29/07/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Impact of Online Consumer Reviews


People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.

W. Somerset Maugham, "Of Human Bondage", 1915

The rise of the mobile consumer means that brands are offering more choice than ever before. From fast food to fast cars, there's nothing that can't be reviewed - and bought - online. Yet how many of us feel able to leave honest reviews about products and service, and what impact does a negative review actually have?

A lot - that's according to the latest Havas Worldwide global Prosumer study of more than 10,000 people, Digital and the New Consumer: Emerging Paths to Purchase.

The study shows that 4 in 10 respondents (38 percent) say a single negative comment online can dissuade them from making a purchase. And that doesn't just cover Amazon or own brand sites: 51 percent of Prosumers (the smart, early adopters of the consumer world) say non-branded blogs or social media made them change their mind about a product or service they had intended to buy.

This is a remarkable statistic, and it's more about human emotion than an algorithm; it's the voice that shouts 'danger' for many of us when we explore this brave new world armed with nothing but our tablet or ability to purchase at the swipe of a mobile screen. We want to feel safe, and peer reviews are still the most trusted.

As scary as that sounds for brands all over the globe, it seems people do not abuse this power. Quite the opposite, in fact: 22 percent of people are more likely to share good experiences than bad, with just 9 percent most likely to discuss negative experiences.

Overall 53 percent are equally likely to share good or bad experiences, so it seems as though the global community are a fair bunch, not like those mean TripAdvisor reviewers who got so much publicity a few years ago or who are alleged to be fakes.

The reason for this difference is that, especially on social media, you know who the people leaving the reviews are; you can see the complaints being handled in real-time. Only last week I was contacted by a firm within two hours of leaving a tweet complaining about a service, whereas my wife had attempted to solve the issue via telephone and email earlier in the week, to no avail.

Transparency gives brands a chance to listen to customers and act on what they hear. Dom Burch, Head of Social Media at Asda, sums it up like this:

"If you consider your reputation is what people say about you when you leave the room, it's essential these days that brands are listening in as much as possible to those conversations in real time.

"By tuning into social media channels each day, not only can you learn something about your business you didn't know, you can spot customers in distress, see issues emerging before they become crises, and you can identify opportunities that can be harnessed and in turn amplified to your benefit.

"Listening and acting on issues is now a bare minimum. And being seen to do so is increasingly expected.

"The days of putting your head in the sand and hoping things will blow over are well and truly gone.

"Frankly, whether you like it or not, and whether you are prepared internally, many customers now expect to be able to communicate with you on their terms, on any device, at a time that suits them.

"And to some extent we are all playing catch up. The trick is to be open, honest, and excepting of your limitations. We can't always get it right, but we also need to accept the bar is set higher every single day."

Such strategies are crucial because of the tightrope act created by the digitally savvy consumer. Forty-eight percent of global consumers are annoyed if a brand doesn't respond to their social media complaint, though, and consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the worth of them 'engaging' with brands - 59 percent of Prosumers want companies to offer something in return, whereas 4 in 10 respondents say that brands on social media are intrusive.

Clearly there is a balance and consumers are not going to jump on any bandwagon that arrives, there's got to be a benefit for them and a platform to have their say. Yet, this point is important because empowering consumers means they are more likely to be fair in return (trolls not withstanding).

This lack of mob mentality makes for an experience that is by its very nature social yet highly personalised. From Google Plus to Friends and 'Likes', we filter our content as much as the tech companies filter it for us; meaning we respect the views of friends, family, and people we choose to follow more than ever, and 73 percent of Prosumers respect this voice more than that of a professional critic.

These results will send a shiver down the spine of any organisation that wants to control responses, reviews, and opinion. Yet, if Big Brother is watching us, then while its camera works its megaphone is muted. Social media brings democracy of choice, and smart phones are the tool of liberation.

And if we don't want to be liberated, then at least we can leave a sarcastic comment.