November 13, 2017 by George Eberstadt
A version of this article was originally published by Total Retail on October 5, 2017.
The Association for Psychological Science recently published an interesting study on consumer shopping behavior, showing that when two comparable products have similar average ratings, shoppers are significantly more likely to choose the product with the larger number of ratings.
This finding won’t surprise e-commerce retailers, but in the psychology world, it’s an illustration of herd mentality leading to irrational decisions. When two comparable items have low ratings, it would be more logical for shoppers to pick the one with FEWER total reviews, as it’s possible that the poor average rating is a fluke — an unrepresentative sample of grumpy reviewers. An item which has a large number of low ratings, on the other hand, is very likely to actually be a dud. Yet even in these cases, where both choices are poorly rated, shoppers prefer the one with the larger number of reviews, because a high review count signals popularity, and people tend to buy what’s perceived as popular.
The e-commerce implications of this study are clear — retailers need to signal to shoppers that the items they sell are popular. Travel sites do this well by showing an indication of the recency and volume of bookings. Take Hotels.com for example:
And here’s another example from Orbitz:
On retail sites, product review volume is among the most powerful ways to signal popularity. While influencing review volume may feel difficult because it seems there are only so many people that want to write product reviews, there are actually many strategies to increase review collection.
For starters, it’s a mistake to think that the number of product reviews that can be collected has a hard limit based on the willingness of customers to write them. It’s more like drilling for oil — some comes out in a gusher, but there’s a lot more in the ground that you can get out by using clever techniques. To illustrate, we recently had a customer begin sending follow-up “please review your purchase” emails a few days after their first request. The retailer expected that the follow-up would get a much lower response rate than the initial email, believing that most customers motivated to write a review would respond to the first request. Surprisingly, the response rate to the follow-up email was 80 percent of that of the initial email — nearly the same. This showed that many of those customers that didn’t respond to the first email had no aversion to writing a review, they just happened to get the request at the wrong moment.
Since many customers ignore a request to write a review for reasons of convenience rather than intent, retailers can increase review collection simply by taking the friction out of the collection process. Strategies aimed at motivating review writing (e.g., incentives) can help, too, but they can also have side effects (e.g., reduced trust). Reducing friction is the low-hanging fruit. Technology that enables customers to write and submit reviews from inside an email rather than requiring a clickthrough to a web form can more than double submission rates. A simple change from a button that says “Click to write a review” to a display of five stars with the message, “Start by rating it” can add 50 percent to the response rate. Allowing users to write reviews before requiring authentication, rather than leading with a log-in demand, can double collection rates.
On mobile devices, allowing photos to be submitted without first requiring the user to author a review can multiply visual content collection up to four times. Asking a user who has just submitted a review to review other items they’ve purchased is five times more likely to produce an additional review than the initial email. It’s common for this “Do More” technique to increase total review volume by 50 percent to 100 percent.
The lessons are clear: Increasing review volume can have a major impact on sales by tapping into the popularity effect, and review volume can reliably be increased with the proper tools and techniques.
March 9, 2016 by John Swords
The Risks of Image Harvesting
Recently the online retailing industry took some heat over the practice of harvesting images from social media. The New York Times highlighted some especially egregious cases in which retail brands re-published Instagram photos of children against the expectations of their parents.
A variety of experts chimed in with conflicting advice. Does using a brand’s hashtag in a photo caption count as giving consent for the brand to post the picture? The article portrays an industry still figuring out where the lines are, with best practices still unsettled.
What’s clear is that “image harvesting” is developing a risky reputation. When retailers pull pictures off social media and place them in a merchandising context, such as a product page or a gallery on a brand’s website, customers sometimes feel blindsided. Doing it right means getting each customer’s permission individually, and making sure customers understand what they’re consenting to.
That all adds up to a high-effort process. Retailers win when customers share pictures of products they love, but shouldn’t there be a better way to get them?
Enter Visual Reviews
TurnTo is leading the way in a new product that offers a clear-cut path to collect customer images that’s beneficial to both the customer and the retailer. Rather than pulling images from customers’ personal social media feeds, Visual Reviews gives the customers a way to submit product photos and videos directly to the store where they bought the item or to the brand that manufactured it.
TurnTo Visual Reviews adds a rich layer of visual information to fashion, beauty, and home brands, where a picture can say more than a written review ever could. It also works well for hobby and craft retailers, where buyers are eager to share things they’ve made with the products they’ve bought. Whatever the category, it provides a worry-free source of great content for TurnTo clients.
October 16, 2015 by George Eberstadt
You probably know that sending an email post-purchase to request a product review is critical to getting a healthy volume of reviews. But you may not know that it’s also essential for ensuring that the sentiment of the reviews you collect fairly represents the sentiment of your customer base, overall.
Here’s an example from Jockey.com. After switching to TurnTo for ratings & reviews, there was a period of 6 weeks when they were not sending out review solicitation emails (RSEs); the only reviews they collected were from shoppers who returned to their site, on their own, to submit one. Then Jockey turned on the RSEs. Not surprisingly, the volume of reviews they collected increased by 7X.
But here was the surprise: the average rating also improved – by over half a star, from under 3.8 to over 4.3! That’s a huge improvement, with the critical benefit of accurately signaling to shoppers the high quality of Jockey products.
