Online Reviews: The Truth Be Told?

October 1, 2007
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Steve White

We’ve all been in the same quandary. You go online to your favorite e-retailer to buy something - maybe it’s a new DVD player. The specifications seem OK, the technical info matches up with what you’re looking for, price is right, you put your charge card number in, and are just about to hit “submit” when your eye glances at the customer comments section.

“I thought this DVD player was just what I wanted - until I pushed fast forward and it burst into flames.”

OK, maybe a little extreme, but there’s no denying that product and service reviews by consumers are becoming more and more popular on the many online stores popping up these days. Customer feedback is all over the page. Some use a simple star rating, while others go into more detailed discussion than an online manual.

But what is the impact?

According to a Jupiter Research study of 2,500 online shoppers polled, 48 percent said they read online reviews and a whopping 90 percent of those people indicated that customer reaction was very important in influencing their buying decision. In fact, many of these people put more credence into the opinions of their fellow online consumers than even such respected publications like Consumer Reports. The reason being that the air conditioning in a new Toyota might work great on a test-drive, but how does it hold up three days into a major heat wave?

One expert labels this “Social Marketing,” stating “Each time a consumer creates an online review of a product, he creates word-of-mouth marketing, People like to create their own message and share them with others.”

The premise is quite simple. If someone you trust recommends something, you’ll probably try it. If five people you know recommend the same thing, you’re even more likely to try it. But if 50 people or more tell you to try it, the suggestion is now a movement, and you’re likely to jump onboard.  

READING IS NOT BELIEVING

But don’t always believe what you read. You will find some reviews written by people who have no idea what they are talking about, or are reporting information on a product that they “heard from a friend of a friend.” Some is subtle, some is obvious. If you read a review complaining about the purchase of a tent, but it’s obvious from the review that person knows absolutely nothing about camping, chances are there’s an agenda somewhere. But that one remark can make a major difference in sales, especially when some online outlets, such as Shopzilla.com, are reporting up to 19 million visitors per month.

Is it any wonder in the highly competitive world of cyber-business that some companies may want to take advantage of the power of online reviews? It’s been documented how companies have their employees and vendors not only write positive reviews on their sites, but negative reviews on their competitors. And some companies have gone even further by resorting to using payola to make sure they receive good reviews by actually paying for them. The term payola was made popular in the late 1950s when record companies would pay disk jockeys to push their records on air. Fifty years later the broadcast industry has outlawed the practice, but no such legislation is in place on the Internet.

For those companies who truly see the value of honest feedback, here are a few tips on how to generate online reviews:

Make it easy to contribute. Consider using a star-rating system, instead of having reviews written as narration.

Let the reviewer edit a template. Few things are more terrifying to the average person than a blank page. If there’s a template already in place, and all they have to do is edit it, that’s more enticing.

Reward participants. You can help motivate contributors to leave feedback by offering such things as discount coupons or advance notices on new products and services.

Publication date: 10/01/2007

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