Marketing in the Recommendation Age

As customer review venues and their influence increase, business owners should capitalize on this trend.

By Alexa Vaughn

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you're still talking about how to market in the Information Age, catch yourself--that was so five years ago. We're now in a booming Recommendation Age.

Getting hundreds of search engine results from one keyword loses more of its novelty and efficiency every day as consumers opt for recommendations from real people. Instead of typing "hip sushi, Portland" into a search engine, consumers are going straight to websites like Citysearch and Yelp, where they can find several customer reviews for restaurants fitting that description. And as social networking websites like Facebook automatically import reviews into profiles, the exposure and influence of customer reviews are increasing.

Even consumers still primarily using search engines find customer review pages at the top of their search results. If you really type "hip sushi, Portland" into a Google search, for instance, you'll see pages of review results before a result that goes directly to a restaurant.

The main reason: Studies, such as one done by Deloitte and Touche in late 2007, are finding that 80 percent of readers' purchasing decisions are influenced by customer reviews. And 70 percent of them say they share business reviews with friends and family online.

"It's critical for companies to respond to this trend because you just don't know what influence that message board or blogger might have if you're not listening and responding," says Toby Bloomberg, president of Bloomberg Marketing and a blogger for Diva Marketing. "If you're not continuing the conversation in a better direction, then people are left to their own conclusions."

Though turning customers into brand advocates online is still a conundrum for many business owners, Bloomberg says the most important thing to do is make a commitment to monitoring online conversations about your business and being proactive and public in your response to those conversations.

Highly reviewed and rock-themed Birds Barbershop of Austin, Texas, did just that when a customer wrote a bad Yelp review about his experience.

After finding the review, Birds Barbershop offered him a free haircut the second time around. The same customer then went back on Yelp to graciously report the act of redemption: "Kudos to Bird's for knowing what good customer service is, and for reading Yelp!"

Instead of blatantly encouraging customers to write better reviews for his barbershop, owner Jayson Rapaport prefers letting customers know the staff cares about the feedback.

"What ends up happening is our stylists build relationships with their clients, and they're checking out the reviews to see if they're OK more than I am," Rapaport says.

Businesses also become more conducive to online recommendations when customers feel the business supports a lifestyle they value.

Food Fight Grocery, for instance, is one of the most highly reviewed businesses of foodies in Portland, Oregon, because of the political activism its vegan owners encourage. The home page of the store's website even opts for a news and events blog over advertising its plethora of vegan products.

But Emiko Badillo, who owns the store with her husband, Chad Miller, says she doesn't look at Yelp or their reputation online.

"I think people still appreciate that we're casual and that we're really putting our own personalities into the business," Badillo says. "We run this business mainly for the activism side of it and to inform people about veganism."

For Seattle-based Theo Chocolates, the only roaster of organic cocoa beans and the first roaster of fair trade certified cocoa beans in the United States, factory tours of its environmentally friendly operations as well as the causes it supports help drive a high amount of positive customer reviews.

"Our overall brand draws a lot of traffic because the growth is driven by our commitment to organic and fair trade products," owner Joseph Whinney says, adding that taking a factory tour extends the consumer's understanding of the business.

To make sure your business doesn't fall behind in the Recommendation Age, consider the following tips:

  1. Make your business part of a lifestyle.
  2. Let your customers know you respond to customer feedback.
  3. Don't risk your company's reputation by faking reviews.

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