Why the improvement in average star ratings? It turns out that the people who go through the effort to come back to your site to write a review, without being prompted to do so, are disproportionately the unhappy ones – the ones with a complaint to vent. So if you are only capturing reviews from this group, you are over-representing the negative sentiment in your customer base and under-representing your happy customers. When you reduce the barrier to writing reviews by sending customers an email requesting one, you get a review-writing population that is much more representative of the overall sentiment of your customer base. In the case of Jockey, the before-and-after gain of over a half-star across their full catalog is the kind of improvement you might otherwise have to do a product-line refresh to achieve.
So in case the benefits of a much greater volume of reviews aren’t enough to convince you to send out a review solicitation email, keep in mind that you’ll be more accurately showing the positive sentiment of your customer base, too!
September 8, 2015 by John Swords
… And we mean LOOK different.
- 90% of reviews come in response to emails
- >60% of emails are opened on phones
- Phones are bad for long text (like reviews)
- Phones are great for photos!
The implications are clear:
- Your strategy for collecting customer reviews needs to work on phones
- On phones, the strategy should be “visual first.”
So what is a visual review? It’s a photo (or video) submitted by a customer in response to a request for a review – the proverbial picture that is worth a thousand words. Instead of text stating, “With my new cookware, I was finally able to perfectly brown the crust of my famous chicken-pot-pie,” it is a photo of that perfect chicken-pot-pie.
Instead of text stating, “The shirt fit perfectly, with no extra blousing around my waist,” it is a selfie of the customer looking great in her new shirt.
Instead of text stating, “The fabric on the sofa was gorgeous, but the cushions were way too saggy,” it is a photo of the sofa with its gorgeous fabric and saggy cushions.
Far from being yet another “gotta-keep-up-with-changing-platforms chore,” the shift to visual content that the rise of smart phones demands creates a huge opportunity. Simply put, visual content converts better. Few shoppers have the patience to read the full body of customer reviews, and those that read any rarely go past the first couple of entries. So while having lots of reviews is valuable for signaling that an item is popular, most of the text you are collecting has little impact on conversion. On the other hand, shoppers can scan an image gallery in a blink and come away with a powerful, visceral sense of the appeal of a product.
This is not to say that you should abandon collecting text reviews; there is plenty of information in text reviews that images can’t convey. If a customer is on a desktop when they get your request to write a review, you should lead with the request for a standard text review (with an option to attach an image). But when the customer is on a mobile device, don’t try to force a round peg into a square hole by asking for text. Instead, ask the customer to do what comes more naturally on these devices and submit an image.
The applications are broad and go way beyond selfies. Image subjects can vary such as:
- Things made with the product (cooking, crafts, do-it-yourself projects)
- The product in use (home furnishings, hobby items)
- Unboxing and explainers (electronics, fashion)
- Travel (Hotel rooms, attractions)
- And yes, selfies (fashion, beauty, sporting goods)
Visual reviews are a great complement to imagery you can gather from social media sites, if you’ve taken that approach. But visual reviews also have some important advantages over social media harvesting and may be all the visual content collection you need:
- Images are automatically connected to the relevant SKU (saving a lot of work)
- Usage rights are automatically acquired
- You can collect a lot more images, since there is a big portion of your customer base that is happy to write a review but isn’t going to post your product to their Instagram page.
- The image collection is continuous; there’s no need for special hashtag campaigns
So as we said, the next generation of product reviews is going to look very different.
July 17, 2015 by John Swords
Collecting great customer-generated content (CGC) is only half the game. Figuring out how to use it for maximum impact is the other half. Here’s an example of a brand using a particular type of CGC – what we call “Checkout Chatter” – to power a great email campaign. Tip-of-the-hat to Sur La Table for their creativity. We think you’ll find this inspiring.
Here, Sur La Table is building the email around a selection of the checkout comments from their “Cart Talk” pinboard. They are not only introducing the Cart Talk function of the site, they are making a range of their products look super attractive by augmenting the product images with this particular type of CGC, providing endorsement and social validation. While customer reviews can be difficult to work into outbound messaging without undermining their authenticity, checkout comments have a different feeling – an immediacy – that makes them well-suited for promotional uses.
Sur La Table’s “Cart Talk” captures customer sentiments at the time of purchase with the simple question, “Why did you choose this?” and turns it into a social share on the site for those still browsing. Because it is captured at the point of purchase, the sentiment is consistently positive and it is a great asset to build enthusiasm around products – not to mention SEO.
It’s just one piece of the ongoing strategy Kevin Ertell, SVP of Digital at Sur La Table has for building community with customers leveraging product insights contributed by the customers themselves. You can read and hear more about that in our previous blog entry.
Our clients using Checkout Chatter capture these checkout comments from shoppers on up to 15% of all orders. What brand wouldn’t benefit from massive amounts of positive-sentiment user-generated comments about their products that could be easily sprinkled throughout their site? Empowering customers with the ability to share their thoughts or experience with purchased products helps reassure their fellow shoppers that they will be making a wise decision. And that leads to increased conversion rates.
May 28, 2015 by John Swords
[Updated October 11, 2015 to reflect changes Internet Retailer made to their 2015 Top 500 database since the date this was first published.]
According to the newest data from the leading trade publication, Internet Retailer, TurnTo Networks Inc. is the fastest-growing user-generated content (UGC) solution provider to the “IR500” – the top 500 online retailers in North America.
Of the top 3 solution providers in Internet Retailer’s “Customer Reviews and Forums” category – TurnTo, Bazaarvoice, and PowerReviews – only TurnTo showed significant growth from the 2014 tally to 2015. The number of top 500 retailers using TurnTo grew by 53% during the period, while the number using Bazaarvoice declined 3% and the number using PowerReviews declined 12%.
