The State of Reputation Management 2020

(Damian Rollison is VP of product strategy at Brandify, Street Fight’s parent company. Street Fight maintains editorial independence.)

Introduction

It may seem that, in these difficult times, local marketing activities like reputation management have become unimportant. This is understandable. After all, if you’re a business in any way on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 — healthcare providers, grocery stores, and others offering crucial services — it’s likely that even thinking about online reviews is a luxury for which you currently cannot spare the time.

For many other kinds of businesses, however, reviews continue to provide an opportunity to engage with your customer base on a personal level, learn from their input, and gain new customers through the recommendations of those you’ve served well in the past. 

Yes, it’s true that, as of an announcement on March 20, Google temporarily disabled the capability to leave reviews or respond to them in the Google My Business platform. They did this, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, in order to cut down on the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 and to conserve human and machine resources for critical updates. On April 7, review responses were re-enabled, though this currently only applies to older reviews; Google says they will slowly reintroduce new reviews and Q&A as well. 

But past Google reviews remain visible, and many other important sources of reviews for local businesses are still operational, including Yelp, Facebook, and TripAdvisor. What’s more, businesses can ask consumers to review their locations using first-party tools on store websites and elsewhere, an activity that remains highly valuable for engagement and promotion. 

Not long before the Covid-19 outbreak was officially deemed a pandemic — it seems like years ago, but it was only March 11 — we planned to commemorate Street Fight’s March theme, Word of Mouth, by surveying a select number of experts in local marketing about the state of reputation management and what to look forward to in 2020. 

Current events got in the way of our plans, and therefore we’re releasing this report in April rather than March. But we were pleased that the experts we asked came through and offered a great deal of valuable insight on the priorities and challenges of reputation management for local businesses. So let’s dig in.

The Experts

We were happy to secure the participation of a panel of noted experts in local search and reputation management, listed below.

  • David Mihm, ThriveHive
  • Adam Dorfman, Reputation.com
  • Collin Holmes, Chatmeter
  • Myles Anderson, BrightLocal
  • Greg Sterling, Uberall
  • Aaron Weiche, GatherUp
  • Dustin Hayes, Brandify

The Questions

Here are the questions we asked our experts.

  • Which sites are most important?
  • Which recent developments should we be aware of?
  • Will reputation management strategies change in the next 12 months?
  • What are the critical priorities for reputation management?
  • What actions should businesses take as a result of review analysis?
  • What are the common objections?
  • Which businesses have the most (or the least) to gain?

Key Findings

  • The experts agree that Google My Business is the most important source of reviews for local businesses.
  • A wide range of recent developments (before the onset of the pandemic) have impacted reputation management, including:
    • Deeper analysis of review content to derive actionable insights, often utilizing natural language processing and statistical tools.
    • New sources of consumer input like Google Q&A, feedback kiosks, and SMS.
    • Surfacing of review excerpts, review filtering tools, and more from Google.
    • Increased importance of recency in reviews according to consumer research.
  • Fake reviews continue to be a significant problem with no clear wholesale solution in sight.
  • Active management of online reputation is a critical component of an effective response strategy to Covid-19; businesses must maintain customer loyalty to the extent they can and proactively respond to customer needs and questions.
  • The two highest priorities in reputation management are:
    • Responding to negative reviews.
    • Leveraging content in reviews to improve store operations and customer service.
  • Small businesses and larger brands alike are often challenged to find the budget, time, resources, and organizational focus to create effective reputation management campaigns.
  • Hospitality, restaurants, and retail have the most to gain from implementing reputation management strategies. 

The Study

We asked a range of qualitative and quantitative questions about the state of reputation management. Our intent was to try to capture a consensus, along with some instructive differences of opinion, about the most important sites, tactics, challenges, and priorities. 

Question 1: Which sites are most important?

Here we asked the experts to rate the importance of Google, Yelp, Facebook, and TripAdvisor on a scale of 1 to 10, and to suggest any sites not in that list that are especially important. The results are shown below.

Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020 Q1 Chart
Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020

The chart displays the weighted average response across all participants, and clearly demonstrates, as we might have expected, that for most experts Google My Business is the most important locus of reputation activities for brick-and-mortar businesses. Other sites were rated highly as well, though all were second to Google, with Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook all landing in the range of 7.0 to 7.6. It will be interesting to see whether these relative metrics change the longer Google’s reviews remain disabled.

