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The Sales Potential of Bad Reviews

A bad customer review might not be the end of the world. While they are a crucial source of information for prospective customers, reviews often make an impact as an aggregate, not individually. 

Users are also becoming savvier, which means an endless supply of suspiciously perfect reviews does more harm than good. Read on to find out what marketing research reveals about product reviews and why mixed reviews could be the best possible thing for your sales.

Dynamics of User & Product Reviews

People researching products or services don’t treat every review the same way. Research shows that they take in the context of reviews in various different ways. 

One 2008 study published by Information and Technology Management found that reviewer reception and exposure impact readers’ opinion – the higher the reviewer’s exposure and the better their reputation, the more likely people were to take their review into account when considering a purchase. 

Reviews that demonstrate clear knowledge of the product are also more impactful. They don’t have to demonstrate encyclopedic or scientific knowledge of the product, but when the poster has clearly used the product they’re reviewing, people are more likely to trust their opinion. 

Ideally, product reviews are detailed about various aspects of the purchasing process. Shipping, customer service, and repairs under warranty are commonly included in product reviews. Sometimes, if one or more of these elements was unsatisfactory enough, the function of the product itself won’t be mentioned at all.

Many reviews also include some kind of constructive criticism. If something went wrong or wasn’t quite as good as the buyer thought it would be, they’ll usually leave some suggestions about how the process could have been improved. 

Meanwhile, reviews that lack detail are frequently overlooked by potential buyers. Imagine you’re looking for a restaurant and all the reviews are overwhelmingly positive but never more than five words long. Even if you feel that the reviews are legitimate, you aren’t left with any idea about how it is to eat at the restaurant and are more likely to choose another place with more information in the reviews.

Another very important factor in reviews is the tone. Bad reviews are particularly likely to feature expletives or angry language. Many times this reflects poorly on the reviewer more than on the product itself. People don’t want to listen to people who can’t explain clearly. That bad review might be a source of humor without impacting the reception of the product.

A person holding and biting into a lemon wedge.
Bad reviews don’t always leave a sour taste in people’s mouths.

Types of Potential Buyers

Each reader also interprets and values reviews differently. Some readers incorporate all available knowledge of a product while others take reviews at face value. Researchers call the first type of potential buyers ‘rational’ while the second type is called ‘naive’. The existence of these two types of buyers is part of the reason why bad reviews can boost sales.

The other half of that equation is the seller. In most arrangements, the seller knows about the product and may have the ability to hide some information about it from potential buyers. Third-party review sites make that sort of seller control more difficult, but on platforms where sellers can remove negative reviews, their behavior relies on the existence of both naive and rational buyers. 

A seminal study on the effect of bad reviews on sales, “Bad News Turned Good: Reversal Under Censorship,” revealed that, in situations where the seller can censor reviews, they would remove all the bad ones if there were exclusively naive buyers reading them. The naive buyers accept whatever is in the review as true. 

However, rational buyers use more than one kind of information when they’re considering a purchase. They understand on some level that negative reviews turn naive buyers away and that a company must be confident in their product or service to leave the bad reviews up. Thus, for rational buyers, the presence of some negative reviews is actually good for the brand or product because it makes the existing reviews seem more real.

Rational buyers are more likely to leave higher-quality reviews and boost sales in the future. But, again, some negative reviews will help bring in rational buyers. 

Companies are likely to overlook this possibility because negative reviews are likely to turn away naive buyers in the short term. The study found that the cost of a few naive buyers being turned away was smaller for sellers with high-quality products, which is something that rational buyers may or may not intuitively understand in their appraisal of negative reviews.

Using Bad Reviews In A Marketing Strategy

Bad reviews can boost sales, but some companies take it to the extreme, advertising negative reviews in an attempt to win over customers. The logic behind this approach might seem a bit confusing at first. But it can work if you do it the right way.

For example, you might not want to broadcast only negative reviews in your email blasts and banner ads, but you can take negative reviews into account in your other content. This works particularly well when you’re answering complaints and criticisms in the negative reviews. 

Social media marketing is a great opportunity to bring your customer service to the forefront by answering questions and addressing complaints. Whether you want to highlight particular comments as you find solutions in your content or you just want to discuss them in an abstract way (“many customers ask…” etc.) is up to you.

The only risk you take is that the content of a negative review will touch on a popular opinion about your brand and readers of your responsive content will focus on that. Then again, if you’re responding to such a widespread problem, it could drive lots of traffic to your page and recover some lost customers. 

Long-form content is a good way to answer more complicated questions. If it’s an issue with a certain part of the process like shipping, a video could be an even better way to show people how your company has improved. 

Whether they’re third-party or not, sites that host reviews typically give sellers the opportunity to respond to reviews whether they’re positive or negative. Responding shows that the seller has seen the criticism and gives a space to fix the problem where readers of the negative review are guaranteed to see it. 

Missing the mark on these responses can create even more trouble, though. For example, if the reviewer is heated or angry in their post, the brand absolutely shouldn’t respond in kind. A professional tone is paramount for a positive reception of the brand’s response. 

Another potential mistake is responding to the wrong part of the review. If they’re complaining about shipping, giving them a discount on a future purchase without addressing the shipping issue will come across as tone-deaf. 

What’s vital when using bad reviews in your marketing strategy is to demonstrate transparency and honesty. The act of disclosing or not disclosing bad reviews impacts the perception of the brand as well. 