Measured by the annual web sales of the retailers served, the results were even more dramatic. TurnTo grew 198% during the period, while Bazaarvoice grew 2% and PowerReviews declined 1%. Additionally, the Internet Retailer 2015 research shows that 50% of the annual web sales of the PowerReviews customer base is represented by a single customer. Excepting this, the total annual web sales of TurnTo’s IR500 customers would be ahead of PowerReviews and second only to Bazaarvoice overall.
I had a quick chat with our CEO, George Eberstadt, to get his thoughts on the reasons for this growth.
Me: George, the first thing people are going to ask on seeing these numbers is what’s driving them. So, what’s driving them?
George: First let me say – and I don’t want to be too saccharine about this – it’s humbling and gratifying to get this kind of trust from these businesses. The alternatives have been around a while, so we recognize that the retailers adopting us are making a bold move rather than the safe choice.
And I think that’s the short answer to your question. The customer-generated content space hasn’t seen much bold innovation for a while, and retailers that are tired of the same-old haven’t had alternatives – especially at the enterprise level. We bring the fresh perspective, smart innovation, and fanatical commitment that a lot of retailers are looking for.
Me: Can you put your finger on any particular TurnTo innovations that the market has been responding to?
George: I think it’s a mix – some big, some subtle. For example, we were the first to introduce the “active outreach” mechanism for getting fast community answers to shopper questions. That was really the breakthrough that makes community answering work. Then, we expanded our vision of Q&A to include answering an ever broader range of shopper questions even faster, so we added instant answers and knowledge base features. Q&A is still a new frontier with lots more opportunities for major innovations, and we’re pursuing those.
Checkout Chatter is another example. It’s simple and highly effective. And it’s a TurnTo exclusive.
Ratings & Reviews, on the other had, is a more mature area, so our innovations have been less revolutionary, though they still have a big impact on ROI. For example, our ready-to-wear UI is exceptionally clean, elegant, and mobile-friendly while still providing easy customizability either through CSS or our comprehensive API. Our review-solicitation email answer flow automatically authenticates the user, leading to more reviews from verified buyers – especially on mobile devices. Our transaction history integration enables the system to ask for reviews on previously purchased items immediately after a user writes a review or answers a question, which increases total review volume by 20-30%.
Me: Are there any other reasons you think retailers are switching?
George: I think our customer success process and the great team behind it is another reason. By focusing on the business as well as the technical aspects of integrating our tools, we ensure customers get the most value from them. And we don’t just move on to the next customer as soon as the last one is set up; no one is fully optimized on the day they go live, and we are pretty relentless in follow-through over time. That’s a hard thing for retailers to get a sense of during an evaluation, but it comes into play in our high customer retention and referral rates, which is a big part of our growth.
Data from the IR500 survey by Internet Retailer are available at www.top500guide.com.
August 7, 2014 by George Eberstadt
In Internet Retailer’s just-published list of the top vendors to the IR500, TurnTo is #3 in the “Customer Reviews and Forums” category. OK, we’re still a good deal smaller than the leaders, but there’s a reason their customers are switching to TurnTo. Give us a call to find out why!
May 30, 2013 by George Eberstadt
I was talking recently to a customer frustrated by his inability to drive meaningful revenue out of Facebook, despite substantial efforts. The conversation got me to revisit this by now well-discussed topic.
The conventional wisdom is that selling on Facebook doesn’t work because it’s like trying to sell to people drinking at a bar. (Ref 1. Ref 2.) Certainly context matters, but I think this metaphor is misleading. The same logic could be used to argue that advertising in a newspaper shouldn’t work because it’s like selling to people reading at a library. Or that advertising on TV shouldn’t work because it’s like selling to people watching a movie. Or that shops at airports shouldn’t work because they’re like selling to people, um, in the middle of a painful surgical procedure (an experiment on the effects of stress on rats, maybe?).
I’d propose that a lot of the frustration about the difficulty stores have in monetizing Facebook comes from misunderstanding where Facebook fits into the purchase intent cycle.
Purchase intent comes from many sources. A lot of intent comes from non-commercial sources. If someone has a baby, they’re going to need a crib. Trying to create purchase intent for a crib absent a baby is pretty tough. For discretionary purchases, intent is often sparked by direct experience. You see something that looks good on someone walking by and you decided you want one, too. And, of course, purchase intent is sparked by friends. (One among a gadzillion studies showing this.) To the degree that purchase intent can be engineered, that’s generally the job of brands, rather than stores. If a brand can get a consumer to want the thing they – and only they – make, then they are going to make a sale, regardless of the channel in which the consumer chooses to purchase. Stores generally don’t invest much in intent-generation because of the risk that the money they spend on intent generation comes to nothing when the customer goes elsewhere to buy. It’s much safer for stores to invest at the intent fulfillment stage. Thus the success of search engine marketing, which is all about ensuring shoppers who already have purchase intent chose your store for the purchase. This is also why Sunday circular inserts from merchants generally contain offers on such a large number of products. The store isn’t trying to convince the reader to want something they don’t already want; they are fishing for intent that already exists – hoping that one of those many special offers will match up with an existing customer need.
So back to Facebook. I’d argue that Facebook is a pretty good environment for intent generation, and a pretty bad one for intent fulfillment. This applies both to the organic side of Facebook (friend sharing) as well as the paid side. This means that Facebook is going to more easily deliver value to brands than stores, and that that value is going to be best measured through traditional advertising metrics like awareness rates and control population studies rather than through online metrics like click-throughs. It’s possible that with Facebook’s continually improving tools for micro-targeting, they will get to the point of being an economical vehicle for intent-harvesters , but this capability will arrive for some product categories long before others, so sellers should be careful to evaluate the relevance to their particular category before plunging in.
