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Enabling customers to write honest, unedited product reviews is practically required on ecommerce sites today. Consumers want to hear from people like them, and they have plenty to say about the products they purchase. Smart online retailers analyse reviews’ impact on sales conversion, average order value, return rates, and more.

But to stop at these results would mean missing out on the entire potential of customer reviews – and of the customer’s voice in general.

First off, the most successful online retailers know that simply enabling customer review technology doesn’t mean that consumers will automatically engage.

Especially if a company has never asked for customer input - customers may not be sure of how to interact with a brand, so it’s important for the brand to take the first steps.

Actively invite customers to give input by promoting customer reviews on the site, make it easy for customers to find and submit reviews, and send post-purchase emails two weeks after a purchase is shipped to encourage customers to review their new treasures on the spot.

Some companies run sweepstake-style promotions, encouraging customers to write reviews for the chance to win a gift voucher. Such promotions are shown to drive 800% increases in customer participation.

Of course, it’s important to reward negative reviews as equally as positive reviews, and instructing customers about the ‘rules of engagement’ will ensure quality feedback, both positive and negative.

Along with this wealth of content comes hundreds of ways to use it – far beyond the measurable metrics outlined above. Given the opportunity, listening to your customers’ voices can transform your business.

While the e-commerce team may lead the effort in getting ratings and reviews on the site, the marketing team – both on and offline – should take notice of what customers are saying.

Customer reviews give instant, transparent focus-group quality information, showing how customers buy and use products. The marketing department can find trends and hotspots that customers respond to, and use those key points in advertising copy.

Snippets from actual reviews make great ad copy as well, lending the authentic voice of the customer to advertising (rather than a polished message from the marketing team).

US-based beauty products retailer Bath & Body Works compared its average email campaign to one prominently featuring product reviews. The email featuring the customer voice saw sales per visitor increase by 11.5%, average order value increase by 10% and a 7.5% uplift in the number of page views.

In addition to using customer content to fuel advertising messages, marketers can use these insights to merchandise products – online or in store.

Retail giants Best Buy and Wal-Mart use customer reviews in their Sunday newspaper adverts and have created microsites where customers can exclusively find top-rated electronics products. Sears and other US retailers use customer ratings in in-store signage.

Negative reviews in particular can assist merchandise buyers in fulfilling their role of culling the wheat from the chaff in product selection.

If a particular product is not moving as quickly as was expected, buyers or product managers can turn to customer reviews to find indications of possible problems with an item.

A US-based retailer found lots of negative reviews for an item, and the buyer traced the issue back to the shipping department. The type of box used for shipping was scratching the item, leading to customer dissatisfaction and high returns.

Once the packaging issue was resolved, the retailer posted a response to customer reviews acknowledging that the issue had been fixed, so future buyers could purchase with confidence.

Customer reviews go a long way in setting expectations, as well. US pet supplies retailer PETCO realised that products without reviews have a 20% higher return rate than those with at least one customer review, while products with more than 50 reviews have even lower return rates.

When shoppers read what other consumers have to say they make better buying decisions, know what to expect, and tend to return products less often.

It’s obvious that customer reviews impact many areas of a business. However, such cross-functional sharing of information is difficult without the support of senior management.

If customer reviews begin and end on the website, much of the potential impact of the content is lost. When customer opinions are taken inside the walls of the company and used to make larger decisions, the true value of reviews comes to bear.

The finance department can see the benefit of fewer returns, higher search traffic and lower traditional advertising costs due to the draw of customer reviews; the shipping department gets feedback on improvements that increase customer satisfaction; while the buyers, product managers and merchandisers use regular customer feedback to drive their decisions.

And when the CEO sees the business circling around the customer voice, the customer truly becomes the focus of the business.

Sam Decker is chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice.

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Published 16 June, 2008 by Sam Decker

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