Disclosing Bad Reviews

Most platforms offer sellers the ability to appeal bad reviews or remove them outright. Of course, untrue or dishonest reviews ought to be removed via these mechanisms. But if it’s a verified buyer and there’s no reason to believe the review is fake, trying to have a bad review removed can be a publicity nightmare. 

As much as it can boost your sales to respond to criticisms and negative reviews respectfully and apologetically, getting caught trying to remove bad reviews or pressure buyers and platforms to remove them will very likely do the opposite. In some cases, it could get you in legal trouble with the FTC.

We already mentioned how the presence of some bad reviews will help boost sales among rational consumers. Disclosing bad reviews is a prerequisite. Just leaving the bad reviews up is enough, but responding to them directly or via branded content can work even better when done properly. 

How to Get High-Quality Reviews

They can be positive or negative but reviews need to have detailed information. Especially with the prevalence of bogus reviews, yours need to sound like they’re coming from legitimate customers if you want them to boost sales.

Here are a few ways you can encourage those kinds of reviews without biasing your customers. 

  • Ask For Specific Feedback

We know that many people are more likely to leave negative reviews than positive ones. The people who do leave positive reviews are more likely to make brief statements of gratitude, while those posting bad reviews go into great detail about what exactly they didn’t like.

If you want your positive and mostly positive reviews to look more like those detailed negative ones, give reviewers a prompt before they leave a review. Telling them what to say defeats the purpose of the review, but telling them what kinds of things they could mention as an example can help increase the overall quality of reviews. 

  • Understand Your Product

Items that require more experience to use like athletic equipment or electric tools are better received with mixed reviews and slightly less than perfect ratings. Customers feel themselves and people in the know are more discerning than amateurs and prefer to see some four-star reviews to support this idea. 

If your product is the kind that people can have technical knowledge of, then mixed reviews can increase sales and even make up for a lack of in-depth reviews. Less sophisticated products need those in-depth reviews to increase sales. 

For products that rely on personal taste, in-depth reviews that are positive or negative will do, as long as they demonstrate the taste of the reviewer. Movies and music releases are two great examples of situations where reviewers will go into great detail about why they didn’t like a product only to admit that it could be good for someone with different tastes.

  • Know Your Customers

In one study on the effect of mixed reviews on sales of video games, researchers found that “online reviews are more influential for less popular games and games whose players have greater internet experience.”

There are likely to be cohorts within your customer base that will value any kind of review. You can put user data about these cohorts to use when you work on your customer review strategy. After all, the people who read reviews are likely to become part of these cohorts if they are moved to make a purchase. 

  • Make Feedback Part of UX

Creatives who build positive user experiences know they have to think about what happens after purchase as much as what leads up to one. Customer service, returns, and repairs are a big part of this. Feedback should be too.

It could be as simple as an automatic email prompting users to leave a review about their experience. Sites and apps that operate with user profiles can send notifications within the platform. More detailed information with a questionnaire could also be included, although it will probably be too detailed for a simple review. 

  • Incentivize Reviews

This strategy can get tricky because readers who know reviews are incentivized in some way might see those reviews as being biased. Keeping a balanced reward, i.e. something not too valuable, can help prevent this kind of stigma. For example, you might offer a simple discount code for a future purchase. 

Be clear that you’re inviting honest opinions and not just positive ones. Put this messaging as early in the review process as possible so people can see that you aren’t putting any pressure on anyone to leave a positive review. 

  • Break Down Feedback Into Stages

If you want to get detailed reviews, you can give users the opportunity to rate aspects of the overall experience individually. Many websites ask for a rating on customer service, ease of purchase, pricing, product, and then ask if that user would recommend the product or service to a friend. 

This approach works for many different kinds of products. Hotels, transportation, and restaurant rating sites often ask for feedback this way. If you offer many different products on a platform, having them all rated on the same criteria will help return customers understand what to expect and attract their business.

Authenticity Sells

Omnichannel marketing has saturated our lives with branded messaging. As more and more of their lives happen online, many people are in search of authenticity from companies. Small businesses typically find this easier to pull off than big corporations.

Look no further than your reviews for a great source of authentic user opinions and detailed examples of your user experience. It’s user-created content that is directly tied to your branding by default. 

That’s part of the reason why people like to see companies that are comfortable disclosing bad reviews and featuring them in branded content. Reviews also help create a sense of community when it comes to products with dedicated followers like video games, movies, and music.

Part of that authenticity and community engagement comes from mixed reviews. If everyone posting reviews gives a perfect 5-star rating and has no complaints whatsoever, there’s little to engage with. Plus, how many things are as perfect as they could be?

Rational buyers understand all this and take it into consideration. Naive buyers might not appreciate reviews on this level, but they aren’t likely to be searching for authenticity the same way that rational buyers are.

The important thing to remember about bad reviews is that they can point to a flaw in the user experience but they might simply reflect the personal taste of the reviewer. In either case, be prepared with an answer or have some other strategy in place to help other readers tell the difference between an authentic appraisal of a product and an expression of individual taste.

A man with grey hair and glasses sips coffee outside at a cafe.
Differing opinions tend to make reviews feel more authentic.


Product reviews are one of the most trusted sources of information for potential customers. The presence of some negative reviews can increase sales by making all the reviews seem more authentic. Since so much content on the internet is paid for, authentic mixed ratings on product reviews are a good way of advertising without advertising

Of course, you don’t want to see 100% negative reviews. But a long list of 5-star ratings without detailed explanations could be equally harmful. Rational buyers don’t expect products to be totally satisfactory for every single person who buys them. Mixed reviews reflect that reality, which is why they help increase sales.

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