Follow-up question: what other platforms are especially relevant?

Asked what other platforms are also important, our experts pointed out the significance of niche sites for many businesses, the influence of Yelp, and the usefulness of first-party reviews. Here’s what they had to say.

David Mihm: Any site with a significant presence in your vertical — e.g. Vagaro for massage therapy, Avvo for lawyers, etc.

Adam Dorfman: Foursquare (feeds reviews to Apple and others), Healthgrades/Vitals/WebMD (healthcare), Carfax/Cars.com (automotive).

Myles Anderson: Yelp in and of itself doesn’t warrant a score of 9 [Myles’s score for Yelp — ed.], but it does syndicate reviews to Apple Maps, Bing, Yahoo, and now DuckDuckGo, giving their reviews much greater reach than the Yelp platform alone. In certain vertical industries (e.g., legal, medical, contractors) there are a number of niche sites that are very powerful lead generators, and having a strong reputation profile on these sites is as important as Yelp or Facebook in terms of leads/ROI.

Greg Sterling: Vertical-specific directories depending on the industry.

Aaron Weiche: Their own! Businesses can capture more customer experience and reputation data than any of the platforms above combined. When done right, it’s both an operational and marketing win. While third-party platforms have valuable visibility, getting first-party reviews will tell you what to improve or replicate to generate more five-star reviews where your prospects are.

Dustin Hayes: A business’s own website and local pages in the form of first-party reviews. Reputation management often only considers third-party platforms, but first-party reviews and even customer surveys and questionnaires should be considered a part of a well-rounded strategy.

Question 2: Which recent developments should we be aware of?

We asked the respondents to describe the most important changes in the last 12 months that had an impact on the reputation strategies of businesses. Some of these responses were written before the impact of Covid-19 on local search platforms had fully manifested.

The answers helpfully cover a wide range of topics, including new Google features, the importance of gleaning operational insights from consumer feedback, the problem of fake reviews, and the expansion of possible review endpoints. Myles Anderson in particular goes to some length to lay out several of the most important priorities for businesses, backed by BrightLocal’s research on the subject. 

David Mihm: I would say Google’s new feature that allows users to sort reviews by theme, e.g. “19 users mentioned service,” “12 mentioned the steak frites,” etc. It lets business owners (along with customers) identify common themes at a glance for what customers love (or don’t love) about their businesses.

Adam Dorfman: There has been a fundamental shift from a mindset of looking at reputation management as a way to monitor/improve the way you appear when your customers, clients, or patients are searching for your business to a mindset of using customer feedback as a way to improve your business operationally.

Collin Holmes: The rise of Google Q&A over the past year has made it even more important for brands to be on top of their reputation. The ability for anyone to ask and answer a question about a business makes it much easier for misinformation about that business to spread. Brands that answer these questions quickly will be able to better control the conversation around their brand.

Myles Anderson: There are a number of interesting developments that business owners and marketers should be alert to. First, consumers are increasingly concerned about the “recency” of reviews. Data in our latest Local Consumer Review Survey shows that age of reviews (i.e. “recency”) is the most important factor that consumers consider when evaluating the reviews a business has. Eighty-four percent of consumers say that reviews older than three months are not relevant anymore. The impact on reputation management is significant. Businesses need a system that enables them to get a steady stream of reviews onto the platforms that their customers are on. Having a few new reviews every month validates their overall rating and reputation. If a business thinks they can get 20 reviews then stop collecting reviews, they will see their reputation degrade over time, resulting in much lower contact and conversion rates.

Second, consumers are less willing to trust reviews due to the rise in, and awareness of, fake reviews. More and more consumers are reading reviews to evaluate a business, but rather than blindly trust the content of those reviews, they seek to validate them by reading more reviews on different platforms and analyzing the sentiment of reviews more closely. Essentially, consumers are much savvier about how they interpret the content of reviews and look to “triangulate” a business’s reputation using multiple sources.

Knowing this, businesses can help customers to trust them more by doing the following:

One, ensuring that they reply to all their reviews, good and bad, as supported by a recent BrightLocal survey:

  • 97% of consumers read review responses.
  • 71% of consumers are more likely to use a businesses that responds to reviews. 

So responding to reviews is a great way for a business to demonstrate that they listen to their customers and are attentive to their needs. 

