By Julia Glum
December 5, 2019
Amazon

Any good online shopper knows that buying something on the internet is a multi-step process.

First, you find a product you want. Next, you read a couple dozen reviews. Then — and only then — do you finally buy it.

Reviews are a crucial part of the experience, especially if you’re afraid of making a mistake with your purchase. But in an ironic twist, a new paper in the Journal of Marketing has found that mistakes may actually make reviews better.

Researchers Taly Reich and Sam Maglio, from Yale University and the University of Toronto, respectively, recently conducted a series of experiments analyzing the value of errors mentioned in online product reviews. They discovered that readers were more likely to believe in a reviewer’s expertise if they confessed to previously messing up.

It’s the difference between someone saying, “When my first Canon battery expired, I purchased a knock-off. What a mistake” and “The Canon battery is essential to have. Knock-off brands don’t last a quarter as long as the Canon branded batteries.”

In one experiment, the experts asked 160 people to choose between two types of headphones. They provided reviews. In one, the customer admitted that his last pair of headphones didn’t work well because of a bad sensor, so he was happy that he’d found this product. In the other, he said the sensor in his last pair had been great but he simply wanted to upgrade.

More participants chose the headphones recommended by the mistaken reviewer than the triumphant one. According to the paper, they “inferred that the mistaken reviewer gained more expertise about how to choose good headphones,” so they gave his opinions more credit.

Reich and Maglio did acknowledge some caveats in their report. If a customer makes a mistake with an unrelated product — imagine someone talking about their printer-buying problems when the product is a speaker — the review isn’t necessarily more persuasive. Ditto if a person makes several mistakes, because that may suggest they’re just incompetent.

Given that about 95% of shoppers consult online reviews, they’ve become a hot topic recently. Last month, BuzzFeed published an investigation into Amazon customers who write fake five-star reviews in exchange for free stuff, and in February a tool called Fakespot found that about half of reviews on Walmart.com weren’t reliable.

So the next time you’re ready to check out with a full cart, remember MONEY’s tips for assessing the authenticity of a product review. Look for personal information, nuance, details and length — and beware the power of mistakes.

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