Because Facebook is primarily an intent generation environment, higher-level brand messaging will succeed better than the sort of late-funnel, fulfillment-oriented messaging that works for intent harvesting. For example, one pet supplies store is having success by sharing cute animal photos that get widely distributed. The click-throughs are low, but they view this campaign as awareness-building and see the results in site visitor counts and conversion rates over the long run. Pinboards filled with positive-sentiment checkout comments are also appropriate on Facebook as a tool for intent generation. Here’s a nice example. On the other hand, some types of content that are very important for conversion late in the purchase funnel – like customer reviews – are totally out of place in Facebook’s early-funnel, intent generation environment; a product review is just spam to someone who has no interest in the product.
Viewing Facebook through this intent-cycle lens doesn’t produce any magical solutions for merchants to monetize Facebook. But it does suggest what sort of investments are likely to pay off, and what sort of expectations are realistic. Facebook is going to continue to be a tough environment for merchants because of their focus on intent harvesting rather than intent generation. And strategies aimed at clicks leading directly to purchases are likely to disappoint. Stores which take that approach will indeed find themselves in the position of selling in a bar. But those who find value in developing their store brand and are able to look at brand advertising metrics rather than direct web conversion metrics may yet find water in the Facebook well.
February 26, 2013 by George Eberstadt
This post was first published as a guest article on Multichannel Merchant.
Where Amazon leads others follow. No one else has the resources or data that Amazon has to figure out what really works. So it’s a good idea to take notes when they introduce a major new element to the shopping experience.
Rolled out over the last few weeks, Amazon now offers true Social Q&A on most of their product pages. And it’s great. (Disclosure: I’m biased. It works just like the Social Q&A system that my company, TurnTo, provides. Hmm…) Amazon is not the first to introduce this, like they were with customer reviews. But they have leapfrogged the competition that uses customer-service-oriented Q&A with a beautiful execution of the Social Q&A concept. It is designed top-to-bottom for shopper-customer dialog about products; they say that they remove questions that are about shipping, availability, orders, and customer service. And they have built a powerful engine for ensuring that questions reliably get answered by past buyers, providing a great experience for shoppers without creating a massive support burden for Amazon.
The key to making Social Q&A work for eCommerce is speed, and Amazon has done all the right things to make their model fast:
- The questions are accepted and appear immediately on the page when submitted. In the age of Facebook, this is what people expect from a social experience. Not a message that says “We’ll alert you if we decide to accept your question. It may take hours or days…”
- The question is immediately emailed to a large selection of people who actually bought the product, not just people who reviewed it. I just used the system to ask questions about 2 items, one of which had only one review, the other had no reviews. And yet within 2 hours I received 4 answers to one and 5 to the other! There’s no way to do that if you don’t email the question to past customers, or limit the recipient list to reviewers.
- The answers get sent immediately back to the asker. That provides fast reminders about the purchase the shopper was considering – while the shopper is still in the buying moment – and a smooth path back to the product detail page complete it. Plus, the answers appear immediately on the site for future shoppers to use and for the asker to review.
- Askers can easily submit follow-up questions back to the answerers, or even just send thanks. That, too, is email enabled, so that it’s easy to have rapid, back-and-forth dialog about products that one person knows about the other needs to learn about.
- To make the whole question-sending-answer-delivering cycle work as fast as this while still protecting their reputation and their customers, Amazon must be automating the moderation. “Optimistic moderation”, where content is moderated after posting, works fine for reviews, but not for Q&A where posts are emailed to real customers. And manual moderation doesn’t even come close to the speed needed, not to mention that it is too much work at any sort of scale.
The result of all these pieces working together is a system that finally realizes the promise of “social commerce”. In the lingo, it’s leveraging the “interest graph” rather than the “social graph”. Which means that the system enables total strangers to actually talk to each other about products in which they share an interest or experience. Customer reviews are great, of course. But they are not interactive. The 2-way dialog that Social Q&A enables – when it’s done right like this – delivers a level of user engagement far deeper than what reviews can provide.
Online shoppers are going to find this system incredibly useful. For example, those questions I asked this afternoon weren’t tests. I was buying a whiteboard and I needed to know whether the model I was considering erased cleanly or left a ghost image. I wasn’t going to trust the manufacturer’s claims, and the information I needed wasn’t in the reviews. Here’s one of the pages – check it out. The information I got back is far more informative for my question than what’s in the manufacturer’s description or what a customer service rep (who would not have had personal experience with the product) could have provided. And since I now know that answers come back fast, the next time I’ve got a question standing between me and a purchase, I won’t hesitate to ask.
The business significance of this utility is huge. It’s not just that shoppers are more likely to buy when they get the information they need. With a tool this powerful, Amazon has now given shoppers yet another reason to go straight to Amazon next time they are considering a purchase.
If you run an online store, you need this functionality. It provides significant conversion lift, produces a mountain of user-generated content (which search engines love), and off-loads work from your customer service team. Plus, it builds loyalty! (Here’s some data we’ve collected on all these points.) You don’t need to let Amazon run away with yet one more reason for shoppers to buy there rather than at your store.
The best way to understand how Amazon’s Social Q&A works is to go there and try it out. But, for a shortcut, here are screenshots of the main elements.
