Word of Mouth or Cyber Bully?

I’m hearing more and more conversations crop up lately from small business owners who say dissatisfied customers with even an ounce of Internet savvy can create an unfair disadvantage for their businesses. They argue customers are too quick to zap off a bad review, poor rating, or negative ‘word of mouth’ without ever giving the business a chance to make it right. “Feedback is a gift,” business owners claim. “And I never even got to open it until it was too late.” I can’t help wondering if it’s more like a party too many businesses don’t pay attention to until a hundred people jump out of the dark and yell “Surprise!” Either way, these highly visible online rants and ratings of the unhappy and dissatisfied can be a real detriment to acquiring new customers. And some businesses are crying, “Cyber bully!” 

But are they really? Let me take it closer to home: enter the novice or mid-list author. These author folks may feel a similar squeeze when negative comments or one-star ratings crop up for their books at various reader/author social networking sites or online booksellers—sometimes even before the book is released and based solely on how excited someone is (or isn’t) to read the book. Add the rumor of authors gaming the system by soliciting everyone and their brother for 4 and 5 star ratings and by low-balling competitors’ titles, and you can see why authors can be squeamish about the power of word of mouth on the Internet. At its best, it works for you. At its worst, not so much.

But does that mean people who scatter low ratings like jellybeans at an Easter egg hunt—with or without commentary to support them—are really abusing the author? Don’t readers realize how much power they wield, how much of a boon or a detriment their ratings could be for an emerging author? 

Probably not. And not only is it a bad idea to police the system, I think it’s futile to try. Internet word of mouth is organic in nature. Those who trust and value the opinions of others will continue to seek them out, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for everyone. Just like when we write we make positive assumptions about our reader’s intelligence and ability to follow our stream of consciousness, we shouldn’t underestimate the sensibility of those same readers when it comes to their ability to sort through the good, the bad and the ugly reviews. I like to think unless the negative rating came from a highly trusted or personal source, most prospective readers toss out the outliers and look for themes anyway.

What about you? As a reader, how much do negative ratings influence your decision to try a new author?

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