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    Getting the Best of Product Reviews

    Monday, March 23, 2015
    20090506 Four Leaf Clover 018

    Often, the smallest things have the profoundest effect.

    For example, my own publishing career began with a simple four-paragraph product review.

    But that’s not the profoundest part. That little review also affected how I would evaluate quality from that day forward. To explain, let me introduce you to the four-paragraph review approach.

    Writing Reviews

    The magazine that bought my review had a strict four-paragraph approach:

    1. What’s it about? This paragraph introduces the subject and gives any essential background information.
    2. What’s good about it? (Find something.) If people care enough to write about something, they generally either love it or hate it. The “find something” directive makes reviewers focus on specifics instead of emotion. It makes “lovers” pinpoint details to justify their position, and it prevents “haters” from overlooking good features.
    3. What’s bad about it? (Find something.) Again, this directive makes sure reviewers give an honest appraisal. It makes “lovers” recognize shortcomings and makes “haters” articulate specific problems.
    4. What’s your final recommendation? This paragraph can be just a summary, but it might also suggest how the product may suit the needs of some people but not others.

    One more thing is worth noting about this four-paragraph approach: It’s just four paragraphs! Short and to-the-point, it’s especially good for online customer reviews.

    Reading Reviews

    I believe that customer reviews are one of the best results of the birth of the Internet. Having worked as a professional reviewer, having seen how often pros disagree, and coming from a background in literary criticism, I’ve come to view professional reviews as an art form, of little practical use. Customer reviews, though, are all about satisfaction: “Does it work?”

    As a potential buyer, here’s a strategy for getting the most out of customer reviews.

    1. First, check how many reviews exist. Dozens or hundreds are more valuable than just a few (which are too often shills). A product with many reviews has been used by many people.
    2. Next, read the worst reviews first (the one-star posts). Look for common complaints that might be a deal breaker for your purchase. Ignore poorly written reviews; too often people who don’t care enough to polish their public writing don’t think very deeply about it either.
    3. Then read the best reviews (the five- and four-star posts). Look for commonly praised features. From these, you can learn best ways to use the product.  
    4. Weighing the good, the bad, and your own needs, make your decision.

    Notice that I’ve ignored middling reviews (two- and three-star posts). They too often suffer from a lack of detail.

    And if a site allows feedback on reviews, be sure to flag the most useful ones. That encourages people to review more, and it helps future customers focus on the best ones. By the same token, if a review wastes your time, do everyone a favor and flag it as unhelpful.

    As a seller, here’s a strategy for getting the most out of your own customer reviews:

    • Read the best reviews (five- and four-star) to discover how you’re hitting the mark, and to glean ways to focus even better.
    • If you have time, skim the middling reviews for other recommendations.
    • Never argue the bad reviews (one- and two-star). Let their generally poor writing speak for itself.

    Concerning bad reviews, sometimes it helps to reach out to disgruntled customers privately. It’s possible they didn’t understand the product directions, or they may have a legitimate complaint. In either case, you can demonstrate that you care about their experience, and you might improve your product for future customers.

    When that happens, your former detractors may actually become new fans! Not only did you address their problem, they also have a feeling of having contributed to the product improvement.

    As a final word of advice, if you can’t appease a detractor, don’t contradict the person publicly. It’s better to appeal to fans to offer additional viewpoints. I know of one small publisher whose product went from a single, eviscerating one-star review to a four-star-plus best seller pretty much overnight through one simple tactic: Seeing the one-star review, the publisher sent a request to their customer mailing list, just asking for other honest opinions.

    A New Age of Buyers

    Word of mouth has always been the best advertising. With the new social-media aspect of online customer reviews, the power of word of mouth has only grown stronger. Use that power wisely, and you can get your own products the best exposure, make the best buying decisions as a customer, and help others make good choices as well.

    And who knows, posting a well-written review yourself might even be the first step in a new career!

    —Lester Smith