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Ninja marketing thoughts on SEO, local search, social media, and more.

Customer Reviews and Marketing Psychology 101

It’s often said that your best source for business is your existing customer base or clientel. True though that statement may be, most businesses don’t realize just how much of an impact their existing customers can really have on the growth of their business and bottom line. Read on, and I’ll tell you about a few ways you can start to leverage your past customer successes to create even bigger future ones.

The Principle of Consistency

First, there is the somewhat more obvious fact that existing customers are easier to sell new products and services to because they already know you, like you, and trust you. Psychologically, it’s a proven fact that it’s a much easier leap for us as humans to spend money on products and/or services from a company we already know versus those from a company we’ve never dealt with before. In marketing and psychology circles, this concept is known as the principle of consistency. (If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which discusses this principle and the others that persuade and influence human behavior). Influence: The Psychology of PersuasionSimply put, this principle states that people are more likely to do something they’ve already done than something that is new and unfamiliar to them — a concept that savvy marketers are continually seeking to use to their benefit.

As a business owner, you can (and hopefully do) leverage this principle quite easily by continuing building your email list by adding new customers to it, and then regularly communicating with those customers via your email and/or snail mail newsletter, blog posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Though it might not have occurred to you that you were leveraging a well-known psychological motivation principle, by taking these types of actions you are in fact leveraging the principle of consistency with your past customers and “picking low hanging fruit” in the process.

…I find that though most business owners get the value of having their customers saying nice things about them via testimonials and reviews, virtually none of them are using this essential marketing tool anywhere close to the level that they should be.

The Principle of Social Proof

Though it’s certainly a good idea to continually leverage the consistency principle in your business by always making your existing customers aware of your latest and greatest offerings, there’s an even bigger revenue-related potential these customers offer that most businesses miss completely: Reviews.

Your existing customers are your greatest source of marketing oomph, because their words of praise about your business have a major psychological influence on others who are considering buying from you; i.e. your prospects. This point brings us to a 2nd important driving influence in human behavior, the principle of social proof. This principle states that people are most likely to do what other people are already doing, because doing so is less risky. Humans naturally look to others—and in particular, their close network of friends, family, and business associates—to advise them on which products and services to purchase, and which companies and individuals they should trust. [This is the whole concept behind social media in the first place, and partially explains why Facebook’s traffic has lately exceeded even Google’s.]

In my consulting work, I find that though most business owners get the value of having their customers saying nice things about them via testimonials and reviews, virtually none of them are using this essential marketing tool anywhere close to the level that they should be. Think about it: When you are looking to purchase a new product, visit a new restaurant, or hire someone’s services, what do you do? If you’re like most, you probably search on Google, Amazon, Yelp, or perhaps even Facebook or Twitter to find the product, service, or business you’re investigating. However, when presented with multiple options, it’s reviews that often make the key difference in a final buying decision. If product “A” has lots of positive reviews and product “B” has negative reviews (or few to no reviews), it’s a no-brainer decision for most people to go with product “A.”

Not coincidentally, search engines like Google that want to provide useful results to their searchers also utilize the number, breadth, and rating levels of customer reviews about a local business to determine how to rank that business in search engines results pages that contain multiple local businesses in the same category.

Starting to understand how critical, and potentially powerful reviews are for your business?

What’s Your Review Strategy?

So my question to you as a business owner is: What are you doing to encourage customers to leave reviews of your business? Unfortunately, even if your customers like you and are happy with their past purchases from you, they are just like you: Busy people. That means that they have other things going on in their lives, and may very well not think to go on one of the many sites you’re listed on to leave review for you. This brings us to what we shall refer to as Customer Review Commandment #1: Thou Shalt Ask Thy Customers for Reviews, and Facilitate them in Doing So.

Getting Customer ReviewsThough we might like to think otherwise, people are only going to do things like leave reviews if we explicitly ask or direct them to do so. While you might occasionally get lucky enough to have a loyal, advocate-level customer take the time to look up your company on line and leave a review, that represents the small minority. What about the vast majority of your happy and satisfied customers who aren’t leaving reviews that might otherwise boost your image? Not getting their reviews is literally money left on the table. Another important note here is that it’s an unfortunate fact that people are far more likely to independently seek out leaving a review for a business they had a negative experience with than a positive one, so unless a business is doing something to encourage the ones with positive experiences, there’s an inherent risk of having reviews unfairly slanted towards the negative over time.

