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There is a temptation to think that negative reviews are always a bad thing for a brand. Some of them definitely are, but it's much more nuanced than that.

Recent stats suggested that between one and three bad reviews would deter 67% of customers from a purchase, but not all negative reviews are bad for businesses. 

As a recent example from a US cinema shows, context is all important. 

In the three days since 3 June, a negative review of an experience at the Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Texas has been seen on YouTube by almost 1m people.

The video, shown at the foot of this article, is a 90 second diatribe about the way one customer thinks they were badly treated, criticising the cinema, its staff and saying it is not good value for money.

It isn't a great review of this customer's experience and the sort of negative review many brands are worried about attracting online. But this review wasn't posted by the customer. It was made into a video and posted by the Alamo Drafthouse cinema.

On one hand this was a really negative review of one customer's experience, but the impact has not been negative at all for the brand.

The Alamo Drafthouse cinema doesn't allow people to use their mobile phones when they are watching a film, the customer who left this review had done just this and had so been thrown out of the cinema.

They were unhappy, but most of the reactions online suggested that this review actually had a positive impact on other people, with many saying that they would rather go to a cinema that ejected customers who used their phones, or one that didn't allow people to cause a scene during a film.

The negative review had a positive impact. In fact, it can be unhelpful to think about reviews as negative or positive in themselves, they are just pieces of information that will have an impact on the people they read them. It is this impact that we should think of in terms of negative or positive and not the information itself.

Let's take another example that I often use when talking to clients about reviews. Imagine that I am looking for a hotel in Paris, one hotel that I look at has the following review:

An awful stay at this hotel. The staff at reception only speak French, the bars on the street outside our room were noisy in the early evening and the bathroom was small.

Looking at this we would clearly say that this review was negative. However, let's think about the impact it might have on me.

I speak French (and would probably rather go somewhere that wasn't just full of people speaking English), I am more likely to be in the bars in the early evening than being in the hotel room disturbed by the noise; and the size of the bathroom really doesn't bother me.

So as a piece of information, the impact this would have on me is neutral at worst, it may even help me make a decision about where to stay.

When we think about reviews we should move away from analysing the reviews as being negative or positive based on the language used, and think of them instead as pieces of information that help others to make a decision.

It is only then that brands can start to address what this information is really about. Is it actually a bad customer experience that needs responding to? Is it information that the brand can learn from? Or, as in the case of the customer ejected for texting during a film, is it information that reinforces what the product is about and who it is really for?

It is only when we move on from thinking of reviews as positive or negative that we start to deal with the content that the customer has written, and that we really start to engage with them, their experiences and the impact that has for our brand.

Thinking of reviews as positive or negative is not helpful. It stops us from considering and building on what this information is really about, which is informing and influencing the decisions others will make after reading it.

We should worry more about this. If content has a negative impact on others (and makes them less likely to buy from us) then it is clearly negative; but this will not always be the case.

Reviews are useful not for what they say but for the impact they have; they are not something to be worried about, even when they are expressed in negative terms.

Matt Rhodes

Published 8 June, 2011 by Matt Rhodes

Matt Rhodes is Client Services Director at FreshNetworks and contributor to Econsultancy. 

9 more posts from this author

Comments (13)

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Alex

What a great story. I think this raises the issue again of how to deal with feedback online. First you have identidy whether the complaining person has a point. Then you need to deal with it. This is also a shining example of the community rallying behind a brand when they disagree with the army of one. Love it!

about 5 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Nice post. I agree: a lot of supposedly bad reviews actually make me more attracted to the product (and make me think less of the reviewer).

On the Alamo Drafthouse voicemail video, I think they got it wrong. It makes it look like they enjoy being rude to customers. Surely there's a better way to handle the mobile phone problem (most cinemas manage it).

Being ejected, banned and publicly ridiculed for breaking a rule? Sounds like Ryan Air to me (a business somehow built on contempt for its customers).

about 5 years ago

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Kat Matfield

I couldn't agree more with the point that reviews, good and bad, are simply information which helps people select and buy. At Reevoo we've done extensive user testing of reviews (as you might expect) and we see again and again that people use negative reviews as an integral part of their pre-purchase research to get a balance of different sorts of information.

I've watched people use negative reviews in exactly the way you suggest: they read them to find out the bad points (everything's got to have a bad point from someone's perspective), but often these 'bad' points aren't a problem, so they're encouraged to buy.

I do agree with Doug, however. This video is a great way to get the cinema's name out there, but doesn't display much consideration for customers from the cinema.

about 5 years ago

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Emily Binder

Alamo Theater marketing team: Kudos to you.

The fact that customers have developed a major sense of entitlement is a two-way street. Their ability to blast complaints online can help a brand identify weaknesses and publicly be a hero when the brand remedies the problem. Or some customers will simply be unhappy because they didn't read the rules, and their complaints will be self-serving and unconstructive. I wonder if the caller will become aware of this video?

about 5 years ago

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Joseph Ciprut

I have always believed that the opposite of 'love' isn't 'hate', it is indifference. When someone feels indifferent about a brand, they might simply stop buying it but are unlikely to tell other people about it. It just falls off their radar screen. They move on.

