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Whose Rating Is It, Anyway?

Tamar Avnet’s Research Analyzes How Online Reviewers Rate Their Experiences

Online reviews: whether you’re booking a vacation rental or deciding what airline to fly, ratings from other customers are an essential resource for modern consumers. But exactly how do reviewers determine how many stars a product or company deserves, and what influences their thinking?

Dr. Tamar Avnet Dr. Tamar Avnet

According to a new study by Dr. Tamar Avnet, associate professor of marketing at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, and her colleagues—Dr. Anne Laurie-Seller of HEC Paris and Dr. Shiri Melumad of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—online reviewers fall into two categories: “clock-timers,” who prioritize efficiency or competence, and “event-timers,” who prioritize ambiance or atmosphere.

“Clock-timers—people who schedule tasks based on what time it is on the clock—will reflect more on, and give a higher rating based on, the competency of the service and other functional aspects of the experience,” said Avnet. “For example: Was the room ready on time? Did the dishes arrive in a punctual manner? Were they reasonably priced?” But for event-timers—those who schedule tasks based on their logical order of performance—ambiance and other atmospheric components of the experience are more important. For instance: “Were there flowers in the room? Did it have a nice view? Was the food presented well? Was the waiter friendly?”

Avnet’s research, which is an invited paper for the Journals of Association of Consumer Research, offers a few suggestions for why this is the case. “Event-timers have a heightened ability to ‘savor’ an experience, or ‘be in the moment,’ so the components of an interaction that impact their sensory experience of it are important—like beauty, ” said Avnet. “For clock-timers, the state of mind that they’re in is more about how functional something is. It’s more important to them that the food comes on time than that the dining room looks nice.”

By analyzing reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, as well as conducting studies based on constructed scenarios, Avnet and her colleagues determined that not only are clock-timers and event-timers more likely to give higher reviews to services that match their respective priorities, but the same is true of those reading the reviews they write, as well.

“Clock-timers reading reviews are more likely to be influenced by content that discusses the efficiency of an experience, while event-timers are more likely to be influenced by reviews that talk about the affective aspects of that experience,” said Avnet—which means that they’re likely to select services that demonstrate better ratings in either competence or ambiance, depending on how they experience time.

What does this research mean for businesses? "The fact that chronic scheduling style influences the content preferred by consumers reading online reviews allows marketers and managers to screen and filter reviews in a way that will present to their readers only those reviews that are relevant to them," Avnet said. "Meanwhile, the fact that scheduling styles can be primed or shifted also opens an exciting opportunity for managers and marketers to match the content of the reviews of their products to the appropriate scheduling style. For example, if a company is rated very highly on competence terms then it would behoove them to shift their online customers temporarily toward clock-style when reading and writing reviews, while if a company is rated very highly on ambiance, then it would benefit them to shift their online consumers temporarily toward a more event-style scheduling."