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Reading Between the Stars: Understanding the Effects of Online Customer Reviews on Product Demand

Journal Article
Problem definition: many studies have examined quantitative customer reviews (i.e., star ratings) and found them to be a reliable source of information that has a positive effect on product demand. Yet the effect of qualitative customer reviews (i.e., text reviews) on demand has been less thoroughly studied, and it is not known whether (or how) the sentiment expressed in text reviews moderates the influence of star ratings on product demand. The authors are therefore led to examine how the interplay between review sentiment and star ratings affects product demand. Academic/practical relevance: consumer perceptions of product quality — and how they are shared via customer reviews — are of extreme relevance to the firm, but one still does not understand how product demand is affected by the quantitative and qualitative aspects of customer reviews. The authors' paper seeks to fill this critical gap in the literature by analyzing star ratings, the sentiment of customer reviews, and their interaction. Methodology: using 2002–2013 data for the US automobile market, the authors investigate empirically the impact of star ratings and review sentiment on product demand. Thus, they estimate an aggregated multinomial choice model after performing a machine learning–based sentiment analysis on the entire corpus of customer reviews included in their sample. The authors take advantage of a quasiexogenous shock to establish a causal link between online reviews and product demand. Results: the authors find robust empirical evidence that (i) review sentiment and star ratings both have a decreasingly positive effect on product demand and (ii) the effect (on demand) of their interaction suggests that the two components of reviews are complements. Positive sentiments in text reviews increase the positive effect of ratings when the effect of ratings is decidedly positive while they also compensate for the tendency of consumers to discount extremely high star ratings. Managerial implications: the firm should pay greater attention to quantitative and qualitative customer reviews so that it can better understand how consumers perceive the quality of its offerings.
Faculty

Professor of Technology and Operations Management

Professor of Technology and Operations Management