Testimony is a formal or informal statement that reflects the characteristics of an individual, organization, or service. The term testimony is used often by a business when they gather and manage testimonies regarding their services. Testimonials that are owned and managed by a third party is a type of testimony known as a review.
Testimonials have shaped consumerism by subconsciously influencing our decision making. Consumers are unaware of the legitimacy of many testimonies, yet rely on them for everyday purchase decisions. Testimonials bring up a number of ethical concerns including effects on consumers and organizations, along with accuracy in representation and authenticity issues.
- 1 History
- 2 Reliability
- 3 Ethics
- 4 References
Before the Internet
Testimonials were only exchanged between relatives, friends, and co-workers before the introduction of the internet. Recommendations were given and opinions were offered. Services given by new businesses were at a higher risk to the consumer. Consumers tend to go with familiarity rather than the unknown. When testimonials from peers framed a service from a business or a product as below par is when new business earned the opportunity to differentiate and provide their services.
There was a lot of risk for new businesses as any misstep could result in the consumer talking ill about their service or product. Yet, exceeding expectations creates the opportunity for recommendations and improved business in the consumers' network.
Testimonials did not impact consumers outside of previous customers’ networks. New consumers were persuaded by marketing and marketers decided to meet expectations of that service or product.
The Age of the Internet
Online testimonials and reviews replaced the traditional method of word-of-mouth indication of the quality and have become the main form of forming a reputation. The term "Electronic Word of Mouth" (eWOM) is used to describe this form of information transfer.
The internet has allowed for testimonies to expand beyond individuals' network of peers to encompass every consumer interested or experienced with the service or product in question. Websites allow for reviews to be congregated into one location so that consumers can have a better understanding of a new product or service.
Ratings denoted by stars provide a numerical value that attributes to a service or product that allow consumers to compare between similar service or products. Ratings provide a condensed representation of the opinions within testimonials.  Ratings become an indicator of the content within all testimonials without the need of reading through each testimony without biases that aren't read by a prospective consumer.
Companies Using Testimonials
The emergence of online testimonials has allowed for numerous businesses to capitalize on creating platforms and services to best showcase these reviews. Some companies that offer testimonial services are listed below:
|Amazon.com||One of the worlds largest online e-commerce platforms. Amazon allows each product to have a review section and star rating.|
|Airbnb||AirBnb is a platform which allows people to both list and find rooms and homes for brief stays. Each host has a review section, where tenants can describe their experience while staying at their location.|
|Yelp||A platform where people can leave reviews on various companies and stores. Users can create profiles using a picture and their first name and last initial and afterward can leave reviews on any business they prefer.|
|Codeacademy||Students are able to share their experiences with CodeAcademy and possibly have them featured on the customer testimonials page for public viewing.|
|TripAdvisor||Users can leave reviews on hotels and other travel related entities. TripAdvisor testimonials are typically found when searching for travel plans and used for travellers to make the best choice for their plans.|
|Angie's List||People are able to leave detailed testimonials of companies and give a grade of A-F (rather than a star rating).|
There is no direct personal benefit to a reviewer when they write positively. This action is motivated by reciprocity by mutually exchanging a kind act after a business exceeds the expectation of the client. In doing so, the consumer returns the favor by writing a positive review.
Writing a negative review of a service or product allows the reviewer to play the role of damaging the image of the business. It satisfies the will for vengeance when they felt they were wronged. Humans feel the pain of a loss (in these cases of monetary value or time) and will act on it more than if they were to gain from the situation, known as Loss Aversion.
Filtering is the process of selecting testimonies that are displayed in an ordered list. The reader will read the reviews presented to them from the filtering process and read one or two reviews before establishing an opinion on the service or product. The dilemma arises when considering how to represent the reviews of a provided service or product that were pooled from the few reviews that the reader will read.
Weight is the differentiator of worth between one testimony to another. It is an important aspect when considering the order of how testimonials are filtered and deciding which first and second written testimonies to share with a consumer.
Aquiring Positive Testimonies
Businesses use different strategies in order to overcome the need for consumers to write positive testimonies.
- Providing incentives
- Paying for testimonies
- Writing positive Testimonies for one in return
- Asking directly to the consumer
These strategies aim to invoke the psychological response of reciprocity. It encourages the behavior of returning a favor the business went out of its way to do for the consumer. In this case, that action will be a positive testimony that will aid the growth of the business. Many review sites emphasize weight on recent reviews and these tactics are executed consistently to maintain a positive image for the brand.
In order to engage opinions of others based on their experiences, one must take into consideration of the author of testimonials. Individuals have certain biases that may affect their opinion on the service or product they received. What may be negative to one individual may not represent the feelings of the prospective consumer. It is also argued that for a positive review it may not indicate the same pleasures.
Authors may have various forms of motives. An author may have had some influence by the service or product in question to encourage a positive review. Reviews can also be created by the business staged as an unaffiliated individual.
There are motivations that incur negative testimonies. The author may have a gripe to something or someone that is affiliated with the service or product but doesn't concern the good itself (ie.a negative relationship with the owner). Another motivation can be from an individual that is from the same market to reduce the ratings of competing businesses.
There are many third party testimonial services that aggregate and display company reviews. Many of these services offer the ability to show the name of the customer who gave the testimonial, the option to add a picture, and even the method of how the testimonial was retrieved (via tweet, App Store review, Mail Letter, etc), in an attempt to increase author credibility.
