How SMBs Can Boost Their Online Reviews Without Breaking the Bank

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communication and promotion strategy with social media

Online reviews play an increasingly important role in helping local businesses stand out from the competition. They can even give small businesses, with personalized customer service, an edge over major brands, with their more one-size-fits-all approach. An extra star on Yelp can nudge a prospective customer over to a local business, compensating for a big-name company’s high-dollar brand marketing efforts.

But getting that strong rating on Yelp — or TripAdvisor, Google Plus, or Foursquare — requires a concerted effort on the part of the local business and its marketing partners. Here are some steps that can help earn a few more five-star votes.

Audit and Monitor
The first step for SMBs and the marketers who work with them is to know what’s out there. That means taking a deep dive into what is being said about the company on social review sites.

“Conduct a thorough analysis of negative listings and review sites that rank for branded search terms like your company name,” says Kent Lewis, president and founder of marketing and measurement firm Anvil Media, who recently hosted a webinar on the topic of online reviews and reputation management. “Determine which ones should be addressed personally or publicly and which should be ignored or mitigated with better content.”

Should a small business find a few negative reviews, Lewis urges them to “kill negative reviews with kindness,” by directly addressing the concerns of unhappy customers. This not only helps heal the injury inflicted by bad reviews but also has the potential to turn the customer into an advocate.

Auditing also includes digging for positive reviews. Yelp filters out reviews from the official star count because the reviewers are not trusted sources. But that can change if a reviewer uploads a profile photo or writes a few additional reviews. A marketer who sees a few five-star reviews that have been filtered out can reach out directly to the Yelper, thank reviewers for their generous comments, and encourage them to take action on the site to break out of the filter. In fact, just by interacting with these filtered reviewers helps increase their credibility on the site, and brings these reviews out of the shadows.

Take Action In-Store
Companies will want to remind visitors to their brick-and-mortar stores of their presence on social review sites and the value of getting good reviews there. Post logos for Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare on the business door and include them in marketing materials.

Since customers need to have an account with those sites in order to leave a review, it might be worthwhile to have a flyer that urges them to give the company a nice review, and put this in customers’ bags or hand it to them after a positive transaction. WhiteSpark offers a useful Review Handout Generator.

Business owners also will want to put in place a program that incentivizes employees to earn their company five-star reviews.

“Generally speaking, people are more willing to write reviews for employees who provide a memorable experience versus the company as a whole,” says Curtis Boyd, president of Los Angeles–based reputation management company Future Solutions Media. “Setting up a system to see which superstar employee is getting more reviews, and rewarding them creates a great competitive environment to provide a high quality customer experience.”

One of the major reasons small businesses miss out on positive reviews is because they don’t ask for them. By offering rewards to workers who earn shout-outs on social review sites, SMBs empower employees to help make the case for a five-star review.

Encourage Reviews Online
One-on-one encouragement while customers are in-store is likely to yield the greatest results when it comes to positive reviews. Still, small businesses will want to use their website as a way to encourage online reviews as well. For example, think about putting a review button on the business’ homepage, where it prominently urges customers to post a review.

Emailing existing customers is another potentially fruitful tactic. “Consider sending previous customers a personal email and ask them if they would take a minute out of their day to leave a review on how you did,” suggests Brian Niebler, director of internet marketing and SEO strategy at TheSiteEdge, an SEO and web design agency in Minneapolis, MN.

Urging customer reviews through a broader email campaign may also be worthwhile, but when reaching out, be sure to first ask about customers’ experience before requesting they write a public review.

Save the Ad Dollars
The area where most experts agree it is less worthwhile to invest time and money is in advertising on these review sites.

“Some of the secondary review sites have built a revenue model on ‘blackmailing’ businesses with less-than-stellar reviews by offering services, including advertising,” says Lewis. “The money is better spent upgrading your team, training, and marketing, rather than buying your way out of a problem.”

Alex Palmer is a contributor to Street Fight.