Online reviews are a powerful and still somewhat controversial type of marketing content. Most business owners realize they must have reviews because consumers expect to see them. Like it or not, they’re now one of the most influential types of content marketing.
In fact, you might not even think of reviews as traditional “marketing” content. It’s true that reviews don’t fall into the categories of marketing and sales content developed by a marketing team. They are user generated. But you can’t overlook their power in the consumer buying cycle.
“I hate those damn review sites!”
When websites designed exclusively to highlight customer reviews (most notably Yelp) started to become popular, many business owners wanted to revolt.
We would often hear how they “hated” these review sites because just a few negative reviews could make a business look really bad.
There were reasons for concern. At first, most review websites had problems properly filtering reviews. Competitors could post fake negative reviews while legitimate positive reviews would get filtered out.
Likewise, businesses could post fake positives about themselves. You’d run into review profiles so eerily glowing you expected to see an endorsement from the Pope; they were too perfect.
But perhaps most irritating to business owners was the lopsided effect of persnickety rants. It remains an issue with business reviews that people who had a negative experience are more motivated to leave a review. You might only have a small percentage of customers who had a reason to complain, but they seemed like the only ones writing reviews.
But overall, much of this has changed. Filtering processes have improved. Businesses are better at getting happy clients to write reviews. And consumers know how to spot authenticity in a review profile.
The main reason businesses had a hard time with reviews was control.
In the past, a brand’s marketing material was controlled by the brand. Your marketing and advertising were what you said about yourself. You’d put your best foot forward to persuade prospective clients to see things your way.
But with online reviews (including social media comments), control shifted. Suddenly, published material detailing your value – or lack of it – was being created and shared about your brand. And you had no say in it.
You couldn’t position your value statement the way you wanted. You couldn’t choose just the right sales terms for your copy, or place just the right hero shot in your banner.
Instead, your customers were talking about what it was like to actually work with you or use your product. What used to be “word of mouth” was now “word of mouse“.
The big difference? Word of mouse is not just a transient statement. It’s published online content. Other prospective clients in the coming months – even years – will read it. They’ll be influenced by it.
Suddenly, the most influential marketing content for your business wasn’t being created by your business.
Truth, Lies, and Consequences
Online reviews had a tough time early on.
As soon as it became clear the impact reviews were having, unscrupulous marketers went to work. Employment suddenly spiked in Bangladesh as troops of writers created fake reviews, for sale cheap.
At some point, a business upset that the competition was handing them their hat discovered how easy it would be to go online and write negative reviews about them.
Some serious drama ensued. You’d read a restaurant review where the wait service was blamed for ending a relationship. Another person’s life was “ruined” because of…a poor carpet cleaning service?
Then there was the rant. We all know people who like to voice their complaints. Online reviews created an unprecedented public platform for these personalities. But it was hard to see a one-star review because “the coffee was too hot” or “I didn’t like the way the salesperson looked at me” as fair.
For a while, reviews were so imbalanced there was a risk the entire idea would implode on itself.
Reviews Come of Age
Today, online reviews are becoming more consistent. Consumers can gain legitimate insight from review content that helps them make a better buying decision.
A number of things contribute to this. First, sites are better at filtering and flagging illegitimate reviews. Amazon and Google continue to improve their systems so only legitimate reviews other users find useful get displayed. Services like Top Rated Local help businesses filter out biased rants or slanderous, unreasonable comments.
Businesses, employing reputation management tactics, do a better job of eliciting reviews from a variety of clients. The happy medium of client experience is better represented with a balanced, authentic review profile.
A Matter of Trust
Overall, the biggest consideration with online review content is not just how much consumers use it – but how much they trust it.
Data indicates that reviews are becoming make or break on Amazon. Just going from no reviews to one increases conversion rates by 65%, according to Matt Moog, CEO of Power Reviews. He says 20% of people state outright that they won’t buy a product that doesn’t have positive reviews.
The same goes for most service businesses. For example, we recently had to replace our water heater. We did some research online, including on a contractor review site.
Soon after completing a lead form on the site, we got a call from a plumber specializing in water heater installation. He gave us a quick estimate.
Two things won this guy our business. First, his estimate was the best. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough. We didn’t know him, and his website was under construction, so we couldn’t even check that.
The clincher was his online reviews. Over 50 reviews with a very positive overall rating.
The effect of social proof took hold. That many people can’t be wrong, he must be good at this.
Without those reviews, we wouldn’t have taken the chance with an unknown contractor who wasn’t even local to us. But put positive reviews together with a fast, fair estimate, and it’s a done deal.
Online consumers are, by the nature of how we research, methodical buyers. Many people use Amazon to research product reviews, even when they don’t plan to buy on Amazon.
The problem of fake reviews persists, and public reviews will never have the structure provided by professional critics. But overall it seems to work. Most people find review content useful. Reviews provide the content we really want: info about the product or service minus the sales pitch.
We trust what other consumers have to say the way we trust a neighbor giving advice about a service they used.
Another tremendous benefit of online reviews is how they help businesses improve. Not just from feedback about issues people have, but also because they motivate us to be better at what we do.
Every business today lives under the pressure online reviews exert. If you shortchange and take shortcuts, your customers will make you pay with negative reviews.
And pay you will. A negative review profile can sink a business. Falling short on value and having it reflected in your reviews is simply not a viable business plan today.
Online reviews are now welcome from businesses who know they deserve praise for their work. Both businesses and consumers have matured. We also realize most businesses will pick up some negative comments from nitpicky customers, or maybe just the occasional person for whom the offer wasn’t a fit.
But if your overall review profile is positive, it is probably the most valuable marketing content you have. Work hard to make sure it’s helping your business grow.
It will become a cycle. People who needed your help will help you connect to more people with that need. And making that connection, after all, is what marketing in the digital age is all about.
Here are more tips on getting positive reviews and maintaining your online reputation: