Online consumer reviews are becoming more popular. In the past, products with high sales would have had only a handful of reviews, but today, there are often huge numbers. What’s more, online reviews are now more likely to be representative of buyers’ overall experience. Yet despite their growing popularity, there are still mixed opinions about their value.

Three years ago, Stanford professor Itamar Simonson and well-known author Emanuel Rosen, in their book Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information, argued that online reviews were a major contributor to the ‘near perfect’ information consumers now have when they make choices. Clearly, this easy availability of information should help consumers get the most from the products they buy and make markets more efficient.

Last year, de Langhe, Fernbach and Lichtenstein released the findings of their research, in an article entitled High Online User Ratings Don’t Actually Mean You’re Getting a Quality Product. They showed that the correlation between ‘objective’ reviews of products carried out by experts in the US-based Consumer Reports (an organisation that specialises in scientific product testing) to online consumer product reviews was poor.

Why didn’t online reviews by consumers, with real experience of products, more closely match the quality metrics examined by Consumer Reports experts? A range of reasons have been offered:
• Online reviews are often made by a sub-set of product users and so do not represent average experience.
• Consumers with extreme opinions are more likely to post, leading to a ‘brag and moan’ bias.
• Consumer Reports experts test products side-by-side, whereas consumers don’t have the same luxury and are often more influenced by the product’s brand image, price and physical appearance.

Does this divergence in product assessment between scientific methods and consumer experiences matter? For vulnerable consumers it might, but for most, it simply reflects the fact that we have more information sources and need to be better at dealing with contradictory accounts. The ‘old truths’ or accepted wisdoms about products may no longer endure.

Bold marketing communications are challenged, and consumers have the option to rely less on heuristics or System 1 thinking in their decision-making. Marketing communications may have promoted ‘short-cut’ implicit messaging and thinking such as ‘a BMW will always be better than a VW’ or ‘BA provides a superior in-flight experience to easyJet’. But for many, today’s online consumer product reviews have opened a closed door to the potential for more time-consuming but rational decision-making.

Do online reviews build trust in consumer-to-business relationships? Trust should create frictionless interactions, creating a more pleasant relationship between consumers and frontline business staff. In 2015, Davies Hickman’s research for BT and Avaya showed that 46% of consumers contribute to online reviews but only 50% trust them – a figure we are tracking. Many people suspect that businesses remove bad reviews for spurious reasons, pay for positive reviews, and manipulate data to achieve the perfect 5-star score.

It is timely that BSI is consulting on ISO 20488 Online Consumer Reviews – Principles and requirements for their collection, moderation and publication. This new standard should improve trust in online consumer review platforms. It focuses on fairness to consumer and business alike. And it should help businesses who feel consumers sometimes exhort them through the power of public shaming.

So what can be done to make online consumer reviews more useful for consumers and businesses?

1. Include ‘mystery shop’ or operational data in online review platforms
Finding ways to include more objective or factual data into review platforms – whether provided by business, consumers or independent agencies – will give consumers a more rounded picture of the product.

2. Manage and highlight the sample of consumers contributing to the reviews
Providing guidance to consumers on the robustness of the quantitative (e.g. 5-star) review score will be helpful. What does it mean if the review is based on 5 consumers or 5,000? Finding ways to ensure that reviews are based on a representative sample of the whole customer base will help build trust.

3. Enable consumers to view sub-samples of ‘people like me’
Some platforms are working on this, but many consumers want the option to see the responses of a segment of customers who share the same demographics, values or locations. This points to a more interactive database of reviews and better visualisation.

4. Be transparent in the way moderation is undertaken
Brands should be open about the basis for removal of comments or changes to reviews. It is important in building consumer trust and in the long-run will encourage usage.

5. Encourage quantitative and factual data where possible
Supporting consumers to provide numbers, statistics, etc. may sound far-fetched. But rather than a long-winded written representation of the product, encouraging quantification would help understand product performance (I well remember reading consumer reviews of a smartphone where about half said battery life was good and half said it was weak).

6. Learn from online reviews, beyond a 5-star score
Are brands only interested in getting as many 5-star scores as possible? Some may be, but most have to grapple with how to reconcile conflicting opinions before deciding how to innovate and improve their product. Data analysis tools can help here, but consumers are not the only ones confused by contradictory insights – brands can be as well.

So what does this mean?
Consumers know that perceptions and tastes are implicit in online consumer reviews. Given this, businesses are left with the challenge of how to innovate review platforms so they retain their usefulness and don’t become a source of apathy and cynicism among consumers in the future.