Recent research has found that around 7 in 10 Americans will consult the online reviews of other consumers before making a purchase. I have to admit to being surprised by this. I would have guessed it would have been more.
Numbers aside though, when making a decision, word-of-mouth communications are valuable for one very important reason; people presume them to be less biased than the carefully crafted communications created by marketers who clearly have a vested interest in influencing our decisions.
A review written by a user or consumer is more likely to be balanced, providing both negative and positive aspects of the product or service being considered. This is important because we tend to weight negative information as more diagnostic and influential than positive information.
But conveying negative information can also be problematic. It may be useful, but it comes with a social cost. No one wants to be cast as the Moaning Minnie. As a result reviewers will often soften the negative aspects of their reviews by cushioning them in phrases such as “I don’t wish to be mean but…” or “I don’t wish to complain but…” or “Bless its heart…”
It has traditionally been held that these phrases, known as ‘disprefered markers’, serve to reduce social awkwardness and disagreement and have little effect on the truth or influence of a message. But new research conducted by marketing professors Ryan Hamilton, Kathleen Vohs and Ann McGill suggests that these small additions are anything but innocuous. It turns out that when reviewers use them people rate those reviewers as more likable and credible than those who don’t – even if the review itself is exactly the same!
In one of their experiments the researchers asked participants to read an account of a conversation between two friends in which one (Friend A) opines about her car to her pal (Friend B). In one condition Friend A remarks that she has owned her car for “going on 3 years, gets good mileage and it still rides nice but the thing is you cannot have the radio and the air conditioner on at the same time."
In another condition, participants read the exact same remarks but on this occasion Friend A adds a disprefered marker by remarking that her car “gets good mileage and it still rides nice but the thing is, God bless it, you cannot have the radio and the air conditioner on at the same time."
The results demonstrated that simply adding the words ‘God Bless it’ made a big difference to the communicator’s credibility and likability. In fact adding this disprefered marker led to a likability rating that was higher even than a message that didn't include any negative information at all!
Across a number of studies Hamilton and his colleagues found consistent effects. Softening a negative comment by first adding a disprefered marker like “I’ll be honest…” or “I don’t wish to be difficult but…” increased the liking and credibility of the communicator. Interestingly their research suggests that this phenomenon is not just an English speaking idiosyncrasy but is effective in different cultures and countries too.
Of particular relevance to marketers, brand managers and businesses is the finding that not only can the addition of a couple of words serve to increase a messenger’s likability and credibility, they can also spillover into greater positivity for particular brand attributes and even increase consumers’ willingness to pay more.
In another study participants were directed to read a description of a luxury brand watch that included a customer review based on real reviews posted on Amazon.com. The review included a balance of positive information about the watch (e.g., the color and finish are perfect) and negative information (e.g., the band can sometimes pinch and rub). For half the study participants the negative information was preceded by the words “I don’t want to be mean, but...” whereas for the other half it was not. Afterwards all the participants completed Aaker’s Brand Personality Scale (a measure of brand traits such as sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness). They were also asked how much they would be willing to pay for the watch.
The results showed that including the disprefered marker had a significant influence on consumers’ perception of the sincerity of the brand. But most impressive of all was the impact of including the phrase “I don’t want to be mean, but…,” on how much participants were willing to pay. Those who read the review that included the disprefered marker were willing to pay an average of $135.58 for the watch compared to just $94.67 without it. That’s a pretty big difference for the small act of simply presenting a negative in a polite way!
In fact the researchers go on to suggest that businesses that rely on online reviews to attract and market their goods and services should actively consider ways to attract a polite customer base due to the great benefits that polite customers who engage in word of mouth communication can bring. One wonders if a brand could go even further by actively encouraging customers to post both the positive and negative aspects of their experience. At first glance soliciting both the positives and negatives in a review might seem self-defeating, but given that many people will naturally use disprefered markers to soften the negatives they do report this approach might serve to enhance reputation and sales further, rather than scupper them.
And from the perspective of the alleged 70% of us who do read reviews before making purchasing decisions, such a strategy could prove a pleasant alternative to the more common one that companies will often adopt—namely attempting to drown any negative reviews in a sea of gushing (and possibly manufactured) positive ones.
I’m sure our audience of overwhelmingly polite INSIDE INFLUENCE readers will have opinions of their own which they should post below – both positive and negative.
Hamilton, R., Vohs, K. & Mcgill, A. (2014). We’ll be honest; this won’t be the best article you’ll ever read: The use of Disprefered Markers in Word-of-Mouth Communication.
Journal of Consumer Research - (In Press) DOI 10.1086/675926