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Ratings vs Sentiment: What really matters?

Shannon Ah Tow / September 16, 2021

User-generated content powers social media and serves as a powerful tool in the growing realm of digital consumerism. Electronic word of mouth or eWoM identifies as ratings and reviews on multiple social media and aggregator platforms that sell products and services. A solo post-experience judgment of a random consumer may not enjoy the credibility and heft to sway the decision about whether or not to make a purchase but, the collective opinion of a multitude of customers in the form of reviews and ratings is something that will matter immensely. 

It serves as social proof of whether the purchase met, exceeded, or fell short of expectations, and the higher the opinions shared could equate to the accuracy of the truth expressed. What needs to be under- scored is that reviews and ratings are two entirely different beasts; ratings are an off-the-cuff summary judgment whereas, reviews are an expressive opinion of the post-purchase experience.

The more discerning among the customers checking out eWoM will not limit their judgment based on the ratings alone. The insecurity lies in that some business owners tend to rest their laurels on the deceptively easy-to-understand rating scores, thus missing out on getting in-depth insights into the collective gist of the customer experience echoed in the reviews.

Ratings, usually depicted in a series of five stars, are based on first sight impressions and purportedly easy to interpret. Scientifically called a categorical scale, such ratings lend themselves to subjective bias. 

For instance, a standard of service or product quality that has met expectations could be rated a 5- Star by one consumer and 4* by another. 

As research has shown,  subjectivity as such is contingent upon the reviewers’ demographics, psychographics, and webo-graphics, thus, making the average rating score a hostage to the vagaries of these attributes –  needless to say, the ratings reveal little about the experience.

“Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” — Abraham Lincoln

Reviews, on the other hand, are opinionated. The more wholesome among them tend to include the good, the bad, and the ugly about a purchased product or service. The contextual attribution conveyed in the information expressed allows for a more in-depth understanding of the reviewer’s sentiment about the purchased product or service. 

At first glance, the sentiments in the reviews can seem diffused and hard to quantify-  in comparison to the seemingly easier interpretation of the ratings however, advances in NLP (natural language processing) a branch of computer science allows a fairly robust capability to gauge sentiments of multiple attributes within the same review.

For example, ‘the meal was great, but the service was poor’ provides two contrasting sentiments (great and poor) about two individual attributes (meal and service). The ability to quantify sentiment from multiple reviews in multiple languages to this level of granularity allows businesses to pinpoint areas of improvement and identify their core strengths for the reviewed products or services. The bottom line is that businesses that really care about customer experience should pay way more attention to the sentiment than to the ratings. Going back to Abraham Lincoln quote, without it, nothing can succeed.

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