Whose stars shine brighter?

Study finds lower-ranked customer reviewers have more pull with online shoppers
A cartoon image of balancing scale


  • Customer reviewers with a high status on sites like Amazon are not as influential on sales as product marketers perceive them to be.
  • In one study of new music sales, lower-ranked reviewers who didn’t post as often had more influence than top-ranked reviewers.
  • Marketers need to be cautious when they use reviewer ranking as the only measure of an online influencer.

Top-ranked customer reviewers don’t always hold the key to boosting online sales, according to new research by Terry College of Business marketing professor Elham Yazdani.

Online shoppers read and pay attention to customer reviews on sites such as Amazon for guidance and validation before clicking the “Buy Now” button.

Reviewers with badges, such as “top 50 reviewer,” next to their names on e-commerce sites typically are seen as those who generate a high volume of influential word of mouth and earn positive feedback, such as “helpfulness” ratings voted on by online users.

But reviewers who don’t post as often have more influence on purchasing decisions, according to the study, which analyzed new music album sales.

“What we are showing is that the people with these badges are not the ones who are more influential on product sales,” said Yazdani, an assistant professor whose research specialty is online word of mouth and social networks.

The paper, “Preaching to the Choir: The Chasm between Top-Ranked Reviewers, Mainstream Opinion, and Product Sales,” was published in the journal Marketing Science in 2018.

The study used designated market area sales data for 182 albums released over a three-month period in 2014 and user review data from Amazon.com.

Analyzing the same type of data and reviews of camera products bore the same results, showing that the study’s findings can extend beyond a specific product category like music. While Amazon was the focus of the study, other e-commerce sites also use a ranking algorithm for customer reviewers.

Marketers need to be cautious when they use the reviewer ranking as the only measure of opinion leadership, or in measuring an influencer network, Yazdani said. Some top reviewers, for example, are targeted by different brands or manufacturers to receive gifts or free products in exchange for a product review.

“This shows that using the reviewer ranking alone is not a good measure of influence on sales,” she said.

Marketers should look at not only the reviewer ranking on an e-commerce site but the content of the reviews. Posts by top-ranked reviewers typically are longer and have more complete sentences with punctuation than lower-ranked reviewers. The reviews tend to be more formal, but are not as social and are less persuasive in general, the study found.

“It’s not always the status or the badge of the reviewer,” Yazdani said. “The content matters.”

Another factor that she said marketers should consider is how long the product has been out. Ultimately, top-ranked reviewers may have the most influence on sales when the product is just released, at the genesis of the sales cycle.

“As the product is aging, their influence is going down,” Yazdani said.

The paper was co-authored by Yazdani, Shyam Gopinath of Indiana University and Stephen J. Carson of the University of Utah.