Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Narrative reviews: A powerful tool for businesses

Is there an ideal type of customer review? Professor Tuck Siong Chung, ESSEC Asia-Pacific, and his fellow researchers explain why narrative reviews containing the product/service experience and emotional journey, are better at improving sales than just technical differentiators and stats

Published: May 3, 2023 11:50:54 AM IST
Updated: May 3, 2023 12:40:24 PM IST

Narrative reviews: A powerful tool for businessesAt the end of the day, reviews are like the food we consume: organic is always better than artificial and processed. Image: Shutterstock

Try being conscious of the fact next time you stand in front of a shopping mall store shelf. Books, music, food, mobile phones – the choice of models and competing brands is mind-boggling. And in some cases, it can leave us in a mild state of confused shock that shelves our very decisions among the frippery of products on sale. In our current world, customers face the problem of over-choice in almost every industry. Consumers can be confused with the myriad options presented to them. And in such a scenario, user-generated reviews act as a more trustworthy source of information about the company than its glossy – and costly – advertising and marketing efforts.

With such a potentially important role, businesses would be wise to benefit from understanding how to extract the maximum value from these customer reviews. As such, research from Prof. Tuck Siong Chung at ESSEC and his fellow researchers Mukhopadhyay, Kumar, and Sharma, explores how the narrativity of reviews plays a crucial role in convincing potential customers to become what the brands yearn for – repeat customers.

Power of narrativity

How are narrative reviews different from non-narrative ones? The answer – they are different, and special, in the way that they resemble stories. Moreover, they are structured descriptions that explain the meaning of the events taking place around the narrator, with the narrator – the hero – being at the centre of the action.

Evolutionarily, one of the differentiating features of Homo Sapiens from our close sentient relatives is the ability to create and tell stories and myths. Indeed, from childhood humans are accustomed to learning through stories. And as such, a review presented with a narrative, storytelling style involving plenty of details about the product – and, more importantly, the emotional change the narrator goes through while using the product – is much more appealing than a numerical rating. Numbers appeal to the head and our logic – but stories also reach out to the heart as well as head and guts, naturally making narrative that much more powerful a convincer if used correctly.   

Also read: How brands can control narratives and fight cancel culture

But why do people trust organic reviews from strangers rather than a company’s promises? Most probably because firms want to sell you something but the stranger does not. These reviewers simply wish to spread the word about a good product and, in the end, this earns extra trust points. For the researchers and their findings, there is a clear relationship between narrative reviews and sales: more narrative reviews, more sales.

Extreme reviews, extreme effects

Prof. Tuck Siong Chung and his colleagues also emphasize that not all user-generated narrative reviews are the same and not all positive reviews have the same impact on sales. Turns out that the level of narrativity in reviews is critical in impacting sales. There are costs to consumers when they collect and integrate review information to make product consumption choices. Thus, narrative reviews positively impact sales only if the level of narrativity, which influenced their informational value, is above these costs.

The emotional tone of the reviews – either positive or negative – invokes a corresponding attitude toward the reviewed product or service. As such, these two review factors should work in tandem for the reviews to be effective: the level of narrativity and the extent of the emotional tone, either positive or negative.

Also read: When your nerves get the best of you, change the narrative

Extremes always have a strong effect on sales. A very positively narrated review will have a significant positive impact on the sales and, likewise, a very negatively narrated review will have a significant negative impact on the sales. However, this impact decreases drastically when the level of narrativity is moderate.

Rave reviews set you apart

As mentioned, the average consumer today often faces a tsunami of product choice. And with technology accessible to all, it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to show differentiation in their products. This forces businesses to focus on other areas such as customer service and public trust to attract new customers.

Against the backdrop of intense competition among brands in the same market, the consumer decision-making process becomes more complex. In the case of services which consist of a large experiential component, the choice between one product over another is often unclear based on objective product attributes. In such cases, a key differentiating factor is the organic customer review. Combining that with a narrative experience, businesses can claim to have a sustainable competitive advantage.

Not all roses: Counting the cost

It might therefore seem that narrative reviews are a boon for the consumers and businesses alike. But just as over-choice brings complexity to the decision-making process of the consumers, narrative reviews also bring in a degree of complexity for them. The question of cost to the reader-consumer comes into play – two of the main costs associated with narrative reviews being information acquisition and integration.

Also read: How global advertising business reviews affect agencies in local markets

Well-developed narratives generally require more words and hence consume more time for the reader – this is the cost of acquisition. On the other hand, the cost of integration refers to the time the consumer spends integrating the reviews from multiple sources, since every narrative review is specific to the narrator.

But there are also additional, broader costs associated with narrative reviews. The culture of influencing people with narrative reviews, especially on social media, for example, is rapidly becoming a double-edged sword. For while it is an effective way, young people consider it a serious full-time profession which creates the risk of viewers losing their critical thinking by idolizing such influencers.

Where there’s a word, there’s a way

Businesses would be wise to exploit the power and potential of organic narrative reviews. For instance, brands can use stories and myths to enhance their product sales and performance. Indeed, using a brand story to popularize a brand or product has been a long-standing tradition in the luxury industry.

Both businesses and managers can also incentivize their customers to narrate their experiences to their friends and family and also to their online network. As such, incentivisation acts as an authentic feedback source on their products and a sign of trust for potential customers to make their decisions to buy.

Also read: How companies can mine online reviews for product-development gold

Firms can moreover try to identify reviewers able to tell a good story about their favourite brands. Currently a hot topic among the marketing bods, we can see the emergence of influencers ranging from micro to nano influencers. Such people can target specific groups and create the tipping point for a firm’s products.

Too much demand can lead to artificial flavouring

Even with costs associated with narrative reviews, the benefits substantially outweigh them. However, not every narrative review will work in a brand’s favour. The benefit to the consumers for spending the efforts to read and process the narrative review should be high enough and more importantly, it should be organic.

As firms realise the importance of such narrative reviews, there is the growing problem of producing them and paying the influencers – popular people with a narrative ability – to post artificial content. Since businesses compete fiercely to gain the trust of their potential customers through narrative, increasing numbers of youngsters are considering social media influence as a serious and primary profession. At the end of the day, reviews are like the food we consume: organic is always better than artificial and processed.

Tuck Siong Chung is an Associate Professor of Marketing at ESSEC Business School Asia Pacific.

This article was first published in CoBS Insights.