If Not Online Reviews, Who Do Consumers Trust?
It’s a Love Story
The history of online reviews is not unlike a love story. In knight’s armor, online reviews enter the scene on a white horse to save consumers from dishonest marketing and advertising by providing authentic reviews from real people. As the online reviews knight and his steed stand there in the majestic light of sunset (A.K.A. Amazon.com circa 1995), consumers stare in awe and fall madly in love at first sight.
When this new information source and apparent transparency arrived, consumers proudly posted their status as “In a Relationship” with the online reviews knight, resulting in a huge wave of dedicated review sites crashing into the market to capitalize on the new craze (e.g., Yelp, TripAdvisor, Angie’s List, and Consumer Reports, just to name a few). Now, hundreds of thousands of individual sites host their own reviews, and on top of that, consumers can read reviews and slam or praise businesses and products on social media sites. In fact, 70% of consumers visit review sites and 57% find recommendations on social media sites before making a purchase.
But more consumer reviews mean more honesty and transparency, which in turn leads to more satisfied consumers, right? Not quite. Like any love story… it’s complicated.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
The age-old problem is that consumers and brands want different things. Consumers want the full picture, while a brand prefers to only show pictures taken on its “good side.” For brands, online reviews are just another medium to convince consumers they should buy their products. So, with Yelp users posting 26,380 reviews per minute and research continuing to show reviews as an essential stage in the shopping journey, it’s not surprising that brands invest in strategies to maintain a positive image across online reviews.
Brands can employ several online reputation management strategies, including hiring a firm to write positive reviews about the brand or negative reviews about a competitor. Ironically (or perhaps not), these types of maneuvers remove the element of online reviews that consumers desire most: honesty. Nowadays, consumers are more aware of these tactics, resulting in growing skepticism of online review content (only 59% trust online reviews).
So, Who Do Consumers Trust?
Reviews are still vital to the purchase journey, but their role has shifted. Rather than using online reviews as the sole basis for a purchase decision, shoppers use them to form a consideration set. Then the question becomes: How do shoppers make the jump from a few brands in the consideration set to one final purchase? In some categories, especially those with high involvement products and/or long distribution channels, buyers and shoppers rely on experts of the trade to make final purchase decisions. Let’s walk through an example of a typical shopping journey.
Joe Schmoe’s Quest for Luxury Toilets
Joe Schmoe needs to purchase five new toilets. Joe takes pride in his home’s luxurious bathroom experience, and desires many specific toilet qualities and features. After conducting extensive online research and reading hundreds of online reviews, Joe has narrowed it down to three brands. The next step for Joe is to head down to his local big-box home improvement store to check out the toilets in person and speak with an expert associate about which product is ultimately best for his bathroom goals.
The store associate in the plumbing section listens to Joe’s extravagant bathroom goals, asks about his timeline and budget, and, based on his experience, recommends a brand that isn’t in Joe’s original consideration set. Joe quickly whips out his phone in the store, reads a handful of online reviews about the recommended brand (most of which are positive, but not all), and decides to purchase that brand for all five of his bathrooms.
The Bottom Line
The point of the story is that a good online reputation is useless if your brand doesn’t sell. Even though three brands won the online review battle, none of them won the war because they lacked the allegiance of a vital channel member. We see this same story play out all the time across many different backdrops, including the interaction between distributors and store buyers (which can be even more deadly because consumers can’t purchase a brand if it never makes it to the shelf).
How To Grow Your Channel Member Loyalty
We realize that in today’s world it sounds utterly archaic to suggest shifting part of the focus away from the almighty digital landscape to real humans. But as skepticism of online reviews and recommendations grows, enlisting more sales support from channel members is a huge untapped opportunity for brands in certain categories.
Brands can grow channel member loyalty by better understanding which products distributors, contractors, or retailers recommend in a variety of sales situations. For your brand, a good place to start is to quickly diagram the situations in which a channel member recommends products in your category. The next step is to identify which products are recommended by those channel members in each type of sales situation (we use a survey-based simulation methodology called Channel Lab TM to do this). Next, if applicable, try to answer the questions below:
Which selling situations are most lucrative for your brand?
- Are channel members failing to recommend your brand in certain types of selling situations? If so, which ones?
- Are there product line gaps that keep you from being recommended by channel members?
- What type of promotions most influence channel members to recommend your brand? Other brands?
- What trade messages most ensure channel member allegiance?
- Which of your competitors are most vulnerable to your channel marketing efforts?
- Are channel members failing to recommend your brand to certain types of customers? If so, which ones?
These steps should give you some momentum to begin the journey to achieving more sales support from your channel members. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. We’d be happy to discuss your unique situation and point you in the right direction.