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Why a bad review isn't a bad thing: B.C. business school reads into the comments section

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A bad online review isn't actually all that bad for business, according to new research from a B.C. university.

A study from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business suggests negative reviews and low ratings don't make much of an impact in many cases.

According to research led by associate professor Lisa Cavanaugh and outlined in a news release from UBC, what's more important for businesses is their brand relationships and products.

"When consumers personally identify with a brand, they see facets of themselves in that brand," Cavanaugh said in the release Thursday about the research, which was co-authored by the Sauder School's Darren Dahl and Boston College's Nailya Ordabayeva.

And in fact a bad review seen by those customers can actually be a benefit to a business. She said consumers who support the brand feel "compelled" to protect it when they see bad reviews.

By extension, this is protecting or defending themselves, since they identify with the business. They then scrutinize the source of the bad review, she said.


Those behind the peer-reviewed study posted in the Journal of Marketing ran 16 experiments using brands such as Apple, the NFL, Roots and Tim Hortons. The brands were selected because researchers knew people felt strongly about them and may identify with them.

Next, researchers surveyed those known to like the brand. For example, they asked NFL fans about their reactions to reviews of an NFL sweatshirt.

In another example, participants were asked how likely they were to buy an Apple Watch, and others were questioned about President's Choice coffee.

What they said they found was "social proximity" of the reviewer themselves made a difference in that response, meaning how similar the person behind the review was to the respondent geographically or demographically.

In the NFL example, those who looked at the profile of a person behind a bad review and found that person to be different from themselves became more interested in the product.

Seeing a bad review from someone perceived as different demographically or geographically actually made them more interested in buying the sweatshirt than when they read a positive review of the same product.

And it wasn't just something noted in the NFL example, but also in the other cases. With the coffee, people who read a negative review from someone they didn't identify with of a product from a brand they did identify with were up to 12 per cent more likely to be interested in buying the coffee.


What it means, according to Cavanaugh, is what businesses thought they knew about reviews is inaccurate.

"Marketers have generally assumed that when people say positive things, purchase interest increases, and when people say negative things, purchase increase decreases," she said.

"But when negative comments come from a socially distant source, a negative review actually increases purchase intentions – and that is a game changer."

Socially distant could mean a different nationality, socioeconomic status, or interest in hobbies and entertainment, among other things.

According to those behind the study, when would-be clients see a review from someone they perceive as different in some way, they're less likely to believe the source – especially when it's a brand they already like and identify with.


While bad reviews from socially distant people may actually encourage purchases, bad reviews from less distant people can still cause harm.

The study suggests consumers are much more likely to believe a review from someone they can identify with, even if it's just similar taste in music.

"We tend to listen and accept what they have to say, causing us to downgrade our assessment of the product as well as our willingness to purchase it," Cavanaugh said.

And in cases where there isn't the same level of customer loyalty, bad reviews may stick.

The research team said people who don't feel strongly about a brand will be much less likely to defend it, and negative comments may have a lasting impact.

Cavanaugh said a key takeaway from the research is the importance of "forging strong brand relationships" with customers and making an effort to connect.

She said those who feel they already have that down should take heed of the importance of displaying reviewers' profiles and review histories, if possible, so those who see the reviews can look into the people behind them and assess whether theirs are opinions they'd trust.

She said sometimes doing nothing about those reviews other than letting them be seen could work to a business owner's advantage. Top Stories

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