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Wisdom of the Crowd

Not only do consumers talk amongst themselves about which businesses they like and which they don’t, but nowadays, more customers are sharing those thoughts—whether good or bad—with thousands of others by posting comments on websites, writing about experiences on blogs and using other means of electronic feedback. While Internet marketers have long been tracking the influence of these online consumer reviews, a new study from Opinion Research reveals the influence of such reviews has reached a tipping point.

Specifically, the study found an eye-opening 83 percent of all online shoppers responding said that the evaluations and reviews they find on the Internet are now influencing their purchasing decisions. Moreover, another 32 percent said they had personally posted feedback or a review online 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,” says Linda Shea, a senior vice president at Opinion Research Corporation, a market research firm with offices in the United States, Europe and Asia. “Even a single negative review, when posted in a very public forum, can have a significant impact on a prospective buyer’s decision.”

Reviews Both Good and Bad
The gift and home decor industry is not immune to this barrage of electronic reviews, and many businesses use them to their advantage.

Simply Country Gifts & Southern Belles TeaRoom in Plant City, Florida, for example, has amassed dozens of positive reviews on TeaMap.com, a directory of tea rooms throughout the United States. Simply Country responds to many of the reviews to help keep the conversation—and positive feedback—flowing.

South Main Country Gifts in Batavia, New York, has also received plugs on the Yahoo! Local review network. And In The Country Garden Gifts, based in Independence, Iowa, is building its own following on Dave’s Garden, an online gardeners' social networking site.

The bravest of the review-site pioneers—including online retailers Amazon, eMusic and eBay—have embraced both positive and negative reviews on their sites. Essentially, these companies are buying into the “Brave New Web” theory that a company demonstrating complete transparency on the Internet earns the greatest respect—and the most repeat business—from today’s sophisticated shoppers.

But others are hedging their bets, convinced that by posting only glowing reviews of goods and services, they’ll be able to look trendy while bringing in more business to boot.

Either way, if you’re looking to take control of the review frenzy that has seized the Internet, you may want to consider creating a review domain on your site.

Such domains can be overseen, guided and edited by your shop. And while these review domains cannot erase a negative review posted elsewhere online, you can at least control public opinion where it matters most: on your website.

“Blogs, discussion boards and other forms of interactive media are the most cost-effective customer feedback mechanism ever invented,” notes Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media.

Fortunately, there are plenty of service providers ready to help you create online review communities, which can be run on the providers’ servers, or brought in house.

Getting on the Review Bandwagon
Generally, the online review communities currently available break out into three categories. Most popular are simple social sites that offer a review domain component. These communities borrow from the MySpace and Facebook model, and attempt to offer as many community features as possible to attract as many visitors as possible. In fact, many businesses have Facebook pages on which events are posted, pictures shared and fans of the business write comments.

A second breed of online review communities are completely private, invitation-only affairs. While these are generally much smaller than the public sites, many firms have discovered there’s a big payoff when they pick-and-choose the members of their review community.

Meanwhile, a third genre of review community exists solely to solicit reviews from extremely happy customers and post those reviews on company websites. 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 upon a company and its goods and/or services.

If your firm is interested in going with the MySpace clone, which includes a review domain component, Internet marketers say you’ll only be able to achieve that look and feel by offering a full array of community-fostering amenities, including discussion boards; chat rooms; 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.

Providers who specialize in creating MySpace-type communities include Affinitive, Web Crossing and Capable Networks.

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 public 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 and PepsiCo.

A leading provider in this space, Bazaarvoice, is a review community builder that urges companies to go the transparency route. Its flagship product, Ratings & Reviews module, is designed to solicit unvarnished reviews about a firm’s performance, which are published on the company’s website—although still subject to company approval.

If you’re still a bit skittish about the concept of publishing both positive and negative reviews about your product or service on your own website, you’ll probably be more interested in a solution like Genuosity, Inc.’s KudosWorks. Essentially, this is a glowing-testimonials-only approach, through which extremely enthusiastic customers offer accolade-filled write-ups on a company.

Genuosity solicits the testimonials with contact tools it places on your website as well as in marketing e-mails. Customers who take the bait are directed to a post-your-own-testimonial module, which includes tips on how to write a humdinger of a fan letter about your company.

Another service provider offering clients the keep-it-positive route is Zuberance, which helps you turn your best customers into a virtual volunteer sales force.

Just Watching for Comments
If you’re not ready to actually set up a Facebook page or solicit reviews for your website, it’s still a good idea to monitor what is being said about your company on review sites, blogs and the like. You can periodically conduct a search for your business name, or you can consider using one of the many monitoring firms that specialize in providing that kind of business intelligence.

The importance of such reputation monitoring, according to Bruce Arnold, founder of Caslon Analytics, a marketing firm that counsels clients on managing company reputations online, cannot be underestimated.

“Some posts are little more than a repository for juvenile humor: graffiti, comments that “X” is the devil, animations of creatures urinating on the corporate logo,” Arnold says. “Others feature detailed and sometimes persuasive critiques, including ‘insider’ documentation, and are associated with newsgroups.

“Financial analysts have attributed falling share prices to particular campaigns, noting that some domains claim a regular audience of 20,000 to 50,000 visitors, and that information on those sites has been accepted and echoed by the mainstream media,” he adds.

Specific service providers you’ll want to evaluate for company reputation monitoring include Factiva Insight: Reputation Intelligence; Nielsen BuzzMetrics; BlogSquirrel and WebClipping.

The speed and breadth of the Internet means that casual chatter among customers has reached a new level of importance. Be proactive in building your positive customer reviews and ready to do damage control with any negative reviews, and you will bring your business’ marketing to a new level.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan. He can be reached at 646-233-4089, e-mail: joe@joedysart.com or at www.joedysart.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from Country Business magazine. © 2009. Country Business is a trade publication for independent retailers of gifts and home accents. For more information, visit www.country-business.com.

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