Online reviews – for better or for worse – are part of the everyday internet browsing and shopping experience. If you’ve ever found yourself reading and re-reading Amazon reviews or watching the latest YouTube endorsement of a celebrity lip gloss or new iPhone, then you’ve benefitted from the world of electronic word-of-mouth, or eWOM.

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle '04

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle ’04

But what makes someone trust advice from strangers on the internet? That’s what marketing professor Ya You, along with researchers Gautham G. Vadakkepatt and Amit M. Joshi, set out to answer in a recent research project praised in the Journal of Marketing. The publication honored You’s work with the Marketing Science Institute/H. Paul Root Award for 2015, which recognizes studies that contribute to the advancement of marketing practices.

You and her colleagues used 51 existing studies from marketing, management and information systems to generate hypotheses about the effect of eWOM on product sales. In particular, they compared the influence of eWOM in different platform, product and industry contexts.

The studies they looked at explored what you might have already suspected about online reviews: Readers trust actual people more than brands. And consumers are more likely to seek reviews for privately used products and those from less-competitive industries. Most importantly – but not surprisingly – readers trust expert consumers. The takeaway? Even in today’s highly digital world, the written word is as powerful as ever.