3 Things Everyone Should Know About Online Reviews

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Recently, the Atlantic ran an article describing how the TSA and IRS are integrating Yelp reviews into their workflow. From now on, your complaint about the lines at the airport or the unfairness of a tax audit will get an actual response from a government employee.

While social listening and critique get most of the press, online reviews influence nearly two-thirds of purchase decisions and people tend to put a very high value on online recommendations. Yet only half of businesses may consider online reviews important to their success.

Online reviews are a significant source of messaging that you have little control over. What I want to do in this piece is to discuss the importance of online reviews (positive and negative) for every business, and to demonstrate how some businesses are more successful than others to control their message.

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1. Reviews are messaging that you don’t control.

For communications professionals, reviews can be terrifying. After all, you seemingly have no control over the message. You can be reassured to know that 75 percent of online reviews are positive, and that the least used ratings (on a scale of five, anyhow) are two and three. If someone is writing a review of your business or products, odds are that they like you a lot… but if they don’t like you they REALLY don’t like you.

You have more control than you think. Here are some best practices that you can do to control the tone of you online reviews:

1. Encourage your advocates to write a review first.

Many authors for example advance their books to their supporters with the thought that they will bolster the immediate rating of a product. The capability to muster a mailing list to advocate for you is a huge advantage (a huge social following can also be helpful in this regard).

2. The more the merrier.

One of the biggest issues with online reviews is sample size. A great product can be stymied by having only two or three reviews informing the public about its virtues. Low sample sizes allow unhappy customers to disproportionately control the narrative, so the higher number of reviews the better.

3. Leverage reciprocity to get better reviews.

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdani discusses “reciprocity” as the tendency for us to want to return a favor when a person grants us a favor. Many businesses on Amazon do this – they offer free or reduced cost items to reviewers with the hope that comping them a product will result in a positive review (I have a friend that gets two or three items a day doing this).

4. Front-load good reviews.

Another psychological aspect of online reviews is the wisdom of the crowds. Crowds aren’t particularly wise per se, but we tend to trust when a lot of people say the same thing. For example, it’s difficult to write how bad something is when many people have already described how good it is – we may be missing the point, or have a bad product, or have unusual taste. By getting your best reviews first, you make it more difficult for negative reviewers to leave a poor review.

5. Ask.

A lot of people are uncomfortable asking for reviews and ignore the fact that people (for the most part) are looking for opportunities to share new experiences and things that they enjoy with their friends. Asking people to write an online review triggers them to do it and lets them know a way that they can help you.

One last thing about reviews is that the verbiage is oftentimes less important than the short-hand ranking. 10/10 or five stars is far more impactful to people than the minutia inside every review. This is because we are hard-wired to look for short-cuts when we are searching for context. Oftentimes it’s onerous to over-analyze everything that we buy or do, so we revert to the fact that a shaving cream is a “five-star” shaving cream, and not an “daily Irish wake for imminently-removed whiskers.”

Here’s an example of how Facebook’s online ratings aggregate and present online reviews in search (using the amazing Saffron restaurant in Seattle as an example):


2. Reviews are money (figuratively, anyhow).

Reviews-MoneyReviews help customers discover smaller businesses at the expense of big chains (if you believe the good folks at Harvard Business School). In other words, leveraging online reviews is a way for consumers to discover, vet and transition to your business from larger ones.

But beyond that abstraction, what is the monetary value of a online review? The answer may be relative.

SumAll estimates that the value of one tweet or re-tweet is about $25. A tweet more-or-less has an expiry as a feed continued to populate.

ClickZ estimates that the value of an Instagram follower is ten times that of a Twitter follower (although I don’t think that can be extrapolated to mean that any Instagram post is worth $250). The point being that social posts are single insights with expiry and online reviews are aggregated (for all intents and purposes) and don’t expire.

In other words, online reviews are more valuable in the long term than social posts. Because social is top of mind, online reviews can tend to be overlooked in a marketing mix. They probably shouldn’t be, though.

The proper answer is that the value of a review is relative to what you’re selling and how you’re selling it. But given the choice between a tweet and an online review, you almost always should choose the review.

3. Your response to negative reviews can make you look good.

Let’s take this post full circle by examining the decision by the IRS and TSA to integrate with Yelp. Both are governmental organizations and don’t operate like private businesses. Their communications efforts aren’t entered into with a profit motive. So why care about online reviews at all? It probably has to do with the types of reviews that these organizations get.

Three-quarters of consumers say that positive online reviews impact their perception of a company. Want to guess two agencies without the most stellar reputations? The TSA and IRS.

It’s pretty well known that the most effective means to combat negative online reviews is to acknowledge them, be positive, apologize if appropriate and try to resolve the complaint.

We can assume that the feedback that the TSA and IRS gets is primarily negative – their benefits are abstract to most people and they are a tangible nuisance come April 15 or any airplane trip.

Although they don’t have a profit motive, the IRS and TSA can presumably impact their public perception by being proactive with negative online reviews. This is most likely why they’re going to be responding to your future Yelp reviews.

Responding to negative reviews can (publicly) demonstrate care, concern and resolution that can be as helpful for businesses as it can for the TSA.


What I wanted to do in this post is to remind you that online reviews are still vital instruments for word-of-mouth recommendations in 2015. There are sexier social platforms out there, but few are as persuasive from a buyer’s perspective than an aggregated online review.

When you’re planning your communications and social listening, consider the value of online reviews relative to your other tactics and make sure you’re not letting a group of critics unfairly co-opt your messaging.

“The newspapers! Sir, they are the most villainous — licentious — abominable — infernal — Not that I ever read them — no — I make it a rule never to look into a newspaper.” ― Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Critic


About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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