Two, ensuring that they get a regular stream of positive reviews on the key sites their customers use. This will ensure that when customers look at alternative review sites, they see a similar set of reviews and sentiments that corroborates the original set of reviews they read.

Finally, over 50% of reviews are posted from mobile devices. Businesses need to ensure that they are making use of platforms that offer:

  • SMS review requests.
  • “Kiosk-style” review applications.

Greg Sterling: The rise of fake reviews. Failure of platforms to prosecute and purge spam.

Aaron Weiche: Businesses are understanding that replies and closing the loop on customer experiences is key. Letting consumers know you are listening, you care, and you will address their feedback/review shapes how they view your brand, if they will be a loyal customer, and who they will refer to you.

Dustin Hayes: The number of methods and places that consumers can share their opinion about a business has increased tremendously. Of course we can leave a review on Google or Yelp, but now consumers can ask questions about a business in an open forum where other consumers can share their opinion, travelers can tap a button to share their thoughts about the cleanliness of an airport restroom, and restaurant patrons can rant via tabletop kiosks and host stand tablets. The more these various methods are put to use, the larger the consumer expectation grows, which equals more pressure for businesses.

Question 3: Will reputation management strategies change in the next 12 months?

As before, some of the responses to this question were written before the full impact of Covid-19 became apparent — but we feel that those responses touch on topics whose importance will likely reassert itself when the current situation stabilizes. Review spam, for example, is a problem that has not been solved just because reviews on Google are temporarily disabled.

David Mihm: Covid-19 aside, I have to say, I don’t think longer-term reputation management will change much.

I’d like to see more tools and resources on the part of Google to combat review spam, but many of us have been banging that drum for a while to seemingly deaf ears. In fact, I’ll speculate that one of the reasons Google decided to shut down reviews is that their already-thin review staff was stretched even further by a flood of angry reviews related to Covid-19 closures or service delays. 

If there is a bright spot for local businesses following Covid-19, perhaps it will be a greater empathy for small business owners among executives at Google and an overdue realization of how critical a fully-functional, fully-resourced Google My Business is to a feature-rich search experience.

Adam Dorfman: Customer feedback will become more frequent and from even more places than exist today. Messaging, for instance, is going to be a huge part of how businesses receive feedback from their customers moving forward, and taking that feedback and understanding what needs to happen at the business is just as important as when a review is left or a survey completed.

Collin Holmes: Reputation management is going to be vital over the next 12 months. In order to recover from the financial impact of Covid-19 and survive a potential recession, it’s more important than ever that brands maintain a strong reputation. Now is not the time to lose consumer trust. We’re going to be seeing a lot more proactive brand management over the next year. From social media to email, business listings, reviews, store pages, and more, brands are going to be doing everything they can to control the conversation and protect their reputation.

Myles Anderson: The trust issue is going to deepen — fake reviews aren’t going away any time soon. So, businesses need to ensure that their review profile exhibits maximum trust through: 

  • Getting regular reviews on a diverse set of sites.
  • Responding openly and honestly to all reviews.

The one area that I feel most businesses don’t capitalize on enough is using their reviews to drive clicks, calls, and conversion in all marketing touch points. Having gone to the effort of generating reviews on important sites, too many businesses fail to utilize these reviews on landing pages, social posts, marketing emails, transactional emails, printed materials, etc. 

Reviews provide excellent social proof that can build trust through all these touch points and will increase conversion. It’s such a wasted opportunity for business owners.

Greg Sterling: More strict measures from the platforms to reduce spam. However, these efforts will be uneven.

Aaron Weiche: Based on Covid-19 and its effects on the economy, a big yes. Many businesses and industries will be changing their service or delivery models, and getting feedback and reviews on their changes will be crucial to their adjustments, improvements, and surviving.

Dustin Hayes: Covid-19 and the changes that are being made today by both platforms (Google) and businesses (shifting to delivery and pick-up) will likely have a big impact on review strategy as some of these changes become more permanent and commonplace for both parties. For example, reviews left for restaurants may denote whether the guest dined in or received a delivery and if so, through which provider.

Question 4: What are the critical priorities for reputation management?

We go back to metrics with this question, where we asked the experts to rate activities businesses might engage in on a scale of importance, from 1 to 10. Knowing that businesses are often challenged to devote time to reputation management, we wanted to see if we could find a consensus on the most important priorities.

