Online reviews and what to do about them

in Blog, Connect, LocalNa8ion.com This article was originally published by Julian Gude on The Remarkable Blog from exceler8.com

Just how important are online reviews in the minds of buyers?

A Forrester Research report from Q3 2007 answered that question succintly – web reviews are more important in the minds of consumers than any other web site function:

Here’s a chart of how the functions broke down by feature (source: – eMarketer report Online Buyers Seek Out User Reviews published February 15, 2008)
eMarketer-chart-web-reviews.gif

Let’s talk about some of the drivers for these findings and then I’ll dive into some actionable ways you can get more positive online reviews for your business.

Why are online reviews so popular? In three words or less? Word of mouth. People relate to other people like themselves with similar interests and needs. People want real life third-party opinions that balance out marketing hype and professional reviews that we might rely on from trusted editorial publications (e.g. Consumer Reports).

Here’s an example of how that breaks down:

most-popular-kinds-of-reviews.gif

Source Razorfish, Digital Consumer Behavior Study, October 2007 and chart by eMarketer February 2008.

Word of mouth has always been a top choice to aid our buying decisions and today on the web ‘social’ features like online reviews or comments on a blog about a product or service are perfect examples of how today one person’s voice (in this case a review) is only limited by the number of people who can view it online. That’s a major shift from five years ago when our opinion wouldn’t travel farther than a small percentage of our personal network of friends and business associates.

What’s that you say, there aren’t any reviews of your business online?

You may not think you have a review about your business on the web but don’t be too sure – there are a lot of web sites that feature a free listing of your business where reviews are prominent. All the major search engines have reviews and businesses with more reviews (or more positive reviews) are at a distinct advantage over businesses with no reviews or poor reviews.

Here’s an example of a search using Google with the keyword/geo search term “Tires San Jose California.”

google-search.png

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The bad news is when you find out that one or two reviews of your company online are unfavorable. If that’s the case, don’t be too concerned, it’s common for dissatisfied customers to seek out ways to tell us off. Even with great customer service you’re not going to please all the people, all the time. If you haven’t been reviewed online yet there are legitimate ways to solicit reviews from your customers (please, no payoffs!).

Different web sites that feature user reviews have different policies on acceptable review policies so read these rules before you go looking for customers to write you reviews. The gist of such policies is to discourage the inevitable – that some people will cheat and craft favorable reviews of their own business. I think we recognize this and rely on both the content of the review, the number of reviews and the balance of reviews shown to judge legitimacy.

Here at Local Na8ion we have some straight forward guidelines and above-board methods of soliciting reviews from your customers.

The simplest way to get positive reviews is to ask for them. Think of this just like you might about how you asked a former boss or associate to write a letter of recommendation for you. Most people in this situation appreciate that you value their opinion and will happily reciprocate.

Example: “It seems that you’re really satisifed with your purchase of our [insert product/service here], it would really help us if you’d share your opinion with others online at [insert name of your target web site here]” (hand them a printed review card you’ve printed out for just such an occasion as a reminder).

We can request this review in our verbal post-sales process as our example above shows or with a follow up email, phone call, or direct mail piece. Remember, you don’t need 50 reviews so calling or asking people for reviews in person in a concentrated effort over a week might be a good way to get this done without making it into an overwhelming chore. Use the public radio model and go on a review campaign every quarter for a few days.

What sites to get your reviews on

We recommend this order or prioritization:

  1. Major search engines (e.g. Google, Yahoo!, etc.)
  2. Major local directories and guides (e.g. YellowPages.com, CitySearch, Yelp.com)
  3. Specialty Directories and guides (e.g. Fodor’s)
  4. Regional / Local Directories unique to your market (e.g. local newspapers)

Of course, if you’re a retailer then don’t overlook the best place to put your reviews – on your own web site! For third party web sites we recommend you start with Google because it has the most search traffic. But keep in mind that Google isn’t quite as dominant in location based searches (like our example tire search in San Jose) zagat-review.pngas they are with general web searches so don’t overlook Yahoo! Local and other sites. Don’t overwhelm your clients with lots of choices – give them one. Don’t forget to ask for reviews on your web site.

Build up your reviews on the target site until you’ve reached a competitive number and then move on to another major web site or online service. When selecting other target sites to solicit reviews for pay attention to the usage of web sites and both local/regional differences AND areas of business speciality. For example, a restaurant in a tourist area might be better served by reviews on Zagat’s online guide than a general site like YellowPages.com. If CitySearch is more popular in your area than YellowPages.com for your type of business go after CitySearch. How can you guage popularity of sites? Two simple ways: ask the site publisher for third party usage reports on their number of unique users and cross check that with reality by looking at the amount of free and paid ads on the publisher’s site (more listings and more ads generally mean equal greater consumer usage).

To incent or not to incent?

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p>Let’s finish by discussing the area that’s most uncertain with soliciting online reviews. Should you incent or even pay customers for reviews?

Tread carefully — experts, pundits, and consumer opinion on this topic vary wildly. Some people make the case that paying customers for their time for writing an online review is respectful of their customer’s time. I don’t agree with outright payment (such as the practice of paying bloggers to review products) but like a lot of people I do accept a lesser alternative which is to offer a small incentive or chance to win a small raffle for an item. Keyword = small. In general, if you keep the incentive small you can avoid ill will with customers or the aura of being shady or manipulative. Err on the safe side.

Be aware that there are purists in the mix for both your customers and the web sites that may feature your reviews. Popular local review site Yelp.com takes a hard line against all forms of incenting reviews, even small ones such as I’ve outlined. Read Yelp.com’s policy here and abide by whatever the site you are reviewing states as their terms. Do what you are comfortable with, for at some point you may have to defend your position with a customer and there’s no point doing something that you’re at odds with. Don’t overlook the safe route – just ask ‘em!

About those ratings

online ratingsSome averages are more important than others. Just like we’re lulled into thinking gas costs a penny less than we’re actually paying, those popular ratings often escape rational judgement or scrutiny. You could have three total reviews and two of them are negative. It makes you look like a dog! All it takes to turn that around are 4-5 new positive reviews. All I can say is GET ON IT – don’t let a small number of negative comments ruin your online chances for new business.

I want to sum up by saying that if you’re looking to prioritize your online marketing improvements make sure garnering positive reviews for your business is at the top. It’s one of the most worthwhile investments of your time since every positive review will get viewed over and over again.

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p>Postscript: Here’s a link to a great real life example of a local and online retailer that is using online reviews to drive new business. The company is called Rugs Direct and they have attained a 17% increase in conversion on products with reviews vs. products without reviews.

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