Erasing authenticity

We have a mission statement at Bazaarvoice: “Changing the world, one authentic conversation at a time.” It’s not just a slogan on our website for me – it’s truly our mission and our cause. Authentic, aggregated feedback and conversations have the power to change so much more than commerce: education, government, workplace environment – things that carry personal importance to me, as well as to my company.  Think about this: this is the first time in human history that word of mouth, which has been with us since the dawn of humanity and the days of the earliest bartering and bazaars, is digitally archived – and it will undoubtedly change the world.

But if we don’t protect the integrity of these conversations – if they aren’t truly authentic – their power to change the world is weakened. That’s why, when I read in Slate that Zappos and other retailers have begun editing their customer reviews for spelling and grammar, I knew I had to respond.

As the market leader, we at Bazaarvoice consider ourselves stewards of our industry – and as such, we have a duty to protect it. I wrote the piece below for Forbes’s CIO Central blog, where it was originally published. I’m excited to discuss this with you on the original post, or here on our blog. I look forward to hearing your perspective.

From Forbes CIO Central blog:

Do customer reviews peppered with grammar mistakes and typos hurt your brand and dampen sales? Zappos – and a growing number of online brands – think so. The world’s largest online shoe retailer angered some “creative spellers” last month after a Slate article described how the company uses hundreds of freelancers to doctor online customer reviews, correcting grammar and typos.

Companies “clean up” customer reviews based on the rationale, supported by recent research, that well-written reviews, whether positive or negative, sell more products. So a gushing review claiming to “luv the thin straps on this sandale” will actually turn off potential buyers, whereas a well-crafted critique of the same shoe – “I appreciated the workmanship of this sandal, but found the straps too narrow” – will lure more buyers.

According to Panos Ipeirotis, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who studies consumer reviews on the Internet, “A well-written review tends to inspire confidence about the product, even if the review is negative. Typically, such reviews are perceived as objective and thorough.”

The problem is that a New Yorker reader skimming reviews of a jazz CD has a very different view of “well-written” than a tween shopping for a cute Katy Perry tee. Both want the review to be authentic, informative and useful – but the tone and word choice couldn’t be more foreign to the other. By trying to impose a uniform standard on a very diverse audience, companies that “correct” customer reviews are making a big mistake.

Why? Because tampering with customer reviews erodes the authenticity of reviews and ultimately destroys customer trust in your brand. It’s human nature to trust authentic content, and people have an uncanny way of sniffing out false and fraudulent content. The reason that customer reviews have been so effective at driving sales is precisely because the content doesn’t sound like marketing copy. It’s real, unlike the “perfect” world of marketing.

Think about it this way. Would you correct a friend’s tweet or Facebook post? Interrupt someone explaining why they love a certain restaurant to point out a clumsy turn-of-phrase? Nitpick a colleague for using shorthand in emails sent from his iPhone? This level of social intrusion is almost unthinkable. Yet companies do this to their customers when they “correct” their reviews. By doctoring authentic customer content to make it more uniform, a brand dismisses the tremendous diversity of people, tones, life phases, geographies, and preferences that make up the rich social web and the cultural differences between genders, generations, and geographies.

Zappos uses Amazon Mechanical Turk to “fix” customer reviews. Using the service, Zappos assigns HITs – human intelligence tasks – to freelancers, providing strict copyediting guidelines modeled on bug-fixing routines in computer programming. But even if you’re editing reviews in a subtle way – just fixing a typo here and there or correcting the spelling for all mentions of your brand – you’re still imposing your voice on your customers.

The future of e-commerce is about engaging customers in an open dialogue, not shutting down authentic, real feedback by “correcting” users. If you look at an assortment of reviews across some our client sites, you find a tremendous diversity of tone, jargon, and slang. Sure, there are a few spelling mistakes, but what comes across in successful review programs is an authentic open forum where customers’ opinions are valued.

So why do some companies insist on fixing spelling mistakes in reviews? The answer lies in “classic” marketer thinking. For decades, marketers were used to the unidirectional communication mode – pushing messages at consumers in hopes they’d get people to notice the brand and buy its products. But social media has changed the company-customer equation faster than anyone could have predicted even five years ago.

