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Why It’s Wise to Pay Customers to Write Reviews: Insights on How to Optimize Online Reviews

Why It’s Wise to Pay Customers to Write Reviews: Insights on How to Optimize Online Reviews

Khaled El-Shamandi Ahmed and Seongun Jeon

Many companies use incentives to encourage their customers to write reviews on the assumption that incentives will increase the number of reviews. But could these incentives further motivate customers to write positive reviews? Dr. Kaitlin Woolley and Dr. Marissa A. Sharif’s (2021) recent Journal of Marketing Research article examines this possibility across a series of controlled experiments and suggests that consumers who receive incentives find it more enjoyable to write reviews and thus write positive reviews.

However, Woolley and Sharif further explain that incentives do not always increase positivity when reviewing content. Although incentives can increase enjoyment, they are less effective when (1) they are weakly associated with the experience of reviewing (i.e., when customers receive incentives for participating in an experiment) and (2) when they are not perceived positively (i.e., when customers are writing reviews for the company they dislike). As such, this research offers an actionable guideline for marketing managers who want to phase in review incentive programs.

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We reached out to the authors to gain additional insights on their motivations for this research and to obtain some useful recommendations for peer scholars and marketing managers.

Q: This article shows that customers enjoy writing online reviews when they are incentivized. What inspired this research idea? What is your story behind it?

A: Kaitlin: The idea for this project came from a conference I attended where a researcher presented a finding on how incentives can reduce bias in online reviews. The idea was that because there is selection in who writes reviews, encouraging more people to write reviews through the use of incentives could reduce the bias from self-selection. At the time, I was working on a research project showing that incentives can increase intrinsic motivation (i.e., interest and enjoyment in the rewarded activity). After the conference I had the idea that incentives could actually create more bias in reviews, by changing the positivity of what people write. I joined up with Marissa and we started to investigate this question together.

Q: Fake reviews are also incentivized and written in a positive way. How can we ensure that positive online reviews are written by real customers and not by fake reviewers who also get paid to write reviews?

A: For this reason, it was important for us to show in our pilot data that effects held even when using only verified reviewers (which are less likely to be fake). In our research, we were more interested in examining how the content of reviews change for those who actually experience the product. Future research should explore if there is anything systematically different in a review from a fake reviewer (who did not experience the product) versus a reviewer who was paid. 

Q: One might argue that customers write reviews voluntarily when they enjoy their experience with the company. Any explanation as to why participants with no incentives did not enjoy writing a review?

A: The importance is the comparison – it is not that participants without incentives don’t enjoy writing reviews, but that they enjoy writing reviews less than a person who reviews the same product or experience and receives an incentive.

Q: The incentives given in the studies are either $0.20 or $1.00. Does this imply the higher the incentives given to customers to write reviews, the more they will enjoy writing reviews? 

A: We did not systematically compare how the size of the incentive influences enjoyment of review writing, although our theory would predict that an incentive that people are more excited to receive ($5.00) would increase enjoyment of review writing to a greater extent than an incentive people are less excited to receive ($0.05). This is because our underlying process is about affect transfer – the positive effect of receiving an incentive transfers over to the experience of writing reviews. So, if people are more excited about the reward, this should theoretically translate into greater enjoyment of review writing.

Q: You employed multiple natural language processing tools to assess the review content. While using these tools, what were some challenges you faced? Do you have any recommendations for scholars or marketing managers who want to make use of these tools for their research?

A: This research benefited immensely from other papers (and researchers) utilizing NLP. I had some familiarity with LIWC, a text analysis program, when starting this project, but I learned a lot from reading other papers and talking to other scholars about what worked for them. Through my conversations and in reading the literature, I learned about other software for analyzing text. The biggest challenge I faced was when I wanted to use a specific tool (Hedonometer), but it was not publicly available. On the other hand, a tool (The Evaluative Lexicon 2.0) is publicly available and free to download, which was a huge help. My suggestion for other scholars who want to use these tools is 1. read other papers utilizing NLP and 2. connect with researchers who have used these tools in the past. I followed both of these strategies, which helped improve the paper. 

Q: What is your recommendation to marketing managers who want to encourage customers to write reviews? Should they focus on paying customers to write reviews or encouraging organic reviews (i.e., non-incentivized)?

A: Prior research has shown that incentives can motivate behavior. Our research suggests that if companies decide to increase their volume of reviews by paying their customers, they should be wary that it will also make their reviews more positive. This could be good in that consumers reading reviews may now be more motivated to purchase this (and related) products; however, it can have a backlash if customers purchase a product based on a positive review, and then end up being disappointed if the product doesn’t live up to the hype.

Q: Reviews labeled as incentivized can trigger consumer reactance such that incentivized reviews might not work as intended. If so, should companies transparently disclose the fact they used incentives or is it legally (or at least ethically) okay to hide this fact? What would you suggest to marketing managers?

A: It is becoming increasingly common for companies to disclose when a review was written by an incentivized customer (in part because of changes in federal guidelines requiring this). Our research did not investigate how consumers react to such disclosures, but companies may be able to frame these disclosures in a way that causes less reactance. More research is needed on this!

Read the full article:

Woolley, Kaitlin and Marissa A. Sharif (2021), “Incentives Increase Relative Positivity of Review Content and Enjoyment of Review Writing,” Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (3) 539–58.

Khaled El-Shamandi Ahmed is a Marketing Doctoral Researcher at University of Reading, UK.

Seongun Jeon is a Marketing Doctoral Researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands.