If a consumer wants to find out about a video game, all they have to do is type the name of that game into a search engine to find countless reviews of it on websites, blogs, and streaming video sites. What they probably won’t find, however, is a playable demo of the game, which would tell them what they really want to know: is it fun, and do they want to play it?
This is because of something that a group of researchers refers to as “infomediary” portals designed to help inform consumers. An informed consumer is supposed to be a good consumer, and the various review sites that exist are generally well-intended, but they may actually be doing consumers a disservice.
The study, published in December 2016’s Journal of Management Information Systems, finds that products that get many reviews end up with less information being put forth by the manufacturer. Because the reviews tell consumers whether or not an item “fits” them, the makers of that product don’t have to put as much time or budget into marketing.
“Clearly the infomediary means well. But its actions can cause the manufacturer to scale back and post less product information on its own site. This enables the manufacturer to save on marketing costs, though at the same time it leaves consumers with less overall information than they would have received in the absence of the infomediary,” said study co-author Ravi Aron of Johns Hopkins University.
The researchers cited a 2008 study about shoes as one example. They found that high-quality running shoe manufacturers reduced ad expenses by 30 percent due to reviews on infomediary sites, while lower-quality producers reduced their ad expenses by as much as 70 percent.
While this seems to be good for manufacturers, it’s likely to be bad for consumers. Manufacturers should be the ones telling consumers the basic facts about their products. The role of reviewers, the researchers argue, is to verify or correct these statements.
“In this way, the infomediaries can provide a valuable service to consumers,” says Aron. “In the process, any incentives that manufacturers have to ‘free ride’ on infomediaries will vanish and they will provide more relevant information, to the benefit of consumers.”