Why We Let Strangers Tell Us What To Buy

with 12 Comments

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

12 Responses

  1. Jamie Sandford
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    This is a concept that I’ve struggled with in regard to the direction that review sites such as Yelp should go in their maturation. Part of me wants to agree with you, Jason, about the notion that we can inherently “trust” the collective (and sizeable) opinion of the online world because of the reasons you laid out.nnThe other side of me says that if Facebook and Yelp had a tighter integration (http://jamie.sandford.org/forget-check-ins-facebook-should-go-after-yel) there would be even greater value in the opinions since they would be the opinions of those who were like you and those that you chose to associate with due to some commonality.nnI’d be interested to see a survey of people to see who they *say* they trust more versus who they actually would trust when it came to online reviews.nnGood thoughts…

  2. jakrose
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    I would agree with you. I think reviews and recommendations form inside ourrnsocial circles hold even more value and trust. We see this informally withrnonline word of mouth.rnrnThe problem with reviews from your friends though is that most of us do notrnhave enough friends to really get comprehensive thoughts on everything wernresearch. Locally with Yelp it makes sense. But it is not there yet.rnrnI think the place and value for the collective intelligence of strangersrnwill always be there. And the strategic, more precision opinions of ourrnfriends will become easier to access. Both play a roll.

  3. Jamie Sandford
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    Another interesting concept: are people more willing to build their network of people that they trust so that they *can* lean on them in the future for opinions/suggestions or are they willing to risk it and trust “society” as a whole? The progress of our country has relied on the trust of one another and the understanding that if we rely on one another we can progress at a much faster pace. Maybe the same holds true here; we’re willing to forego the effort of building a trust network for the sake of time and progress in getting what we want quickly. The American way.

  4. jakrose
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    I think there is an implied belief in your comments as a whole that it is risky to trust the group intelligence or the reviews of strangers in general.nnI would disagree with this. There are many factors in play here, but overall, the ecosystem of reviews and ratings has evolved pretty successfully over 10-15 years. Consumers get a forum and more info and businesses build trust. It is way more complicated than that, but overall the system works well.

  5. Jamie Sandford
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    I don’t think that it’s risky to trust group intelligence. If that’s what it sounds like, I didn’t mean it to come across that way.nnWhat I was getting at in my previous comment is what many of us involved in social networking understand: cultivating and nurturing relationships creates a knowledge network of individuals whom you will place a certain value of trust in due merely to the fact that you have a relationship with them. But how many people are willing to intentionally cultivate a network for this purpose? I enjoy it because I can lean on others and, in turn, I can help them as well.nnWill that network trust me more than hundreds of unknown reviewers?nnDo I get trusted less because I might give you information that is biased/skewed based on what I know about you?nnWould you weight the opinion of 10 people you know greater than 150 that you don’t? Is there more value in a weighted number?nnAll interesting thoughts.

  6. Ohdoctah
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    People bring things to my attention but I rarely ever listen to what they think on it. Even a trusted friend isn’t someone I depend on because well … “To each there own.” That being said I totally agree with this post.. people are sheep. They want/need direction.

  7. Suzanne Vara
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    JasonnnAll so true. My concerns with the reviews are like you said where they are stuffed by the business itself with rave reviews or someone out to close them down (competitor maybe??). Maybe I am bit too skeptical on many of the reviews I see?nnIf we had a system where people could check in to a place and then either check out (cumbersome) or when they checked into a new place a reminder was sent to them to have an opportunity to review the previous place. This could make the reviews have much more value then they do now, increase the number and keep people a bit more honest (until of course the business offered free meals to those who gave the best reviews). Yelp can really catapult as a leader with reviews if they were able to create a system like this. nn70% is amazing however I am not sure I am that shocked by it. As marketers we are to communicate our message so that the consumer will create a positive image and are persuaded to buy. One thing that is not always taken into consideration is the influence that you speak of here. Yes, the message has to be listened to, accepted and action taken.The action the brand wishes is to buy however the action many times is seeking out reviews before taking the plunge and trying that new restaurant or making a higher involved purchase. nnExcellent post and the numbers while seem a bit startling, I am not so sure that we should be shocked by the 70%. Small businesses need to take notice and spend some time setting up their listening stations.

  8. Suzanne Vara
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    JasonnnAll so true. My concerns with the reviews are like you said where they are stuffed by the business itself with rave reviews or someone out to close them down (competitor maybe??). Maybe I am bit too skeptical on many of the reviews I see?nnIf we had a system where people could check in to a place and then either check out (cumbersome) or when they checked into a new place a reminder was sent to them to have an opportunity to review the previous place. This could make the reviews have much more value then they do now, increase the number and keep people a bit more honest (until of course the business offered free meals to those who gave the best reviews). Yelp can really catapult as a leader with reviews if they were able to create a system like this. nn70% is amazing however I am not sure I am that shocked by it. As marketers we are to communicate our message so that the consumer will create a positive image and are persuaded to buy. One thing that is not always taken into consideration is the influence that you speak of here. Yes, the message has to be listened to, accepted and action taken.The action the brand wishes is to buy however the action many times is seeking out reviews before taking the plunge and trying that new restaurant or making a higher involved purchase. nnExcellent post and the numbers while seem a bit startling, I am not so sure that we should be shocked by the 70%. Small businesses need to take notice and spend some time setting up their listening stations.

  9. Marissa Evans
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    Jason- great post and couldn’t agree more. My company http://www.gotryiton.com is working in the fashion 2.0 space- crowd sourcing a second opinion on your outfit in real time. We think about these issues daily and I think you’ve nailed them when it comes to why the crowd and “strangers” can be very helpful. You couple the idea that most folks don’t have large enough networks to get a good “sense” of what is a comprehensive opinion with the fact that more and more we are demanding feedback in real-time, and the crowd becomes an excellent solution. thanks!

  10. jakrose
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    True, proximity does not an expert make. I would trust my Dad’s opinion on grills. Maybe not my mom’s. I would trust my sister on raising kids and definitely not most of my college friends. nnAnd as I said in an earlier comment. I have much broader interests and need for expertise than my inner circle is capable of providing. I need a massive audience of anonymous raters and reviewers to work for me 24/7 in case I do decide to buy that badass juicer I have had my eye on and need a second opinion to pull the trigger.

  11. jakrose
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    It is by no means a perfect system. One thing we have going for us is that most reviews are positive. People enjoy sharing good news more than bad it turns out. nnAnother thing is, there are way more customers out there than competitors or business owners. So typically (not always) there is a large enough unbiased audience to counteract any attempt at fraud. nnAnd then lastly, as I said, it turns out we are pretty smart as consumers and typically can spot when someone is trying to trick us and take a shortcut.

  12. jakrose
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    Exactly. Very cool company. I have seen plenty of girls use Twitter for exactly this task (outfit picking). Making that process simpler for them is a pretty cool niche. Keep me posted at @jakrose