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The Most Effective Ways to Promote Customer Feedback

Sarah Steimer

illustration of hand removing star from red billboard with three gold stars

Customers rely heavily on product and service reviews. Here’s how to highlight the best—even if you don’t have the most.

Just as some customers walk directly to the back of a store, knowing this is where the retailer displays sale items, many shoppers quickly scroll down a web page to seek product reviews. Checking reviews has become second nature to consumers. Looking for a new taco joint? See what’s rated well on Yelp. Torn between two vacuum cleaners? See which has the better star rating.

The age of ratings and reviews was arguably ushered in by Amazon. The company has perfected the art, implementing a standard five-star rating system that allows customers to post photos and videos of products, and even making reviews searchable for those with a specific question or concern. But they’ve also opened themselves up to abuse, spawning fake reviews and manipulated ratings.

Customers still rely on these systems to guide their purchasing decisions. Ethical brands shouldn’t directly guide or censor customer feedback, but they can help build robust, trustworthy review systems that can help answer shopper questions.

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Why Ratings and Reviews Matter

According to Pew Research Center, 82% of U.S. adults say they at least sometimes read online ratings or reviews before buying items for the first time, including 40% who say they always or almost always look at ratings or reviews. According to BrightLocal’s annual report on customer reviews, the typical next step after reading a positive review is for the consumer to visit the company website (50%) or search for more reviews to validate their choice (19%). This marked a notable shift from 2017, when visiting the website as a next step was chosen by 37% of survey respondents and 26% said they searched elsewhere for validation.

The robots are also looking at reviews: Moz’s 2018 research found that review signals—defined as review quality, velocity and diversity—ranked as the third-most important factor in local search-ranking factors.

Cheryl Sullivan, president of price and promotion at DemandTec and previously CMO of PowerReviews, says that customer reviews—also referred to as user-generated content (UGC)—went from “nice to have” to “need to have.”

“Shoppers have lost a lot of faith and trust in retailers and brands today, and they’re really starting to turn more toward other shoppers,” Sullivan says. “Brands and retailers are starting to realize that [UGC] has to be part of their overall marketing strategy.”

How to Get Customers to Post (Helpful) Reviews

Sullivan says that encouraging shoppers to review a product can be difficult, so it’s incumbent upon marketers to guide them to take action and provide robust content. For example, she recommends directing post-purchase consumers to a display they can fill out with their review, one that asks questions that are customized to their buy.

“We’ll try to get images, we’ll try to get video, things like that up front because that’s more compelling content,” she says.

Many companies compel customers to review their products or services by offering something in return. Perhaps you’ve been to a dentist that offers a free tube of lip balm if you review them on Yelp, or maybe you’ve received email offers to be entered to win a gift card if you review a clothing purchase online. Incentivizing reviews is absolutely a strategy, but it should be done cautiously.

“There is a debate in the industry right now specifically on that question [of ethical incentivizing],” says Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at New York University. “There are some who suggest that it creates a biased account of the product when you incentivize reviews. And therefore, when companies choose to incentivize reviews, they’re actually sort of misleading their potential customers. My personal take on it is that [it’s acceptable] as long as you’re forthright about, ‘You’re entered into this contest, regardless of what kind of review you write for the product.’ But anything that helps encourage more reviews is better for the ecosystem.”

If you do plan to use a specific review in marketing collateral, be sure to make that clear to the reviewer. Either explicitly mention that their reviews may be used in advertising upon submission, or contact the reviewer before using it in an ad.

Highlighting Your Reviews

The best reviews go beyond a simple, “Product xyz was good,” and provide details—especially as it relates to use.

“Anything that helps the consumer visualize usage helps,” Watson says. “Obviously, pictures and videos help consumers visualize how it might be used, where it might be placed, how it might fit with other things. You can also do the same thing with text: Descriptive text describing the flavors and the contrast of everything at that restaurant might be more impactful than simply, say, ‘This was good’ or ‘It had a fair price.’ Take some of those descriptive words that might be sort of emotionally laden—beyond ‘I was satisfied with things,’ use ‘I was thrilled, I was exuberant, etc.’ Everything that can evoke emotion and invoke the ability to visualize the experience or the usage of that product helps.”

Customers still rely on these systems to guide their purchasing decisions. Ethical brands shouldn’t directly guide or censor customer feedback, but they can help build robust, trustworthy review systems.

Watson says consumers often place more weight on the actual text of the review, relative to aggregate metrics. Think of the ability to search reviews for keywords on Amazon, or the way some clothing retailers allow review filters by item size.

“Advertising specific lines or sentiment that comes from other people could help you overcome some of those deficits that you might have in the aggregate categories of ratings or the number of reviews,” Watson says.

Highlighting specific use cases via UGC can help potential buyers imagine themselves using the product or service as well. It’s similar to brands migrating to microinfluencers: It’s easier for a consumer to relate.

“What shoppers really want to see is people like them, that they know—not a Kim Kardashian that’s going to have a makeup crew behind them to make the product work,” Sullivan says. “They want to know what somebody like me, like you [thinks] and how their experience was around this product.”

Be Honest About Ratings

Consumers want to trust other consumers, but brands need to do some work to make the whole process more honest and transparent.

Because of the issues surrounding fake and paid reviews on Amazon, some other review companies have instituted systems to check the validity of reviews. For example, Sullivan says PowerReviews combines artificial intelligence and human moderators to ensure content is authentic.

The reviewers aren’t the only ones who need to be honest: Brands need to let all reviews live, not just the best ones. Killing a one-star or angry review won’t win you any new fans—and it can even hurt a brand’s authenticity. It would be akin to saying you don’t have any shortcomings in a job interview. “A lot of people try to prevent the bad ones from going through,” Sullivan says. “There is a misnomer that five stars is good. In reality, what’s good is 4.5 and 4.6. People don’t even trust five stars anymore.”

Brands also have to work against a simple reality: Research by Watson and his co-authors shows that consumers are more willing to trust a product that has more reviews with a lower average rating than a product with fewer reviews and a higher average rating. But the product with more reviews may simply have been on the market longer—it isn’t necessarily the superior item. Watson suggests pointing this out to consumers, or running a promotion seeking reviews and explaining why.

Watson also suggests promoting velocity metrics over absolute numbers of ratings in volume. “[This is] being able to say that over the last week the number of reviews has increased by 10% or the change in ratings has changed by 10% up or 10% down,” he says. “That gives consumers some insight into that time dimension. … Knowing how many people are buying it today or this past week or this past month might be better than knowing how many people bought it over the lifecycle of the product. That’s something that I think managers and retailers from the brand and the retail perspective aren’t emphasizing enough, the philosophy when it comes to word of mouth, because that would be a more accurate picture to the consumers.”

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.