Increasingly, Your Brand Is Its Reviews

Mike: I am here in Santa Fe today, visiting my son, enjoying the last of winter, and staying at one of my favorite places, Ten Thousand Waves. Unfortunately, they are a retreat so I had to “retreat” to a Starbucks to write this. 🙂

David: Lucky you. One of my favorite places in the entire country. Great food, rich history, and unbelievable scenery. And very few tourists this time of year, I’d imagine.

Mike: Recently, in conversations and presentations, I have been thinking a lot about how reviews create an environment where a brand’s story is essentially co-narrated by the consumer. And in that, when it goes well, these reviews create trust both pre- and post-sale.

David: The famous Jeff Bezos quote comes to mind: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Increasingly, the room is not a physical place but a virtual one—and it’s not a place you own.

The Mad Men days of ad agencies being able to control public perception via broadcast are long gone. Just look at all the money Wells Fargo spends on advertising (even in local markets), and it’s still not enough to make up for atrocious business practices.

Reviews really bring the need to run a decent business at your core into stark relief.

Mike: Wells Fargo is the classic example of brand re-dos plastered over ongoing consumer abuses. But the stench of their last few dirty tricks seems to prevail.

Interestingly, we often think of Facebook as where that virtual conversation takes place, but I wonder, at least in local, if reviews are really where the conversations are actually occurring.

David: Facebook conversations are fleeting. You have to happen to come across the conversation in your feed, and then remember the conversation at the time you’re ready to purchase.

Mike: Local discovery is “low in the purchase funnel,” and the user is making the final decision as to where to buy. With Google’s domination in local and their current “brand” presentation, reviews from all over the web have been elevated to the first page of a brand search.

David: Exactly. While reviews are not necessarily permanent—given Google’s and consumers’ preference for recency–they are a much stickier brand association. And they show up *right* when someone is ready to make a purchase.

And if your behavior is so odious (as is the case with your favorite dentist and mine, Dr. Palmer), the masses will continue to remind your potential customers just how awful you are no matter how out-of-date the source of that sentiment might be.

Mike: Certainly, a bad review can show up for years, particularly if Google anoints it with a snippet or it’s one of your few reviews at Yelp.

But more often than the Palmer-like situation is the situation where a brand search shows a 4.7 at Google and a 3.2 at Yelp. One has to wonder if that doesn’t create “cognitive dissonance” on the part of the consumer and disrupts their path to your store. Effectively, the consumer is forced to “think” and dig in to see if the business is worth their effort.

Essentially, the tenuous trust created in search with reviews is “broken” at least temporarily in that situation.

David: So, that’s the downside. But reviews can also create a virtuous cycle, as you’ve pointed out many times. When your reputation is consistently sterling across many platforms, the “upside is tremendous,” as NBA draft analysts like to say.

Mike: Absolutely. I firmly believe (but have yet to be able to gather the data) that consumers will stop searching if multiple review sources all point to a stellar reputation. I suspect that they often don’t even read the reviews and just trust the many stars.

Although sometimes a great reputation showing in search is confronted with skepticism and the in-store experience needs to live up to it.

David: Agreed. But good reviews can lead customers to have a good experience. (It’s what I call “priming the pump.” I just invented that phrase.)

For example, if I visit a highly touted restaurant, I have a certain expectation that it’s going to be good before I even take my first bite. Expectations certainly add to the risk of a letdown, but if the product (or service) is actually great, I’m more likely to tell my closest friends about it—and/or all my “closest friends” on Google or Yelp.

Mike: Wow, there must be something in the air, as I totally agree with you.

David: !

Mike: The impact of reviews in terms of creating trust, establishing expectations and pre-disposing consumers to be ready for the purchase is significant.

Google seems to really understand that consumers want to see what others think about a business in a quick and easy way. And they understand the power it has to drive consumers to a business.

David: Quick and easy being the operative words here. Yelp has long touted its long-form reviews as superior to Google for some reason, but I think that’s dead wrong. Just look at the wild success of Rotten Tomatoes in the movie industry.

In the vast majority of cases—particularly for low-risk purchases—consumers want a single number sourced from as broad a cross-section as possible, not some esoteric, often narcissistic tome dictated by a millennial with an inflated ego.

Google certainly wants to capture review text as well, but from a search intelligence standpoint to know what a business should rank for—not as something to inflict on consumers in the SERP experience.

Sorry for the digression there. It’s just a “debate” I’ve wanted to weigh in on for years.

Mike: I think that is absolutely true even as the consumer moves from search to your website. They are looking for the same confirmations.

David: As your colleague Aaron Weiche has noted in presentations, reviews are one of the few marketing components that impact every stage of the traditional marketing funnel.

It’s a point of view that rings even truer if you prefer a more modern interpretation like the Marketing Hourglass or Marketing Pretzel.

Mike: Ah, the power of the crowds. It’s significant in forming our beliefs and thinking and shaping our purchase habits. The fact that brands have to share their story with their consumers is a good thing.

But for all of that to work, at the end of the day, the brand has to deliver the goods and really take care of the customer. Otherwise the virtuous cycle is quickly broken.

David: And for all the importance of reviews, it’s confounding that in year 11 of highlighting reviews of local businesses, Google still has yet to devote any significant resources to combatting review spam.

Maybe a good a topic in-and-of-itself for our next conversation.

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After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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