As you can see from the chart, our experts felt that responding to negative reviews was the most important activity for businesses to engage in, followed by leveraging the content in reviews to improve store operations and customer service. Simply reading reviews — keeping track of your reviews and maintaining awareness of new reviews coming in — was voted third in order of priority. 

Soliciting first-party reviews also scored high on the priority list. By a significant margin, the least important priority according to our experts was responding to positive ratings without review text. Though most reputation management consultants believe it’s important to respond to both negative and positive reviews, positive star ratings without text are clearly seen as less important.

Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020 Q4 Chart
Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020

The respondents were also given the option to highlight a priority we didn’t mention. Those answers are shown below.

Myles Anderson: With the rise of fake reviews and the glut of spam in certain industries on Google, I think it’s important that businesses and marketers take the fight to these spammy companies and report them to Google and submit edit requests for spammy listings. If businesses don’t highlight any spammy/fake competitors to Google, they aren’t going to just go away; businesses owners need to take the fight to spammy competitors and make it easier for Google to identify, remove, and/or penalize these businesses.

Aaron Weiche: Company buy-in, getting reputation and customer experience data to be company-wide, not just in the marketing department.

Question 5: What actions should businesses take as a result of review analysis?

We asked the experts to think about the relative importance of various actions that businesses might take after analyzing reviews. For context, note that in the previous question, analyzing reviews to gain operational insight was ranked the second most important priority of all reputation management activities — second only to responding to negative reviews. This result underlines an increased focus among reputation experts on review analysis as a means of finding ways for businesses to improve, as noted by Adam Dorfman in his answer to question two above. 

In voting on the actions businesses might take, our experts clearly favored basic operational changes as well as customer recovery and engagement more highly than any other activity, followed by sentiment awareness, procedural enhancements, and so on. The lowest-ranked activity was site/real estate planning. 

In this question, the respondents were asked to rank activities in order of importance, so the scores do not, as in previous questions, indicate a rating of importance on a scale of 1 to 10. Rather, they show that a majority of respondents ranked operational changes above customer recovery/engagement, customer recovery/engagement above sentiment, and so on. The ranking indicates which activities are, according to the general consensus of our panel, more important than others. 

We did not define the terms used in the question aside from the labels shown in the chart, but for clarity, here’s some of what we had in mind for each item.

  • Operational changes: Reviews can offer evidence of the need to modify store or office operations in various ways; examples might include demand for longer hours or service complaints highlighting the need for better staff training. Operational changes for larger brands might also occur at a higher level in the organization, for instance if a need is identified to create stronger alignment between customer support and store operations teams. 
  • Customer recovery/engagement: In customer service parlance, “recovery” means transforming unhappy customers into loyal ones. Reviews may reveal better strategies for building engagement and addressing complaints, for instance by showing which types of complaints (or praiseworthy comments) are more common or occur under specific circumstances. 
  • Sentiment awareness: This relates to the analysis of star ratings and review text to determine how your customers feel about service offerings, products, amenities, and other business details. Sometimes, such analysis is accomplished by means of natural language processing, machine learning, and similar technologies. 
  • Procedural enhancements: Here we had in mind typical in-store procedures that might be improved by review analysis; for example, a restaurant may find that its procedure for managing waiting lists or collecting payment can be optimized in targeted ways due to customer feedback. 
  • Staff recognition: Many businesses have found success in recognizing staff for providing excellent service as shown by positive reviews that mention staff members by name. 
  • Marketing/promotional planning: Data-driven marketing relies on inputs that help to craft messaging and improve the relevance and impact of campaigns; reviews can be a helpful source of such data, helping marketing teams for instance to understand how customer needs and expectations differ by region. 
  • Product planning: As with marketing, successful product development relies on analysis of relevant data; the “voice of the customer” is an input many product development professionals consider to be of primary importance. 
  • Site/real estate planning: Reviews may, in some cases, provide a helpful input source for businesses looking to open new stores or contemplating a redesign of in-store experiences.
Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020 Q5 Chart
Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020

Question 6: What are the common objections?

We were curious about the experiences of our panel as far as objections they encounter when talking to businesses about reputation management, as well as the tactics they use to overcome those objections. Their responses are shown below.

David Mihm: There is still a fear of asking customers for reviews, though that seems to be less prevalent than it was several years ago. The biggest thing is it just feels so daunting to operationalize the ask. The “flow” of each business is unique as to when and how the best place to ask for a review is. Right after the sale? Only after multiple sales? Directly on an invoice? Via SMS? U.S. mail? And then it’s a matter of automating and taking friction out of that process, where you bring in myriad POS/CRM/email systems (or perhaps even none at all).

