Messages in present tense are more persuasive
Reviews written in the present tense (vs past tense) were perceived as up to 26% more helpful
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Which of these two sentences makes you more likely to try a restaurant?
“The seafood was delicious at that restaurant”
“The seafood is delicious at that restaurant”
It’s a subtle difference. Past tense vs present tense.
But one is more persuasive than the other.
P.S.: Ariyh is now 3 years old! 🥳 And today’s study is from the same authors of the research in Ariyh’s first ever insight: specific, concrete language is more persuasive. Enjoy!
Messages in present (vs past) tense are more helpful and persuasive
Channels: Messaging | Ads | Copywriting | Reviews | Content
For: Both B2C and B2B
Research date: January 2023
Use the present tense (vs past tense) when trying to persuade, and encourage customers to write reviews in this way (e.g. by suggesting present tense in the placeholder text).
For example, showcase reviews that use the present tense (e.g. “The pizza is great” instead of “The pizza was great”), and tweak how you talk about awards and certifications you received (e.g. “New York’s best coffeeshop” instead of “Voted the best coffeeshop in 2022”).
You will sound more certain and persuasive.
Messages feel more helpful and are more persuasive when written in the present tense, rather than past tense.
As part of a series of 8 experiments, including an analysis of over 500,000 product reviews:
The positive impact was similar to the effect of using simpler and clearer language, more persuasive words, or using “I” instead of “we”
People read a book review sentence “The plot is [was] interesting”. When they read it in present tense they:
Found the review to be 26.4% more helpful
Were 12.3% more likely to think they would like the book
People read information about a vacation destination and saw either “That beach did have a great atmosphere” or “That beach does have a great atmosphere”. Those who read the present tense were:
4.3% more likely to say they would like the vacation destination
7.8% more interested in learning more
The effect works for a broad range of both products and services, and when products are bought for various different reasons (e.g. pleasure, work).
🧠 Why it works
We perceive the past tense as saying something about a particular point in time - not a continuing activity, so it feels more subjective.
The present tense implies something current and more universal, seeming more certain.
Because we consider it more certain than the past tense, we find it more persuasive, useful, and helpful.
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The research focused on reviews or word-of-mouth recommendations of products. It did not test the effect when companies speak about their own products themselves.
It’s unclear whether continuous tenses work the same way (e.g. They are [vs were] loving their trip versus they were loving their trip). The present continuous tense (e.g. I’m enjoying Paris) probably performs more like a past tense than a present tense, since it refers to a specific experience rather than a statement that holds over time.
The research didn’t look at products that might change over time (e.g. this sweatshirt fit perfectly when I bought it but has become baggy after repeated washes), which require the use of the past tense.
The focus was on written communication. The effect is likely to carry over to audio too, but this was not tested.
All the studies were on English content. It’s unclear how the effect would work with languages with multiple past and present tenses (e.g. Turkish, Arabic) or languages without tenses (e.g. Mandarin, Thai).
🏢 Companies using this
An analysis of Amazon reviews found that 61% to 70% used the present tense, while 45% of Yelp reviews used the present tense.
Few companies appear to consciously try to stick to the present tense. For example, Hyatt Hotels, Emirates airlines, American Express use both past and present tenses interchangeably.
Qatar Airways seems to consciously use the present tense when highlighting awards (e.g. World’s best business class)
Zendesk correctly highlights customer testimonials that use the present tense when talking about their experience with the product.
⚡ Steps to implement
Use the present tense in your marketing communications, including in your advertising (e.g. We are number 1 in customer satisfaction) and descriptions (e.g. our coffee has a rich and full-bodied taste).
When asking for reviews, you can encourage customers to use the present tense by phrasing your question in the present tense. For example, ask “how is your experience with our product” (vs “how was your experience”).
When showcasing awards or recognition you’ve received, communicate it as “we are the best brand of 2022” instead of “we were chosen as the best brand in 2022”.
🔍 Study type
Field experiments (analysis of over 538,677 online reviews) and online experiments.
How Verb Tense Shapes Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research (January 2023).
Grant Packard. Schulich School of Business, York University.
Jonah Berger. Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Reihane Boghrati. W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University.
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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