Wharton’s Jonah Berger discusses his research about the impact of language used in word of mouth reviews.

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Are you more likely to see a movie or buy a bottle of wine if someone recommends it to you? Would you feel as strongly about your choice if the reviewer simply told you that he or she liked the product, but didn’t use the word “recommend”?

New research by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger reveals some surprising data about how consumers react to specific language used in reviews and recommendations, and whether or not that language could lead some to make bad decisions. His paper, coauthored by Grant Packard from the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, is titled “How Language Shapes Word of Mouth’s Impact.” Berger recently spoke with [email protected] about the paper, and offered some advice about heeding word of mouth.

Why Product Recommendations Can Lead To Bad Decisions
Product Recommendations

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: Your previous work has looked at how content goes viral. Your latest book is Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior, which looks at how hidden influences affect our decision-making processes. Could you summarize what you and your co-author, Grant Packard, looked at in this paper?

Jonah Berger: We’ve all seen the power of word of mouth, whether we’re making a simple decision like what breakfast cereal to buy, or a more important one like which house to choose. We use online reviews and word of mouth all the time to help us make those decisions. But is that word of mouth always helpful? That’s really what this research looks at.

Imagine you’re at a party or a conference, for example, and you’re talking about movies with two people you haven’t met before. One person says they like movie A, and another person says they recommend movie B. Which of those movies are you more likely to see as a result, and are you going to be happy with your choice?

“Knowing that a given movie or a given brand has a certain number of likes isn’t as impactful as knowing it has a certain amount of recommendations.”

What we find is that people are more likely to follow recommendations. You’re more likely to see movie B because you think the other person liked it more and it’s a better movie. But you might end up not liking that movie so much. You might end up making a worse choice because of the type of people that tend to use the word “I recommend.” It’s a language device that suggests not only you like something, but also you’re making an inference about what someone else likes. Whether we’re looking at books or wine or hotels, novices are more likely to say that they recommend something than experts. Experts aren’t as willing to use that “recommend” language. They’re more likely to say “I like” something. But they’re less willing to make a guess about what you’re going to like. As a result, if people end up listening to recommendations, as they often do, they might sometimes end up making worse choices.

[email protected]: What are the key takeaways from your study?

Berger: We look at two things. One is how people endorse things. Sometimes people say “I like” something. Sometimes they recommend something. Those might seem like really subtle differences in language, but they have a big impact on two things. First of all, whether we’re persuaded by that language. Do we take that person’s endorsement and end up going to that movie or that restaurant? Also, whether we end up making a good choice as a result. Lots of research shows that word of mouth is really helpful. And indeed, often it is. But in some cases where we don’t know if someone’s an expert or not — like two people we meet at a conference that we’ve never met before — should we take their advice or not? When we can’t tell if someone’s an expert, or they’re not our best friend who knows a lot about movies, sometimes we use what they say and the way they say it as a cue to whether they’re an expert or not.

We assume that if someone says “I recommend” something, they actually know a lot about movies, for example. Or if they just say, “I like it,” we assume they don’t know as much. What’s dangerous there, though, is that the opposite is true. Novices, people who don’t know a lot about movies, are more willing to say they recommend something. The same thing happens with restaurants or other domains because they don’t think about the fact that others may have different preferences than them.

If you’re an expert, you’re not really willing to say “I recommend” something. If we don’t know each other well, I don’t know your taste. I don’t know if you like the same movies that I like. So, I’m not as willing to recommend it for you. But if I’m a novice, I’m very willing to use that strong recommendation — to say, “I recommendation this movie.”

[email protected]: So, my recommendation could mislead somebody?

Berger:  Exactly. In general, if we follow experts, that’s a good thing, right? When we look online, we follow the wine experts when we’re picking wine. We look for reviewer badges to figure out who knows a lot. But there are many cases in our lives where we don’t know whether someone knows a lot or not, so we use their language as a cue to whether they have expertise. But that cue may sometimes lead us astray.

[email protected]: Did the findings surprise you?

Berger: Definitely. We [already] thought that recommendations would be more impactful than likes — that someone saying “I recommend this movie” seems stronger. It suggests, one, that they know a lot about the domain. But also, they just plain liked it more. So, that didn’t surprise us so much.

What did surprise us a little bit is the type of people that use these different types of language. I’ve done a lot of work on word of mouth. In general, I think word of mouth is a good thing. But in this case, sometimes word of mouth can actually lead us astray, because different people tend to use different types of language.

“What you don’t want to do is encourage people to follow the wrong information.”

[email protected]: What do you think the key takeaways would be for marketers?

Berger: For marketers, I think it’s interesting. The first thing that probably comes to mind when people think of “likes” versus “recommendations” is Facebook — where we say, “Hey, I like this.” If they instead changed it to “I recommend this,” it would probably have more impact. Knowing that a given movie or a given brand has a certain number of likes isn’t as impactful as knowing it has a certain amount of recommendations. By subtly changing the language you use, you can impact whether people follow that language or not.

That said, you need to be careful. What you don’t want

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