Study: Social Influencers Can Easily Manipulate Online Reviews

We all know how important consumer reviews can be to clients, especially those in the publishing, service and retail fields. For that reason, we were taken aback by a new study demonstrating how easily the reviews that authors and businesses work so hard to earn can be manipulated.

In short, online critics behave like sheep: the first and most prominent reviews drive the herd’s behavior, lending an inordinate amount of power to these first-touch “influencers” (who may or may not be legitimate critics).

It seems the wisdom of the masses isn’t as pure as we’d like to think.

Researchers for Science magazine conducted an extensive experiment by measuring the public’s reaction to more than 300,000 reviews over a five-month period. Some of the reviews had been manipulated by the researchers while others had not.

Their findings were revealing:

When the first review of any given product is positive, consumers are 35% more likely to post positive reviews themselves. Ratings for products with these “manipulated” reviews were 25% higher over the length of the study. (That’s more than a full star on Amazon, by the way.)

More good news: negative reviews didn’t have quite the same effect. While customers were less likely to leave positive reviews if their predecessors were negative, the “snowballing” phenomenon was less pronounced.

Why this result? Because no matter how vigorously we try to deny it, we are influenced on a psychological level by the behavior of others to the point of hesitating to leave contradictory feedback. And we place great value on our peers’ recommendations.

Sounds like a job for the brand advocate. Recruiting fans to review your client’s latest books or products might raise some ethical questions, but this study leaves little doubt that it will also raise ratings. As one of the study’s co-authors puts it:

Because the negative feedback doesn’t  snowball, but the positive feedback does, increased turnout for providing UGC or ratings only seems to help on net. So yes, soliciting feedback would prove to be on average universally good for these companies.

Will ratings sites like Amazon change their platforms to discourage such herd mentality? We can’t be sure—but for now, you should focus on making sure the very first customer review for a new product is a good one.



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