05/21/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Who Is Reviewer #1,407?

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Let's say you're planning a date night. You've arranged the entire evening, complete with romantic shenanigans. The only thing left to decide is which restaurant you'll go to for dinner. This is an important decision. The food has to be good and the ambiance just right. Rather than go to the same old same old, you consider going to a restaurant you've never visited before. What's the first thing you do to pick a restaurant? Go online to check the reviews, right?

We live in an age where it's possible to check the reviews of just about anything; whether its restaurants, plumbers, or even organic hemp seeds, someone somewhere has probably reviewed it. In fact, in many cases, the product or service may have been reviewed hundreds or even thousands of times. One of my favorite restaurants in D.C. has 3,796 reviews! This got me wondering why someone would bother reviewing a product or service that has been reviewed 3,795 times already, given that writing a review takes time and effort. Many websites will insist that the review be a certain number of words, in addition to asking the customer to provide a rating. So why put in all that time and effort when other people have already done so?

When Are People Willing to Review?

In order to understand the circumstances under which people are more or less likely to write a review, I conducted a study at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research, where I gave participants one of eight different scenarios. In every scenario, respondents were told that they had gone to a restaurant in their town. However, in half the scenarios, respondents were told that they had had a very good experience (the food was "fantastic," and the service was "great"). In the remaining scenarios, respondents were told that they had had a bad experience (the food was "awful," and the service was "really bad"). In addition, half the scenarios specified that 1,406 people had reviewed the restaurant, while the other scenarios said that only six people had provided reviews. Finally, I added details in the scenarios about how other people had rated the restaurant. In half the scenarios, the average rating was good (4.5 stars out of 5), while in the remaining scenarios the average rating was bad (1.5 stars out of 5). So I ended up with eight scenarios in which the respondent's personal experience at the restaurant was good or bad, other people viewed the restaurant as being good or bad, and the restaurant had been reviewed by a lot of people or not. I then asked respondents if they would be willing to write a review for the restaurant. What were the results?

The charts above show the percentage of participants who were willing to write a review in each scenario. As one might expect, people were somewhat more willing to review a restaurant that had not been reviewed by a lot of other people. However, note that in almost every scenario, about half the respondents were willing to write a review. In fact, even when 1,406 other people had reviewed the restaurant, the vast majority of respondents in some of the scenarios (74 percent and 84 percent) were willing to review the restaurant. Thus, the key determinant doesn't seem to be how many people have reviewed the restaurant previously but the extent to which one's experience differs from the experience of other people. Respondents who had a good experience were much more willing to review the restaurant when other people had given the restaurant a bad rating (1.5 stars out of 5) than when other people had reviewed the restaurant positively (4.5 stars out of 5). Similarly, a bad personal experience led to much higher willingness when the restaurant was rated positively than when it had a negative average rating. This seems reasonable. If your experience doesn't match the experience of others, then it makes sense that you would want to tell other people about it. But is that really what's going on?

Why Are People Willing to Review?

I dug deeper into why people were so willing to review the restaurant. I asked the respondents to write down their reasons for being willing to review, and then I had them categorize their responses. The charts below show the percentage of respondents in each scenario who selected the two most popular reasons: "I'd like to help others by sharing my experience" and "I'd like to promote/punish the restaurant." The number of stars indicates the average rating of the restaurant (4.5 = good, and 1.5 = bad) and the labels (good or bad) refer to the personal experience of the respondents. I had three predictions for these data:

  • The desire to promote/punish the restaurant would be more prevalent than the desire to help others by sharing one's own experience. After all, if one had a very good or very bad experience, it's natural to want to reward or penalize the source.
  • On a related note, it seems reasonable that the desire to punish would be stronger, so this reason would be selected particularly often when the respondent had a bad experience at the restaurant.
  • Finally, it is likely that if one's personal experience didn't match the average rating of the restaurant, then the main reason for being willing to review would be the desire to help others by sharing one's own experience.

However, the data were contrary to these predictions. The most popular reason for reviewing was not the desire to promote or punish the restaurant but the desire to help others by sharing one's own experience. This was particularly true if one's own experience was a bad one, suggesting that consumers might see reviewing a negative experience as a way to warn to others. If one's personal experience was a good one, then writing a positive review was more often seen as a way to promote the restaurant rather than as a way to help other people by sharing a great find.

Finally, the desire to help others by sharing one's own experience was just as common among respondents whose experience matched the average rating of the restaurant as among respondents who had an experience that was different from everyone else's. Remarkably, wanting to help others by sharing one's own experience was the preferred reason even when the respondent's bad experience was in keeping with the bad experiences of 1,406 other people! Among those who were in this scenario, 81 percent were willing to be the 1,407th reviewer in order to help others by sharing their own bad experience. Could this be because people consider a warning to be just as important when lots of other people have given the same warning as when no one else has?

So I am curious. Would you be the 1,407th reviewer? Is it because you see this as a way to help other people, or does some other reason motivate you? Tell me in the comments below.

Have a question about consumer behavior that you'd like answered? Click here to submit your question.

The Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research receives funding from KPMG. However, research activities are determined by the interests of the Institute's researchers and trending topics.

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