Even highly innovative and creative companies like Zappos sometimes get caught in the net (no pun intended) of trying to maintain control over their brand experience. Zappos is a hyper-modern company that has written the textbook on passionate customer service and incredible corporate culture and for that, I admire them very much. It was also among the first to really understand and use the power of social networks like Twitter to drive brand and business growth – but among the last you’d expect to behave in an “old-school” way when it comes to social. The Zappos experience shows how incredibly hard it can be to turn control over to your customers. But the new marketing relationship demands it. As explained by James Gilmore in Authenticity, humans crave authenticity from each other and from brands.

Today, customers expect brands to engage in a multi-directional and experiential conversation with them. The highest-performing businesses regularly use consumer insights in 80% of sales and merchandising decisions, according to an article in GOOD Magazine. In other words, smart brands understand the power of authentic word of mouth to drive sales – but it has to be “authentic” to work. Doctored reviews are not authentic, and they can even be insulting to the original author. Early on in our business, we learned that people who submit reviews return three times on average just to see if they posted. Can you imagine their reaction where they see that someone edited their voice?

Understandably, many companies struggle with leaving reviews untouched. What if someone posts a flaming review that’s also riddled with grammar mistakes and typos? It’s never a great moment to read a review like that, but unless it includes profanity or offensive content, let it stand – and reach out the disgruntled customer directly offering to remedy his problem. The fewer gag rules you place on your customers, the more authentic and valuable their feedback will be. After years of helping thousands of companies implement customer review programs, we’ve learned again and again that negative or “ugly” reviews are actually a gift. They open the door to a dialogue and enable brands to quickly address any problems that arise. Because reviews are written for altruistic reasons, they can be the best source of customer intelligence and marketing research for the brand – more trusted than the traditional survey or the focus group.

To correct a conversation is to corrupt it. Don’t make the mistake of “correcting” your customers’ reviews. Everyone, even the worst spellers, deserves to be heard. Who are you to judge what slang stays and goes? You wouldn’t judge them in the store (at least not out loud) by correcting their words, and you shouldn’t do so online. Let them be who they are, let them act altruistically to help each other with no specter of being monitored by a grammar coach, and people who are like them will be more influenced and help your sales even more long term.

  • CJM

    sdadasdadasdasd

  • http://twitter.com/DavidLyleFord David Ford

    While I admit errors in grammar are like nails to the chalk board, I must agree with you. When a company nitpicks they lose the authentic voice their consumers carry. Not to mention offending the consumers loyal enough to make the mentions in the first place.

    Great post Brett!

    I recently wrote 5 Keys to  Authenticity in Social Media –  http://ow.ly/65IOI – and shared some similar insights. Cant wait to hear more from you!

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Gladly. In the vast majority of situations in which a company feels
    that a review contains inaccurate product information, they should simply post
    an in-line response of their own with clarifying or more complete information.
    For instance, if you take a look at this product and click “Customer Reviews”
    and then “See all Reviews”(http://bv-url.com/9qma),
    you’ll see a brand proactively addressing customer concerns and also what they
    perceive to be inaccuracies, all within in-line responses.

  • Nate Sidmore

    Could you comment on when reviews contain inaccurate product information and how that’s best handled?

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Ben and Wrytir, I understand your point but remember that you two are writers. So, of course bad grammar is going to turn you off.  It turns me off too.  I took my business writing classes very seriously, thanks to a very tough teacher.  And that continued through Wharton in earning my MBA.  The point is – not everyone is like you.  They don’t see the world through your lens.  Perfect grammar and punctuation may turn them off as much as it turns you on.  

    Jenna has it right, in my opinion.  Creative voice is real.  A nameless mechanical turk making a judgment call about what language is right versus wrong is going to be a huge turnoff to some.  It may lead to a short-term sales increase, as Zappos reported.  But it may also lead to the authors of those reviews not coming back to write again.  And also a feeling of a “lost community” over time, leading to long-term sales decreases that far outweigh the short-term gain.  Either way, you are playing with fire when you start to talk yourself into modifying it, even a bit.  Once you have started down that path, you can talk yourself into “going all the way”, and then you’ve gone too far (and better off having never gone there at all).

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Ben and Wrytir, I understand your point but remember that you two are writers. So, of course bad grammar is going to turn you off.  It turns me off too.  I took my business writing classes very seriously, thanks to a very tough teacher.  And that continued through Wharton in earning my MBA.  The point is – not everyone is like you.  They don’t see the world through your lens.  Perfect grammar and punctuation may turn them off as much as it turns you on.  