However, if an experience moves them to voice displeasure, someone could easily interpret that experience as something positive, one that might actually be a benefit. For example, if someone went on a holiday in a resort with their significant other and then wrote in Tripadvisor to complain about young children running around, a couple with young children might think that is just the right place to go on a family vacation. Or a restaurant that earned the ire of someone by refusing admission without a dinner jacket might just be the place to take your rather formal inlaws (if, of course you're eager to cater to their foibles...)

Of course there is a fine line here. If the negative review focuses on more than a personal interpretation and deals with issues of hygiene, general standards of quality, or other elements of content rather than mere context than it can be bad for the brand. It would give someone reading the review reason to disengage, decide to choose something or somewhere else.

That is why it is important for brands to monitor what is being said about them in social media. Sometimes they can highlight a negative comment as same would be perceived as positive by others. If it is truly negative they can then own up to their mistake, correct it and show that they are responsible. After all, in the core of being responsible lies being able to respond properly.

As I write this, I'm reminded of the case of Domino's Pizza which, after hearing complaints and negative reviews for years ('this crust tastes like cardboard', 'your sauce feels like you just poured catchup on the dough'), launched an earnest campaign in which they admitted fault and tried to change things. They publicized the process heavily in their 'Pizza Turn Around' campaign, earning kudos and market share as a result.

Negative reviews can be built upon or serve as a wake-up call. The important thing is to listen, internalize and act boldly - and be thankful people care to voice an opinion, not ignore you.

about 5 years ago

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Vicki Smith

I agree that to see the video in isolation makes the theater owners look ... well, like jerks. However, if you read the original blog where this was posted, it turns out that the girl was texting, other customers complained, and she ignored two warning from the staff, and one point telling them to "f*** off".

I find this story kind of fascinating because it's resonating with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons: moviegoers who hate disruptions (obviously), teachers who have to deal with students texting through class, and adults who despair over a younger generation's manners. It packs a LOT of punch for anyone who has ever worked in the service industry and had to kowtow to a breathtakingly rude customer.

In other words, to many people, this video doesn't convey the message that this theater hates its customers. As improbable as it may seem, a lot of people hear: this theater cares about the movie experience, and they care about their employees.

about 5 years ago

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Christopher Rose

I don't agree that this video worked in the cinema's favour completely.

The customer was obviously out of order but on her story alone - without the extra material on the blog post - it appears that she was thrown out for trying to find her seat in the dark.

Good attempt but ultimately this effort failed.

about 5 years ago

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Ehsan Khodarahmi

Very good post indeed. As Doug put it nicely, the reaction from the cinema was a bit too much - although Vicki explained the whole story, but still not the right customer service approach. This video is rather a PR exercise which is likely to backfire on the brand in long run. There are however lessons for other brands to learn from this story.

about 5 years ago

Deborah Lewis

Deborah Lewis, Managing Partner at The Hero Machine

Great post. I'm often suspicious of overtly good reviews - I find myself asking, is this person really discerning, do they actually know what they're talking about, are they just airheads who love everything? Equally bad reviews often make me curious to experience the thing being criticised - can this film really be so bad? Is this just a grumpy person who hates everything??!

Isn't it so true of life in general? My previous job used to involve interviewing candidates. On the odd occasion, an applicant would criticise their previous job or employer and it would beg a question - is it your employer that was wrong or you?

What I find is that there is very little balanced criticism online - maybe because balanced people have better things to do than venting their opinions online??!

about 5 years ago

Chris Hoskin

Chris Hoskin, Chief Marketing Officer at Innoverne Limited

Probably the best piece I have read about drawing the positives from negative reviews is this one;

http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/13386.asp

It's a bit old, but still v. meaningful.

about 5 years ago

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SusieVet

This is transparency taken to the next level. Don't just encourage your customers to leave feedback, advertise the negative! I love the approach, it credits their audience with some intelligence and also makes people realise that with the right to review comes some responsibility.

about 5 years ago

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Jackie Murray

Great story! I like the view that reviews actually shouldn't be seen as negative or positive, but rather as additional information for customers to base their choices on. One question that I have after reading the article and posts is, to what extend would the impact of negative reviews on the brand be influenced by the type of industry that it operates in? Is it perhaps easier to monitor, leverage and respond to reviews in the travel industry, than in the insurance industry?

about 5 years ago

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Tyler

If reviews were voice and were only seen on yelp your point is well made.

However...

Do a google search for COFFEE, GUITAR STORE, AUTO PARTS, etc.

Google is ranking local businesses based on ratings where each negative review can only have a very negative impact.

If the girl in the video had left a text review it would have had a negative impact on Alamo Draft House in ranking for "Movie Theaters" in Austin.

Similarly, her phone call is not a review and is not directed as advice to future customers. If she had written a review it would have been more along the lines of...

"DO NOT GO HERE. THEY STOLE MY MONEY. I used my cell phone to find my seat and they kicked me out and refused to refund my money."

Clearly this text review without the benefit of hearing how crazy the girl is would have a negative impact, not positive.

So again, if reviews were voice and were only seen on yelp your point is well made, however this isn't the case.

about 5 years ago

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