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Top reviews, not average ratings, sway consumer decision-making

Businesses should not spend a lot of time gaming the rating system. That effort is actually not very meaningful or effective, based on findings.

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When it comes to online shopping habits, the collective wisdom dictates that consumers gravitate toward the highest-rated products. The difference between a 4-star average rating and a 4.5-star average rating could play a huge role when buyers are deciding to hit the “Add to Cart” button.

But new research shows that the half-star chasm may not be all that important.

It turns out top reviews carry more sway in a customer’s final buying decisions when they are comparing products. The research debunks a widely held notion that serious online consumers buy products with a higher rating.

“It’s surprising because as a researcher, a business, or a consumer, we typically believe that when we go to Amazon, the most important piece of information is the average rating,” said researcher Dezhi (Denny) Yin, who co-authored the study.

Yin said since the starred average rating is an aggregate of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of online reviews, it is the most comprehensive window into a product’s quality.   

“And what we found was that when they read some reviews, just a few reviews can overturn the impact of average ratings,” said Yin, an associate professor in the School of Information Systems and Management in the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida.

Using a clever “trade-off” design, the research team conducted three studies to disentangle the effects of online ratings and top reviews on consumer decision-making.

The first study was based on real-world daily data of 538 apps ranked in the top 100 from Apple’s App Store for two months. The apps covered 21 categories, such as games, business, finance, and news.

In the two other experiments, undergraduate students were asked to make a purchase decision between two digital camera options whose “stars” from average ratings and top reviews did not align with each other. The studies not only provided converging evidence for the swaying effect of top reviews but also pointed to a possible source of this effect.

Review details matter

“It’s the text of the top reviews that made a difference,” Yin said. “This swaying effect only happened for the text reviews. Without text, people are not swayed. It’s the concrete details that are driving this impact.”

Yin explained that the research is not saying that average ratings don’t matter. If a product has a low average rating, consumers will not consider the product, much less read the product reviews. 

But in the cases where buyers are comparing different products and reading their reviews, a few top reviews can easily sway their purchase decisions, he said, adding that the study findings are not limited to app or product reviews.

The ratings game

What are the takeaways for online retailers?

Yin recommends retailers spend less effort on writing or soliciting fake reviews to try to bump up their average star rating.

“Businesses should not spend a lot of time gaming the rating system. That effort is actually not very meaningful or effective, based on our findings,” Yin said. “Our findings suggest that as long as your average ratings were fine, what matters is the top reviews.”

In addition, retailers would be smart to respond to any negative top reviews, because those are the reviews that most consumers are likely to read. Retailers might counter the swaying effects of such reviews by, for example, explaining that the criticism was an isolated case or that the concern has been resolved, he said.

Also, researchers also recommend online review platforms, such as Yelp and Amazon, could benefit consumers by designing a layout that spotlights individual reviews with less emphasis on average ratings.

The article titled, “Swayed by the reviews: Disentangling the effects of average ratings and individual reviews in online word-of-mouth,” examined how consumers weigh a product’s average rating versus top reviews in their decision-buying process.

The paper was available online first in the Production and Operations Management journal, a flagship academic journal in the business field and among the list of top 24 premier business journals compiled by the University of Texas at Dallas’ Naveen Jindal School of Management.

Aside from Yin, the article’s co-authors include Zhanfei Lei, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Saby Mitra, University of Florida; and Han Zhang, Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Emojis make tourism advertising on social media more effective, appealing

The use of emojis in online messages about tourism destinations facilitates processing and reduces ambiguity, especially when the recipients encounter content with low levels of congruence.

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The use of congruent messages and emojis when promoting tourist destinations on social media leads to greater user attention. This strategy helps users to process the information effectively and reduces their cognitive effort. More specifically, the use of emojis in online messages about tourism destinations facilitates processing and reduces ambiguity, especially when the recipients encounter content with low levels of congruence.

