The Rise of Consumer Reviews
It wasn't so long ago that consumer product reviews were a difficult sell to many retailers and product marketers. Way back in 1999, when I first started pitching reviews to enterprises as a way to convert sales and increase engagement, I'd often get serious push back.
"What if people say bad things about my products?"
"Can we just show the positive reviews and delete the negative ones?"
"What's to stop my competitors from posting bogus reviews?"
Today, it's hard to find an ecommerce site that doesn't prominently display consumer reviews -- both positive and negative. According to a recent Forrester Research study, online U.S. adults trust consumer ratings and reviews more than any other information source, except for an email from a person they know. Another recent Forrester study debunks the myth that a negative review is a show stopper on a sale.
So is anybody really surprised that online reviews are moving to local businesses? Consumers appreciate the honest feedback of other consumers in deciding where to spend their money, and it doesn't matter if the purchase is a product, a night out on the town, or a contractor for home repairs.
From brash, well funded startups like Yelp to 100 year old companies like RH Donnelly, there are deep pockets at work in proliferating local business reviews in the face of consumer demand. Rather than waste time trying to silence the websites that host these reviews, or the consumers themselves, local businesses would be better served to channel their energy towards maximizing the value of this new medium. It's still early enough in this space that a quick moving merchant can do much to use consumer reviews to their advantage.
What Businesses Can Do
The task of maximizing the positive impact of local business reviews can be broken down into four steps:
1) Get Listed
At the most basic level, you want to make sure that you have placement on all of the major local business directories, and that your information is accurate.
For the basic local business information such as phone number, address, and zip code, there are two big data companies that serve as providers to most of the online services -- these companies are InfoUSA and Acxiom. Because this data is the source for so many other services, it's important to make sure those two companies have your basic info right -- if they have it wrong, it's going to show up wrong in a lot of places.
Once you have your basic info taken care of, it's time to start ensuring that your business is covered by the major online service providers. As a starting point, I would make sure your business is represented in the following directories: Yelp, Yahoo! Local, RateItAll, Google Local, Local.com, CitySearch, DexKnows, SuperPages.com, InfoSpace, and MagicYellow.com. GetListed.org is a handy, free tool that will show you if your business is listed on some of the heavy hitter local directories.
In addition, I would do two searches on Google; 1) search for your business name; and 2) search for your business vertical (e.g. San Francisco Barber Shops, Boston Gyms, etc.). Then I would find the directories that are appearing on the first page of search results for both your business name and vertical, and make sure you are listed and maximizing your presence on those sites.
2) Claim Your Business
Once you have submitted your business to the major directories and reviews oriented social media sites, many directories will offer you the opportunity to claim it. Claiming a business shows the service host that you are in fact an owner or representative of the business, and as such, are authorized to edit the company's listing / profile.
After claiming your businesses, you will typically be able to update information, write a description and submit photos. People tend to underestimate the impact of well written editorial business information with photos. On every reviews-oriented business directory that I'm aware of, the editorial information comes first, and this information is entirely in your control. Make the most of it.
3) Enlist Your Happy Customers to Spread the Word
It is very rare that the consumer reviews of a given product or business represent a statistically significant sample of consumers. Because local business reviews are so new, and the landscape of service providers is so broad, it's entirely possible that your one disgruntled customer has taken the time to post a scathing review, and your hundreds of satisfied ones have not.
For this reason, it is critical to proactively tilt the odds in your favor to ensure that the voices of your happy customers are represented on your public business profiles. This doesn't mean cheating by trying to manipulate your business' rating. It just means using the tools available to steer your happy customers to post their support as part of your normal operating procedure. Link to your profiles from your company website, or even better, if available, embed a "widget" that shows your company's rating with a link to your profile. Include a mention of your business profiles in your regular communications with your customers. Showcase your happy customers' reviews in online and offline marketing material.
Some local business review sites also offer category landing pages that list merchants in order of consumer rating. For example, check out this page about "San Francisco Coffee Shops." This page shows up first on Google for the query "San Francisco Coffee Shops", and lists local merchants in order of average rating. A merchant in this category with just a few ratings from happy customers has the chance to show up at the top of a page that is one click away from top category result on Google. And for no charge.
There are just some of the ethical ways to harness the marketing power of your happy customers to drive your company new business.
4) Engage the Community
The final step to maximizing the value of local business reviews is to become active in the communities in which your business is being discussed. Almost all of the local business reviews sites have user to user messaging tools, which is a way to communicate privately with your happy and unhappy customers. Many of the communities offer commenting or voting tools in which reviews can be publicly responded or reacted to. And some review sites, like TripAdvisor, offer official merchant response tools.
I would go easy on publicly challenging or trying to discredit people who post negative reviews. A more effective approach is to calmly try and make the situation right, and if that doesn't work, apologize for the perceived injustice and promise to try and do better next time. If you suspect the review is fraudulent, it's much better contact the host site directly than to engage in a public flame war. In general, the more you comply to the host site's TOS, the more you will be accepted as a genuine member of the community.
The recent Yelp controversy has brought to light exactly how influential consumer reviews are becoming for local businesses.
For local business owners, I believe there is a tremendous opportunity to proactively take control of your online identity, and make sure that you are presenting the best possible impression for new visitors for each of the local directory sites displaying your information. Check your data with the big data source companies. Submit your business to directories relevant to your geography or vertical. Claim your profiles, and make the most of the publishing tools to make your page look professional. Steer your happy customers to the various review sites and turn them loose. And finally, participate in a respectful way in the conversations happening about your company.
And heck, if the value is there, you can even try an advertising campaign or two on the review sites - just don't feel like you have to.