There’s really not a one-size-fits-all approach, so our Marketing Guides start with a simple explanation of why asking for reviews is important. We provide them with a simple link to be able to ask, and then we check in periodically to make sure our customers are actually following through.

Adam Dorfman: It is highly unusual for us to encounter any business that does not think reputation management is important, but finding the resources internally at enterprise businesses with hundreds to thousands of locations to properly manage reputation can be difficult. The good news is if you partner with a company that has technology with natural language processing, machine learning, response macros, and so on, scaling strategies like review monitoring, requesting, and responding can be much easier than businesses expect.

Collin Holmes: The biggest objection we commonly encounter is that brands don’t have enough bandwidth to respond to all reviews. We overcome this by offering time-saving tools to help brands get the job done. Things like review response templates and bulk responding make it easy for users to get ahead of reviews and maintain brand consistency.

Myles Anderson: Our 2018 Online Reputation Management study shows three clear issues:

  1. Not enough time (50% of respondents)
  2. Not enough budget (27%)
  3. Too complex (14%)

Greg Sterling: Pricing of tools/services. Nobody has to be convinced of the importance of reviews. Many companies don’t have a strategy.

Aaron Weiche: Aspects of reputation management are spread over multiple departments. Marketing gets reviews, customer service gets review replies, and operations has surveys or CSAT data. They are not working together on these related items, just in silos.

Dustin Hayes: Bandwidth and ownership are the most common roadblocks for brands looking to take on reputation management. Developing a strategy to prioritize which reviews should be read or require a response and/or partnering with a third party to assist with this strategy is an easy way to get started.

Question 7: Which businesses have the most (or the least) to gain?

In our final question, we asked the experts to rank business verticals in order, indicating which verticals had the most or the least to gain from implementing a reputation management strategy. We realized that requiring our respondents to rank verticals in order might make for some uneasy choices, since we assume that most reputation experts will say that all industries stand to benefit from reputation management. But we wanted to see how a forced ranking might highlight which verticals have the most critical need and which can consider balancing that need against other important priorities. The results are shown in the chart below. As with question five, the numerical values do not indicate a rating but rather show the degree of consensus among the respondents for the rank position indicated in the order from top to bottom.

Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020 Q7 Chart
Street Fight State of Reputation Management 2020

Conclusion

The trends, priorities, and tactics shared here represent deep experience from industry practitioners who have worked closely with large brands and small businesses to create innovative reputation strategies. Many of those who contributed here are pioneers in a field that is really only about a decade old. 

The panelists tend to agree that, contrary to the state of things 10 years ago, most business owners and brand marketers now recognize that reputation management is a critical marketing activity, even when they are challenged to operationalize it effectively. 

Among the more recent trends, the ability to use reviews to gain insights that will help your business improve is possibly the most significant, given that it transforms review content into a powerful tool, rather than merely a customer service opportunity.

But that is not to say the customer service opportunity, and its broader implications, should be in any way discounted or deprioritized. As Myles Anderson noted, BrightLocal research shows that 97% of consumers read responses to reviews written by businesses. This means that just about every consumer today is watching businesses very closely to see how they handle customer feedback, and that reputation strategies must operate at a hyperlocal level to offer thoughtful, conscientious, authentic moments of engagement — not only for the benefit of the reviewer, but also to broadcast a positive impression to all consumers who see those responses. 

Finally, reviews matter to review publishers, which in turn matters to businesses. As David Mihm points out, Google has recently started offering users the ability to sort reviews by popular tags like “service” or “steak frites.” This is one more step in a long road whereby Google has used review content to provide value to users and to measure the “prominence” of a business, an important ranking factor. What’s more, Google is not the only platform to lean heavily on reviews. In fact, for companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor, reviews are even more central than they are for Google, and those sites and others are also active in mining review content to measure business prominence and create better user experiences. 

It is true that current events have interrupted our normal priorities for the time being. And it’s not unlikely that some changes to the reputation space occurring now will have a longer-term impact that today is not easy to see clearly. But we can confidently expect — and recent events have only reinforced — that consumers will continue to rely on digital sources of information to make informed purchase decisions, and that reputation management will therefore continue to play a key role in any future manifestation of online marketing. 

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.