How Negative Reviews Can Boost Your Sales
Negative reviews are actually more important than positive ones.
If you’ve done any amount of research online you’ve influenced by reviews. Social proof is one of the most important factors in someone’s purchasing decision, which is why reviews are everywhere today. From local restaurants to e-commerce (and even Paris’ public bike sharing program), seemingly everything has a review already.
When thinking about reviews, common sense would have you think that positive reviews increase sales. While that is true, did you know that negative reviews can also be used to boost sales ?
In fact, it can be even more important than a positive review.
Let me explain.
Negative reviews > positive reviews ?
Nailya Ordabayeva, an associate professor of Business Administration at Dartmouth College, alongside her colleagues Lisa Cavanaugh and Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia, conducted a study wherein they showed 300 NFL fans a description of a branded hoodie and either a one-star or a five-star review from a Cleveland Browns fan (NFL team). When people thought that they and the reviewer were similar (i.e. both the consumer and the reviewer were Cleveland Browns fans), their purchase intent was lower if they saw the one-star review than the five-star review.
However, when the consumer felt different to the reviewer (i.e. the consumer disliked the Cleveland Browns), the one-star generated a 20% higher purchase intent than the five-star review.
Thus, a negative review can boost sales even more than a positive review.
This contradiction is what I call the 1-star paradox.
The 1-Star Paradox
According to the study, there are two prerequisites to the 1-star paradox. Firstly, the review needs to associate the brand to their identity. Logically, this means that a negative review would feel like a direct attack to their identity. While that may seem exaggerated, you’d be surprised at how many individuals feel a strong sense of identity with a brand. Brands like sport teams, tech brands, cultural brands and others are closely linked to peoples’ identities. For example, Apple has always been a company associated with the “creative” and the “successful”. As such, a negative review of an Apple product may feel like a direct threat to the “creative” or “successful”.
Secondly, for the 1-star paradox to work, the reader of the review (buyer) needs to feel “socially distant” from the buyer. In other words, the buyer needs to feel as though they are different from the reviewer. Why ? Because in order for a buyer to dismiss a review (and create a positive buying intent), they first need to believe that the review is wrong. This is easier to do when the buyer believes that the reviewer is socially distant to them. Continuing with the Apple example, let’s say that there is a negative review written SamsungLover99. An apple fan who strongly associates Apple to their personality will be quick to dismiss the negative review. Why? Because the Apple fan may believe that SamsungLover99 “doesn’t get it”, because SamsungLover99 isn’t creative, isn’t successful enough, etc. Whatever the reason, an argument is easier to dismiss when we feel significantly different to the reviewer.
To give you another example, let’s say that I, a French person who grew up eating French food (see: not spicy), left a 1 star review on an Indian restaurant because it was too spicy. An Indian person who grew up eating spicy Indian food reading my review would likely immediately dismiss my review because I “don’t know what I’m talking about”. In fac, my negative review may actually encourage them to visit the restaurant as they believe that they’ve finally found a real Indian restaurant. That is the 1-star paradox — a negative review encouraged them to buy.
So what ?
The real question behind the importance of the 1-star paradox is whether other brands can exploit this phenomenon to increase sales. While I initially believed that it would be difficult for companies to exploit the 1-star paradox, I see two implementation strategies for the 1-star paradox:
Polarized positioning is an uncommon implementation strategy of the 1-star paradox which requires that one’s brand is closely aligned to a polarizing topic. Polarizing topics can take any form, from political topics (Republicans vs. Democrats) to sport rivalries (Manchester United vs. Liverpool). Because polarizing topics often go hand-in-hand with a strong sense of identity, by aligning on one side of a polarizing topic companies can easily create the social distance required to benefit from the 1-star paradox. For example, reviews written by Liverpool fans about a Manchester United pub is likely to further incite Manchester United to go to that bar.
However, this strategy would likely lead to increased disdain for the other, which in sport is already a problem (and is an increasing problem in politics). Thus, polarized positioning may not be a socially responsible strategy.
The social consequences of the polarized positioning implementation strategy is precisely why it’s not often used and why the second strategy, a Shared Laugh, is much more prominent.
The second implementation strategy of the 1-star paradox is what I coined as the shared laugh strategy. The shared laugh strategy is when negative reviews and/or negative associations are assumed by the company and brought forward to ridicule the reviewer. Absurd anonymous reviews, for example, are on the most common examples of the shared laugh strategy.
To give you an example, a company who has been successful at implementing the shared laugh strategy is Ryanair. Ryanair’s TikTok account regularly mocks consumers who complain about the lack of legroom, the delays, etc. Ryanair manages to build social distance by bringing up how ridiculous it is for consumers to complain about a 10€ seat. Social distance can also be differences in entitlement, as is the case in the Ryanair example.
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Do this well and it can be extremely beneficial. Keeping with the Ryanair example, Ryanair’s Tiktok has been able to amass 1.9M followers, even though most of the company’s videos are mocking consumers. Because this strategy is rather uncommon, when it is executed well it can lead to a lot of interactions and shares, increasing the number of followers.
To conclude, yes it is possible to leverage negative reviews to increase sales. In fact, research shows that negative reviews can be even more powerful than positive reviews at increasing buyer intent (1-star paradox). However, the 1-star paradox has two prerequisites :
The brand needs to create a sense of identity (such that people can genuinely be offended).
There must be social distance between the reviewer and the buyer (such that people can dismiss others’ reviews).
If those two prerequisites are fulfilled, then there are two implementation strategies for the 1-star paradox :
Polarized positioning : brands align themselves with polarizing topics.
Shared laugh : brands assume their faults and mock reviewers pointing them out.
Thus, receiving some negative reviews may not necessarily be a bad thing — you may actually be able to leverage them to boost sales…
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