When Your Own Customers Turn on You

It's no secret that in the world of online product reviews, you have to weed out the fakers. This is especially true for books, as publishers have long been paying for users to produce a glowing write-up about something they've never read.
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It's no secret that in the world of online product reviews, you have to weed out the fakers. This is especially true for books, as publishers have long been paying for users to produce a glowing write-up about something they've never read, and rival companies shell out top dollar for the creation of reviews that lambaste an author or their work. This type of negative and positive cyber-shilling is ubiquitous now -- leaving no industry untouched. Back in 2011, Finance Tech News reported on the booming shilling market, much of which is being outsourced to countries like China for mere pennies per review.

But perhaps more of a threat than even these deceptive tactics is the increasing incidence of a company's own customers writing negative reviews about a product that they have never seen, purchased, or used themselves. The rampant growth of this behavior was recently highlighted in a paper co-authored by Eric Anderson (of Northwest University) and Duncan Simester (an MIT Sloan Professor of Marketing), based on Simester's extensive research.

In studying product reviews for a prominent, private-label apparel company, Simester and his team discovered that around five percent of the reviews were written by individuals who had no record of ever having purchased the item. Though five percent may seem negligible, for this particular company the result was several thousand negative reviews. And these reviewers weren't rouge shillers -- they were familiar with the company. Purchasing records indicated that many of these users had previously bought, on average, 100 or more items from the business. What's more, the reviews from these customers were overwhelmingly more negative than those from individuals who were honestly dissatisfied with items they had actually purchased. Perhaps most confusing of all: Unlike cyber-shillers, who are paid (however cheaply) to produce false content, these reviewers had no financial incentive to post fake write-ups about these products.

Though not many customers write product reviews (at the company involved in this study, it was less than two percent), Simester explains that there is "some evidence that these negative reviews do drive purchasing decisions and can reduce sales," and that "this loss of demand is evident for the next 12 months."

So why does this happen?

There are three theories that suggest why customers write these dubious harmful reviews. The first is that they're acting as a type of self-appointed brand manager. If a loyal customer has purchased and used hundreds of items from a particular company, they might eventually feel entitled to start sharing their opinion on items they haven't bought. Using images, product descriptions, and even other reviews, these "experts" look for an avenue to share their thoughts on whatever the business is doing, even if the customer lacks legitimate first-hand knowledge of what that is.

The second theory is that reviewers are concerned with social status. There is a gradient of anonymity in the online world, and review-writing is no exception. Some sites identify users by their actual name, others by a chosen pseudonyms or handle. Others highlight users by the number of reviews they've posted, and some even award titles (such as Elite or Top Reviewer) once a person has written an extensive number of reviews. Still others have a system by which other community users can rate how helpful or unhelpful someone's feedback was (a type of popularity contest). All of this allows an individual to cultivate an online persona, letting them be "known" for or by their product opinions. This might motivate someone to write "helpful" negative reviews (potentially promoting this type of mentality: Let me do you a favor and keep you from wasting your money by buying this awful product) in order to garner an improved social status online.

Finally, some reviewers may leave false negative feedback on products as a type of retribution to punish a company for something unrelated to that particular item, such as being upset about the quality or condition of a different product, a poor customer-service experience, a change in branding, or a company's ethical practices.

In recent months, companies like Amazon have taken strides to cull fake reviews from its site, though it's of course difficult to separate false feedback from a genuine response. Other companies, like Expedia, use a more stringent model that only allows an individual who has purchased something from their site to leave a review. For other businesses, using a customer-service feedback platform might eliminate some of the issues associated with negative-review writing before they even start.

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