Product reviews affect consumers' online shopping decisions, study finds

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Certain kinds of reviews can make consumers more or less likely to make purchases

ConsumerAffairs gives consumers the opportunity to write reviews for everything from insurance companies to cell phone providers and clothing stores. But what effect do these reviews have on others consumers’ purchasing decisions? 

A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State explored what factors in online reviews contribute to consumers’ buying decisions. They learned that different personality types seek out different review styles; those who are less analytical are more likely to be persuaded by reviews based on what others bought; conversely, problem solvers are more drawn to reviews based on items similar to things they’ve purchased in the past. 

“In the pre-internet era, before artificial intelligence, we would ask another person at a cocktail party, ‘I heard you went to Italy, can you give me some recommendations, I’m going there next month,’ as a way of gathering information for making our decisions,” explained researcher S. Shyam Sundar. 

“Now, we go online and can access information from just about everybody who has gone to Italy last month, not just the friend you ran into at the cocktail party. You are now able to get that information about the collective experience of others, as well as how it squares with your own background and prior travels.” 

How reviews play a role

To determine what role reviews play in consumers’ purchasing decisions, the researchers asked nearly 500 participants to go to a website to search for a smartwatch and a tourist destination. They were shown two different review styles: collaborative recommendations, which show reviews based on what other reviewers have purchased, and content-based recommendations, which are generated based on the user’s previous purchases. The participants also completed personality assessments to see how their own attitudes affected their decision-making. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that different personalities are more persuaded by different types of ads; however, what the person is searching for also plays a role. The study revealed that when looking for material things, like the smartwatch in this study, all of the participants sought out as many details as possible, which aren’t hard to come by on the internet. 

“You can think of it as a sort of cognitive outsourcing,” Sundar said. “A customer might see the ad for a smartwatch, for example, and see the features, but think, ‘I’m not going to do the hard work of examining all the details and coming to a conclusion of which is better, I’ll just outsource this to others.’ If they say that’s a good smartwatch, then they’ll buy it.” 

On the other hand, personality types come into play when searching for experience-related purchases. The researchers explained that those who are more analytical and like to solve problems are more likely to make decisions based on their own previous purchases and experiences. When these participants saw a large percentage of reviews that mirrored their own personal histories, they were more likely to make the purchase. However, those who were less analytical were more likely to base decisions off what others said before them; these participants were more persuaded when larger quantities of reviewers had already signed off on the experience. 

“From a layperson’s perspective, we might not know that these are actually two different recommendation systems,” said researcher Mengqin Liao. “One system might just tell the customer that the recommendation is based on what they bought before. But the collaborative recommendation system conveys that a lot of other people bought this product, which adds to another layer of persuasive appeal.” 

While many review systems are algorithm-based, knowing that personality type can impact buying choices highlights the need for many of these systems to be updated. 

“A lot may depend on how users receive this information on the recommendations provided by the systems,” Liao said. “It matters why these systems are providing the recommendations for products and experiences.” 

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