The American showman P.T. Barnum understood the value of online consumer reviews well before the arrival of the internet when he said, “Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.” While consumer reviews generate buzz, they stop just short of being a circus because they’ve won immense levels of consumer trust. But two of the current contradictions inherent in online peer reviews potentially threaten consumers’ confidence — especially that of skeptical, empowered consumers.

  1. Reviews have many readers but few writers. Online ratings and reviews are among the most heavily used and influential purchase drivers for shoppers today because consumers trust peer-generated content. Our Consumer Technographics® data shows that eight in 10 US online adults reference ratings and reviews, and 36% prefer customer reviews to professional reviews. Consumers lean on peer-generated posts especially when making high-stakes purchases: 28% rely on them for big purchases more than for everyday items. But these consumers are trusting content generated by only a tiny slice of the population: Only about 10% of US online adults actually write ratings and reviews — and these reviewers tend to be young, single males with medium to high incomes.

  1. Reviews are subjective, but consumers see them as objective truth. Consumers seek peer ratings and reviews because they believe these are more authentic and accurate than other sources. As one member of Forrester’s ConsumerVoices market research online community said, “I like reviews that are created by consumers like me — this is the best way to get a full range of honest information.” (Female, 25 to 34 years old) But recent headlines alert consumers to the fact that fake reviews are rampant, and studies show that consumer reviews dramatically change across contexts: For instance, customer ratings on Uber and Airbnb skew highly positive, while ratings for the same experience on other sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor score lower.

For the most empowered consumers, a crowd is no longer a mark of a trustworthy brand or quality product. More than stars or upvotes, consumers seek authenticity and validation from a like-minded community before purchasing a product. Marketers have an opportunity to drive engagement and preserve trust in online peer reviews by encouraging more consumers to advocate for the brand. Research by my colleague Chris Collins shows that consumers would post reviews if they felt brands valued, rewarded, or acknowledged them. In the words of one ConsumerVoices member, “I feel respected and appreciated when a company asks me to review or critique their products or services.” (Female, 25 to 34 years old)

In his recent report, my colleague Dipanjan Chatterjee reminds us that “Community creates belonging and drives intrinsic resonance. Leading brands that build attachment create an emotional connection.” Marketers and retailers must be aware of the inconsistencies of online peer reviews that can fracture consumer confidence; they must build a strong customer feedback loop that strengthens the sense of community and reinforces trust. A ConsumerVoices member sums this up: “Reviews are all to do with emotion. If they make me feel emotionally secure, safe, and comforted with a product, then I will look beyond other factors like price and convenience to make the purchase.” (Female, 45 to 54 years old)

To access the full Forrester Analytics study on consumer ratings and reviews, email us at