Over the last few years, online reviews have become a much larger part of a purchase decision. This isn’t a news flash – we all know this. What made this a hard pill for brands to swallow early on was that not all reviews are going to be positive. As the old adage goes – you can’t make everyone happy. Still, most of realize that at the end of the day, reviews are a good thing; both good and bad. Good leads to a sale, or at worst improved brand or product reputation. Bad informs product and service evolution and can even serve to validate review balance for readers, making the collection of reviews feel “real.”

Today, I stumbled on an AdWeek article that discussed the role of online reviews today. For me, the conclusion is known, but not always spoken out loud. Maybe it’ll seem that way to you too. Here it is: when we seek recommendations from friends, family and colleagues – and get them – we STILL turn to online reviews to either confirm or rebut them. That means that when it comes to brand reputation, while Word-of-Mouth is clearly important, it’s not the Holy Grail. Rather, online reviews are.

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I’ll turn to my own behavior. And yes, I realize I’m a “marketer,” but I’m also a consumer who uses the Web. I recently bought a pair of running shoes. And I did exactly what the AdWeek article suggests – I asked for recommendations from my running and triathlete friends. Then, I took those recommendations online to get some supporting information. In the end, I selected a shoe that was primarily a result of the reviews I read online. From Zappos.com to be exact. Now, they carry several brands, so I’ll use another example too. I also bought a few items from JCrew.com recently. The reviews on that site helped me pick a flattering style and appropriate sizes. Without reviews, I can imagine that I would have gotten a piece that disappointed me. It may also have affected my future purchases if the results didn’t marry up with my expectations. And that is a very important value of online reviews – establishing expectations.

So some of you might be thinking “But most brands DO have online reviews on their site.” Certainly, many that come to mind do: Target, The Home Depot, Best Buy, Pottery Barn, Gap, and on and on. While there are a few stragglers, more the point I’m trying to make is that simply having the ability to make a review on your site isn’t enough. You have to nurture reviews to make them a comprehensive part of your site. If only a fraction of your inventory online has a review against it, it doesn’t serve its ultimate purpose. Retailers have to actively solicit reviews a part of the fabric of their customer service practice. Ask for them, ask for them again. And react to unfavorable reviews, not by removing them, but by determining if there is a way to improve your product or service. Or even, if appropriate, to dialogue with that customer directly.

Pottery Barn does a terrific job with reviews. Navigating to even the most random of products – a small bedside clock, for instance – gave me seven reviews – and helpful ones at that. Pretty impressive.

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The lesson is this: reviews matter – more than you think. Having a strategy for how reviews fit into your ecommerce experience will empower users and foster a sense of community. These are  both qualities that embody social marketing. Online reviews ladder up to the idea of engaging with an audience, even if the finished result is a one-way communication.

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