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The Overlooked Value of Mistakes in Consumer Ratings and Reviews

Shoppers are more likely to purchase a product after reading a review that describes making a prior purchase mistake. So why aren’t marketers capitalizing on this?

What good is a mistake?

Not much, says conventional wisdom. Avoid mistakes. And if you make one, don’t go around advertising it.

But a recent study by Taly Reich of Yale SOM and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto demonstrates where this wisdom falters—where the admission of mistakes, in fact, makes reviewers more persuasive and consumers more likely to spring for a specific product.

In one experiment, Reich and Maglio offered participants a choice between two brands of headphones. The participants read one of two reviews that were identical in their recommendation except that one reviewer admitted to having made a mistake the last time he purchased headphones. This review, it turns out, proved more effective: 93% of participants opted to buy the headphones that this reviewer recommended, while 79% of participants followed the advice of the reviewer who had not made a prior mistake.

Reich and Maglio confirmed these results under more realistic conditions too. In one case, two groups of participants read 10 real Amazon reviews of Altoid mints; one group saw a review that mentioned having made a previous mistake, while the other group did not. At the end of the study, participants were told they could choose either an additional dollar of compensation or a pack of Altoids. In the condition where one of the reviews mentioned a mistake, 35% of participants opted for the mints. In the “no-mistake” condition, only 22% did. In another real-life case study, Sephora customers considering hair care products thought reviews were more helpful when they described a prior purchase mistake.

Driving these results, says Reich, are perceptions of knowledge and expertise. When consumers read a review by somebody who has made a mistake and then corrected for it, this corrective process is believed to give the reviewer novel insight; these reviewers are considered more expert than their peers who never made a mistake.

For companies that sell online, this insight could prove valuable given reviews are a more powerful motivator of purchases than even product discounts. Promoting reviews that mention a mistake is a simple marketing trick. “It’s free, too,” Reich says, which makes it especially beneficial for companies that don’t have vast resources at their disposal.

Suggesting that consumers or influencers mention past mistakes may be counterintuitive, but it is an easy way to make reviews more helpful

Simple, free—but contrary to current best practices. Curious about how practitioners think about mistakes, Reich and Maglio surveyed 155 marketing professionals with an average of 13 years’ experience. When asked about the issue, this group considered reviews without a mistake to be more effective than reviews that admitted to a mistake.

Marketers often provide free services and products to influencers with the hopes that they will provide glowing reviews.  While many brands are wary of providing suggestions that will impact the integrity of the review, it’s often seen as acceptable to provide tips for how to create more helpful posts. “Suggesting that consumers or influencers mention past mistakes may be counterintuitive, but it is an easy way to make reviews more helpful,” Reich says.  “We have the empirical case for it, and yet people on the ground don’t know it and don’t use it. They need to be informed.”

As it were, their mistake needs to be corrected.