This is according to a research – “The effect of online message congruence, destination-positioning, and emojis on users’ cognitive effort and affective evaluation” – that was published in the Journal of Destination Marketing & Management.

The study, which was carried out at the University of Granada’s Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre (CIMCYC), consisted of an experiment using eye-tracking techniques on 60 users of the social network Facebook. These individuals underwent a series of experimental procedures in which the researchers manipulated the level of congruence between the messages of those posting and the users, the use or omission of emojis in the content, and the way in which the tourist destination was positioned in the media (natural environment, gastronomy, hotels, sun and beach).

The UGR research team, which includes Beatriz García Carrión, Francisco Muñoz Leiva, Salvador del Barrio García and Lucia Porcu, point out that the study “clearly illustrates the benefits in terms of the effectiveness of using congruent messages in marketing communications in general, and especially in digital communications via social media, as well as how the use of emojis contributes to improving users’ information processing, increasing their attention and reducing the cognitive effort involved. Moreover, congruent messages not only facilitate users’ information processing, but also improve their affective evaluation — a crucial aspect when it comes to making a decision on a tourist destination.”

The key findings included:

  • Importance of maintaining a high level of congruence in the information they convey through social media. As the researchers explain: “This involves systematically reviewing and managing comments across all communication channels to identify any comments that do not align with the destination’s desired positioning, with a view to mitigating potential negative effects.”
  • Pictorial representations (emojis) significantly enhance the overall comprehension of the information. However, the study did not find a significant impact of emojis on the formation of affective evaluations.
  • Tourism managers should focus on information related to the destination’s gastronomy and natural environment, rather than more conventional aspects such as sun and beach facilities or hotel offerings, as the former attract more attention and are perceived more favorably, even under low levels of congruence.

The research findings suggest a shift in the preferences of potential consumers towards more nature-based tourism. “Therefore, tourism managers should place greater emphasis on communicating aspects related to the environment and sustainability of the tourist destination in their social media posts, thereby reaping benefits in terms of visual attention and affective evaluations,” the researchers stressed.

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Study shows corporate misconduct at home hurts sales overseas

Consumers and investors increasingly read about unethical business practices globally and demonstrate their displeasure locally.

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New research in the Global Strategy Journal has bad news for companies struggling with corruption, discrimination, or sweatshops in their supply chain: corporate misconduct demonstrably hurts international sales. Consumers and investors increasingly read about unethical business practices globally and demonstrate their displeasure locally.

“Socially irresponsible acts transcend geographic boundaries and negatively affect foreign subsidiary performance,” said Nuruzzaman Nuruzzaman of the University of Manchester, one of the study’s authors.

Nuruzzaman, along with co-authors Erin E. Makarius and Debmalya Mukherjee of the University of Akron and Ajai Gaur of Rutgers, monitored the sales growth of 335 subsidiaries in 109 countries over nine years. They charted the growth alongside the number of corporate social irresponsibility (CSI) incidents reported against parent companies. Social irresponsibility hurt subsidiaries’ sales whether incidents occurred internationally or in the parent company’s home country.

“We weren’t looking at incidents that were local to the subsidiary,” said Makarius. “We wanted to explore how much negative news spreads globally and how stakeholders react to incidents beyond their borders. The data shows the location of misconduct no longer seems to matter. There’s still significant negative impact.”

The study also explored whether creating distractions could buffer the consequences of a parent company’s bad behavior. The researchers compared two methods of strategic noise: marketing campaigns and product innovations. Promotions, contests, and sales showed little ability to curb reputational damage, but introducing two or more product or service innovations could flip sales growth in a positive direction despite CSI incidents.    

“Perhaps consumers perceive marketing campaigns as hollow responses,” Mukherjee said. “Because innovation is more costly, it may create a stronger positive impact.”

While the study demonstrates that subsidiaries do have agency against negative media coverage of their parents’ activities, the authors emphasize that the larger takeaway concerns the potential fallout from CSI. Managers at parent companies and their subsidiaries abroad should be aware that misconduct even in distant locations can quickly impact international sales performance.

