How online reviews affect buying decisions, and what can you do about it

How did we get here? When did people start putting so much emphasis on strangers’ validation?

Validation - Online reviews and decision making

But, do we?

I mean there are technology early adopters. There also are strong willed, independent buyers, who go ahead and test products, without seeking much proof of the credibility of the product. They want to try & test it for themselves.

But, the question is, what’s the percentage of these buyers?

Effect of online reviews on buyer behavior

The average buyer, with limited resources, both in terms of money and time, looking to buy a tested, trusted product would look at reviews.

And, that forms the majority of online buyers.

Now, what I say is not really based on a research. It’s an opinion.

Let’s look at some stats though, and make a case both for and against (well, not against, but about folks questioning the authenticity of) online reviews. If you are more of a visual reader, check out this infographic by folks over at CustomCreatives making a case (with stats) for the importance of online reviews. For the rest of you, let’s read on. 🙂

Do people really trust online reviews?

A study by Bright Local suggests that 88% of people trust online reviews to make a buying decision (July 2014).

Another one by Dimensional Research puts 90% of the respondents in this bracket. (April 2013)

Notice how the percentages are more or less similar even with a year’s gap.

What about the review skeptics though?

Yelp has admitted that 20-30% of reviews on it are filtered out based on the suspicion that they might be gamed/fake/paid-for – call it what you will. This applies to both kinds – positives and negatives (this is Sept 2013).

It doesn’t mean that 20-30% of reviews on Yelp are unauthentic. This means that Yelp’s algorithm (in 2013) filtered out 20-30% of all the posted reviews deeming them suspicious (while they get posted, they remain hidden, unless someone chooses to look at them.)

And, there isn’t a real way to tell whether the hidden reviews were actually fake. Some of the genuine reviews might get filtered out because they have characters of inauthentic ones. There’s actually a tool that lets you analyze the authenticity of a review (it’s just for fun but uses an algorithm close to what’s used by most online review sites). I tested a review that was posted on Zomato for a friend’s restaurant, and it returned a “fake” review trigger when I knew that it was authentic.

But, people are smarter than a bunch of fake reviews. I know it for sure.

A normal buyer’s behavior while acting on reviews

This is how I personally approach a purchase when going by reviews and recommendations.

  1. Personal recommendation/Google search/Search on industry specific sites: I start off by asking friends I trust for recommendations (who have made a similar purchase in the recent times). This step might replace Google search or a keyword based search on sites like TripAdvisor.
  2. Low Rating Filter: Next, I look at the recommended product/service, and check the overall ratings – lower than 3.5 stars and I just skip through. If the recommendation came from a person, I really trust, I am willing to let go off the 3.5 stars cut-off, and dive into the in-depth reviews.
  3. In-depth Review Scanning: If it’s a high cost purchase, I scan more than 10 reviews; if it’s low cost, then lesser. This applies for both product and seller ratings/reviews

Also, I like to believe that I am good at detecting BS online. So, I try to analyze if a reviewer is fake, and a review paid-for. No way am I saying that I am some kind of review scanning superhero, but there are a few patterns that I look for, and I suppose other people look at as well – no identifier (photo, social link), reviews only on one company’s / seller’s products.

I agree that like Yelp’s algorithm, some reviews that I just dismiss as fake, might actually be authentic, but anything with an overtly fan boy vibe is generally ignored by people.

Where kind of purchases does this apply for?

So, I hope you are with me on this.

We consider online reviews. What’s the extent though:

  1. If you want to buy something from a retail website, you look at the product reviews followed by the vendor reviews.
  2. If you want to buy business software, you look at review comparison websites, and neutral articles from influential bloggers.
  3. Heck, if you want to download a free plugin on WordPress, you look at the rating first, compare it to the number of total downloads, check out the reviews, look at the active participation of the plugin developer on the review and support forum, and then download it. There are so many alternatives otherwise.
  4. Even while deciding what movie to watch next, we look at online reviews.

I asked a few of my friends about this. This focus group of mine assigns as much value to movie-watching time as an average buyer would assign to his money.

There are two kinds of responses that I got – people who look at IMDB (viewer reviews), and people who do not for their lives trust the reviews on IMDB. They trust Rotten Tomatoes (expert/critic reviews), even at the risk of appearing smug.

One response that was consistent was this – they also start off from recommendations from people whose movie taste they trust, and this sometimes wins over both the kinds of reviews.

So, here’s where we are. People are assigning value to:

  1. Recommendations from their acquaintances,
  2. User reviews and
  3. Expert reviews.

These are the three things you really need to concentrate on if you want to impact your potential buyers’ behavior positively.

What review platforms to consider, and why?

Google Reviews

If you are a business with a local presence, you really need Google Reviews –to rank with pride on Google search, without spending a dime. This is for managing the ‘user review’ aspect of your credibility.

Google reviews - impact of online reviews in decision making

Industry-specific review sites

TripAdvisor for Travel, Recreation and Hospitality, Zomato for food, JustDial, Yelp etc. for local businesses of all kinds and so on.

3rd party sites for online reviews

Whether people are reaching the review site from a search engine or directly from a personal recommendation, these reviews are really going to help.

