Marketers have become increasingly aware of the importance of readability in getting customers engaged in their products and services. By ensuring text is easily readable, marketers can communicate their messages in a clear and engaging way their customers will respond to.

But does readability still matter when content about a product is generated by users rather than being written by marketers themselves? In short, the answer appears to be yes. As the prevalence of online customer reviews continues to increase, the marketing industry have worked to improve their understanding of the effect of online customer reviews on product preference and sales. And, when it comes to influential reviews, readability is emerging as an important factor.

The online review is thriving

What do you do when you want to buy a new camera? Or choose a holiday destination? Or decide which movie to watch? For most of us, online customer reviews are a key informer when it comes to making decisions about what to spend our money on.

Reviews on major retail sites such as Amazon have a fairly standard format comprising of one or more paragraphs of text and a rating of the product, e.g. (3 stars out of 5). In addition, given the vast amount of reviews, online review platforms often provide a function for readers to rate a review as “helpful” when it contains valuable information. This is typically a yes or no response to the question ‘Was this review helpful to you?’.

Reviews influence customer preference and sales

Reviews have been found to be an important influencing factor in consumer decisions about purchases with the presence of customer reviews having a positive influence on online trade. For example, one study explored the effect of online book reviews on and on sales. The study reported that improvement in a book’s reviews leads to an increase in relative sales at that site. The study also found that review length data indicated that site visitors did read review text rather than relying on summary statistics.

online customer reviews influence sales

Research has found online customer reviews to influence preference for, and sales of, everything from digital microproducts to shoes, from hotel room bookings and box office sales to restaurant popularity.

However, not all reviews are equal in their influence. For example, a meta-analysis of how online reviews effect retail sales reported that online product reviews have a significantly greater influence on sales elasticities - the relationship between a change in demand of a particular good and a change in its price - when they are delivered by a critic, appear on a non-seller website, and include valence information, i.e. positive or negative preference, in the evaluation.

Reviews can help level the playing field and improve sales forecasts

there is growing evidence of the predictive potential of customer reviews

Unlike with traditional marketing communication, research exploring the importance of brand strength on the effects of positive and negative customer reviews suggests a greater potential for customer reviews to affect the sales of weaker brands. The study found that customer reviews generate differential effects compared to traditional marketing communications.

They report that for traditional marketing communications, stronger brands demonstrate greater marketing communications effectiveness in contrast to weaker brands. However, for customer reviews the effects are greater for weaker brands than for stronger brands. This influence works both ways depending on how favourable the reviews are.

The researchers report that cumulative positive customer reviews increase the sales of models of weak brands and cumulative negative customer reviews decrease the sales of models of weak brands. In contrast, for stronger brands, neither cumulative positive nor cumulative negative customer reviews have a significant effect on the sales.

Results such as these highlight the potential of customer reviews as a tool by which weaker brands can compete in the market place.

In this burgeoning field of customer review marketing there is growing evidence of the predictive potential of customer reviews. Predictive models of future changes in sales have been created on the basis of online customer review data with a growing number of studies reporting that customer reviews can indeed predict future product sales. Hence the potential of online reviews for marketers is vast.

Customers like readable reviews

Okay, so customer reviews can influence preference and sales. But how does readability fit into this? If we accept that web content that is easily understandable is more positively engaged with by potential customers, is it also the case that user generated content that is easily readable is valued more by potential customers than content that has poor readability?

There is a growing body of evidence identifying readability as an important factor in the usefulness of customer reviews. For example, a comprehensive study was conducted to evaluate content quality and helpfulness of online product reviews working with a dataset of 37,221 reviews from the online retailer Amazon UK. Readability measures including the Gunning-Fox index and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease were used to assess the ease of readability of the reviews as well as to explore the interplay between readability and review helpfulness.

Review helpfulness – whether those reading a review identify that review as helpful or unhelpful – is an important factor in the extent to which that review will influence the purchasing behaviour of site visitors.

As the authors of the study explain, consumers base their evaluation of a review on whether it provides a clear and comprehensive justification of the reviewers claims about the product and whether it provides the reader with enough information to allow them to form their own views about the quality of the product and decrease any uncertainty about its quality.

The study found that highly helpful and extremely helpful reviews contained more easy to read text than reviews that were less helpful or not helpful at all.

Similar results were found in a study examining perceived value of online tourism reviews. The study looked at data from attractions in New Orleans such as the National WWII Museum. Using the FOG measure of readability the study found that when review text was easier to read, reviews would receive more helpfulness votes. The study also found that reviews were deemed to be useful when written by positive authors than pessimistic authors. Findings regarding the positive effect of readability of the review text on the perceived usefulness of the review has been validated by other studies.

Studies such as these highlight the importance of easy to read reviews in informing consumer choice.

So, what does this mean for marketing?

With online customer reviews playing such an influential role in consumer decision making there are steps that marketers can take to ensure they are best placed to make the most of this influence.

  1. Marketers can encourage people to write better reviews. In a set of guidance for improving the product review pipeline, recommended strategies include providing simple guidance to reviewers. This guidance will increase the length of reviews and the content will be reflective of the guidance suggestions. In addition, solicitations need to be well timed and easily performed. So, if you are asking a customer to provide a review is the request being made after they have actually received the product and is the process easy.
  2. Marketers can use customer reviews as a source of evaluation data for their product. Reviews give valuable insight into customer preferences and dislikes and their content can be used to inform product design and improvement.
  3. Readability measurements can be used to identify helpful reviews which can then be displayed by the marketer to promote their product or service. By understanding what it is that makes a review helpful, marketers will be in a stronger position to use customer reviews to their full potential.

Ruth Colmer

Ruth is a freelance writer, researcher, and lecturer. She likes reading, cooking, writing stories, travel, and human beings.