“Given the adverse impact of CSI on global performance that this study shows, global corporations should strive to uphold and implement strong ethical and social responsibility standards throughout their global operations,” Gaur said. “Moreover, they should prioritize transparent communications with subsidiaries so they can quickly mitigate the negative impact of socially irresponsible activities.”

To read the full context of the study and its statistical modeling methods, access the full paper available in the Global Strategy Journal.

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Cultivating relationships with former employees important – study

One of the biggest mistakes employers make is not supporting workers on their way out, and then turning around and saying they want to stay in touch.

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For many people, leaving a job can be like leaving a family — and because of the personal and professional bonds they’ve forged, many naturally stay in touch with their former coworkers and keep apprised of what’s happening in the organization.

But what happens when companies make a concerted effort to bolster those bonds, help former employees in their careers and keep them in the loop? According to new research from the UBC Sauder School of Business, it can have big benefits for both employees and employers.

For the paper, researchers studied a wide range of businesses — from top law firms to Starbucks — to understand why organizations are putting time and resources into solidifying ties with ex-employees, also known as alumni.

The researchers propose that alumni-organization relationships (AORs) are particularly important to companies because alumni have a unique mix of insider knowledge and outside-world information and contacts. This can be valuable if employees return as contractors, or move on to companies that might do business with their former employer. Companies can also gain a boost to branding and reputation because maintaining these relationships shows they support employees even after they move on.

“Traditionally, AORs were most common in professional service firms. But as it becomes more common for workers to job hop over the course of their career, we are seeing more organizations investing in relationships with alumni,” said UBC Sauder assistant professor Dr. Rebecca Paluch.

For some organizations, AORs help generate new business. Many law firms support AORs because junior lawyers move on and end up in general counsel roles new organizations. If they need to hire outside counsel, the continuing relationship with their former employer may encourage them to hire that firm.

Companies like Starbucks appreciate the fact that AORs boost their brand image in the community. “They call all of their stores ‘third communities’ because they want to make people feel welcome and like they’re part of something when they visit the stores,” said Dr. Paluch, who co-authored the study with Dr. Christopher Zatzick of Simon Fraser University and Dr. Lisa Nishii of Cornell University. “AORs are in line with the overall branding of building community and keeping people connected.”

Programs that support AORs can offer a variety of benefits to alumni, including newsletters and updates about alumni and the company, career resources, job boards, training and development opportunities and in-person networking.

One of the primary challenges in forming AORs is there is no set playbook, said Dr. Paluch. There are established norms for employee management when it comes to practices like hiring, compensation and benefits, but standard practices don’t exist for managing relationships with alumni after they move on.

In order to develop successful AORs, organizations need to think about their outreach to alumni through broad communication with a wide-range of alumni as well as strategically target alumni who can bring back the most value to the company. It’s also important to encourage current employees to stay in contact with alumni so they can help bring knowledge and resources back into the organization.

The most successful programs, she adds, involve input from former workers. “It’s important to make sure the organization is getting alumni feedback so they’re meeting their needs and not just offering things because some other company is doing it,” advised Dr. Paluch.

One of the biggest mistakes employers make is not supporting workers on their way out, and then turning around and saying they want to stay in touch. “If employees are having terrible exit experiences, then it shouldn’t be surprising if they don’t want to stay in touch after they leave.”

The idea of cultivating relationships between alumni and organizations might seem counterintuitive because it can make leaving more palatable, said Dr. Paluch. But savvy companies realize today’s workers are highly mobile, so it makes sense to keep a positive relationship even after they’re gone.

“We’ve been seeing tenure decline over the past few decades, and most employees move on to a new company after four or five years,” said Dr. Paluch. “Strategically, organizations might as well consider, ‘If we can’t keep them in the organization, how can we at least keep them connected to the organization?’”

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