New research sheds light on several important dynamics that affect the opinions that customers post about products.
Social media has generated an unprecedented volume of word of mouth surrounding brands and products. Customers who had historically engaged in water-cooler discussions with coworkers or backyard conversations with neighbors are now turning to online ratings and reviews, blogs, discussion groups and Twitter feeds. Previously private conversations are now publicly visible to potential customers and product managers. From the standpoint of companies, social media can provide valuable customer feedback about their products by allowing them to eavesdrop on these conversations. The desire to listen in on customers’ online conversations about products is so pervasive across companies that it has spawned a cottage industry of listening companies that regularly scan online conversations to gauge customer sentiment. But how accurately do these conversations represent the true underlying sentiment of a product’s customers? To probe this question, we analyzed product ratings and sales over time from a popular online retailer. By studying rating behavior at the level of individual contributors, we uncovered several key dynamics that drive the evolution of online forums. We subsequently demonstrated how these dynamics influence product sales by relating online opinions to sales performance across a sample of products.
Who Is Posting and Why?
While customers routinely seek out the opinions of others prior to making a purchase, it’s much less common for customers to share their own opinions online. As a result, the opinions that potential buyers and social media strategists see come from only a small segment of the customer population — one that may not mirror the sentiment of all customers. While market researchers have long used small samples to survey customers’ opinions, such samples are selected with considerable care to ensure that they are representative. Since the decision to post a rating or review online is up to the customer, the representativeness of the opinions posted online is outside of a researcher’s control.
Online Voices: Who We Hear
So what affects contribution to online product forums? For one thing, the decision to express an opinion may be influenced by other posters and their posted ratings.