What Software Buyers Can Learn from Rotten Tomatoes

February 5th, 2019

Picture a situation we’ve all found ourselves in before:

You’re itching to watch a movie, but the streaming experience has momentarily lost its luster. Maybe your recent binges have drained your queue so that only the sketchy dregs are left. Or maybe you’ve logged so many hours on the couch that you need to be surgically removed from the cushions and you long to see the sky once more.

Whatever the reason, you’re craving the theatergoing experience, so you turn to Rotten Tomatoes for the standard information-gathering ritual.

But not so fast!

Rotten Tomatoes is a massive clearinghouse. It aggregates lots of reviews from lots of different sources. If all that data is going to help you decide what movie to see, you’ve got to figure out what bits of information are relevant to your situation.

That means making judgement calls: deciding how much weight to give reviews from critics as opposed to those from other audience members; whether to give more weight to written reviews or to numerical scores; whether a given reviewer shares your personal tastes; and so on.

And it’s not just about running down a checklist. Your gut feeling plays a big role, too. We’ve all looked up reviews of a movie that’s piqued our interest, only to find the critics or other viewers whaling on it–and we decide to go anyway. The negative reviews may not seem to us like reactions that we would have. Or we know that we’re specifically in the mood for something that does all the things reviewers seem not to like. Maybe we just feel saucy and want to buck the trend.

Whatever the reasons for it, sometimes we go our own way. This is something to keep in mind when we start thinking about how all this applies beyond the box office.

The Rotten Tomatoes Principle

In a nutshell, what’s tricky is that assessments from critics or experts, or even other audience members, are not always an entirely reliable guide to what will work best for you or your group.

For one thing, we all have guilty pleasures—favorite movies (books, music, food, whatever) that aren’t exactly enshrined in a museum or an art gallery, but that we gladly gobble up anyway. For another, you and the reviewer may be worlds apart in terms of your personal priorities, needs, and perspectives.

This gives us what we can call The Rotten Tomatoes Principle: third-party reviews are only as helpful as they are applicable to your situation. It’s not enough for outside perspectives to be objective; they have to connect with your situation in the right way.

Even if the reviewer is not like you, so long as you can see where they’re coming from, their perspective can be useful in helping you make a decision. You may choose to do the opposite of what they recommend because their feedback doesn’t apply to your situation. But you’re informed, self-aware, and making the choice confidently. All thanks to the Rotten Tomatoes Principle.

Rotten Tomatoes for Software Buyers

The Rotten Tomatoes Principle isn’t just about movies. It applies across lots of areas where we use recommendations from other users to find the goods and services we need–not just in our consumer lives, but also in our professional lives.

Recent studies show that the business software market is one such area, where more customers than ever are doing their own research when browsing and buying digital tools for professional use. A growing reliance on user reviews is a big part of this trend, and reflects a growing distrust in vendors as sources of reliable information about their own products. Indeed, TrustRadius’s in-depth annual study of the changing relationship between vendors and buyers found that user reviews were the second most relied-upon and trusted source of product information used by digital technology buyers in 2018.

The Rotten Tomatoes Principle applies here just as much as it does at the box office.

It’s one thing to seek and cross-reference many different information sources to get a more well-rounded and trustworthy picture of what a tech product is like. But when that process involves giving high priority to the experiences of other users, as most buyers today do, you can’t take reviews at face value. That is, unless, they are written by people who are like you, who share your needs and priorities. Just like movie reviews, feedback from users who have a different perspective than you are helpful in making your decision. This is true, but only if you can see clearly where they stand and why. It’s all about developing your frame of reference. You want to make the choice that’s right for you.

The stakes are higher in your professional life–with tens of thousands of budget dollars and your reputation on the line. This is in contract with the $12 and a couple hours of your life spent on a movie. So it’s important that you know more about the reviewer and their use case than you’d find on a consumer review site like Rotten Tomatoes.

Anonymous reviews are still helpful, as long as the review site shows you contextual details like:

  • which industry the user works in
  • the size of their company
  • their role
  • the version they’re using

Whether you know the identity of the reviewer or not, you also need enough detail to get a sense of their perspective, in a more nuanced way than 50 or even 100 words can tell you. Make sure you can suss out things like the user’s experience level, what they’re trying to accomplish, the relative value of the product, which features are most important to them, and what their tech environment is like.

Software review sites vary widely in the number of reviews they’ve gathered, the level of information they share about each reviewer, and the length of the reviews themselves. Don’t settle for a site that has a high number of reviews and simply rely on the product’s overall score. Aggregate ratings alone are not the best guidance.

Remember the Rotten Tomatoes Principle. You wouldn’t just decide to go see the movie with the highest ratings without thinking about how those opinions relate to your taste and your mood, would you? When you’re looking for reviews to help with a software purchase at work, you need enough context and enough detail to be able to tell how the experience of other users relates to you and your business goals.