Decades ago, outside of word of mouth from friends and family members and advertising messages, the average American had little to go on in making purchase decisions. Today, however, the landscape is significantly different. Buying anything, from tax preparation to maid services, is no longer a spur-of-the-moment sale – it's a highly researched decision backed up by everything from marketing messages to personal recommendations to online reviews.
The availability of information on the internet is vast, with in-depth commentary present on even the smallest niche items, like new releases from fast food restaurants. Across all industries, consumers are reading this material, taking it into account, and using it to make choices.
As a small business, it's easy to disregard this growing trend and assume that your business will speak for itself, but this is really no longer the case. With 97% of consumers utilizing online reviews while evaluating both products and services, absence from any of the major review sites can be a death knell for any company, no matter its size.
Why Reviews Matter
People are a skeptical bunch, particularly in the information age. While a cleverly-placed ad in the newspaper used to be all it took to put consumer eyes on a product, there isn't much trust left in marketing – after all, virtually any claim a company makes can now be debunked in a matter of minutes.
Reviews aren't just white noise on the internet, either; customers trust them nearly as much as a word of mouth review from a friend or family member. This is why reviews matter to your customers.
Reviews Build Trust
Any company can claim to the best, but with so much data available in a few clicks, it's more important than ever to be able to back up statements with actual data. Reviews can fill this void, offering reasonably unbiased opinions from real customers who have experienced products or services. When consumers see personal anecdotes back up their own assumptions or ideas, it becomes easier to trust what a business has to say.
It is important to note that not all reviews are worth believing. Overly positive and gushing reviews (as well as angry, negative, or accusatory reviews) are often less trustworthy than open, honest feedback. Most consumers know to look for the signs of false reviews or reviews that are overly and unnecessarily critical, but these kinds of posts can still be landmines under the wrong circumstances.
Reviews Create Context
Every product sounds great in a company's own marketing, particularly when advertisements are intentionally, or even unintentionally, vague. Previously, customers had to go with their best instincts, but today, all relevant details are available at the click of a mouse. When your website forgets a detail or customers want to learn more about the experience you can provide, reviews provide all the context necessary for an intelligent decision.
However, vague or indirect marketing messages can still turn off customers, leaving them uninterested in considering a purchase in the first place. Even the best reviews in the world can't save a business that doesn't provide an appropriate frame of reference for services, so be sure your marketing messages provide a base concept rather than a vague pie-in-the-sky promise.
Reviews Improve Comparisons
No service exists in a vacuum, and even the rarest services available often have competitors. For many consumers, weighing the odds of one product or service versus another is a key part of a purchase decision, and reviews are an easy way to do this. A plethora of reviews can provide a way for customers to compare services and make educated decisions, evaluating everything from availability to a cost-benefit analysis.
While it can hurt to see negative information about what you have to offer, the information that's useful to consumers can be useful to you, too. By isolating the data customers use when comparing you to the competition, you can better hone your business strategy to improve the opportunities you have available.
Reviews Offer Additional Information
When making a purchase decision, most customers want to know as much as possible about a particular item or opportunity. While your website presents the best possible outcome, reviews are more honest and open, delving into the details you may not have shared. Some reviewers, for example, are extremely specific, documenting everything from where to locate hard-to-find entrances to posting pictures of every step of a service. With reviews, consumers have access to more information than ever before, whether for good or for bad.
To minimize the extent to which customers have to rely on reviews, provide as much information as possible to guide buying decisions. Embellish things like About Us pages, FAQs, product descriptions, and any other areas where content can contribute to the details available to buyers. The more you provide, the less they'll need to comb through reviews to secure the data necessary to buy.
Reviews Reduce Risk
Let's face it – there is an inherent risk in every buying decision. It's important that customers seek out the information they need to minimize as many risks as possible in the purchase process. And, in most cases, this means reading reviews. By reviewing real feedback from others who have been there before, customers can become more comfortable making a choice to take the plunge with you.
This, of course, is only valuable for your business if your reviews are positive. Negative reviews can provide that sense of risk potential customers don't want to see, driving customers away from you and towards your competition. As such, it's important to check your reviews regularly and look for areas of weakness.
So, your review base is nonexistent and your presence on the web is solely limited to the content you created and curated. What now?
