Neutral Online Reviews Are Not Neutral: They Change How Consumers Perceive Positive and Negative Reviews

Jul 30, 2014, 15:30 ET from American Marketing Association

CHICAGO, July 30, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A recent study challenged most people's implicit perception that neutral reviews have no impact on sales, and unveiled that neutral reviews are not neutral as they appear. They can change people to perceive positive and negative reviews, thus influence sales.

Although businesses have recognized the value of online reviews for monitoring consumer interests, social media monitoring tools only track positive and negative sentiments, while overlook the large amount of neutral  reviews, which comprise about 50% of the online reviews (Table 1). The ignorance of neutral contents is due to the opinion that neutral reviews show no inclination to recommend or dis-recommend a product, and have no impact on sales.

Distributions of Positive, Negative, and Neutral Reviews on Facebook and YouTube

Review Sentiment

Monthly Average Number


Standard Deviation













However, according to Tanya Tang, a marketing assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the coauthors, Eric Fang from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Feng Wang from Hunan University, "The existence of neutral reviews can put a significant influence in shaping consumers' motivation and ability of perceiving positive and negative reviews. The effects of positive and negative reviews on product sales are substantially underestimated (overestimated) by 66%–70% (85%–92%) if mixed (indifferent) neutral reviews are ignored."

The study differentiated two types of neutral reviews: mixed neutral that contains a balanced positive and negative evaluation of product attributes (Figure 1a) from indifferent neutral that includes neither positive nor negative evaluations (Figure 1b). The analysis in the July 2014 issue of the American Marketing Association's Journal of Marketing found that mixed neutral contains conflicting attitudes about a product and are perceived as controversial and diagnostic, thus increase consumers' motivation and ability to process more positive and negative reviews to reduce such conflicts. Whereas, indifferent neutral may lead consumers to lose the desire to receive more positive and negative reviews, because substantial indifferent neutral conflicts with both positive and negative reviews, which discredit their claims.

Businesses and social media monitoring vendors should include neutral reviews as a dimension in their social media monitoring metrics. It's important to differentiate mixed from indifferent neutrality. Given the fact that mixed neutral enhances, while indifferent neutral hurts sales, businesses can solicit an evaluation from both positive and negative sides to facilitate mixed while suppress indifferent neutral reviews, helping online review readers quickly build an overall knowledge structure about the products, and motivating them to read more online reviews.

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SOURCE American Marketing Association