Industry specific online reviews

Online reviews on TripAdvisor

 

Even for LeadSquared, software review sites, like G2Crowd really work well to build credibility and drive referral traffic to our website as well. So, it would work, no matter what segment you are in – B2B or B2C.

Your website/landing pages

Once again, whether the said people are acting on personal recommendations, or landing on your website through a quick Google search, the testimonials on your website or landing pages would be a great trust-builder.

It’s your real estate, so you can get creative with the format you use. Use video testimonials instead of traditional text + credentials + photograph format, if that works better for you.

You can even pull up reviews from sites like TripAdvisor, G2Crowd etc. and put them up on your website.

Thrillophilia_Review_from_TripAdvisor - online reviews

Social Reviews

Facebook Reviews

Once again, if you are a local business, Facebook gives you an option to proudly display the reviews you have received from your visitors/users. So, make use of them.

Social Recommendations (user & expert)

I’ll tell you what works best – people tweeting about how good your product is, and recommending it on discussion threads. You can even pull these tweet testimonials and display them on your landing pages. It would have social proof attached to it as well.

This comprises both “user” and “expert” reviews part.

But, how do you get these social reviews?

It’s a question of the actual quality of your product and the support that comes with it. Social reviews are something you cannot fake or buy (because a fake one would be really easy to spot). So, just keep doing your thing really well if you want the good reviews and avoid bad ones. This would get you the attention of experts (bloggers/influencers) in your domain, which means further recommendations in the form of news articles, blog posts etc.

Yes, you can even give incentives to influencers to talk about you, but I am sure no self-respecting influencer would pay much attention to you, if your product/service is below average.

Some places where people post these reviews are:

  1. Twitter
  2. Facebook: Just yesterday I saw a post that has gone kind of viral about the said user’s bad experience with Club Mahindra. Not only is it being shared, but it is being recommended in query threads about Club Mahindra as well. And, they seem to be doing nothing about it. This would definitely not be good for them.
  3. Blogs/Consumer Complaint Forums: While it’s true that many review blogs would be paid for, but generally they are easy to identify. Same applies to the consumer complaint threads. If there are 10 people complaining and 1 of those people who’s all praise for the company/service, attacking the complainants, people would bail out then and there. Buyers are not really stupid.
  4. Facebook Groups/Twitter Chats/Discussion Threads: This is a growing trend, and it helps review skeptics. Every day I see at least one post on a group that I follow asking for recommendations about a service. While many of them treat the forum as a starting point (they have not researched elsewhere), there are others that come for a second opinion about a shortlisted option.

The group is formed of genuine people who help out; therefore, is trusted by buyers. Any attempt at selling through this particular forum is called out by people. Therefore, once again I note, to make it to this new form of word of mouth recommendation, keep your reputation clean by providing good service/product.

What are the best practices?

Get reviews from repeat/frequent buyers

Try to source reviews from people who have been your users for a very long time (B2B), or have made a repeat purchase from you (B2C). You must have done something right to get their attention a second time.

Don’t hide negative reviews

Don’t try to paint an all-rosy picture of your service by forcing people to give you positive reviews. There might be negative reviews as well; you shouldn’t be afraid of them unless you are trying to sell a crappy product/service.

Treat them as feedback, instead of criticism and always respond to them, no matter where the review is – review sites or social media. Use social listening tools for this; otherwise they can really hurt your reputation.

Don’t try to hire people to leave reviews

Some companies hire people to either review them positively, or review their competitors negatively. First thing, these fake reviews might get filtered out by the sites, and if people are able to see through them, it would hurt your credibility.

Don't buy online reviews

Request, not demand reviews

Don’t be really aggressive asking people to review you positively.

A couple of days ago, I saw a thread on a Facebook group, where an irritated e-shopper had posted a screenshot of a post-order email from the vendor. He wasn’t happy with the tone of the email; it used ALL CAPS in places (which is considered extremely rude).

The contents of the email were simple – the vendor was urging the recipient to not leave a bad review in haste on the site, as it affects their reputation. The request was to not leave a bad review without having received the product, and even after receiving the product; the request was to try and get it replaced first before resorting to a bad review.

Fair enough. However, if the email was worded better, he would have not been this angry about it.

Post-purchase, ask people to review you

Now, this is a continuation from the above point. In the same discussion thread, one thing really surprised me. People responding in the thread were supportive of the vendor, and understood why the message was sent out in the first place. Yes, even they were dismissive of the overall tone of the email; but, they understood the vendor’s reasons.

So, this means that people expect these notes and understand the message behind that. So, note to all vendors not doing it. You can. Just be nice and polite, and maybe don’t use a threatening tone (people on the web have different levels of sensibilities)

Never leave a social review (negative or positive) unanswered 

You have to keep listening and responding to reviews, especially negative, and try to make a fix, if you have to survive in this immensely connected and immensely competitive business landscape.

Conclusion

People still put a lot of weightage on what others have to say about a particular product, before they decide to make a purchase. Therefore, give importance to your online reviews, maintain a clean image online, provide a good product service, and try to attract attention towards all the positive things being said about you.

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