We live in a world of online reviews. Before splashing cash for everything from jeans to food to a European vacation, we often check Amazon, Yelp or TripAdvisor first.
But when it comes to customer reviews, not all are created equal. In fact, we put more trust in reviews about material items than we do about experiences.
“We feel that our experiential purchases are more central to our self-identity than our material purchases,” says Cindy Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough and an expert on consumer relationships.
“Past research shows that when we think of purchases that define who we are, we tend to associate it more with experiences than material items because we feel much closer to our past experiences.”
Recent research co-authored by Chan published in the Journal of Consumer Research looked at the effectiveness of online reviews in influencing buyers about material items and experiential items like trips, concerts and events.
Chan, along with Hengchen Dai and Cassie Mogilner at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, looked at more than 6.5 million Amazon reviews and ran four lab studies. For the Amazon study, items were sorted into 26 product categories and rated on a scale of one to nine, with one being purely material and nine being purely experiential. Products like shoes, watches and jewellery were close to a 2, while videos, music and TV shows were closer to 7.
Participants were also asked to rate how helpful the reviews were, and also how likely they were to change their mind about buying a product based on them. Not surprisingly, they were more likely to change their opinion about a possible material purchase than an experiential one.
Chan says the reason why we trust these reviews less comes down to perceptions about objective quality.
“People feel that reviews of material items contain more information about objective quality, and they find that helpful and informative.”
She adds that past research shows people simply find it easier to compare different material purchases than different experiential purchases.
“Comparing an iPhone to a Galaxy feels more like comparing apples to apples, but people don’t feel the same when comparing trips to two different countries, for example,” she says.
The researchers did find one important exception. In one study, when experiential purchases were assessed using explicit descriptions about their objective quality, buyers became nearly as reliant on the reviews as they would about material items. It wasn’t that the product itself had changed, just how reviewers were describing it.
“What this suggests, at least for consumers, is that we may be to some extent underestimating the helpfulness of reviews for experiences,” says Chan.
“In other words, you may not want to discount another person’s experience if you are considering making the same purchase they have.”
For marketers wanting to increase the persuasiveness of reviews, she suggests building in some objective measures when asking customers for a review, including specific details about how they would rate the quality of a particular purchase.