Negative Reviews are Good for You

Negative Reviews are Good for You


4 min read

I was recently listening to the early episodes of my favorite Star Trek podcast, and the hosts talked about the unfairness of a particularly nasty Apple Podcast review. One star, paired with a snide comment about the show. One of the hosts was confused: why would anyone who this show clearly isn’t for leave a rating?

At first, I —ever the partisan Trekkie listener— agreed. These early reviews matter so much. Why would anyone who didn’t even like the show mess it up for them?

But then, I realized why we, as the owners of the products being reviewed like this, are so often frustrated: we’re confusing our innate understanding of our product with what we position it as in the marketplace.

When people review a product online, they are not necessarily reviewing the product itself but rather how well the reality of using the product matches their perception of what they were expecting. Imagine you write a novel that claims to be “the next Jurassic Park” but doesn’t have dinosaurs in it, although there is a T-Rex on the cover — yeah, that’s the kind of discrepancy that annoys people enough to go for the 1-star rating.

This disconnect between expectation and reality leads to this tension in product reviews, which can be particularly challenging for founders or creators who own the product being reviewed. The further reality and hopeful positioning of the product are apart, the worse it gets.

And the problem is that we, as founders, can be incredibly blind to this.

We see a good review and think that that person gave 5 stars for the show’s quality or content, but these probably aren’t the actual reasons they mustered the energy to review. It’s much more likely that they had a particular expectation for the show and then gave it five stars because it met that expectation (or one star if it did not.) Of course, this is highly confusing for us and makes us feel that the review doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of our work.

And they’re right: it doesn’t. But it adequately depicts how much your marketing is hitting the mark — or altogether missing it.

The reality is that people are more likely to leave a review when they have an extremely positive or negative reaction. They feel much more motivated to leave a review if they feel they have enjoyed the show immensely or if they feel they have been misled. This is tough for creators who have put a lot of time and effort into creating something they believe is really good but are not receiving positive reviews due to unrealistic expectations in their would-be listeners.

But these are expectations we —as creators— set for our listeners, viewers, and readers. And at some point in our journey, we usually discover that we have control over those expectations.

It truly boils down to the positioning of your product. Let’s stick with podcasts here: if a show about entrepreneurship is marketed as a great beginner podcast for founders but then covers advanced topics that are not relevant to beginners, it can lead to confusion and disappointment among eager wantrepreneur listeners. They may assume that they can learn everything they need to know about starting a business from the podcast but instead find themselves wasting time with something that is clearly geared towards more experienced founders once they actually listen to an episode.

None of this is novel or groundbreaking. Misleading advertising has always been a source of trouble. But this is an unintentional divergence between what a thing is and what it’s seen as. As founders, we have incredible difficulty looking at our own work from an outsider’s perspective.

The solution? Eat those reviews. Take them not as a sign of your failure to create but failure to clearly communicate what you made. A review is feedback, and whether you like it or not, it’s something to act on. It’s tangible evidence that your work evoked something in a person who thought it would be for them.

And on occasion, it was not for them. So when we reflect on the reviews that our products and services receive, we need to be aware of this tension between expectation and reality. Our customers see what they see and tell us what they feel. We must stay mindful of how we position our products in the marketplace and ensure that our messaging aligns with the experience our customers will receive.

As founders, it’s our responsibility to see our own products through the eyes of our customers. We can use good and bad reviews to our advantage; they are valuable feedback that comes from a strong emotional reaction to our work. And feedback like this is the best antidote to our ignorance.

I give negative reviews 5 stars.

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