In time, of course, reviews will come. If your business is small and new, they may come in a small trickle, like one on your BBB page, two on Google, and maybe something on Facebook. When you only have a few reviews, each individual message carries a significant amount of weight, and if you don't like what they say, there's a chance your potential customers won't like it, either. But how can you combat that?
While adding reviews of your own isn't recommended, you don't have to sit passively by and hope your customers will say the right things at the right time. There are ways to inspire reviews that can help grow your online presence.
- Set up a comprehensive profile on every review page. If you want customers to review you, you need to create a place to review. Add as much detail as possible and provide a solid context for the nature of your company.
- Request reviews. Want reviews? Just ask. A sign at the cash register, a well-placed social media post, a pop-up on your e-commerce app, or even an email campaign can prompt honest words about your business. If you choose the email route, be sure to target only those who have made a purchase with you; a blanket ask can easily backfire. Provide a link with your requests so that customers clearly know where to go.
- Grow your social media presence. If you want more social media reviews, you need more followers. Strategies like targeted advertising, use of hashtags, posting regular and relevant original content, being responsive, and offering contests and incentives can all grow your base and, thus, your pool of prospective reviewers.
- Offer discounts. Many businesses gain traction when offering a small bonus, like 10% off of a future purchase. If you choose this method, make sure that all reviews, even negative ones, will count in your promotion; you never want customers to feel insecure leaving honest thoughts.
Using Reviews to Your Benefit
You have a good base of reviews from your customers, so now it's time to use those reviews to influence buying decisions for the better and improve the ways prospective customers interact with your business. While you can't control what reviews say, you can control what they mean to your business and how your customers respond to them.
Find Places to Grow
Your reviews can offer a lot of insight into how customers view your services. While you have a set perception of your company's brand and its potential, there's no true way to understand how your audience sees you – unless, of course, you read reviews. Your customers can describe experiences from an outside perspective, showing you how you're really perceived. And, in evaluating the reality of your business, you can also see where there are areas to grow.
From critiques on your business model to glowing praise, you can isolate what areas of your operations you need to flesh out further to rise above the rest. For example, if your customers love your roofing services but are frustrated with your lack of complementary options, like gutter cleaning, adding a few tweaks to your services can broaden your reach and improve your standing.
Highlight Top Products and Services
You know what your flagship services are, but do your customers see things the same way? Your reviews can tell you.
When customers are inspired to leave reviews, they rarely provide one-word answers or brief overarching sentences. Instead, they tend to fixate on those things they like most – or the things they like the least. By reading your reviews, you can get a deeper insight into what your customers truly think your top opportunities are and how they respond to them. This knowledge can tell you where to refocus your attention and how to promote options accordingly.
When you tell prospective customers "This is our top seller; you can check out our reviews to learn more," you can promote more sales and inspire confidence, on and offline.
Hone In on Marketing Opportunities
Finding a place to target your energy in marketing isn't easy, especially for new businesses still charting a path forward. However, reviews can help.
As previously emphasized, reviews provide a peek into your business that you otherwise wouldn't have, giving you an opportunity to see where the most potential lies. For example, if customers come to you for your tax services more frequently than your bookkeeping, this can be the starting place for your targeted social media ads or blog posts. When you know you have a hit with your shoppers, you can use this to hedge the odds of successful transactions in the future. And while everyone obviously won't love everything you have to offer, the way you approach marketing can help you curate customer loyalty.
Analyze Competitor Behavior
Who says that only your reviews are valuable? Reading your competitors’ reviews (and any mentions of your competition in your own reviews) can help you evaluate where you stand in regards to your competition. If there are areas in which they excel while your reviews imply you fall flat, you can use this knowledge to improve the way you run your business and, in doing so, enhance how you're seen by your shoppers.
Say, for example, your competition provides a better price for a similar service or has a more comprehensive package than you offer. In this instance, it's possible to leverage this to improve your opportunities and create a more level playing field. Just be aware that your competitors are likely doing the same to you, so put effort into staying aware and cognizant of the impressions your consumers maintain.
Putting It All Together
The knowledge that nearly all consumers utilize reviews when shopping may seem overwhelming, but with the right strategy, this can be a blessing instead of a curse.
At the end of the day, your customers care about your reviews, even if you don't. They read the words others have written and use these perceptions to create judgments about your business. But when you know how these words can influence your business and use them appropriately, you can enhance your business model, fine-tune your opportunities, and perfect the services you have to offer.