I’m an introvert by nature, so this whole social media thing has left me feeling like an outsider looking in. While everyone Facebooks and Twitters each other to death, I’m asking “What’s the point?” It’s a genuine item of curiosity to me. I can’t really relate to wanting to relate to everyone. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my real friends who live 15 minutes away.
Don’t believe the hype
But as an advertising professional, I’m also always judging any new trend or platform for its potential to impact the business world. I watched the rise of Facebook and the attendant hype about how the company was going to pioneer a new advertising world with suspicion. And wanted to claw my eyes out when I saw Microsoft shell out $240M for less than a 2% stake in Facebook. That was back when all the headlines said that Facebook was going to be the next Google. Now that the winds of conventional wisdom have shifted, nobody seems to be making that prediction any longer.
Not that I’m a great oracle, but it seemed plain as day to me that a traditional interrupt-driven advertising model was never going to work in an environment where users are focused on connecting with each other in a highly personal way. Yet that’s what Facebook was preparing to launch at the time. Sure enough, users have largely ignored Facebook ads and the Facebook team is back at the drawing board trying to figure out how to monetize all their great demographic and behavioral data. What Facebook (and Microsoft, apparently) failed to understand is that people use Facebook to connect with each other. At its core, that’s the value of Facebook. It enables people to connect in a way they find valuable, useful and even fun. As one pundit said “We were foolish to think that advertising in a medium where a guy breaks up with his girlfriend was going to be effective.”
The Google lesson
The reason Google ads work is because they add value to the searcher and browser (for the content network) experience. They’re relevant to the task or content I’m engaged with at that moment. I’m not sure if, how, or when Facebook might develop a compelling advertising offering. But I’d argue that their goal should be to design an advertising system that users find valuable, useful and fun (OK, fun may be a stretch), and somehow relevant to what they’re doing at the moment. For social media to have real business value, it needs to provide real user value. Just like any other business – online or off.
Social media is hard
Facebook is an easy example, but social media generally is struggling with how to drive benefits for business without alienating users. Part of the problem is how we think and talk about social media. When someone says “social media” they’re generally referring to platforms—blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. Everyone is gaga about the platforms. But by themselves, these platforms have little value. The value is in the networks of people who use the platform, the nature of their interactions, and the content they provide. And if for the social media platform companies the trick is to engineer platforms that let people connect in a valuable way, the trick for advertisers is to provide content that is appropriate to the medium while still advancing their business objectives. This takes some nuance and a totally different way of thinking, which is why so many of the early attempts at social media marketing have been so off-key. Most companies are diving in without taking the time to understand the unique rules of the medium and the level of work involved to be successful. So it’s not surprising that most struggle.
If this social media thing is ever going to take off, there need to be some easy wins for businesses. It’s too much to ask a 100 year-old company with an insular, press-shy culture to begin operating in an open and transparent manner overnight. What we need are some “low-hanging fruit” social media opportunities that don’t require organizations to completely rethink their corporate cultures. So far, I’ve only found one of these opportunities.
The diamond in the rough: ratings & reviews
As I was getting ready to give up on social media, I attended a session at the Web Design World Boston conference called “Your Users Trust Each Other, Not You: Why and How to Implement Ratings & Reviews.” I normally would’ve been working in my hotel room at this time (more proof I’m an introvert), but the title caught my interest and the presenter was my friend Steve Mulder from Molecular, so I figured I’d give it a chance. I’m glad I did. Steve delivered a very compelling and well-researched presentation that crystallized the business value of ratings and reviews in a way I’d never seen so clearly communicated. Not only that, he showed best practices for how to implement ratings and reviews. The good news: it’s relatively easy. After all, users do most of the work. And you can even license ratings and reviews content for commonly sold products. How cool is that?
But what really caught my attention were the eye-opening statistics on just how effective ratings and reviews are. I was so impressed I actually took notes, which is a real rarity for me. Here’s a sampling from my notes:
- NetShops research showed that products with reviews had 26% higher sales
- Letting users sort results by user ratings helped PetCo increase sales 41%
- Products with reviews generally have a lower return rate
- Bass Pro Shops indicated that users who viewed Top Rated products had a 59% higher conversion rate
- Including ratings & reviews in emails had a huge lift in email CTR
- Items with ratings on internal SERPs got a 100%+ higher CTR than those that didn’t
- Better SEO is a side benefit of incorporating reviews (more keyword-rich copy on the page)
More sales? Lower returns? Higher conversion? That’s social media I can believe in!
That last bullet point will be of interest to the hardcore SEO types out there. The sites that have implemented user ratings and reviews have actually seen better organic rankings, traffic and sales as a side benefit. That resonated with me as soon as I saw it. It’s pretty intuitive, really. All other things being equal, a page with more content will likely outrank a page with less. I’d also argue that pages containing ratings and reviews make better linkbait (as much as I hate that word). So, assuming you implement them in an SEO-friendly manner, you get a two-fer with ratings and reviews. Nice.
The searcher behavior tie-In
What does this have to do with searcher behavior? Bottom line: A lot of searchers are looking for exactly this type of content. They use ratings and reviews to inform their decision process throughout the sales cycle. Early on, they’re usually looking for advice on what products to consider or skimming reviews to learn about factors they should consider when researching. Often their behavior follows a winnowing pattern. So over the course of an investigation into a digital camera purchase, they might use some or all of the following keywords:
- Digital camera reviews
- SLR camera reviews
- Nikon SLR reviews
- Nikon D80 reviews
If you’ve done keyword research (especially in consumer electronics), you’ve probably been struck by the popularity of “ratings and review” keywords showing up in your list. People are hungry for this type of content.
Checking out online ratings and reviews has become a mainstay of many people’s purchasing pattern because it serves a useful purpose.
One geek’s journey
If you’re like me (God help you), you probably check out the online reviews for a product before making any major purchase. In fact, I did it just this week. I’ve been envisioning a wireless audio system for my house that would enable me to play virtually any song in any room at any time. I always thought it was a pipe dream, but it turns out there are companies out there that have solutions for that (I love it when that happens). Anyhow, I came across the Sonos sound system and wanted to check it out. It’s a very cool system, but expensive as hell. So I’m not going to risk buyer’s remorse. I pored over every page of the Sonos site. I watched every one of their video testimonials and read every review they’d posted. I should note that their site is very good. They do a masterful job of online merchandising.
But I’m no sucker. I’m “in the field,” as they say. As a professional marketer, I know better than to take what a manufacturer posts about their own products at face value. So I went to Google for some third party validation, querying “Sonos reviews.” I’ve now probably read every review of the Sonos system ever written. And I’m closer than ever to purchasing one of these systems now, because the reviews are all generally positive and, taken together, paint a picture of a system that most people truly enjoy. I would’ve been intrigued by the product information alone, but now that I’ve seen the system work and how different people have used it, I can much more easily envision having one in my house. As a result, unlike various tech gadgets I’ve investigated only to have my interest wane, I can’t get this one out of my head.
It’s about the experience
The lesson for site owners of all types is that it’s no longer enough just to publish your product specs and assume that your features and benefits will be enough to convince people to take the next step in transacting with you. If you want to differentiate yourself and achieve great results, you need to give people some insight into the experience of using your product or service. Ratings and reviews are perfect for this. They’re valuable and useful because they enable people to see what others really think about a product or service before buying it. They’re fun because they’re unpredictable and provide a semi-voyeuristic thrill. Most important, as Steve’s presentation shows, it’s a relatively easy social media tactic that has real business impact.
For those interested, check out Steve’s full presentation on SlideShare.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.