Getting Reviews: Best Practices, Do’s, and Don’ts

So what’s the best way to ask for and facilitate getting reviews from your customers? Though there is a nearly endless array of creative possibilities here, let’s start with a few simple, tried, and true ideas that virtually any businesses can utilize:

  • Place links to all of the major review sites on your company Web site, preferably with a graphical link that includes the logo of the review/directory site (I suggest you put this right on the home page or at the very least, a visible link to the page containing these links). This serves the dual-purpose of both showing off existing customer reviews to prospective customers visiting your company’s Web site (i.e. providing social proof), as well as directing existing customers to links where they can quickly and easily leave reviews. In addition, there is search engine optimization (SEO) value associated with having links to these reviews sites from your site.
  • Mention that you appreciate getting reviews and/or request them in email newsletters, blog posts, and posts on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook (use the latter sparingly as with all calls to action, so as not to exhaust your following with content they might find uninteresting or spammy where it’s being continually repeated)
  • Post highly-visible, printed signage in and around your business mentioning that customers can leave reviews at a particular site for your business, and that you appreciate them doing so. This can take many forms: flyers, brochures, business cards, printed QR codes that customers can scan with their mobile phones to head straight to the URL of a review site (this is a favorite strategy of mine with my customers), menus in restaurants… the possibilities are truly endless. Ideally these should be located in high-traffic areas of the business or storefront (i.e. entrance, checkout stand, front desk, customer lobby, etc.) where people are apt to see them. It’s particularly good to put them in places where people sitting and waiting will see them, because we all know that screwing around on our mobile phones is a favorite sitting or waiting area pastime.
  • Verbally inform customers (and have your staff trained to do the same) you’re in front of that you’d appreciate them leaving a review about your business on a review site of their choice. This means in your store, on service calls, speaking at business events.. wherever and whenever you’re in front of them. If they ask which site to use, you can direct them to a specific site that you know is either thin on reviews, needing augmentation in ratings, or is simply a preferred or popular site that you favor.
  • (Optional Ninja-Style Review Strategy) If you want to further enhance the search engine value of the reviews, you might consider requesting the customer employ certain key phrases in their reviews that represent the phrases you’re trying to rank for on the search engines (e.g. “santa rosa plumber” or “sonoma county dentist”). Note that I’m not suggesting that you script the reviews for your customer, just pointing out that it would be even more valuable to you from a search rankings perspective were they to employ those phrases somewhere in the title or body of the review.

Pitfalls to Avoid

To keep things ethical and on the up and up with your endeavors here, always avoid doing anything that might be construed as rewarding customers in exchange for leaving reviews; e.g. offering discounts or gifts to them. We’ll refer to that as our Customer Review Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Not Bribe Thy Customers for Reviews. Not only is there an ethics and potential legal question with such a practice, but doing so goes against the review policy of virtually every review and directory site out there, and if caught you risk having your reviews suppressed, or worse—having your listing suspended. Frankly, these kinds of tactics aren’t necessary anyway, because people are quite happy to share their experiences with others, and want to help businesses they like and with whom they have had good experiences. What you’re looking for here are real, honest reviews from actual customers, because those are the types of reviews that prospects will recognize and find most persuasive.

Now is a good time to mention a policy particular to the review site Yelp that you should be aware of. Because it desires to protect the integrity of its standing as a review authority for local businesses, Yelp is very aggressive about not only spotting and suppressing reviews they suspect are fake, but even go so far as to tell businesses not to solicit reviews from their customers. Yep, that’s right: They mean even those totally legit reviews from your actual customers (their blog talks about this here and here). So, technically, this means that some of what I’m sharing with you in this article could very well go against this recent policy announcement from Yelp, so I’ll leave it up to you how you want to handle that fact. Yelp claims that they prefer for site reviews to be entered at the customers’ initiation only unprompted in any way by the business… a policy which I personally happen to find a bit odd, silly, and somewhat unrealistic in real world, but there you have it. When in doubt, err on the side of caution — which in this case might mean avoiding any solicitation of Yelp reviews from your customers altogether.

