.

Perhaps it also means that the X-Factor team needs to produce the programme in two versions: one for all the teenage kids and families watching together, who’ll then be influenced by the rave reviews from the judges – and a second version for all the grannies at home alone, wanting to vote for that “nice young man”. No reviews, just singing…hang on a minute, I think I want to be a grannie…!


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Graham Jones
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+
Graham Jones


Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist, professional speaker and author of 32 books who helps businesses understand the online behaviour of their customers
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