The Evolution of Customer Reviews in the Era of Social Media

The Evolution of Customer Reviews in the Era of Social Media

By Robson Albuquerque 
Edited by Kaitlin Ward and Andrijana Trajanovska

Have you noticed how the ways in which your customers leave reviews have changed in the past five, ten, fifteen years? What about how the content of those reviews has evolved?

Traditionally, when customers wanted to publicly share their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a product they tried or a service they received, - i.e., a customer review - they could do so in a few ways:  Customers interested in giving feedback to a restaurant or hotel would write a letter to the owner or manager, or, occasionally, there would be an impression book so patrons could write about their experiences before leaving. Some other establishments might even have a comment box in which people could anonymously drop off their compliments, complaints or other myriad comments. With any of these methods, the customers’ feedback would be only known to the business, and future clientele would be unaware of these ideas and impressions, or they wouldn’t notice or feel the impact and influence of the input.

 Salant Hotel Guestbook 1893-1920, The National Library of Israel

Salant Hotel Guestbook 1893-1920, The National Library of Israel

Not surprisingly, just like other forms of communication, the customer review process has evolved since the advent of the internet. In the digital era, many restaurants or hotels have their own review sidebars on their websites, and it is not unusual for there to also be a web-form for customer testimonials, thereby expanding the reviews’ reach to more potential customers.  

However, in the past decade, the biggest game changers for customer reviews have been online review platforms (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon Customer Reviews and ConsumerReports) as well as social media platforms (Twitter and Facebook). Your customers can now do that one thing they always wanted - share their sentiments with countless others, not only with you.

The Sentiments

Now, consumers are increasingly more empowered and their reviews’ influence is greater and wider. Social media platforms have provided consumers with powerful tools such as hashtags, icons, and emoticons to express and share a wide range of sentiments about almost anything.

Food-related icons


Food & Emotion-related icons


The informality of social media also allows people to express their sentiments more freely and spontaneously. These sentiments are often shared from home -- a less intimidating and more unbiased location.

Most importantly, these sentiments, be they positive or negative, stick like glue; they "fly around" on social media, influencing others for a long time. 

Photo by tumsasedgars/iStock / Getty Images

Number of posts by each hashtag on Instagram

#restaurant           1,176,686 posts

 #food             249,900,909 posts

#steak                  7,849,579 posts

Positive and Negative

Typically, customers are seen as either leaving positive or negative feedback, i.e., 'compliments' or 'complaints'.

They leave compliments when they feel loyal to your brand; they engage with it and genuinely wish for it to grow. They identify with the essence of your brand and model, and they consider themselves a part of its fan base. Customers who leave positive comments on online forums do so in order to also interact with other supporters of your brand with whom they share the same passions, hobbies or interests. These customers, in a way, become your brand’s ambassadors and advocate for others to try your products and become part of your online following.

On the flip side, customers can also post negative comments when they feel disappointed, betrayed or simply when their expectations were not met. They would do this, not only to warn others not to make the same “mistake” as them, but also sometimes because they sincerely wish to help your business improve.

However, in a mission to uncover and understand what customers are really doing as they write a review, Breviscope has found that the compliment vs. complaint dichotomy is too narrow a scope.  In fact, we are finding that customer reviews entail a lot of subtle but powerful nuance within and beyond these two categories, most of which is implicitly stated:

What customers additionally do as they write a review

express emotions

express agreements and disagreements

describe an event

persuade someone

recommend something

make a suggestion

We recognize that, while some reviews can be short (and therefore more manageable), many of them may be very long. Reading them can be time-consuming for a businessperson who is already absorbed in the other aspects of running a company, and even skimming them doesn’t make it easier to synthesize the highlights and lowlights of all the customers’ sentiments and ideas – some businesses have hundreds or thousands of reviews! In fact, answering relatively straight-forward questions, such as,” What is the main message from my customers?” or “Has this message changed in the past year?” becomes a challenge.

Breviscope has found that customers may write a review that can be as short as 1 single word and as long as 350 words.

Every day last year, there were 75 billion items of content posted on Facebook, 400 million tweets on Twitter, 2 billion photos on Instagram and 4 billion videos watched on YouTube. These numbers are only expected to grow.

It is a real eye-opener when you realize that a not insignificant percentage of such content is made up of customer reviews -- some of which are about your business! So, make it a priority to take into consideration your customers' sentiments – it can take your business to the next level.

Robson Albuquerque is a linguist and discourse analyst with extensive international experience. He holds two Master of Arts from Montclair State University in New Jersey and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Freie Universität Berlin. One of his interests includes the investigation of persuasion and concession strategies on social media. In addition to his studies, Albuquerque previously analyzed institutional discourse in the fields of medicine, law, and customer service. He is currently collecting customer sentiments on social media focusing on steaks and Airbnb accommodation.

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