Let's start with a question: Are online reviews important to your customers? The answer: Only if you want to sell something. Consumers, whether they're in the market for a Tesla or a toaster, are increasingly savvy, and a recent survey from software company Baynote and the e-tailing group cited online ratings and reviews as the most influential source of information for those making both online and in-store purchases.
"Today's customers do their homework," notes Shelly Kramer, a Kansas City, Mo.-based brand strategist whose firm has advised clients like Chipotle and Wal-Mart. "Your customers check you out long before they ever decide to buy from you. They rely less on advertising and more on search results. They rely on their friends' opinions. And they rely on customer reviews."
In the e-commerce world, reviews signify validity. "Making sure you have a good online presence and reviews that speak to your credibility is a big part of doing business today," Kramer says. So, how can your business secure a presence on (and dominate) online review sites?
1. Get yourself on the map.
Spend an hour listing your business on all major directories (see box). At a minimum, make sure you're on the most well-known consumer review/social sites. But pay special attention to two in particular.
"You should make sure you develop robust pages on Google+ and Facebook that include imagery, videos, hours of operation and so on," Kramer says. Why? Because your profile will show up in any Google search and because Facebook, in one of the many ways it's endeavoring to compete against the search-engine giant, is starting to focus on local search in a big way.
For companies that have multiple locations but have been managing their brand's presence from a central page, setting up strong Facebook profiles is critical. "Those brands will want to develop [unique] local pages and a local voice and presence in [each] individual market, as this will not only impact search results, it will allow them to connect more closely and more personally with their customers," Kramer advises.
You may also want to place profiles on industry-focused review sites: TripAdvisor for travel businesses; Urbanspoon for food; LinkedIn for professional and B2B services. (Yes, LinkedIn. You might not realize it, but LinkedIn allows businesses to list products and services on company profile pages. It also allows members to make recommendations and write reviews.)
2. Encourage customers to speak up.
Don't miss an opportunity to request an online review or feedback. If you service customers in person, offer a comment card along with the receipt that directs them to your online profiles. You can also ask for a review as part of an online receipt or e-mail follow-up. Include links to review sites from your company website or in your e-mail signature.
And don't forget to encourage real-world feedback. Boston restaurant The Salty Pig includes a leather-bound notebook with the check to solicit handwritten comments. The notebook encourages happy patrons to speak up, and the move seems to translate online, too: The 2-year-old restaurant has 289 reviews on Yelp and 129 on Google.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should maintain the kind of stellar products and services that inspire customers to leave positive reviews. If you are getting a lot of negative feedback, you likely have a bigger problem. Which leads me to ...
3. Deal with negative reviews head-on.
Chances are you'll attract a handful of grumpy customers. Should you ignore them? Respond? Perhaps you should celebrate them, like New York's JoeDough Sandwich Shop did with a sign outside that read: "Come in and try the worst meatball sandwich that one guy on Yelp ever had in his life." The truth is, there is no one right answer for dealing with negative reviews. The best you can do is apologize and try to make it right.
Invested as you are in your company's reputation, the criticism might sting. But it's helpful to remember that not even Tolstoy earns five stars on Amazon. (War and Peace gets a paltry 4.5.) And, paradoxically, a few negative notices will only add to your credibility, signaling that the reviews are authentic and unvarnished.
You may find yourself the victim of an internet troll who just likes to stir things up. "In those instances," Kramer says, "leaving it alone is the best path, because the worst thing you can do to someone seeking attention by being mean or negative is to ignore them."
4. Use reviews as a subtle selling tool.
Pillar Properties puts Yelp reviews front and center on the homepage for The Lyric, a Seattle apartment complex. "See what our residents are saying about us on Yelp!" the page says. It's smart, fearless marketing that projects confidence.
Consider adding a "Testimonials" or "What our customers say" heading to your navigation bar with links to reviews, and mining the best ones to embed. As I said at the start, your prospects trust online reviews above all else. So why not make it stupid-easy for them to choose you?