Every year, businesses pour countless hours and millions of dollars into customer service and community management work—including responding to and rectifying low star-ratings and negative online reviews. But a recent paper published in the Journal of Marketing says bad reviews might not translate into bad-for-business. According to the peer-reviewed study, depending on how a reader perceives the author of a poor assessment, critical dings could even lead to an uptick in purchases.
“Marketers have generally assumed that when people say positive things, purchase interest increases, and when people say negative things, purchase interest decreases,” says the study co-author Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh, an associate professor at University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business. “But when negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions—and that is a game changer.”
Remember in an episode of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, when comedian Ali Wong talks to chef David Chang about how she wishes Yelp reviews included indications about restaurant reviewer demographics? That’s the gist of it.
After conducting 16 experiments using what researchers call “identity-relevant brands”—such as Apple, Tim Hortons, and the NFL—findings show that the further the “social proximity” of the reviewer, the more likely a negative review would increase the reader’s interest in making a purchase. The study’s authors explain that reading negative reviews of these brands “can pose a threat to a customer’s identity, prompting the customer to strengthen their relationship with the identity-relevant brand”—especially if the reviewer is demographically and geographically disparate.
“When consumers personally identify with a brand, they see facets of themselves in that brand,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “When a reviewer leaves a disparaging comment about an identity-relevant brand, consumers feel compelled to protect the brand, and by extension themselves, by scrutinizing the source of the negative review.”
But this defensive, protective reflex may not kick in in all instances—according to the study, an uptick in consumer interest in response to bad reviews seems to only occur for brands and businesses that customers feel are intrinsically linked to their own identities. So, sorry review-bots, this isn’t going to work on a generic dropship toilet brush on Amazon.