Why We Let Strangers Tell Us What To Buy

by | Nov 30, 2010

I love meeting new people. It is one of the reasons I love Twitter, you can jump into full conversation with someone in seconds. It is amazing how willing many of us are to invest in relationships with strangers considering when we grew up, most of us had the “Don’t Talk To Strangers” line drilled into repeatedly.

But the thing is, good or bad, trusting strangers is in our nature as humans, as a social tribe. We grow as a culture by learning from each other. And you don’t learn by ignoring, you learn by paying attention, by investing in something.

We trust our friends and family. We trust people we know and their recommendations before all others. If your best friend, your mom, your neighbor tells you that new propane grill is awesome, you believe them. You go buy it. You cook a delicious steak and tell them thank you.

What is surprising, is that for 70% of us, the next highest trusted source of influence are online reviews. And 99% of these online reviews that we trust, are from strangers. People we have never met.

Finding out how to influence consumers to make a buying decision is a lot of what marketers do. But how do you take into account the fact that most of us are influenced by the random interactions we have with ratings on iTunes or Yelp reviews or Trip Advisor recommendations?

It is an interesting question and to begin to understand it, we have to ask why people are influenced by online consumer reviews.

1. Unbiased

It makes sense when you think about it. A random stranger has no reason to lie to you. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people trying to fake good reviews for their own business and work the system. But it turns out humans are a pretty perceptive bunch. We learn to sort the good reviewers from the bad. We learn to recognize real, honest to good, human reactions. And we learn to ignore the PR and marketing speak.

Someone that takes the time to record a positive or negative review or a product or service online, typically has very little to gain besides satisfaction. They want to either make sure the company is burned for causing them a bad experience. Or they want to make sure the company does well because they had such an awesome experience.

There is a lot of universal trust in that situation. We can relate to that.

2. Group Intelligence

When it comes to reviews and ratings by multiple people, we produce a rich story about a product or service. Just the act of having more reviews on Yelp tells you something about a place. If you have two choices of near by lunch spots and one has 61 reviews for a total of 4 stars and the other has 1 review for a total of 5 stars, you are presented with a brief dilemma. The 5 star place has one stranger telling you it is good. The 3 star place likely has 40-50 strangers telling you it is good, just not as good as the one guy likes the other place.

It is a no brainer, you go to the 4 star spot for lunch because it simply has more attention. It likely is more popular and has been open longer, both good signs. More reviews = a more detailed story.

Even if a rating is lower, 2 or 3 stars, detailed reviews from multiple people give you a lot of information. People may critic things that are not important to you or celebrate things that are important to you. The more reviews from more strangers, the more context and intelligence the group gives you.

3. Reassurance

Many times we have made up our minds. We want the fancier washer and drier. We don’t trust a certain restaurant. We suspect this part of town is nicer than others. So when we go online, we want to know that we are right. We look for signs to support our own opinions (and egos). What better argument to prove our case than strangers that feel the exact same way.

We are pretty good at twisting things to support our own opinions. And with the wealth of recommendations that exist out there online for us to forage through, you can typically paint whatever picture you want. This is not that bad of a thing. If 90% of people disagree with our assumptions, we are usually smart enough to move on and make new ones.

The important thing is that we are looking for other people for validation, to confirm or deny our buying decisions are the right ones.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com





Subscribe for Jason’s weekly takes on creativity, innovation, and art.