Controversial

To Review Or Not To Review?

Whether businesses love them or hate them, online reviews are a powerful reality in commerce.

In an age where retail options seem nearly limitless, consumers need help making sense of the myriad of products and services they can purchase, and reviews written by their peers play a large part in that equation.

Just how important are user-generated online reviews in eCommerce? According to a survey from PowerReviews, a stalwart 57 percent of shoppers say they look to online reviews for more information before making a purchase, and they in fact favor eCommerce sites that offer them. Other studies suggest that online reviews factor into nearly 90 percent of all online purchases.

Retailers have taken notice, modifying their websites to make positive user-generated reviews easier to find and building a groundswell of consumer confidence in their brands. Today, many large retailers employ entire teams that are dedicated to monitoring and encouraging reviews online. For a lot of popular brands (like Lululemon, for example), “community sections” exist as a permanent home for user reviews on their websites, and retailers frequently utilize them to share good news, launch new products and even express mea culpas after missteps by brand leadership.

But there is a fine line between boosting the positive reviews and silencing the dissenters.

Yelp came under fire in 2014 when allegations surfaced that the customer review aggregator had made millions from businesses that paid to have negative reviews suppressed. The user-assessment titan, which arguably propelled the art of the average Joe recommendation into the mainstream, has continued to take heat for its practices related to the potentially unreasonable influence that negative reviews on its site have on businesses. A forthcoming documentary threatens to hurt its reputation even further, and its stock prices have been feeling the heat, taking a plunge as of late.

Consumers’ right to share negative feedback in the form of public reviews is an area of increasing interest for lawmakers. In September 2014, the Consumer Review Freedom Act was introduced in Congress. With some retailers and review sites having a hand in clauses that limit the user’s ability to post negative reviews, the U.S. legislative body has stepped in to make sure freedom of speech is not infringed on in the name of boosting corporate profits.

No longer left solely in the hands of the global media conglomerates, retweets, likes, upvotes and Kickstarter contributions now trump the seals of approval from Ladies’ Home Journal or the Better Business Bureau.

This doesn’t mean that celebrity endorsements have gone away. Rather, those chestnuts, along with review culture, have merely evolved. In the age of social realism, the famous elite are no longer beholden to long-term contracts that require travel, commercial shoots and linking one’s personal reputation to a product’s efficacy (thanks to YouTube, Fred Flintstone may never live down his stunning advocacy of the deliciousness of cigarettes). Today’s celebrity endorsements can be as simple as a passing mention (read: review) on social media.

Professional recognized person (we defy you to assign her a more accurate job title) Kim Kardashian’s recent exploits in hawking morning sickness medication Diclegis via Instagram and the subsequent wrist slap that she and the pharmaceutical company received as a result underline this new era of the super-casual celebrity endorsement. As Mrs. Kanye West found out the hard way, there still exist rules governing endorsements, and no one is above them. The attention that the Diclegis incident garnered provided a look behind the curtain of the celebrity brand recommendation business that was more revealing than her fans might have cared for. Nonetheless, with Kardashian’s popularity (as it were) remaining intact and Diclegis distributor Duchesnay Inc. experiencing a 500 percent lift in social traffic for July, the pay-for-play endorsement model seems to be alive and well.

While some reviews carry greater returns (albeit at a higher cost for the retailer), the volume of reviews still counts for something. Choosing between two apps on your mobile device? You’ll probably go with the one that boasts more (and better) reviews. Trying a new recipe? You’re likely to try your hand at the concoction that has been vetted by more at-home cooks. Want to try a new restaurant this weekend? Of course, you’ll want to check out what’s trending on OpenTable and Yelp.

Smart retailers and review sites are finding more interactive ways to serve up user-generated reviews. On Amazon, a shopper can quickly and easily filter reviews by positive or negative and even review those reviews, creating another category — those that “customers found most helpful” — within them. Building credibility — which often means transparency — is paramount.

With the digital age making consumer influence on commerce ever more impactful, it’s very likely that the practice of user reviews is here to stay. Online retailers might do what they can to try to dismiss some of the more aggressively negative commentary about their products, but the smarter play in cases like that might be to proactively address the situation in the very same format whence the reviews (positive and negative) came: the realm of the empowered customer.

Brands that foster and encourage communication with shoppers exhibit to them that they respect and take their customers seriously … and that kind of behavior could lead to some pretty good reviews.

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