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5 Predictions About the Growing Power of Online Customer Reviews

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We all do it – routinely sort through search results by customer star ratings and scroll through buyer feedback before making a final decision.

It's no secret the way consumers make decisions has dramatically changed from over the last decade. We stand in stores, use our smartphones to compare prices and . Family and friends instantly weigh in via . When we are ready to buy, an ever-growing list of online retailers deliver products directly to our homes, sometimes even on the same day.

Related: 3 Ethical Ways to Boost Positive Online Reviews

With the advent of social media and constant updates, image sharing and online peer recommendations, it's unsurprising that 61 percent of customers read online reviews before making a purchase decision, according to recent surveys. After all, reviews provide a first stop for any potential customer to understand a product from a point of view, delivering honest and impartial insight from peers.

With reviews already such an important part of the buying process, it's easy to see how reliance on them will only increase in the . According to Nielsen's latest Global Trust in Advertising report, online consumer reviews are already the second most trusted source of information and messaging, with 70 percent of global consumers indicating they trust online reviews, an increase of 15 percent in four years.

Some industry observers predict that will change more in the next five years than it has over the past century, and that the extinction of brick-and-mortar stores isn't far off. While the shift may be a bit less dramatic than predictions claim, big changes are definitely inevitable. Retailers must act now to win in the long term.

For example, over the next few years, we can expect to see the anonymity of reviews fade away and instead become linked to shoppers' real identities on , Twitter or other social integration. This will be beneficial for both retailers and consumers. It add a layer of credibility, rather than allowing chronic complainers to hide behind anonymous usernames,and provide an interactive connection through which merchants can engage with valuable customers.

So, how can merchants evolve moving forward to support the ever-growing demand for reviews and efficiently manage the process? The following are several predictions we think retailers will need to fully understand in order to be prepared for evolving consumer buying.

1) All reviews will eventually be linked to social networks. The era of anonymous reviews is quickly coming to a close. In the future, anonymous reviews will be obsolete. While it's pretty uncommon now, in the future consumers will only value reviews they can tell are from real, trustworthy shoppers. They'll be able to check on their validity by clicking through to the reviewer's social profiles.

2) Shoppers will turn to their friends' reviews first. Because reviews will be easily visible on social networks, shoppers will first turn to their friends to read their reviews before checking reviews from complete strangers. Think about it: You know your friend, Sarah, is an avid photographer who knows a lot about cameras. You will check out her reviews before you visit the product page.

3) Reviews will be aggregated by reviewer. In other words, you'll be able to click on your friend Sarah's profile and see that she's a 32-year-old mom, lives in Chicago and considers herself an amateur photographer. Then, you'll be able to see all of the reviews Sarah has written online, no matter the store, site or service.

Related: Why You Should Encourage Online Product Reviews

4) Reviews will be personalized. Because both the reviewer and the review-reader's information will be available online, reviews of the future will be personally tailored to each reader. The same way Google Ads and Facebook ads are already delivered to us based on what Google and Facebook know about our preferences, reviews in the future will pop up based on a similar approach. Reviews from people with similar interests will show up.

5) All formats will become compatible. Currently, depending on where you are writing reviews, there are numerous formats and kinds of information required. For example, some websites allow for video reviews, while some only look for a star rating. In the future, websites will continue to "get smarter' about extracting the most important information from any type of customer review, so shoppers can get a true "snapshot." This will become especially important as websites accumulate more and more reviews. Shoppers don't want to sit and read through 2,000 reviews.

As the value of reviews becomes more prevalent, merchants must take a more active role in the review process. Right now, only about 13 percent of small- owners actively invest in online reviews. That must change quickly to keep pace with consumer demand. Not only will merchants need to make a more concerted effort to solicit reviews, but also respond to both negative and positive reviews, perhaps even offering rewards to reviewers who offer valuable insight into their buying or product use experience.

As marketers and business owners, it is sometimes difficult to step out of the role as budget manager and chief efficiency officer. As a result, anything that looks like added time investment may automatically be deemed impossible, especially when so many managers are already overworked and overextended. However, moving forward, it's critical for retailers to look at customer reviews from the perspective of the consumer. Keeping pace with expectations in providing customer reviews is going to be absolutely essential to survival in the modern era.

Chances are that you rely heavily on reviews in making your own purchase decisions. Why wouldn't you expect your customers to do the same?

Related: The Secret to Recovering From a Negative Customer Review

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