    Jenna has it right, in my opinion.  Creative voice is real.  A nameless mechanical turk making a judgment call about what language is right versus wrong is going to be a huge turnoff to some.  It may lead to a short-term sales increase, as Zappos reported.  But it may also lead to the authors of those reviews not coming back to write again.  And also a feeling of a “lost community” over time, leading to long-term sales decreases that far outweigh the short-term gain.  Either way, you are playing with fire when you start to talk yourself into modifying it, even a bit.  Once you have started down that path, you can talk yourself into “going all the way”, and then you’ve gone too far (and better off having never gone there at all).

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Great points, Kurt.  I guess it is possible that they were thinking about SEO when they make this decision.  We have seen the serendipity, though, of those misspellings in search results, as you point out.  After all, people search in their natural voice – not that of some nameless “mechanical turk”.

    And I completely agree with your other comments – great points.

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Great points, Kurt.  I guess it is possible that they were thinking about SEO when they make this decision.  We have seen the serendipity, though, of those misspellings in search results, as you point out.  After all, people search in their natural voice – not that of some nameless “mechanical turk”.

    And I completely agree with your other comments – great points.

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Very interesting story, Jason.  Thank you for sharing.  And I couldn’t agree more than letting freedom ring (with authentic conversation, online or offline).

  • http://twitter.com/bazaarbrett Brett Hurt

    Very interesting story, Jason.  Thank you for sharing.  And I couldn’t agree more than letting freedom ring (with authentic conversation, online or offline).

  • http://www.search-werks.com Kurt Krake

    I can’t help but think there is a tie between Zappos decisions to edit and the articles mentioned by Ben previously about Google.  Althought its probably not the only reason, its quite likely that Google influenced Zappos’ move.

    In the articles, its suggested that Google is using spelling and grammar as part of ranking algorithm calculations. From the perspective of Google, it makes sense that they would be moving this direction. With the recent Panda update being a strong signal of their intent, Google has been on a march towards enhancing results for better quality. Rightly so, because if Google search results grow a reputation for returning spam and low quality content over and over, users will naturally gravitate with a few simple keystrokes to Bing and other alternatives (see Altavista, Lycos, etc circa 1998).  Low quality results are a real threat to Google and they have endured several high profile stories related to quality questions in the last 6 months (ie. the New York Times story “A Bully Finds a Pulpit” 11/26/10 regarding a business owner who was intentionally harassing customers on the premise that it enhanced his website rank on Google).  Thus, Google is highly sensitive to the subject right now more than ever.

    With that said, it seems to me that editing posts is overkill when trying to enhance quality.  First, lets remember that UGC is written in the voice of the user and one of the benefits of UGC is the potential to rank on common misspells and similar other language “errors”.  Beyond the search aspect of the issue though lies the most important factor…authenticity. UGC is about people sharing information and although it feels benign, minor edits of any kind violate that principle in my opinion. Making sure the writer and readers can trust the content far outweigh any benefits that come from boosting quality for search rankings or to make it more readable.  Additionally, in the Google Webmaster Forums post that seems to have triggered some part of this issue, “Quality – Community –
    Spelling?” (5/14/11), Googler JohnMu said that he would think it “a bit weird” to modify posts as well. 

  • Anonymous

    The populist within Neil Postman was just resurrected from the grave. I would even go so far as to say that you’ve addressed the age old dichotomy between the unearthly ideal form (Plato) and reality (Aristotle.) Maybe the latter is a stretch, but the former, culturally speaking, is dead on. 

    A couple of years ago, I was contracted to perform a communications audit for a credit union. The central feature of their communication plan was an analog newsletter. For members, they mailed the newsletter. For employees it was hand delivered. The newsletter was written and designed by one person. Four to five people were responsible for internal distribution. Members were sent the newsletter by mail. 
    I decided to investigate the newsletter first because, by design, it enjoyed the largest audience. Management thought I was crazy and considered terminating the contract. After explaining that I was in fact crazy, the newsletter represented the biggest opportunity for win and awesome because communication is the precursor to action. Without communication: uncertainty, hesitancy, and doubt.

