The Power of Language in Word of Mouth Reviews



“Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” — Walt Disney
Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger sat down to discuss the impact of language in word of mouth reviews. Would someone feel as strongly about a choice if the reviewer said he or she liked a product versus recommends a product? Are you more likely to see a movie or buy a bottle of wine based on the language used by the reviewer?
Professor Berger says we’re all familiar with the power of word of mouth. We use both word of mouth and online reviews all the time to help us make purchase decisions. But is word of mouth always helpful?
For example, Professor Berger says imagine you’re talking movies with two people. One likes movie A, and the other person recommends movie B. Which movie are you likely to see, and do you think you’ll be happy with your choice? He says knowing a certain movie, or brand etc., has a certain number of likes isn’t as impactful as knowing it has a certain amount of recommendations.
His research found people are more likely to follow recommendations, though you may not end up liking the movie/brand so much. You ended up making a worse decision because you focused on “I recommend.” Professor Berger says this is a language device which suggests not only you like something, but you’re making an inference about what someone else likes as well. He notes Experts aren’t as willing to use the recommend language. They’re more likely to say “I like” something. The result is, if people end up listening to recommendations, which is often the case, they may sometimes end up making worse choices.
According to Professor Berger, a key takeaway for marketers is knowing a given movie or brand has a certain number of likes isn’t as impactful as knowing it has a certain number of recommendations. By subtly changing the language used, you can impact whether people follow that language or not. But, he warns, you need to be careful. You don’t want to encourage people to follow the wrong information. Are we just putting language out there, or are there other cues as well? Other cues which will allow people to get a better sense of whether this is good for this person, or might it be particularly good for me?
Professor Berger is the author of Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. He also coauthored the research paper How Language Shapes Word of Mouth’s Impact with Grant Packard. You can view his full comments here.