This last discussion about Yelp’s policy provides a perfect segue into a discussion of Customer Review Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Not Let Customers Leave Reviews on In-Store Computers. “What?,” I hear you out there saying, “but I had this wonderful brainstorm to put a computer in the lobby with a sign asking for reviews!”  Great idea, except that you need to consider that many of the companies behind these review sites are well-funded, staffed by very smart engineers, and dead serious about maintaining the integrity and usefulness of their service to their customers. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that many of these sites track the IP addresses of the computers leaving reviews, and use that information to make review authenticity assessments. Simply put, that means that it is a very, very bad idea for you to provide an in-store iPad, PC, kiosk, or other similar device to allow customers to leave reviews on these sites. Why? Because, despite their authenticity in coming from real customers, all of the reviews will appear as if they’re being entered by a single person, which in many cases will cause the reviews and/or the account to be flagged by site administrators. And, we already know what undesirable paths that may lead to, so just say no to this idea. Have customers either use their mobile phones (but don’t let them use your WiFi for this or you’ll end up with the same IP address similarity issue) or wait until they get home to their own computer to leave the review.

Shallow and Wide Vs. Deep and Narrow

One of the reasons that you’ll want to direct customers to leave reviews at multiple sites is that local search engines including Google pick up reviews from multiple sources and aggregate them in their own listings for a business. Anecdotally, it seems there is also a greater ranking value to having 5 reviews each on 4 different review sites rather than 20 reviews on a single review site (it’s a bit more complicated than that as different sites are given different weights in the ranking, but you get the general idea). So, what you ideally want is to have as broad an array of reviews across as many different review sites as possible, and particularly those sites which Google appears to be citing most commonly in search engine result pages.

Your list of sites for reviews should include (but not necessarily be limited to) Google, Yahoo! Local, Bing Local, Yelp, Insider Pages, Google, Angie’s List, Merchant Circle, Judys Book, CitySearch, Kudzu, Super Pages, Yellow Pages, and Yellow Bot. For restaurants and certain other industries, there are also industry-specific review sites that are quite commonly cited by Google that you should also consider. For example, UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor, and Menuism.com are review sites frequently referenced by foodies and Google alike.

Slow and Steady Wins the Reviews Race

Another important factor with customer reviews in terms of search engine value is time distribution, and whether reviews are occurring consistently over time, or clumped together in a short period of time followed by long dry spells with no reviews. As we’ve learned so many times in the past, Google likes to see steady, consistent streams of content occurring over time, and reviews are no exception. A sudden burst of reviews followed by having none for a period of time will be discounted versus the same number over time, so I don’t recommend going on a short, aggressive campaign trying to get them all at once, but a consistent strategy of getting them over the long run.

The best possible scenario is where you are getting at least some reviews every month. Though obviously you cannot completely control the flow rate of incoming reviews on various sites, what  you can do is manage and time your in-house review promotion strategy so as to maximize the “spread” factor. For example,  you might cycle the times you make review request signage visible, and/or cycle the sites that you’re promoting for review (i.e. using different signs during different weeks of the month, each referring to a different review site). It’s generally accepted SEO wisdom that Google likes to see at least a few reviews minimum a month, which supports the fact that the business is one that is active, popular, and relevant in its industry.

Wrapping It Up

There’s a great deal more to say on the topic of properly managing customer reviews in your business; For example, I haven’t touched at all on the topics of reputation and review management or discussed of testimonials vs. reviews, so I’ll save those topics for another post in the near future. In the meantime, keep encouraging those authentic reviews from your happy customers (except perhaps on Yelp) who love you and would love to brag about you. Your search engine results, and bottom line, will thank you later.

[photo/image credits: Renjith Krishnan and Rawich]

There are 2 comments .

Nat Green

There was some really solid information here about reviews that I hadn’t thought of. The “don’t have a computer in your store to post reviews” makes total sense because of the I addresses but I hadn’t thought about not incentivising your customers to place a review. While that makes sense as it is a bit of a bribe, someone had mentioned to me before to incentivize both staff to ask for a review as well as customers.I’m going to make note of all of this for sure.Thanks for posting!

Reply »
    Sean Daily —

    Thanks Nat, appreciate the feedback. A lot of business owners and SEO/social media folks don’t realize the in-store dilemma, since it otherwise seems to make a lot of sense in terms of promoting customer reviews at point of sale. Regarding incentives for the staff vs. the business owners, I like that idea and think that’s playing within the rules since it’s the person’s business and has nothing to do with the customers. In fact, that’s just sound business practice as far as I’m concerned.. everyone in the business should be aware of the need for reviews and be working towards that end on the business’ behalf.

    Sean

    Reply »

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