Recently, I’ve been researching a genre that’s closely related to online reviews, which is businesses’ responses to online reviews. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp provide a “right of reply” space for businesses to respond to reviews that have been posted about them. Usually, these responses appear directly below the review that they are responding to.
I’ve noticed that over the last 7 years – since I first began started studying online reviews – many, many more businesses have been taking advantage of these online spaces, and are using them as a tool to manage their reputations. This is likely due to the overall growth in the number of online reviews, as well as in their influence.
One of my students, Yi Zhang, and I carried out a study of the characteristic features of a set businesses’ responses posted on TripAdvisor by 4- and 5-star hotels in China, following up on negative consumer reviews. We found that these responses often take the format of a “traditional letter,” and are addressed to the specific individual who posted the complaint – even though their intended audience consists of a much larger group of “overhearers.” We also found that there were 8 communicative “moves” that appeared in nearly all of the responses in our sample, which means that even though this is a new online genre, it is nevertheless quite predictable and formulaic.
One thing that surprised us though was that about 40% of the responses did not refer back to the original complaint, and many of these responses tended to be pretty generic, or underspecified. In other words, these responses could apply to just about any type of problem, and could be “cut & pasted” in response to a number of different reviews. This made us wonder how readers react to these kinds of follow-up messages from businesses. Do they perceive them as less sincere than those which respond specifically to the issues discussed in the review? We think that some type of “reader response” study to follow up on our findings could be really interesting – and very useful for businesses who are interested in determining the most effective ways of managing their online reputations.
Our study will soon appear in the journal, Discourse, Context & Media. Yi and I will also be giving a presentation about our findings at the upcoming Association for Business Communication conference in Philadelphia.