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How is the online review market evolving?

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Category : Blogs

Whether it’s in the travel, hospitality or retail market, online reviews are central to brand perception and trust, having a tangible effect on conversion and revenue.

This has been true for years, but as time goes by, markets have evolved and there is a greater demand for transparency and accuracy when it comes to online reviews of products and services. This has led to both review platforms and individual businesses changing the way they handle their reviews, to ensure they keep up with customer expectations and derive value from their review data.

It’s no secret that online reviews have extraordinary power.

That power can be a blessing or a curse. According to econsultancy.com in 2015, 61% of customers read online reviews before making a purchase decision.* I wouldn’t be surprised if that percentage is even higher today!

The advantages of allowing customers to review a product or service online are numerous…

a) It has been shown again and again that adding reviews to a website improves conversion and promotes brand trust, particularly if those reviews are from a third party provider (and therefore are viewed as unbiased). Our work at Station10, and in previous working lives at other companies, has pointed to the same conclusion.

b) Reviews can identify opportunities to improve the business’ offering.

c) They allow smaller businesses to gain a level of visibility that may not have been possible without a review platform.

d) Finally, from a consumer point of view, they give customers the chance to make a more informed decision, based on feedback from other people just like them.

However, reviews are certainly not without their problems. Aside from the more obvious issues, like trolling and biased reviews posted for advertising purposes, it can also be difficult to extract meaningful insights from a shedload of review data. Additionally, from the consumer’s point of view, the business should portray their feedback fairly by not restricting the reviews displayed, and ensuring that the reviews are validated. It is also important for the business to be seen as paying attention to any negative reviews by offering rapid feedback to disgruntled customers.

So, what’s changing in the review industry?

First of all, the presence of reviews is permeating into industries that were previously relatively untouched by their influence.

Although the ability to review airline services has existed for a while on sites such as Skytrax, it is now possible to post comprehensive reviews of airlines on TripAdvisor (as of July 2016). It is the airlines’ turn to be subject to the scrutiny of the general public, who can now air their opinions on the most famous travel review site on the Internet. It’s been just two months since the official launch of this feature, and there are already thousands of reviews available on a huge number of airlines (with over 7000 reviews for British Airways alone at the time of writing).

Another industry that has been experiencing the impact of online reviews relatively recently is healthcare. It has been possible to post reviews of both public and private care for a while, but it’s the extra features, such as offering nurses the ability to create an account to manage and directly respond to patient feedback online (available on sites such as www.iwantgreatcare.org), which are the real differentiators. Reviews are a fairly controversial topic in the healthcare industry and need to be handled with caution, but the ability to review patient care is a powerful force with good intentions.

On the subject of using reviews to improve services, some review platforms are taking the next step in helping businesses to do just that. One example is Munch Ado, a food discovery platform, which can connect negative reviews to dates, times and circumstances to allow restaurants to fully investigate the source of the complaint. This is a proactive and value-driven approach that helps to ensure that businesses can act on potential issues based on accurate information.

One problem with reviews is validity, or credibility. Companies are taking steps to address this problem in various ways. For instance, Facebook reviews are becoming more popular as they are tied to a personal profile rather than an anonymous user, which companies hope will increase credibility associated with their reviews. The question of validity not only applies to B2C situations, but also to B2B. The company G2 Crowd collates business software and services reviews to help buyers make better decisions. They then use that review data along with expert opinions (and other data sources) within a patent-pending algorithm to give a unique score to each software product. This gives a holistic, well-founded overall review of a product, based on various sources, which provides clear value to those using G2 Crowd’s services. This is a more reliable review system than is typically present in the market.

Finally, an influential way to make the most of all the review data that third parties hold is the creation of a rewards system for their partners. For instance, TripAdvisor and Booking.com both have awards of excellence that they grant to businesses with exceptional feedback. This is a sure way to drive interest in these properties, going beyond the natural influences of price, location and brand awareness. In addition, it drives engagement between the review platforms and their partners.

How can the ever-increasing amount of review data be used to drive value?

Reviews are particularly useful for gathering specific feedback from customers, and identifying where improvements can be made. However, review data is most valuable in its entirety, as it provides a solid base upon which to understand how customers are receiving a business offering. It is important that a holistic view is taken of the review data, and a proper analysis is undertaken in order to understand brand sentiment and changes in review scores over time. Only then can customer ratings be understood in the wider context of business performance.

Various aspects of review data can be analysed to provide insights. Just a few of these include:
• Sentiment analysis (whether reviews are positive or negative)
• Topic modelling (identifying themes in the reviews)
• Length of reviews
• Distribution of review scores
• Monthly average ratings

Not only can the review data itself be a subject of analysis, but the positioning and type of the reviews used can be tested. For instance, through A/B testing, the best placement of review data can be identified across the site. Where does the review score have the most impact – at the initial point of interest, or later on in the booking funnel? What type of review data is received best (just the overall score, the ability to click to read some full reviews, or customer quotes)? There are also different categories of review data, such as third party sources (e.g. TrustPilot) and user-generated content directly entered on the site. The effectiveness of these different types can also be tested.

What’s next for the review industry?

As the demand for transparency in e-commerce grows, the importance and influence of reviews is ever-present. As trust in some of the traditional review platforms wavers, due to issues with validity, review platforms are changing their digital strategies to ensure their review data is as accurate and useful to businesses as possible. The ideal aim is to provide an end-to-end review process that starts with customer validation and ends with a clear business recommendation.


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