With nearly 95% of consumers reportedly reading online reviews before making a purchase, you could say it has been a long time coming.

As even more people are now shopping online (and are unable to check out products in-stores), making online reviews even more of a valuable tool than ever before. As well as offering social proof, reviews can help customers to make informed purchasing decisions, which can in turn help to reduce the need for returns (and refunds).

There are some downsides, of course. Reviews can both convince and discourage, and fake reviews have been an issue in recent years – resulting in dwindling consumer trust in some cases. Fortunately, brands are now being held to account, with the likes of eBay and Facebook signing up to agreements to combat fake reviews and misinformation in the UK.

Here’s a look at some recent research on the topic, and how brands can ensure they are handling online reviews in the right way. To learn more, you can also check out Econsultancy’s Ratings and Reviews Best Practice Guide.

Ratings and Reviews Best Practice Guide

Highlight thoughtful reviews

Four-star reviews can actually be more persuasive than five-star reviews. This is the finding of a study conducted by Daniella Kupor from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. After showing customers a product with a large majority of five-star reviews and just one recent four-star review, it was found that the less favourable review persuaded 19% more people to buy.

The reason for this is that the four-star review deviated from the majority opinion (which could have been perceived as skewed in some way, or due to people ‘following the pack’), and, according to the study, “reviews that deviate from the perceived default are believed to be more thoughtful, and thus accurate, which enhances their persuasive impact.”

By highlighting or encouraging reviews that are different, and even slightly negative, other customers are more likely to invest or believe in them, rather than perceiving a product (that has solely five-star reviews) as potentially being too good to be true.

ASOS review
An example of a four-star review. Screenshot via Asos.com

Embrace negative feedback

So, what about overtly negative reviews? Interestingly, research suggests that bad reviews are not always damaging to a brand, and that a certain amount can actually help promote a brand as authentic and even provoke empathy.

A recent study published by the Journal of Marketing found that out of a thousand one-star and two-star hotel reviews on Trip Advisor, more than a quarter of these negative reviews included elements that were unfair in some way.

However, the study also found that the unfair reviews did not change 43.1% of consumers’ original perception of the hotel, and over a quarter of respondents actually felt more positively about the reviewed hotel after reading them. This occurred because the feeling of injustice tends to evokes empathy, and as the research states: “This empathy, in turn, leads to positive outcomes for the reviewed company, such as increased purchase and patronage.” The study concludes that negative reviews can actually help companies just as much as if they were positive.

Of course, the key word here is ‘unfair’, as it is vital that other consumers are aware that the negative review is unjust or related to elements are outside of the retailer’s control, such as the delivery, perhaps, or the customer ordering the wrong size. When it comes to the latter, these types of reviews can also be helpful in preventing other consumers from making the same mistake (for example, if an item of clothing runs too small or large).

Respond with action and empathy

Another benefit of a negative review is that it offers the retailer the opportunity to respond, which can in turn build consumer trust. Again, this is particularly the case if the negative review comes amid a sea of generally positive or above average reviews.

Another study by Harvard Business Review, which examined over 20 million reviews on sites including TripAdvisor and Google, outlines five principles for enhancing reputation through replies. One of these principles is to respond to all negative reviews no matter what, in order to reduce the damaging effects. This practice usually occurs on third-party websites (such as Yelp or TripAdvisor) rather than own brand websites, however, the rule also applies on social media.

Another principle found to enhance reputation is to provide a tailored solution, ideally one that uses empathy, personalisation, and action. This shows other consumers that the company truly cares about improving the customer experience – not just its own reputation. Shoe retailer Zappos is a great example of this, with the brand ensuring that it responds to all types of customer reviews (including complaints) with a straightforward apology as well as a promise of action.

Expand on reviews with other forms of user generated content

Online beauty brands heavily rely on ratings and reviews to drive sales, as consumers tend to value the opinion of their peers more than brand-driven factors such as product descriptions. This is due to the nature of beauty and skincare, where loyalty (or a repeat purchase) hinges on the outcome of using a product, sometimes over a period of time.

For beauty ecommerce sites like Feel Unique, reviews are a vital part of the customer journey. So much so, in fact, that the company is keen on turning basic reviews into more prominent user generated content, with the aim of converting traffic on product pages into sales. Speaking to Cosmetics Design, Carla Martini, head of onsite experience at Feel Unique, said: “Wherever possible, we are asking, ‘how do we elevate the customer on-site feature reviews on product pages and have really great, engaging user generated content? Because that’s where the traffic is being driven to.”

For Feel Unique and other beauty retailers, user generated content can provide much more contextual and insightful information about the buyer’s overall journey (rather than a standard rating of satisfaction). This can involve photos, information about the decision-making process, how they used the product, and even any mistakes made. As well as influencing other people browsing for the same product, it can also help the retailer to, as Martini says, “adapt their messaging and approach for that customer.” In order to generate these types of reviews, Feel Unique ‘elevates the customer’ through incentivisation and rewards, i.e. giving out free products or samples for them to independently review.

Glossier is another brand that effectively incorporates user generated content into product pages, displaying user photos directly underneath reviews to generate social proof and further trust.

Big up your own brand

Finally, brands shouldn’t be afraid to make the most of positive consumer reviews, for example using them within marketing or advertising campaigns.

Econsultancy’s Ratings and Reviews Best Practice Guide cites Atom Bank as a good example of this practice; the bank ran an out-of-home campaign on the London Underground back in 2019, featuring the bank’s Trustpilot rating as the UK’s ‘most trusted bank’.

According to Leigh Peacock-Goodwin, Head of Marketing and PR for Atom, the brand saw an increase in trust metrics as a result of the campaign, which was one of its key KPI’s. This example also shows how easy it can be to capitalise on the power of online reviews, even if a brand does not have its own review section, with third-party integrations (from the likes of Trustpilot and Feefo) making this possible.

Ratings and Reviews Best Practice Guide