B2B marketers have historically--and tightly--controlled the flow of information to prospective buyers. Carefully crafted value propositions conveyed through highly produced marketing communications, highly trained sales people equipped to convey a standardized message, and managed reference programs that enable prospects to talk to customers have been the norm.
However, B2B buying behavior is rapidly evolving to mirror that of B2C. A survey of 1,400 B2B buyers by the Corporate Executive Board indicated that, an average, they complete 60 percent of a purchase process before engaging a vendor.
Today, search and the availability of independent social forums and product review sites are fundamentally changing B2B buyers’ research habits. As a result, B2B marketers must take their cue from B2C and relearn the way they operate. They must assume their products will be reviewed and discussed by customers in public forums, and that prospects will access these forums to conduct independent research.
Benefits For Marketers
While it’s obvious that customers benefit from reading reviews, reviews can also be very beneficial to marketers. In fact, an increasing body of evidence shows reviews improve conversion rates by boosting consumer confidence. In studies by social commerce software company Bazaarvoice, U.K. apparel retailer Figleaves.com experienced a 35 percent lift in conversion by incorporating online reviews. The comparable figures for Dell.com were a staggering 100 percent lift.
The benefits are not just applicable to e-commerce sales, but also apply to services. For example, studies have indicated that positive ratings on Yelp materially increase restaurant bookings. Similar findings have emerged about the travel sector. A study by PhoCusWright, on behalf of TripAdvisor, revealed that reviews play a big role in increasing purchase confidence.
For marketers, reviews also provide valuable feedback and a chance to address disgruntled customers, albeit in a public forum. Prospective buyers care about whether and how the service/product provider engages. In the travel sector, for example, hoteliers have been among the most proactive in responding to customer reviews on review sites. Research from TripAdvisor explains why: “84% agree that an appropriate management response to a bad review improves my impression of the hotel.”
In addition, reviews represent a mechanism to secure content that can be used in other marketing venues. They also are a way to identify new customer advocates. What’s more, reviews can support your search engine optimization efforts as people find your reviews after searching on broader terms beyond your brand name.
Of note, prospective buyers have less trust in reviews that seem staged--i.e., all super-positive ratings and comments. Moreover, the content of what is said is ultimately more important than the ratings. For example, a recent study that analyzed book reviews on Amazon.com showed that positive star ratings didn’t influence sales. Only the content of the reviews impacted conversions. In addition, while the star ratings themselves didn’t influence sales, the variability in star ratings positively influenced sales. In other words, if visitors see only five-star reviews, they get suspicious.
Related to trust is the very real issue of fraud. The CMO.com article “Can Online Reviews Be Trusted?” cited data from Bazaarvoice about how fraud impacts consumer confidence: Bazaarvoice surveyed 3,000 adult consumers across the U.S. and U.K., the majority of whom said they read consumer reviews before making a purchase decision--more than any other content type considered. However, 48 and 50 percent of respondents in the U.S. and U.K., respectively, believed one or more of the reviews they read online is fake.
The same article also shared the safeguards that sites were taking to mitigate fraud, including requiring every reviewer to first register on a site, scanning review content for inappropriate language, and using fraud filters and algorithms that check IP and email addresses.
If you’re serious about leveraging the marketing benefits that reviews can provide, here are some tips for consideration.
1. Securing reviews: Start with encouraging all customers to review you. While it’s tempting to cherry-pick known advocates to write reviews, prospective buyers will trust a balance of perspectives much more than 100% glowing testimonials. When doing so:
- Communicate that you are looking for genuine feedback.
- Empower your enterprise to ask for reviews. This should not just be a marketing initiative. The people closest to the customer, e.g. account management, support, etc., should ask.
- Ask through multiple channels--social, email, on the phone, online community, events, etc.
- Make it easy for customers to update existing reviews versus writing new ones as their experience with you evolves.
- Thank customers for their feedback.
2. Using incentives: Some companies have used incentive programs and software to encourage customer advocacy, including writing reviews on independent sites. Such incentives do boost response; however, if you are going to use them, there are two important considerations in order to remain in compliance with FTC regulations and to ensure trust among prospects:
- Never tie the incentive attainment to writing a positive review.
- Reviewer need to disclose that they received an incentive from the vendor.
3. Number of reviews: Ultimately, the more reviews, the better, but at minimum you want to ensure you have a representative perspective. A 2012 survey of more than 2,800 consumers indicated that 65 percent of review consumers read two to 10 reviews before they feel that they can trust a business.
Moreover, given the complexity of B2B decisions, the quality of content and relevancy of who is writing the review trumps quantity. One trustworthy person writing an insightful review is much more valuable than 100 star ratings with superficial comments.
If you serve businesses in multiple segments (e.g.. company size, industry, geography), you should strive to have a representative number of reviews for each customer segment.
4. Select a venue: B2B vendors often rely on independent sites that aggregate reviews across multiple, competing products. If that’s the route you plan to take, compare your options based on traffic volumes by looking at their Alexa ratings--the lower the Alexa number, the higher the traffic. Another gauge is how effectively the site ranks on key search terms relevant to your products and category.
Other factors to consider are:
- What is the quality of the content?
- How does the site mitigate fraud?
- What quality control procedures does the site use?
- Is the user/contributor experience positive?
- Can vendors to engage with reviewers through comments, etc.?
- Does the site enable reviewers to update their reviews?
B2B marketers need to overcome their fear of public discourse about their products and embrace transparency. Like it or not, it is coming. Companies that are proactive in building an “embrace transparency” strategy by encouraging balanced reviews, engaging with reviewers, and leveraging reviews to their advantage will reap significant benefits in sales and marketing efficiency and win rates.