A teaser link near the top of the page:
The main Q&A area embedded in the page:
The question email:
And the answer email:
December 28, 2012 by John Swords
Guest post by: Tim Kilroy
|Tim Kilroy is a consultant who focuses on helping companies achieve dramatic growth through marketing and business development efforts. He has worked with high-growth companies like Wayfair, Karmaloop, The North Face and many, many more. You can learn more at www.timkilroy.com|
I spend a lot of time thinking about growth. I help companies generate more traffic, generate more leads. I spend my days thinking about scale, share of voice, acceleration. I have worked in search, in display, in mobile, brand advertising, direct response advertising. I’ve been around the block a couple of dozen times. Someone that I was working with looked at the plans that we were putting together, and he said, “OK, so what do we do with all the traffic we are going to get?”
Nobody ever asks that question.
For many companies, how to treat your visitors is an entirely separate exercise from getting visitors. There are “Acquisition Managers” and “Site Experience Engineers” and “Director of Low Intent Consumer Engagement” (that is a real title, by the way). Each of these chops up the consumer experience into silos. But customers don’t perceive your efforts that way. Acquisition and engagement are part of a continuum for consumers.
So, as my client and I started to talk about ways to engage the new visitors that we were starting to drive. He immediately jumped to reviews as a method of engagement (and I can also share that they have a measurable impact on search engine visibility). And I think when I was an SEO guy, I would have stopped the conversation right there and dialed up PowerReviews. But my experience as a CMO of a $200mm fashion retailer tells me a different story. We had product level reviews on many of our 20,000 products. The SEO boost from those reviews was 1-2%. But we were redesigning our pages and were trying for simpler. So we started doing some multi-variate testing of the new page design. Amongst other things, on the new page, there were no reviews. At the end of the testing, we saw a meaningful difference in conversion on the cleaner page. And when we did all the math, removing the reviews resulted in about a 9% increase in conversion.
I, to put it mildly, was shocked. How could this be? Reviews are supposed to add the texture and nuance that drives consumer trust and conversion. In our case, it was the exact opposite. Why?
Our brand already had a high degree of trust with our consumers. We were the authority in our space. This is where math fails a little bit, because we couldn’t do a sophisticated sentiment analysis, but it was our opinion that reviews are too subjective. Products got bad reviews because they didn’t fit, or the color was not as expected, or the shipping was too expensive. Reviews tended to be experientially-based rather than product-based regardless of how they are written. And reviews are written by two kinds of folks – those with an axe to grind or those who are cheerleaders. And to be honest, neither is unbiased.
So, I started to reflect on my other experiences in online retail over the last two decades, and at the largest online furniture retailer, we tried to improve the customer experience by adding all of the product specific Q&A from our customer service department to the product page. We had questions like “How heavy is this item?”, “Will it fit through my door?”, “What is the seat depth?”. These aren’t sexy questions. But we saw real conversion lift with this tactic. But my client doesn’t have 200 call center employees with reams of data at their fingertips. What he does have is 7 years of customers who have experience with his product. They know the facts about his products. And by shaping the information that is asked for from those consumers by making them specific questions about the product (“Will it fit in a space X by Y?”, “Does it work in Europe?”, “How long is it from shoulder to cuff?”) it removes the subjective nature of experience into objective fact distillation.
It is the answers to questions that make you want to buy. It is the product as solution that justifies the purchase (honestly, shopping online isn’t all that much fun, so if you end up on a product page, the impulse to buy is probably pretty high). UGC does make me want to buy the product. It is the information that removes the reservation. But why doesn’t that work in the review space? Frankly, the review justifies what you want to hear. If you have enough reservations, inevitably, you will gravitate towards those reviews that make it easy to walk away. If you want to make the purchase, you will, of course, focus on the positive reviews. Product reviews can be self-reinforcing events. The cheerleaders hang out with the cheerleaders, and the axe-grinders hang out with the axe-grinders. Reviews are a self-reflexive lens.
I’ll share a personal holiday shopping anecdote – I bought a Chromebook for my kids for Christmas (shhhh…don’t tell them). I read a million reviews and they were all positive…but too high-level. I don’t actually care about processor power or inane memory specs, those things that professional reviewers care about. And the product reviews definitely fell into the “GOOGLE ROCKS – The Chromebook is the end of Apple!” or the “It isn’t as good as Windows because you can’t install a faster graphics chip, who would buy this….” And, truthfully, those reviews were just noise. I had one simple question – is there something like Skype for the Chromebook? That is what I needed to know. That was my point of reservation. I travel a lot, and I love to video chat with my kids while I am away. It is meaningful to me and them. So I asked that question on a product forum (NOT on the product page, mind you, but rather a forum that I had to search for…). As it turns out, it doesn’t do Skype, but someone was nice enough to tell me that you can do a private Google Hangout, and someone else told me that Skype was actively working on a browser only plug-in, so there would no need to download a client. These were objective answers to my objective question. And that single bit of information that was relevant to me, when answered, made the purchase decision simple.
Consumers are looking for information, not opinion. Decision purchases are made on rationalized facts, not influence. Passion and emotion run high on the engagement end of things (Do I like the site? Is this a good price? Is my credit card safe? Will my friends laugh at me for buying this?) All of that happens before the decision to buy. What drives the “Add to Cart” button click is information that helps me make the decision.
And just like Detective Joe Friday, we all really just want the facts, ma’am.
