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Using Customer Reviews as a Marketing Opportunity

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I have been publishing magazines in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. for 10 years now, and in doing so I've had the opportunity to grow close to many local small and mid-sized business communities.

Much of my work, including as the founder of the newly launched review management site, CriticMania, affords me a unique view into the marketing landscape for many different types of businesses. In the pre-Internet age, I wonder if companies may have actually had an easier time advertising their goods and services. They could buy an ad, print a flyer, strike signs in the grass, create a welcoming store front, flip the OPEN sign on their doors and voila! They were ready for business.

These days, with the advancement of technology and the shifts in both social sharing and information gathering, marketing a business never seemed more overwhelming. There are general best practices and recommendations that I suggest as a baseline to anyone asking, but the truth is there are many intricate components of successful marketing, perhaps more than one might initially think.

First, let me discuss all that needs to be done, strategically, in order to market your business to achieve both short-term and long-term results. Let's take a local private school in Herndon, VA as an example:

  • Exist and market to customer base through traditional media (TV and print).
  • Market to industry-specific organization to score referrals.
  • Have effective, visible street signage.
  • Have an active and engaged online presence: SEO, microsites, advertising, review sites, social media, etc.
  • Obtain editorial coverage, awards and positive PR.
  • Have strong alliances with programs that enrich gifted children's lives (camps, educational enrichment programs, other schools, related non-profits, etc).
  • Establish thought leadership and solicit contributor roles in local media.
  • Recruit heavily from local region.
  • Attend networking events.
  • Participate and initiate community involvement and philanthropy.

Though a bit daunting, many of the points on this list are both intuitive and attainable. However, there's a problem: Nielsen's most recent Global Trust in Advertising report repeats findings from previous years -- that many people make decisions about where and who to patronize based on trusted recommendations from friends and consumer opinions found online.

The Nielsen Wire indicates that according to the report, "which surveyed more than 28,000 Internet respondents in 56 countries, 92 percent of consumers say they trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising -- an increase of 18 percent since 2007."

Additionally, and perhaps more concerning, is that "online consumer reviews rank as the second most trusted source, with 70 percent of global consumers surveyed online indicating they trust messages from this platform." Ranking third, fourth and fifth are editorial content (58%), branded websites (58%) and opt-in emails (50%), respectively.

So what does this mean? To execute the complete list of action items above, I suspect that involved business owners will either devote all available working hours to implementing those important marketing strategies (rather than actually running their businesses), or they'll spend a small fortune making sure someone else can do it for them.

If the data is a good indication of both current and lasting trends, what we've seen for decades is that year after year, word-of-mouth marketing works the most effectively. Why, then, are there so many businesses that don't begin by putting their energy there? I'm not telling you to rule out that list I gave you, because the points are certainly legitimate. What I am suggesting, however, is that as a business owner, you start to listen in earnest to your customers, collect their feedback and use this voice to market on your behalf.

My real life experience lends itself to this point. I recently began publishing a Search Engine Optimized microsites business, CriticMania.com, to help businesses strengthen their online presence. By storifying verified facts about what each company does--its history, unique presence and the products and services it offers--our aim is to assist consumers in finding helpful, honest, and relevant content once they've been engaged by word-of-mouth influence from friends or family and have then moved on to the research stage.

In the midst of building my company, the Christmas holiday allowed me and my staff to break away and spend time with our loved ones. My family chose to take a road trip to visit the South in an intense, 11-day long, drive-ourselves-closer-or-die-trying trip.

Throughout our vacation, my husband Murat, our two children, our invaluable nanny and I successfully visited Memphis, Nashville, Ashville, New Orleans, Savannah and Tallahassee, and not a single person in our party was lost or "accidently" pushed out of a hotel window.

During our Savannah leg, which took place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we ran into a little problem. Although we had called, confirmed and even flashed our lifetime platinum status, the hotel booked our 11- and 6-year-old children's room three floors away from me and my husband. While some may actually pay the front desk for such a hook up, I was not impressed. Murat complained, argued and finally insisted until we were given rooms the way we had reserved them: across the hall from our kids.

We shared our feedback about this and other experiences (both good and bad) with several managers throughout the duration of our stay. Then, at the end of this part of our journey, my husband (who never leaves reviews or criticism anywhere) wrote a Dostoyevsky novel on the hotel's customer feedback card.

A week later, no one from the hotel had contacted us, and I realized that they probably never would. I doubt that any member of the management team bothered to share our feedback with other team members or upper management. I doubt the review my husband left in our room made it anywhere other than to the trash in the housekeeping cart.

We put all of this energy into attempting to make the Westin Resort in Savannah a better place, and no one even acknowledged us. So what happened afterward? We told everyone we knew and anyone who asked about our vacation. "In New Orleans," we suggested, "stay at the W in the French Quarter; it was great." And then we warned, "But in Savannah, stay away from the Westin Resort." Within my social circle, I have big sway. The Westin lost.

I understood more fully after this experience why online review services like Yelp are thriving right now. Interestingly, these types of reviews are most often negative. But why? The answer is simple. When consumers have a problem, most of us tell whoever we are dealing with instantly. The cashier, the waitress, the concierge, the random couple we run into on the elevator -- everyone within earshot gets tons of feedback. When we're especially unsatisfied, we seek out management. The process goes on until the business fails us. Then we go online.

Now imagine, as business owners, all of the times you've missed an opportunity to really listen to what your customers were saying, or better yet, all the times you weren't even clued into the fact that something was wrong in the first place. This was the big epiphany, and it's where my little startup CriticMania found her voice.

We had an early pivot. Instead of focusing on online reputation through content alone, my team decided we would help businesses capture, document, manage and analyze their customer review process in one convenient and easily accessible place. Now, with our beta launch, clients will find tent cards, stickers, posters, QR codes and an SMS number that prompt the costumer to leave feedback, giving management the opportunity to instantly respond and better manage the consumer-provider relationship.

Don't throw out that list above just yet, but for now, take some time to really, sincerely focus on who is in your store. Listen to what they're telling you -- positive and negative. Give them the time, attention, empathy and value that they deserve, and then make your information sharable. Focus your energy and attention on the method that gives you the actual customers -- the ones you already have, the ones who can't wait to tell their friends and family and co-workers and neighbors about how great their experience with you was. If it sounds easy, it's because it is. The best marketing starts with what's already in front of you.