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Is Spontaneity Overrated?

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It used to be a surprise when people remembered our birthdays, but in the twenty-first century Facebook ensures that we will never forget a birthday. Does that make the happy birthday wishes any less sincere? Or is technology simply providing us with a cognitive assist and helping us express our sincere feelings?

A related question is how we should react to solicited reviews–a topic that was the subject of a recent interview on Mike Blumenthal’s blog. To be clear: I’m not talking about businesses offering incentives to reviewers–most folks seem to agree that incented reviews are a bad idea. And let’s not get started on hiring interns or Turkers to write them! Rather, the question is whether a review is less meaningful because it was solicited by a business  rather than spontaneously volunteered  by the reviewer.

I’m ambivalent. I don’t think the content of a solicited review is inherently insincere–after all, the reviewers have no reason to lie. In fact, soliciting a review from a disgruntled customer may annoy that customer enough to elicit one that is scathingly sincere!

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine why a business wouldn’t target a solicitation campaign at a sympathetic set of reviewers, given the opportunity to do so. Given that consumers put a fair amount of trust in aggregated reviews (as documented in the Forrester study about the “groundswell effect“), skewing the population of reviewers can significantly stack the desk.

And even a uniform campaign to solicit reviews raises concerns. Research by Yong Liu supports the adage that all buzz is good buzz–though in fairness I don’t know if he observed causality or just correlation. But I can extrapolate from personal experience that the number of reviews signals the popularity of a product or service. And I doubt I’m alone, given that YelpMenuPages, and other review sites let you filter or sort by the number of reviews. A successful campaign to solicit reviews, even if it doesn’t skew the polarity of the reviews, will at least inflate their quantity.

Still, where’s the harm? There’s nothing unethical in a business soliciting private or public feedback. And, back to the birthday example, I haven’t seen anyone upset by Facebook-prodded birthday greetings. Perhaps the online solicitation of reviews serves a similar “reminder” purpose, and we should simply accept its as part of our twenty-first century reality.

But consumers will need to re-calibrate their trust in reviews–or at least in what the numbers signal–if it turns out that a significant fraction of them are solicited. As Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman pointed out in a blog post defending his company against recent legal action:

If a business could garner a top rating on Yelp simply by soliciting 5-star reviews from friends, family, and favored customers, how useful would such a site be?

While I don’t know enough to comment on the legal merits of the lawsuits (or the history of allegations that Yelp extorts advertising from businesses), I can understand how a proprietary review filter is controversial and invites skepticism from businesses whose positive reviews are filtered or demoted–especially given that relevance ranking raises similar concerns. But I can also understand how making such a filter completely transparent could defeat its stated purpose: ”to protect consumers and business owners from fake, shill or malicious reviews”. And Yelp does at least disclose that it considers users’ activity level as a signal in its filter.

But let’s face it: it’s hard to draw a clear distinction between a solicited responses and spontaneous ones. Review sites have never claimed to conduct scientific polls, and consumers should be sophisticated enough to expect some degree of sample bias. Moreover, the process does not have to be perfect in order to be useful to consumers–we learn to approach review sites with a calibrated level of cynicism.

Still, my hope is that consumers will start placing less stock in the aggregated opinions of anonymous strangers and shift their trust to people who are more transparent about their identities and motives. The more that reviewers stand behind their opinion and put their own integrity on the line, the less it will matter whether those opinions are solicited or spontaneously expressed. We’ll see how the opinion marketplace sorts this out.

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