September 24, 2012 by George Eberstadt
If you know customer reviews, you know that half of the value – maybe more – is in the insights you can extract. So you might think the same is true for Social Q&A, since these are the two main sources of user-generated content on product detail pages. But you’d be mistaken. For Social Q&A, engagement is the key, which means that if your Social Q&A system isn’t delivering massive customer interaction, it’s falling short.
In a recent talk I gave to a gathering of e-commerce execs from major brands and retailers, I asked the audience for a show of hands on this: if they were forced to turn off part of their customer review system, which part would they chose? The options were:
- Turn off the back end. Visitors to their sites and storefronts could see all the reviews, as could search engines, but all the analytics would be gone.
- Turn off the front end. All the analytics would be available, but none of the content would be visible to shoppers or search engines.
The room split exactly in half.
At the Shop.org Summit last week in Denver, the CMO of a fashion brand told me he had just run a rigorous A/B test on their customer reviews. He was new to the brand, and even though they’d had reviews for a while, he didn’t want to just assume it was working. He tested the overall, site-wide effect on conversion (not just whether items with reviews did better than items without, or whether high-scoring items sold better than low scoring items). His discovery: negative lift! Overall, sales dropped a bit when reviews were turned on. So I asked if he was going to turn reviews off. He said that hadn’t been decided; the insight value they got from reviews was important enough that they would probably keep them after all. (There’s neat recent story on how stores are using the insights from customer reviews to steer their businesses in the Wall Street Journal.) n.b. Fashion brands seem to have a stormier relationship with customer reviews than many other retail segments. Your mileage may differ…
If you have had this sort of experience with customer reviews, you might think that the value equation is about the same for Social Q&A. But it’s not. While Social Q&A can also deliver valuable insights, it is first-and-foremost an engagement tool. You are not going to make up for poor Q&A engagement with analytics.
To put it simply: an unanswered question is a real downer, whereas no one ever knows about the review that was never written. Unanswered questions on your product detail page scream “nobody home”. First, there are the disappointed shoppers who asked questions and never heard back. Then there are the shoppers who come later and see all the unanswered questions stacked up. Sure, you can hide unanswered questions, but that makes it even less likely they get answered, and it doesn’t help the person who asked. You can have your staff answer all the questions, but then you’re probably better off with a live chat approach, and you’re missing out on all the benefits of getting your real customers to interact with your shoppers. In short, if your Social Q&A system doesn’t quickly and reliably get lots of customer answers to shopper questions, you’re probably better off not inviting shoppers to ask. It’s better not to create expectations if you’re not going to be able to fulfill them.
On the other hand, if you get Social Q&A right, the massive customer engagement it generates effectively drives top-line growth. One fashion merchant that uses TurnTo for Social Q&A sees 1100% conversion lift from those who ask questions or read dialog from others. And it’s not an isolated effect – about 25% of their orders come from shoppers who interact with Q&A before purchasing.
Further, there are the SEO benefits; Social Q&A done right produces 2-4 times as much user-generated content (UGC) as customer reviews, which is great for driving organic search traffic. If your Social Q&A system is not delivering enough customer engagement to produce UGC at scale, it’s under-performing.
So the next time someone tells you that engagement isn’t important for Social Q&A – that it’s the analytics that matter, just like for customer reviews – start by asking what sort of customer engagement their Q&A system produces.
August 27, 2012 by George Eberstadt
David Streitfeld of the New York Times has been looking hard at the issue of fake customer reviews. A year ago, he called out freelancers offering to write positive reviews for a few bucks. In January, he wrote up a service called VIP Deals that offered rebates in return for positive reviews. And a couple days ago he published a piece on Todd Rutherford, the founder of gettingbookreviews.com, who sold 4,531 book reviews in 2010 and 2011 at $20-99 each, before backlash from Google and Amazon forced him to shut down the service.
No doubt, there is fakery out there. The question is: how widespread is it? 4,531 seems like a lot of reviews, but it’s a small part of the billions of customer reviews available on the web. The most recent NY Times piece says Bing Liu, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois, Chicago specializing in automated text analysis, “estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.”
One of the reasons there is so much suspicion of reviews is that so many of them are positive. Liu has estimated that 60% of the reviews on Amazon are 5 stars and another 20% are 4 stars, but, he says, “almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”
Here’s an alternative explanation: there’s a lot more customer satisfaction out there than you might guess. That’s a conclusion you might come to from reading customer answers to shopper questions gathered through TurnTo. With the TurnTo system, there is almost no possibility for fakery. When a shopper asks a question, the system chooses a group of people who actually bought the item (based on the transaction records of the store) and emails the question to them. While the system allows in-line answers on the product detail page, >90% of the answers come in reply to this question email. So unless there’s a big population of people buying products they don’t need for the purpose of providing artificially positive answers to shopper questions they may never even receive, these answers are legit.
And one of the most striking aspects of the answers provided by these real product owners is how effusively positive they often are. For example, here are some customer answers to a shopper question about the height of the drip spout on an espresso machine at SeattleCoffeeGear.com. The question doesn’t ask for any sort of overall evaluation of the machine – it’s just looking for a measurement. Yet many of the respondents (including me) spontaneously volunteered our enthusiasm for the product. (You can find this page here.)
Now I don’t want to be Pollyanna about the problem of fake reviews. I suspect they are much more common on destination review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor where anyone can submit than on ecommerce sites where the ability to verify purchase is an easy and effective way to police. It’s also harder to believe the uniformly high ratings sometimes found on products which are judged on subjective personal taste, like books and food; personal tastes differ too much. As Streifeld points out, even The Great Gatsby (which, first published in 1925, is presumably not attracting many fake reviews) has plenty of neutral and negative reviews (>300 reviews are 1, 2, or 3 stars out of 1,400 total at Amazon).
