THINK Contributor

Why language matters in customer reviews – and what marketers can do about it

By , March 14, 2017

Marketers know that customer reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, as well as in-person or online recommendations from individuals and influencers, drive consumer purchases. Marketing expert Jay Baer suggests that 92% of consumers trust recommendations from family, friends, or colleagues, and BrightLocal suggests that 84% of consumers trust online reviews as much as in-person recommendations. Overall, word-of-mouth marketing has a significant influence on consumers today. According to one source, word-of-mouth marketing drives an estimated $6 trillion in customer spending.

When prospective customers look at online reviews or testimonials, it’s not just the number of reviews that matter, or even whether they’re positive or negative. New research reported on Knowledge@Wharton shows that language plays a major factor in whether reviews help consumers, and by extension brands, make the right connections. Here’s a closer look at key insights and practical takeaways for marketers.

The Difference Between “I Like” and “I Recommend”

Researchers looked at the difference between the statements “I ‘like’ this movie” and “I ‘recommend’ this movie.” Participants were more likely to act on advice that contained the word “recommend.” There’s a complex range of language processing that happens in a listener’s mind when they hear the word “recommend.” When a person says they like something, that is perceived as a personal endorsement or preference. When someone recommends a product or service, however, the listener or reader assumes that some consideration of their preferences has been taken into account. For example, the phrase “I recommend this hotel” often implies that the person both liked it and believes the individual they’re talking to would enjoy it as well. Therefore, reviews that contain power words like “recommend” are more likely to drive conversions.

The Recommender’s Experience Level Matters

Online reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations are helpful to consumers trying to make a choice, but the reviewer’s expertise is important to the quality of the recommendation. Researchers found that when someone says “I recommend,” it conveys a level of authority that may or may not be accurate. Consider how you react when someone says, “If you like Chardonnay, I recommend this brand.” A listener naturally assumes that the person making the recommendation knows a fair bit about wine. That may or may not be the case, and can ultimately result in consumers being pointed toward products which are inferior or simply aren’t a good fit for their needs and preferences. For marketers, this underscores the importance of providing some context around customer reviews. Help readers understand who the people are behind recommendations or testimonials, so they can make a more informed decision about whether the recommendation applies to them.

Strategically Ask Your Customers for Reviews – But Frame Your Questions

For marketers, the attention to language casts a spotlight on how you ask customers for reviews. BrightLocal found that 7 out of 10 respondents would leave a review for a business if asked. Reviews help both consumers and brands, when they’re appropriately framed. Yet how you ask for those reviews is critical:

  • Can you encourage reviewers to share what they recommend – and with whom? Get them to be specific, so their reviews speak to the right consumers.
  • Can you get them to expound on what they liked, to help provide a richer and more useful review?
  • Choose questions that put key power words – like “recommend” – into customers’ minds when they’re writing a review.

Find Ways to Contextualize Recommendations

Context is everything for reviews. It’s important to provide as much context as possible for the person giving the recommendation. A review that leads a consumer to buy the wrong product for their needs can lead to a negative experience. As a result, successful marketers are finding ways to put more context around reviews. Some examples include:

  • Using badges to showcase how experienced a reviewer is within your community or other ways to highlight expert status
  • Linking to profiles of reviewers, which allows consumers to get some context for their recommendation. For example, a negative review of a budget hotel property from a self-proclaimed luxury hotel fan is going to be viewed differently than a review written by a veteran backpacker.
  • Asking additional questions within the review to share more about the context, such as the reviewer’s actual experience with the product or service, when they accessed it, and their general preferences
  • Prompting users to think strategically about when and who they’d recommend a product to. For example, in the hotel example above, a travel site might ask who the reviewer would recommend the property for – such as couples seeking romance or business travelers – to provide a more accurate audience match.

For marketers, it’s important to realize that consumers will become savvier to these differences in language in reviews, particularly as it’s studied more and written about. As a result, it’s critical to lay the foundation for contextualized, persuasive recommendations today by asking the right questions and providing the necessary context to help consumers make smart decisions in the future.


Liz Alton writes about digital marketing and her work has been featured in USA Today, Forbes, Inc, Harvard Business Review, and Entrepreneur. Her specialties include all things marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and an MBA from Western Governors University. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University. Liz is a paid contributor to THINK Marketing. 

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