Storytelling - how consumers are swept up by the narrative of reviews

Consumers consult online reviews to inform all manner of purchases. New research identifies those attributes that lend reviews their greatest power to captivate and persuade.

Whether it is when booking hotel rooms, restaurants, theatre tickets or any number of things, reviews now play an integral role in the decisions that the online consumer makes.

In view of their importance, what qualities does a review require to captivate consumers? What criteria should a story meet to persuade? Why do consumers lose themselves in these stories?

In the article “What Happens in Vegas Stays on TripAdvisor? A Theory and Technique to Understand Narrativity in Consumer Reviews”, the team of authors, led by Tom van Laer, Reader of Marketing at Cass Business School, argue that their experience of “transportation” is what persuades consumers, and the level of this depends on the degree and power of narrative offered. They hypothesise that the same elements that grip the reader of a novel may also exist in reviews, because reviews are essentially short stories too.

To test their theory, the researchers developed a new computerised technique for measuring a text’s degree of narrativity. Three studies were conducted.

In the first, almost 200,000 reviews from the “things to do in Las Vegas” category on TripAdvisor were analysed. The computerised technique was then applied, and the relationship between combinations of words used and the helpfulness of reviews (measured by customer ratings) was shown.

The researchers found that the more a review offers insight into the writer’s state of mind, the greater its helpfulness. A sense of place and the conveying of a sequence of events were also elements that contributed to greater helpfulness.

Using the computerised technique, the researchers also tallied how many positive and negative words each review contained and where they featured. This analysis tested the effect of the emotional thread in stories. Reviews that exhibited emotional curves in their storyline, moving from positive to negative (and back) for example, were rated as more helpful than those that provide a linear narrative.

One perhaps surprising observation was that reviews which commence with their ‘climax’, or their most dramatic revelation, tended to be more helpful than those reviews which featured their climax, more conventionally, at the end.

In the second study, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers were asked to rate the helpfulness of a selection of reviews. Again, the researchers found that the more narrative elements were present, the more the reviews were regarded as helpful.

Finally, in the third study, 156 students were asked to read reviews about a trip to Agra, India. As before, the participants were asked rate how transporting and helpful the reviews were, as well as how much they wanted to travel to Agra after reading them.

Following all three studies, the researchers concluded that “Captivating reviews tell who did what, where, when, and why, but with emotional transitions and climaxes at the beginning they are clearly more transporting and persuasive than without.”

This research will be of interest to consumers, social media influencers, professional reviewers, software developers, event managers, advertisers, and social networking managers.

For example, the research implies that social media influencers and professional reviewers would benefit from investing in creative writing courses. Hard factual reviews are less persuasive than ones that engage the reader with a good story.

Additionally, the computerised technique can help predict which reviews will score high on helpfulness and thus inform advertisers or social network managers of their expected impact.

In the words of the researchers, “We explore an extensive range of reviews, ranging from minimal stories to brighter manifestations of the same narrative light. Our findings demonstrate that narrativity should be thought of as a continuum, a dimmer switch as it were, rather than an on/off switch of story versus not, as previous research has indicated.”

The paper “ What Happens in Vegas Stays on TripAdvisor? A Theory and Technique to Understand Narrativity in Consumer Reviews ” has recently been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.