But while the battle goes on between the fakers and those trying to root them out, it’s possible that in many cases when the reviews are positive, customers might just be happy.
June 12, 2012 by George Eberstadt
I spent last week at IRCE 2012 in Chicago, and the #1 question I got asked was “what do you think of the acquisition of PowerReviews by Bazaarvoice?” Now that I have a quiet moment, I thought I’d set down an answer.
For the merging companies: this is a smart move for Bazaarvoice, and while it’s the end of the road for the PowerReviews team and their products as we know them, it’s the best possible outcome for the PowerReviews shareholders. The $152 million purchase amount, about 13 times PowerReviews 2011 revenues of $11.5m, is a steep price to pay for a unprofitable business that’s a distant second in their segment. So why did Bazaarvoice pay up? Because even though Bazaarvoice won most of the larger accounts in the market, PowerReviews was in every deal competing on price. The downward pressure this put on Bazaarvoice pricing didn’t just kick in on new deals; every time a Bazaarvoice contract came up for renewal, the customer always had the credible threat of switching to PowerReviews to keep a lid on Bazaarvoice prices. What’s the value to Bazaarvoice of eliminating price competition from PowerReviews? Here’s a sample calculation. Bazaarvoice is currently at a $120m revenue run rate. If they are able to increase their price realization by 20%, that’s another $24m in revenue, with no associated cost – ie it’s all profit. The present value of an incremental $24m a year in profit, at a nominal 10% discount rate, is $240m, making $155m a tolerable price to pay. If the PowerReviews business turns out to be worth something, after their team has been shrunk and their prices raised, then that’s all gravy to Bazaarvoice. So that’s what you call a win-win, right?
Well, not if you are a customer. If you are already a Bazaarvoice customer, the effects will be straightforward enough: when your contract comes up for renewal, expect to pay what you’re quoted. Your alternatives just got a lot narrower.
If you are a PowerReviews customer, it’s a bit more complicated. Yes, you should expect to pay more when you renew. But you should also be thinking about what this means to the support your product is going to be getting over time. Here’s my bet on what’s going to happen. Bazaarvoice will keep the PowerReviews Express product. It won’t get a lot of new investment, but it wasn’t before either, since PowerReviews has been focused on their enterprise offering the last few years. It costs little to sell and service this offering, so there’s no need for Bazaarvoice to cut back to maintain the business. On the other hand, Bazaarvoice is likely to cut back heavily on investment in the PowerReviews Enterprise product. This is the offering that’s driving the PowerReviews sales, marketing, and R&D costs, and it competes directly with the Bazaarvoice product line. It’s hard to see Bazaarvoice carrying the R&D cost of two overlapping products or training their soon-to-be-integrated sales team to sell both. On the other hand, they won’t want to alienate their newly acquired customers by forcing a rapid change-over. So I expect they’ll keep the PowerReviews Enterprise product around with minimal investment, and they’ll convert the stores using it over to the Bazaarvoice platform little by little as the PowerReviews platform falls further and further behind. For those who use the core PowerReviews reviews product, no immediate action will be needed, since that’s already a mature, full-featured platform. But for those using or considering the new tools in PowerReviews’ recently-announced “Essential Social Suite” – analytics, loyalty, social sharing, Q&A – the picture is different. All of these new tools are raw, and some are explicitly still in Beta. Without the significant R&D investment needed to bring these products quickly from their current state to even a modest level of maturity, adopting them may cause real pain.
June 1, 2012 by John Swords
Yesterday George Eberstadt, our CEO and Founder, hosted our webinar “Beyond Customer Reviews – Meet Social Q&A.” George covered topics ranging from “what is Social Q&A?” through to the positive effects Social Q&A can have on a website’s SEO. Below are the slides from the webinar:
April 17, 2012 by George Eberstadt
The new Nielsen trust report is out. (Write up at Social Commerce Today.) Duck – here come the inflated claims from social commerce companies about how this proves the effectiveness of what they do. The problem is, it’s not that simple. First, here’s the data:
The temptation is to conclude that because “recommendations from people I know” are most-trusted, a sure-fire strategy is to get your customers to recommend your stuff to their friends. The problem is that the whole reason friends are trusted is because they WON’T recommend your stuff to their friends – not unless they sincerely and spontaneously feel it’s in the interest of their friends to do so. And as soon as you throw in an incentive for your customers to tell their friends about you, you are going against the whole trust equation – no one wants to feel like a shill, and no one wants to be shilled to.
Also important: social trust affects the purchase cycle in different ways at different stages. “Consumer opinions posted online” are effective at the evaluation stage, but not at the awareness stage. No one reads customer reviews unless they already have purchase intent. On the other hand, recommendations from friends tend to matter more at the awareness stage than at the evaluation stage, and this varies a lot by product category. For example, I just got a new Dyson hand vac because I saw it at my friends’ house this weekend and they told me it was awesome, but I would never have called them to ask what brand of vac I should get at the moment I was about to buy one. Of the last 40 items I bought at Amazon.com, 6 of them had some sort of social influence at the discovery stage, but only 1 had any social influence at the evaluation stage. That was a ping pong table, and I didn’t seek out the advice about which to get; I just mentioned to a friend that I was thinking of getting one, and she said to get a Stiga because it’s a Swedish brand and she’s Swedish. Similarly, for vacation plans, I sometimes call friends for advice during the evaluation phase, but since it can be hard to know which friends have relevant experience, my process tends to be haphazard. Fashion is a tricky category – people ask friends for advice, but assessment of a friend’s expertise is often based on their taste rather than their direct product experience. (You don’t have to own a particular brand to answer “does this look good on me?”) How do you, as a brand/store, affect that conversation?!?