    While the audience was large, readership was nil, especially amongst members. On the other hand, employees when asked about the newsletter’s contents were apparently well informed. So, I observed the distribution of the newsletter to employees.

    Patterns emerged. Invariably, those employees tasked with distributing the newsletter were asked by their peers about the content of the newsletter and a conversation ensued. At the most well informed branch, the intern was responsible for distributing the newsletter. After being asked a number of times, over a number of months to verbalize the contents of the newsletter, he started to compose songs summarizing the newsletter.

    I made the simple suggestion of moving away from an analog newsletter, suggested the intern start producing videos.

    The intern was eventually hired and has since been promoted to management. He is responsible for all MarComm.

    The members were trickier. But after observing a couple of members come into the branch, newsletter in tow, to inquire about a new financial product or service (empirical proof in hand) I found my candidates for credit union ambassadors, many of whom had been members for over a decade. They understood and knew the institutional memory of the credit union better than the branch manager who had only been there three years. Eventually, the newsletter was exclusively member driven. One contributing member in particular was dyslexic; this was a source of constant consternation with the editor of the newsletter, another member, but in not wanting to be insensitive, the editor never addressed it openly. Instead she sent me an email about the weather, “how are you?”, oh and “what should I do about all of the misspellings?” So, I suggested she stop editing his portion of the newsletter and start rewarding the misspellings. Management thought I was crazy.

    I set up a web form within their customer account portal and promoted the misspellings. The first 50 members to log-in to their account and name the two misspellings in the newsletter would receive _______. They’ve since coupled that portion of the site with new product announcements, services and holiday reminders.

    Every month when that newsletter goes out, the credit union receives approximately 9200 site visits.

    Member retention is 97% (people die and move.) Month over month, product sales have increased by 53%. They’ve even established a new member welcome committee and financial literacy program for high school and college students.

    They enjoy a real community. Members and employees literally know one another by name. The catalyst was an ugly newsletter.

    The latent consequence of a false sense of control quashes individuality and diversity, which in turn destroys community. (Translation for you financially minded folks: Your false sense of control will force you to fly economy for the rest of your life.) 

    Save the sanitization for the water closet. Let freedom ring and resonate.

  • Ben

    This reminded me of another post I read earlier this week talking about Google Scribe. The author drew the conclusion that Google is starting to take into account spelling and grammar more and more when determining site quality, working in content quality into the algorithm. Your argument here makes a lot of sense, and I would never argue in favor of editing user generated content to the point where it loses its original tone and texture, but I also believe fixing very simple and obvious spelling and grammar errors can’t hurt (a comma here or a there/their fix). What do you think?

  • http://readwriteandlive.wordpress.com/ Jenna M.

    I have to agree with you in that error-filled comments turn me off. General public readers tend to overlook these “minor” details, but as a writer/editor I naturally want to jump in and make the proper changes.

    That being said, the company I work for does not make such changes on reviews. Creative voice is essential. If someone decided not to buy a pair of shoes because a review wasn’t grammatically correct, I think the point of product reviews has been lost somewhere.

  • Wrytir

    I understand the traditional urge of “unidirectional marketing” to deliver clean copy in support of a brand’s presence, online or not. At the same time, typing errors and poor grammar are common for the majority of those who comment on blogs, articles or Facebook. Even I’m guilty of it, though 99% of mine come from thumb typing on my smart phone screen.

    Blanket cleansing should be left to formal, one-way pieces.
    If every comment I read in a thread about a brand is nearly perfectly crafted, I immediately assume the feed has been moderated in some way, put through some brand’s marketing filter. Such cleansing diminishes the positive claims for me.

    On the flip side, successive, error-filled comments turn me off because as a writer, I find even a few of these posts excruciating to absorb. My instinct to correct subdues my ability to comprehend the point being made, if any.

    A balance of the two implies authenticity — some people write well, others don’t … and everyone has an opinion. I do believe that if a blog’s comments are moderated, it is okay to make minor punctuation edits for clarity. In many posts I read, people omit a period or comma and can be temporarily uncomfortable with capital letters. Minor tweaks of that nature, while not changing the poster’s language or intent, make reading the post just once sufficient. I have better things to do than to reread a poorly constructed post to determine the author’s real meaning, but the curious part of me can’t help it.