How many of you use customer reviews when deciding whether to purchase something? I certainly do. I usually read the “most helpful” 5 star and critical reviews, choose a few in between, then make choices based on my analysis of these.
Reviews took on a different meaning when I published my own book. Of course I hoped for lots of 5 star reviews and dreaded the first 1, 2, or 3 star reviews. I didn’t know what to expect either way, but mostly I hoped for reviews that would help me become a better writer and publisher.
In reading reviews, I mentally categorize them as either helpful or not helpful. This isn’t based on the reviewer’s rating of the product, but rather on the content of the review itself.
A rating system (stars at Amazon, for example) is subjective. Very subjective. A helpful review explains the reasoning behind the rating. I once had someone tell me that they never gave 5 star reviews because they didn’t trust them. Their review of my book was an excellent, well-written one, but I’m sure it left folks wondering why it got dinged one star.
Being a subjective assessment, the rating often reflects the reader’s previous knowledge and expertise on the subject matter. The book may be excellent at an introductory level, but less helpful for someone looking for more advanced or specific material and therefore get a variety of ratings. The rating will reflect the reader’s expectations plus how well their needs were met. Reading multiple review helps determine this, but I think the author can help by disclosing this in the blurbs. Potential customers can also ask questions (on Amazon, at least) to clarify their own concerns.
Another problem with the rating system is that it is sometimes improperly directed. With products, for example a low rating is often given to a good product if a customer has a bad experience with a third party seller. It would be better if the reviewer used the proper venue for this, by leaving third party seller feedback.
One thing that helps is that Amazon enables other customers to rate and leave feedback on the comments. I find these useful as well.
So what makes for a good review?
For products, I tend to skip over reviews from folks who’ve just purchased or only had the item for several weeks. At this stage, everyone rates well unless they had a bad customer experience or got a dud (although too many duds or a consistent specific problem doesn’t bode well for the manufacturer). A review from someone who has been using the product for months or longer is much more useful.
If a rating is less than 5 stars, my first question is “why?” Personal opinion is never right or wrong, but the rationale for the rating may help someone else in their decision making. Often, the product if fine but doesn’t meet the buyer’s expectations. That’s where good product descriptions and customer reviews help if they contain good details. For books, especially non-fiction, it often means that the blurb does not accurately reflect the content. I’ll be the first one to admit that writing a blurb for oneself is extremely difficult. Yes, it’s a opportunity to sell books, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to let the reader know what to expect.
Last but definitely not least, is giving a rationale for the rating. If it didn’t meet expectations, why not? Give some examples of what you liked and what you didn’t. Was it helpful? Tell us how. Did anything stand out? Tell us what. Is there something you wished was different? Give us details. Was the book interesting, humorous, thought provoking? Would you read it again or recommend it to others?
Personally I think customer reviews are one of the best innovations to hit marketing, especially in a day and age when the truth in “truth in advertising” has been redefined (as has “quality). So, take some time to review products or books that you have something to say about. I invite you to take a look at my book reviews (including my first 3 star and first spam review) here. If you have the time and inclination, please join the conversation.