So, the next time someone makes a blanket statement to you about how you need to be doing social commerce because people “trust” their friends and fellow shoppers so much, say “whoa there!” Trust is not the same as influence, and leveraging the trust that’s inherent in social relationships to promote your business is not that simple.
August 25, 2011 by George Eberstadt
The New York Times recently published a piece about the industry of paid customer reviews. This story surfaces periodically. Even if it’s only a small percent of reviews that are paid for, the perception that positive reviews are bought (or that negative reviews are suppressed) undermines the value of all reviews, even the legitimate ones. Here’s a typical comment responding to the NY Times article:
“When I search Amazon, I only trust the negative reviews. Too many of the 5-star comments sound phony.”
So if you have customer reviews on your storefront, what can you do to address review-skepticism?
One option is to augment your customer reviews with a Social Q&A system that enables shoppers to get their product questions answered by people who actually bought the item or service they are considering. Done right, a Social Q&A system delivers answers to a shopper question within hours from multiple buyers of the item, and it enables the shopper to continue a back-and-forth exchange with those purchasers for follow-up questions. In other words, it provides the sort of social experience that would be very hard to fake. So shoppers can be confident that the answerer’s sentiment is trustworthy.
Further, a store’s willingness to put shoppers directly in touch with real customers says a lot about the confidence the store has in its products, service and customer satisfaction. This confidence produces a “halo effect” that adds to the credibility of the store’s customer reviews, too. Shoppers might figure “why would this store fake their reviews when they are giving me direct access to their customers?”
While customer reviews will continue to be an important part of the online shopping experience, complementing them with Social Q&A is a powerful way to improve review credibility and address the concerns of the review skeptics.
– – – – –
Have you ever spotted a customer review online that you just knew was not legitimate? Tell us about it below.
March 14, 2011 by George Eberstadt
Join us and leading Yahoo Store services provider FastPivot for a webinar on:
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM EDT
Question-and-Answer systems are one of the hottest topics on the social web. Now learn how to use Social Q&A on your store to increase conversions, bring past customers back, improve your SEO rankings, and drive fresh traffic from social networks.
The goodwill of your customer base is the #1 asset of your business. Don’t leave it locked away. Adding Social Q&A to your store can release this untapped goodwill to generate more sales by connecting your shoppers directly to your customers. That’s what makes it “Social” – this isn’t just another customer service tool; this is a level of community engagement you’ve never seen before. Results include: – Shopper questions about popular items typically receive 3-6 answers from customers within 24 hours – 80% of these questions receive their first customer answer within an hour or two – 7% of past customers receiving a shopper question email return to the store to provide an answer – Shoppers who engage with Q&A convert at a massively higher rate – as high as 7X the baseline – Often produces more user-generated-content (UGC) than customer reviews with attendant SEO benefits During the webinar we’ll walk you through a number of live examples of Social Q&A in action on Yahoo! Stores. Register here
September 19, 2009 by George Eberstadt
From The Internet Retailer survey of IRNewsLink e-newsletter readers conducted in August 2009 with e-mail marketing and survey firm Vovici Corp:
Social marketing was a top priority for 49.5% of survey respondents this year, compared with 35.7% for video, 34.1% for blogs or customer ratings and reviews, and 22.5% for live chat or product personalization.
July 1, 2009 by George Eberstadt
Discgear.com just announced some dramatic success with customer reviews — 74% increase in conversions within 5 months. Congrats to them and to their review system provider, PowerReviews.
But I couldn’t help noticing this quote from Michael Brown, their IT Director: “User-generated comments and reviews are second only to word-of-mouth as a purchase driver for web users.” So, by all means, invest in a customer reviews system.
But don’t forget your word-of-mouth system, too!
December 15, 2008 by George Eberstadt
Peter Kim asked a handful of thought leaders in the social media space to give their predictions for the top trends of ’09. Here are a couple related to social commerce:
After a devastating holiday season, retailers will eagerly seek a way to improve results other than driving demand with deeper discounts. One option they will investigate will be how to insert people and social connections into the buying process, illuminating and influencing for the first time the Black Hole Of Consideration. As they lick their wounds in the first half of 2009, retailers will watch from the sidelines as media companies implement open social technologies like Facebook Connect and the Open Social Platform. But as the holiday season launches early after Labor Day, shoppers will find options to see what friends are recommending, buying and rating integrated into the shopping experience.
Jeremiah Owyang: eCommerce Goes Social
The recession will force revenue results out of social technologies –marketing must prove its worth to actually changing the bottom line. Although customer reviews are nothing new on popular eCommerce sites like eBay and Amazon, in most cases, consumers use the critiques from people they don’t know. Now with connective technologies like Facebook Connect, Google FriendConnect, and OpenID, consumers will now be able to see reviews, experiences, and critiques from people they actually know and trust. As a result, expect to see eCommerce widgets and applications appear in popular social networks, as well as when visiting existing eCommerce sites the ability to login with your Facebook or Google identity. As an example, next time I’m shopping for a laptop, not only will I see reviews from editors and consumers, I will now know which one of my friends uses an Apple computer, and what they think of it.