When You Write an Online Review about a Product, Should You Tell a Story or Just Present the Facts?
Think of the last time you wanted to choose a hotel, purchase an electronic device, or make another expensive purchasing decision. Where was the first place you searched for information? Most people answer that they turn to online platforms where they can read reviews, such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Amazon.
These online reviews differ a great deal in how they are written. Some people tell a story about their use of the product that conveys information about whether they liked it or not. Other people just list positive and/or negative things about the product.
We wondered whether reviews framed as personal stories about a product have more impact on readers' attitudes and behaviors than reviews framed as facts. In other words, a review could tell you a story about a vacation that included all the great things a hotel did for them, or they could just systematically list all the great things about the hotel. Which would be more powerful? We hypothesized that because personal stories are more vivid and immersing, they will have a stronger effect on readers’ attitudes about the product.
One way to understand the impact of a review is to look at what happens when the review contradicts what the reader originally thought. For example, if you had a good impression of a hotel and then read a negative review about it, would it change your opinion? Would you find it distressing to get that new information? Would you try to bolster your initial opinion by looking for other reviews that also liked the hotel? Would you put off making a decision about whether to go there? All of those reactions would be signs that you were affected by the review.
We conducted five experiments to examine how people react to reviews that are written like stories. We found that reviews written as stories made our research participants more aware of the pros and cons of the product than reviews framed as facts. This may be because participants who read reviews framed as personal stories remembered more information compared to participants who read reviews framed as facts.
Whether reviews were written as stories or factual descriptions also affected how participants reacted to the reviews. When people read positive and negative stories about a product, they felt more conflicted compared to when they got exactly the same information presented as facts about the product. In addition, participants who read reviews framed as stories later spent more time reading reviews that were consistent with their original attitude. For example, participants who read that someone really loved a smartphone they thought was awful were more likely to spend more time reading other reviews that supported their original dislike of the smartphone. Finally, participants who read reviews framed as stories took more time before deciding whether they wanted to own the product or not.
Overall, our findings suggest that reading stories about products is salient in memory and persuasive. When those reviews didn’t fit with what they already thought, people were bothered by the reviews and did things to make themselves feel better. So, if you want to influence other people with a review, express your views in a story.
For Further Reading
Itzchakov, G., Amar, M., & Van Harreveld, F. (2020). Don't let the facts ruin a good story: The effect of vivid reviews on attitude ambivalence and its coping mechanisms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 88, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103938.
Priester, J. R., & Petty, R. E. (1996). The gradual threshold model of ambivalence: relating the positive and negative bases of attitudes to subjective ambivalence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 71(3), 431-449.
van Harreveld, F., Nohlen, H. U., & Schneider, I. K. (2015). The ABC of ambivalence: Affective, behavioral, and cognitive consequences of attitudinal conflict. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 52, pp. 285-324). Academic Press.
Van Harreveld, F., Van der Pligt, J., & de Liver, Y. N. (2009). The agony of ambivalence and ways to resolve it: Introducing the MAID model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(1), 45-61.
Guy Itzchakov is an Assistant Professor at the University of Haifa, Department of Human Services. His research areas are antecedents and consequences of attitude ambivalence, as well as the effects of interpersonal factors such as listening and responsiveness on attitude structure and change.
Moty Amar is an Associate Professor at the Ono Academic College, School of Business. He also serves there as the chair of the department of advertising and marketing communications and as the principal of the behavioral research laboratory.
Frenk van Harreveld is a Full Professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, principal investigator of the Uncertainty Lab, and coordinator of the research program about perception and behavior at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.