Biases and Influencing
Storage of information cannot be completely relied upon in the human memory. While many believe that information can be retrieved as it was encoded, akin to a videotape, memory recall takes a broader view of the event(s) in question and returns only the underlying “summary” of the event in a way that makes sense to the individual. Individuals try to make sense of memories by fitting them into schemas, mental units of knowledge that are heavily influenced by social norms or prejudices. This aspect of memory makes testimonials a rather biased source of knowledge. Additionally, memory of events, products or services can be modified as well through different heuristics. The availability heuristic is a major factor where individuals will prefer experiences that are more easily brought to mind. An example of this is, if in a testimony a subject is asked for a long list of negatives and cannot fully populate the list as opposed to a short “top three” list, the subject will be influenced into having a more positive memory of the event. 
Effects on Consumers
One of the major reasons for the success of testimonials on consumers is rooted in psychology. The term implicit egotism describes a human's tendency to gravitate, people, places, and things that closely resemble themselves. Thus, when watching an advertisement on television people will more likely want a product if someone similar to them is speaking about how much it has helped them . Also, the reason why targeted advertisement is so effective, putting children's ads on a Nickelodeon and Disney is much more relatable than on Adult Swim. Additionally, a study published by Psychological Science showed that when given two products more people choose the one with online reviews and that 97% of consumers stated that online reviews influence their decision to purchase a product.
These results are incredibly relevant to testimonials and their effect of the public. Having this type of influence on consumers makes for ethical dilemmas. Not being honest in a review, paying for positive reviews, filtering out negative reviews and other tactics can result in skewed outcomes and do not follow ethical principles. Additionally, employing tactics such as these can lower the trust of reviews for everyone, and in time may change people's feeling towards relying on reviews. The impact and scope that testimonial on consumers is eye-opening and important for companies to consider when trying to use them in the promotion of their products.
Effects on Organization's and Individual's Services
Testimonials have become a new challenge for businesses. Since prospective consumers rely on reviews for persuasion, the combination of positive testimonies and high rankings is necessary. A negative review has a larger impact than a positive review because businesses make an effort to encourage their costumers to write them. Negative reviews are strictly voluntarily and promote only the faults of a business. Business can use these as constructive criticism, however negative reviews are accessible to everyone.
Whenever an individual feels the need to write a negative review, it tends to result in the lowest rank an individual can provide. Businesses have to combat the polarized ranking system by continuing to promote positive reviews. Promotion causes individuals to rank more modestly and does not necessarily equate to the highest rank. If the idea of writing a review was given by the business, the consumer wasn't likely overwhelmed by the service or product, but complacent enough to give it a relatively good review (as indicated by the graphic above with higher ratings in the third quartile).
The testimonial system has a fundamental flaw that it is voluntarily. It focuses on the opinions of two extremes and ignore the majority of consumers that hasn't bothered to offer an opinion. Businesses have to invest more resources so that the majority of the negative testimonials doesn't misrepresent their services. Hence, the testimonial system is very malleable and does not indicate an honest representation of the business.
Accuracy in Representation
The necessity of positive reviews has encouraged businesses shift their objective. The product is no longer the focus as it shifts to the increase in ratings. Superior products can be undermined by another company if they fail to encourage enough positive testimonies to counteract the few negative reviews they receive.
Consumers form an opinion toward a service or product based on the elements of a few testimonials that are filtered by the websites discretion and by the numerical rating. Both testimonies and ratings (a representation of testimonies) are interacted with incorrectly by the consumer. Considerations must be made based on relevancy, biases, and subjectivity to form an accurate representation of the service or product in question.
An objective representation of a product or service can only be achieved by personal experience. Negative reviews could demonstrate consistent faults within the service in the past, yet could've been eradicated. Businesses can continue to feel misrepresentations on occurrences of the past. Since businesses have lost control of their representation (or perceived identity) can constitute as unethical. The right of sharing information about oneself has been completely ignored. Information privacy is broken according to the Restricted Access/Limited Control Theory (RALC) and it should be to the discretion of the business to decide how it should be represented online.
Google Rating Bias
It has been widely claimed and investigated that Google's search as well as rating system is implicitly biased. Companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor felt that Google ratings were affecting their business and therefore decided to make a formal complaint to the European Commission to investigate Google themselves by claiming that Google was abusing its European stronghold illegally. In order to find evidence of this, Yelp themselves formed a coalition alongside other companies who shared their line of thinking. By creating a browser extension that supposedly filtered Google+ rating results, the Anti-Google coalition claimed to have created a tool that displayed strictly unbiased results. Google provided terms for what was called a European Antitrust Settlement that was subsequently rejected by the European Commission. The settlement included a fix for the search result issue that Yelp was disputing, by suggesting third party links on the side of their search results. This case is still ongoing, and in 2019, Google suggested renewed terms for the settlement. 
In January of 2019, Kevin Roose noticed that Facebook employees had left five star reviews of Facebook's portal product on Amazon. This raises the issues of authenticity, as well as bias. A company has economic incentive to receive positive reviews, so there is concern that reviews written by employees are biased in a positive direction. According to Bosworth, the head of Facebook's augmented-reality and virtual-reality divisions, the reviews were not directed, nor desired by the company. The reviews may have been authentic, in that the employees may very well have on their accord purchased and enjoyed the product. The issue with biased reviews, is that they erode trust in the review system.
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