While Web marketers have long been tracking the growing influence of online consumer reviews, a recent study from Opinion Research reveals the influence of these reviews has reached a tipping point. Specifically, the study found an eye-opening 83% of all online consumers responding said that the evaluations and reviews they find on the Web are now influencing their purchasing decisions.
Moreover, another 32% said they had personally posted feedback or a review on the Web after an experience with a product or service.
"Businesses today exist in an era in which it's nearly impossible to escape the likelihood of being evaluated -- there's nowhere to hide," says Linda Shea, a senior vice president at Opinion Research, which also does national polling for CNN. "Even a single negative review, when posted in a very public forum, can have a significant impact on a prospective buyer's decision.”
Interestingly, the bravest of the review site pioneers – including heavyweight online retailers Amazon, eMusic and eBay -- have decided to embrace reviews on their sites that are both positive and negative. Essentially, these companies buy into the Brave New Web theory that a retailer demonstrating complete “transparency” on the Internet earns the greatest respect – and the most repeat business -- from today’s most sophisticated online shoppers.
But others are hedging their bets, convinced that by posting only glowing reviews, they’ll still be able to look trendy while bringing in more business to boot.
Either way, if you’re looking to ride the promotional wave of the review frenzy that has seized the Web – a frenzy that could negatively impact your practice with just a few, well-placed, unflattering reviews – you may want to consider creating a review domain on your Web site.
The advantage of having such a domain on site is that it can be overseen, guided and edited by you. And while these review domains cannot erase a negative review posted elsewhere on the Web, you can at least control public opinion where it matters most: on your home online, where customers do business with you.
Observes Paul Gillin, author of “The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media:” “Blogs, discussion boards and other forms of interactive media are the most cost-effective customer feedback mechanism ever invented. You won’t get a representative sampling of your customers. But you will get your most passionate customers.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of review service providers ready to help you create a wide array of online review communities, which can be run on the service provider’s computer servers, or brought in house on your Web hosting service.
Generally, these online review communities currently break out into three categories. Most popular are simple social hang-outs, which offer a review domain component. These communities borrow from the Facebook model, and attempt to offer as many community features as possible to attract as many visitors as possible.
A second breed of online review communities are completely private, invitation-only affairs. While these are generally much smaller than the public sites, many businesses have discovered there’s a big pay-off when they pick-and-choose who will belong to their review community.
Meanwhile, a third genre of review community exists solely to solicit reviews from extremely happy customers. Many of these communities are driven by highly sophisticated review software packages, which walk visitors through every step of the review process and find all sorts of ways to encourage them to expound positively on your business.
Whatever method happens to work for you, one thing is certain: the ongoing rise of such gathering places is inevitable.
If you’re interested in going with the Facebook clone, which includes a review domain component, you’ll only be able to achieve that look and feel by offering a full array of community fostering amenities, including discussion boards, chatrooms, instant messaging, blogs, photo, audio and video posting, and similar community building services.
You’ll also want to jump-start the community’s nerve center – the discussion board – by posting commentary on a dozen or so topics, and then encouraging visitors to offer their own reactions and opinions to the discussions you’ve started.
Service providers who specialize in creating Facebook-type communities include Affinitive (http://www.beaffinitive.com) and Capable Networks (http://www.capablenetworks.com).
Meanwhile, the second breed of online review communities – small, private, invitation only affairs – are the type preferred by Communispace, an online community service provider that specializes in designing and helping companies run private meeting places.
“When a few hundred members are participating on a regular basis, the quantity and quality of the content is deeper and richer than from large public sites,” says Katrina Lerman, co-author of the Communispace white paper ‘The Fifth P of Marketing: Participation.’ “For companies that truly want to connect with their customers, smaller may in fact be better.”
The third genre of industry review communities – sites that limit all activity to pubic reviewing of a company’s products and services -- are being used by some of the biggest names in business, including Dell, Macy’s, Petco, Sears, Charles Schwab and PepsiCo.
One of the leading service providers in this space, Bazaarvoice (http://www.bazzarvoice.com) is a review community builder that urges businesses to go the transparency route. Its flagship product, “Ratings & Reviews” module, is designed to solicit unvarnished reviews about your practice’s performance, which are published on the company’s Web site – although still subject to company approval.
If you’re still a bit skittish about the concept of publishing bad reviews about your practice on your own Web site, you’ll probably be more interested in a solution like Genuosity’s (http://www.kudosworks.com) KudosWorks. Essentially, this is a glowing-testimonials-only approach, through which extremely enthusiastic customers offer accolade-filled write-ups on a veterinary practice.
Genousity solicits the testimonials with contact tools it places on your Web site, as well as in marketing emails. Customers who respond are directed to a ‘post-your-own-testimonial’ module, which includes tips on how to write a humdinger of a fan letter about your practice. Another service provider offering the keep-it-positive route is Zuberance (http://www.zuberance.com).
If you’re not ready for any of these choices, but still want to monitor what’s being said about your practice on review sites, blogs, and the like, there are plenty of monitoring companies that can provide that kind of business intelligence.
Specific service providers you’ll want to evaluate for reputation monitoring include Dow Jones Insight (http://www.dowjones.com/product-djinsight.asp); Nielsen (http://nielsen.com/us/en/measurement/online-measurement.html); BlogSquirrel (http://www.cyberalert.com/blogmonitoring.html) and WebClipping.com (http://www.webclipping.com).
1. An online reviews domain tends to attract your most passionate customers, according to author Paul Gillin.
Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan.
Voice: (646) 233-4089.