Research shows that the vast majority of shoppers look at reviews before they make their purchase or visit a business. Indeed, reviews are pretty much everywhere: from Airbnb to Uber, TripAdvisor to Amazon, reviews form a crucial part of the decision-making journey, and marketers have clamored to encourage positive customer reviews as part of their digital marketing strategy.
On the other hand, however, while most people rely on reviews to make their purchases, not all users are as willing to write their own. To that end, generating reviews can be difficult—so some brands have turned toward incentivizing users to help facilitate the buying process. And that was working well—until now.
Recently, Amazon announced that it’s establishing additional rules surrounding so-called incentivized reviews, putting a damper on a strategy used by many sellers on the website. Meanwhile, experts are discovering that even as reviews can make a big impact on the customer journey, they also have their limitations. Believe it or not, too many good reviews can hurt a brand instead of help.
There’s no question that reviews are a powerful part of the online shopping process. For brands looking to foster reviews in an organic way, the key is in understanding the science behind them.
Social proof is a psychological concept that describes how people will conform to the actions of others in order to reflect the correct behavior in a given situation.
In the marketing arena, social proof is perhaps better reflected in the idea of social influence: the actions of others affect the actions of a potential consumer.
Word-of-mouth marketing is one example of social proof in action. When we hear good things from friends or family about a business or restaurant, we’re more apt to feel it’s socially acceptable or appropriate to visit that business as well. Similarly, when we see a long wait at a restaurant, we have social proof that the restaurant is desirable.
Online reviews take this social proof concept to the extreme. Thanks to websites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor—and countless others—consumers can peruse thousands of reviews to aid their decision-making processes. Although reviews can serve very practical purposes, such as answering a user’s questions about a product, the true value is social. When thousands of people give five-star ratings to a product or service, the user has crowdsourced proof that the product in question is a quality, socially approved purchase. The proof is in the numbers: according to a BrightLocal survey, 91 percent of customers either regularly or occasionally look at online reviews.
Reviews have dramatically changed various industries, particularly the travel industry, as the Content Standard has noted. But even B2B businesses have felt the effects. One study by Software Advice found that 75 percent of B2B buyers consulted online reviews before pulling the purchase trigger on business software.
So powerful are these anonymous and aggregated reviews, that they are now becoming more trustworthy than the voices of friends and family members. Overall, 84 percent of people trust online reviews as much as they trust a personal recommendation, according to BrightLocal.
Online reviews are particularly resonant among affluent travelers. According to MMGY’s Portrait of American Travelers survey covered by TravelPulse, affluent travelers (those with an annual household income of over $150,000) are increasingly turning toward travel review sites for tips about travel, and they trust opinions on third-party sites such as TripAdvisor more than those from their family or friends. Only 37 percent said advice from family and friends was influential, down 11 percent from the previous year. Customer review sites are now more influential than reviews from organizations like AAA or Forbes, the study found.
Encouraging reviews is a great digital marketing strategy for brands. Each review serves as its own mini story, a testimonial about what users like about a product or service. Great reviews might even form part of a brand’s content strategy and be integrated into other marketing materials, like email campaigns.
Getting people to write reviews, however, is tricky business. On Amazon, a site that relies on millions of reviews to help sell products, positive reviews (and plenty of them) can be difference-makers for sellers. The review craze has inspired a rash of fake reviews—a phenomenon that Amazon continually tries to snuff out and quash. Incentivized reviews are another review-building tactic in which reviewers receive free or discounted products in exchange a review. Now, Amazon is banning that practice as well.
The move makes sense for Amazon, even if it’s sure to spook merchants. The specter of fake reviews is a big turnoff for consumers, and even incentivized reviews with a disclosure can raise suspicions. When nearly all the reviews for a product are from people that received the product for free, one starts to wonder if the reviews are a little too rosy to believe—and whether it makes sense to pay for a product that everyone else seems to be getting for free.
Research shows that reviews that are too positive can have negative impacts on retailers. Consumers may distrust too many positive reviews, guessing that they might not be credible. The most effective reviews are a mix of positive and negative, according to Econsultancy. Conversely, positive reviews may actually raise consumer expectations to such a high level that they end up being disappointed by the product received, ultimately leading to more returns to the retailer—as the Harvard Business Review reported.
Brands naturally want to encourage their fans to write quality opinions that educate and inform potential customers about their experience. Each review is a content nugget and plays a role in content strategy. And like with all content, quality and authenticity rule the game and will always be more valuable than five-star reviews that seem fake or contrived.
There are plenty of ways businesses can rustle up reviews without resorting to incentive gimmicks. First, businesses can encourage reviews the old-fashioned way: by asking customers to offer theirs. In a recent tour in Seville, Spain, my walking tour guide closed the experience by asking the group to share their thoughts on TripAdvisor—the perfect pitch to altruistic travelers who want to praise a good guide while offering ideas to future travelers. Other businesses might try a gamification technique. Back in the States, my gym created a Bingo game where members won prizes for completing a number of tasks. One task was to leave a review on Facebook.
In the digital arena, marketers can use reminder emails to encourage reviews. Chances are you’ve received emails asking for your review, with subject lines like “Let us know what you thought” or “Other travelers are waiting on your review” or “It’s your turn to speak.” Such emails remind customers that their voice matters—not only to the brand, but to other potential customers as well. User experience can help encourage reviews, too. Businesses (as well as third-party review sites) need to make the review process as quick and seamless as possible, particularly for people reviewing from mobile devices.
Reviews have become an indispensable part of the purchase journey for a majority of consumers. But like in other content areas, a good quality review can’t be faked; consumers can spot a false review a mile away. Marketers need to build relationships with their customers and fans and encourage them online and offline to leave reviews. Reviews are a dime a dozen in our review-oriented world these days, but quality reviews still make an impact on potential customers.