Reverse-Engineering User Reviews

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🗓️ Publish Date
January 5, 2007
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Which would you rather hear a user rave about in a review... your product or your company? How should they describe you? I've seen a lot of startups analyze their competitor's bad reviews... to look for opportunities where the competitor's product or company is screwing up. But we can learn even more from analyzing the good reviews. This little exercise has made a huge difference for us, and it might help you too.

The homework assignment we give our new authors before they come to a bootcamp workshop is this:

1) Write your ideal review--the detailed review you'd most like to see from a user.

2) Analyze the positive (in this case, 5-star only) reviews of one of the other books in the series then analyze the positive reviews of the closest competitor for that book. (Make sure you pick one that has at least 40 reviews to get more data).

3) Describe how closely each set matches your ideal review, and what the differences are.

4) Describe any differences between the two sets.

We believe this homework has been been the single most important part of our process, although we often do a several-hour debrief/discussion about what they come up with. And of course when we're done with the exercise, the rest of our effort is in figuring out what to do to cause us to get those ideal reviews.


Try doing just #1, right now. I mean it, stop and write your ideal user review. Make it detailed, at least a few paragraphs. Think about it.

I'll wait.

I'll trust that you've done it ; )Now, did your ideal user review focus on the product or the company? What did they talk about?



I'm sure most of you already know that the question was a trick. We don't want our users talking about the company or the product. All that matters is how they feel about themselves as a result of interacting with our product. How they feel about us has little impact on whether they'll become loyal (let alone passionate) users. All that matters is what we've helped them do or be.

So, when you analyze user reviews, look for first-person language. Look for the word "I". Do a statistical analysis on the number of times users talked about something they were able to do as a result, rather than a run-down of oh-how-great-this-company-is. View your competitor's positive reviews the same way.

For us, we look for other book-specific things as well. For example, we analyze the number of times reviewers use the author's first name vs. last name vs. both, and then we compare that to our competitors. I'll leave you to consider why that matters to us. We also look for more emotionally-tinged language.


Everyone connected with your product or service should sit down and write their ideal user review. And if it's nothing but raves about how fabulous the product or company is, there's a problem. In our case--with technical learning books--an author with a goal of what readers will think about the book or the author can lead to a book that's bad for the user (too advanced, too much content, etc.)

If you're creating something to win awards, or to impress people, or to gain praise and recognition, that might lead to an award-winning, impressive product that leaves the user behind. I hear a lot of companies claim to care about what the user thinks, but they're still focused on what the user thinks of them or the product. I don't want people to praise us. I want them to thank us for helping them earn the praise of others.

I mean it. Have your employees do this exercise. Count the number of times the employee's ideal review includes the word "I" (or rather, does NOT include the word "I"). It's enlightening.