Online reviews are influenced by a phenomenon called social influence bias. Here’s how you can use social bias to increase the amount of positive reviews you receive.
With the growing importance of online reviews in the travel industry, I often get asked by both hoteliers and consumers whether review sites are trustworthy. This question can be broken down into two parts. Part one: “How often are online reviews exaggerated, or even fake?” Part two: “Are online reviews an accurate depiction of the guest experience at a hotel?”
To answer part one of the question, the occasional fake review can, of course, slip through the cracks. Most of the sites try to police this. TripAdvisor has a procedure for reporting reviews. It also tells us on its Insights blog, “We take content integrity very seriously and screen every review. If you are caught breaking our guidelines, it can take a big hit on your popularity ranking.” So, there are consequences for hoteliers who break the rules.
But, even if every single online review was genuine, there is still part two of the question to examine: “Are online reviews an accurate depiction of the guest experience at a hotel?” It turns out, the answer is not simple and is somewhat subjective. In October 2014, the New York Times posted an article, Finding Your Travel Tribe. “When searching for a hotel or restaurant, you don’t want everybody’s opinion. You want opinions from people who share your taste and travel goals,” Stephanie Rosenbloom writes. She goes on to cite TripAdvisor’s filters. Users can filter any property’s reviews by travel demographics like solo or business traveler, family, couples, etc, so they only see reviews written by people likely to have similar tastes and expectations.
This desire to get recommendations from like-minded individuals goes even deeper. In a 2013 study published in Science, researchers found that reviews don’t just inform consumers. They can also influence consumer opinions. On sites with social ratings systems, researchers found that prior positive ratings created a bias in individual rating behavior. The phenomenon called positive social influence meant that items with positive ratings had a 32% increased likelihood of getting more positive ratings.
Researchers also found that this positive social influence created a positive herding effect. Items with positive ratings tended to attract more ratings. An increased number of ratings plus an increased likelihood of those ratings being positive caused average ratings to increase by 25%. “This social influence bias snowballs into disproportionately high scores, creating a tendency toward positive ratings,” says Sinan Aral, lead researcher and associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Researchers did not find the same phenomenon to be true of negative ratings. So, while a couple of negative ratings can have an effect on overall rating, it does not make potential reviewers who see it more likely to give a negative rating. It also does not inspire consumers to write more reviews.
Related to social influence bias is a phenomenon called persuasion bias. Persuasion bias demonstrates that the “simple repetition of statements increases subjects’ belief in the statements’ validity,” according to a 2003 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Persuasion Bias, Social Influence, and Unidimensional Opinions.” Persuasion bias holds that repetition creates familiarity. Familiarity is often a cue to validity. So, when one’s social network consistently discusses familiar topics, it’s not just a good predictor of tastes and preferences. In many cases, persuasion bias means that the repetition of statements influences the formation of opinions, which can have a direct influence on an individual’s tastes and preferences. The study’s authors argue that persuasion bias provides an explanation for several phenomena like the effectiveness of air-time, political spin, and marketing.
What does all of this mean for hotels?
When Rosenbloom talks about “Finding your travel tribe,” she hits on a highly actionable point for hoteliers. Your positive reviews can be key to your success in three ways.
Positive Reviews Breed Positive Reviews
First, hotel properties with positive reviews online are 32% more likely to get more positive reviews. They may also see a 25% increase in average review rating. So while we already know that getting a greater volume of positive reviews can improve your ranking on the TripAdvisor Popularity Index, the point of discussion here is not just about the TripAdvisor algorithm. It’s also about the psychological effect that seeing positive reviews has on potential review writers. A review that highlights what your hotel property is doing right can influence other guests who see it to write additional positive reviews about your property.
Influencers are Key
Second, with relationship to persuasion bias, a person’s social network has a huge influence on the formation of his or her opinions, tastes, and preferences. So, getting the right people to talk about the good aspects of your property can then inspire their social network to become interested in what your property has to offer. In social media marketing, we call these people your Influencers.
Specificity and Repetition
Third, let’s remember that persuasion bias implies repetition. But, how do you know what points to repeat? This where hoteliers can look to the data they get from positive online reviews. Technology like sentiment analysis isn’t just useful for discovering what your guests are consistently complaining about. Sentiment analysis can also help hoteliers determine the specific items that stand about about the guest experience at their properties.
So, in summary: Yes, review sites are biased. This is true of ratings in any system designed to collect social opinions. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because knowledge is power. Now that you know how social bias works, here are some specific ways hoteliers can use it to their advantage.
The Hotelier’s Action Items
Highlight your Strengths
Analyze your positive reviews to look for trends in the data. A sentiment analysis-based tech solution can do this instantly, pointing out the things that your guests mention most often. Then, put that data to action. Have professional photos taken of the attributes of your property that guests like most. Highlight the best that you have to offer on your TripAdvisor page, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and everywhere you have an online presence.
You can also target marketing by reminding past guests of their experience with your hotel. Send your guests an email six months after their stay, and invite them back to enjoy the specific features that your guests have highlighted in online reviews. “Come enjoy our state of the art pool again,” or, “We’d love to see you again for the holidays. Enjoy another romantic dinner at our world-class restaurant.” Repetition is your friend here. If your guests liked something about your property, remind them what they liked to get them to come back. When your marketing highlights specific parts of your property, your TripAdvisor page features photos of those specific attributes, your online reviews consistently reflect that your guests liked those specific attributes, and your TripAdvisor page highlights those specific attributes, it creates subtle repetition. Other guests, who according to the New York Times article are looking for their “Travel Tribe,” will internalize this repetition. They’ll see that other people like them appreciate those specific attributes of your property. They will be more likely to book with you over a property that doesn’t feature those attributes.
With a little digging, you can determine which guests have large social media followings. It’s important to note this information in your guest profiles for future use. You should also search for mentions of your property on Twitter, and note the comments that come from users with large social followings. When you can link positive social media mentions about your property to specific guests, reply publicly and thank them for taking the time to leave a review and for their kind words. Then, to turn these enthusiasts into promoters, consider messaging them privately to invite them back to stay at a special rate. Guests with large followings can become Influencers. Treat them well!
Invest in Survey Submissions
One way to get more of your guests to see positive reviews is to publish a greater number of positive reviews. A post-stay surveys product that submits responses to TripAdvisor for review and publication is a great way to increase your volume of reviews. And, we find that solicited surveys tend to have higher ratings than surveys that hotel properties accrue organically. So, in addition to improving your ranking on the TripAdvisor Popularity Index by as much as 15%, digital surveys submissions can also be a great way to make more of your positive results publicly available. Positive reviews breed more positive reviews, according to social influence bias.