Online reviews: star quality

Positive online reviews can lead to sales but with some brands manipulating comments and undermining consumer trust, it is vital that authentication processes are in place to ensure credibility.

Some marketers would perhaps rather forget that their brand is a hostage to the whims of the customer review. A Harvard Business School study published last month, Fake It Till You Make It: Reputation, Competition, and Yelp Review Fraud, found that one extra star in a brand’s average review on aggregator site Yelp can increase revenue between 5 and 10 per cent.

But some companies are suspicious of how review sites can negatively affect their business. In the US state of Virginia, a carpet cleaning company is suing Yelp, accusing it of hosting disparaging comments from fake customers. The Federal Trade Commission revealed it had received 2,046 complaints between 2008 and 2014 about bad reviews on the site and Yelp requesting advertising spend to promote better ones, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yelp says it complies with all applicable laws.

Brands that believe they have a quality product feel anything that reduces their star rating needs to be investigated. This is driving a trend towards demanding review authentication, either in terms of refusing to allow reviewer anonymity or insisting that all ratings are from a verified purchase.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) invites guests to give feedback only when it knows they have paid to stay. Apurva Pratap, vice-president of distribution and commercial marketing in Europe says: ”When we use customer reviews to make business decisions, we need to make sure that we get as authentic and accurate information from them as possible. We collect reviews from verified guests only after they have stayed at the hotel.”

Requiring a verified purchase can help protect brands against accusations of boosting their own ratings and is an insurance policy against people with an axe to grind. Tim Hentschel, chief executive of review site, suggests that demanding a verified purchase can weed out anti-competitive, fake and ‘grudge’ reviews. “Google has banned anonymous blogging and reviews are the next step. The Australian government has instituted penalties for non-authenticated reviews. Every business owner is happy to take both the negative and positive and respond to both, but authenticity is the most important thing.” Like IHG, only takes reviews from verified customers after their stay.

New York City is taking its fight against fake reviews to the courts. The district attorney launched campaign Operation Clean Turf to challenge growing the ‘reputation management’ industry, which has been responsible for posting fake positive reports about establishments to up their profile in the city’s notoriously crowded food service market.

Clearly, there is just as much repuational risk in trying too hard to appear in a good light as there is in doing nothing to respond to adverse feedback. Once assured of the veracity of opinion, brands must have a response strategy in place. Customer reviews are a powerful tool for brands to gauge the success of a product, canvas opinion about next steps and alter strategy, as well as for consumers in helping them to decide on a purchase.

Shopping TV channel QVC reads out customer feedback live on air as an incentive for people to comment’s Hentschel says: “Around 60 per cent of our website’s visitors use the review filter to select 4 or 5 stars. The review becomes a critical part of the search process, so if you average 3.9 stars, you’ll drop out of sight. Hotels need to know what’s causing their average to drop.”

Similarly, IHG’s Pratap says there is a positive correlation between very enthusiastic guests and revenue generation. Establishing this statistical relationship was crucial in getting the owners of hotel properties under IHG’s brands to recognise the importance of customer reviews, he adds.

“The challenge is to get the individual hotels to play along. They are savvy businessmen and you have to show them the return on investment and the effort they will have to put in.” He says that a single-point increase in what he calls the Heartbeat survey, which measures ‘love’ for IHG’s hotels, is equal to three points’ improvement on its revenue generation index (RGI). A review that is mildly positive is not a guarantee the guest will return, rather “we need to focus on very positive reviews”, he says.

However, the company must also understand what aspects of its guests’ experiences make a review very positive and not just positive, which will give the relevant hike in RGI. “It’s one thing getting great guest reviews but equally we want to know that the improvements we are making are better than our competitors,” he says. Consumers have come to expect a dialogue when they leave a review, especially since many brands use Twitter as a two-way conversation between customer and company, rather than as a conduit for broadcasting marketing messages.

Evans Cycles marketing and ecommerce director Ben Hart says: “Where we see reviews that are negative, we try to get involved, asking people to contact us. Customers appreciate that we’re willing to acknowledge there is an issue.”

Evans Cycles
Evans Cycles and Sir Chris Hoy both receive reports of customer reviews for the range that the company launched with the Olympic cyclist.

Brian Farrelly, director of media operations at TV shopping channel QVC, says that 24-hour broadcasting means customers expect a high level of responsiveness from the company to their reviews: “If a comment is posted and needs action right away, customers know it can be done. They’re also not shy about phoning.”’s Hentschel notes that enabling customer service to act on reviews quickly is vital. “Our operatives have a $200 fund for each customer, which they can offer without management approval to keep customers happy. You have to be able to put money into it,” he says.

Hart at Evans Cycles explains that reviews are used centrally in product development, but acknowledges that customers may not be aware of it, although the company is looking to change this.

“We have in-house brands that we exclusively retail and have reports set up so that when a review is left, the product managers see it. The perfect example was the range we launched in 2013 with Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy. Both he and the team get copies of customer reviews.

“We don’t make it obvious that this happens, but it is a powerful reason for customers to leave reviews. People are good natured and altruistic and want to share their opinion when they know it can make a difference.”

Beyond ensuring authenticity, there is a school of thought that suggests segmenting commenters to identify the strongest brand advocates and those who are likely to leave the highest-quality reviews.

“We badge the top 10 and top 100 reviewers and off-site we work with bloggers and influential people. Customers also rate helpful versus unhelpful reviews,” says Hart. This maximises the quality of user-generated content, which in turn plays a role in encouraging people to stay on the site longer, improves search optimisation and contributes to product development. However, others feel it is more important to leave the commenter community to become more of a meritocracy that regulates itself. QVC’s Farrelly claims: “We don’t have top commenters because it’s better to treat them all the same. Just because someone has left lots of reviews, it doesn’t make them a better reviewer and everyone is entitled to show their opinion.”

Incentivising commenters to leave reviews above and beyond a general thumbs up or down is another point of contention. While Evans Cycles offers the chance to enter into a prize draw in return for posting a review, Hart suggests that the cycling community feels engaged enough to offer valuable information in any case.

QVC’s Farrelly believes the reward of seeing their reviews published is enough both to incentivise customers to leave them and to make them useful. “We’ve got the benefit of a live TV show and many customers like to see comments read out by someone else. The more helpful they are, the greater chance they have of being shown or retweeted. The second screen is something we are looking at in order to enable everyone to join in more dynamically in live forums.”

He concludes: “A good review gives the customer deeper insight into the product. Is it right for me or might it be useful? Sometimes, a review that makes a customer decide not to buy is as valuable as one that does.”

However, the fact is that sometimes the content of reviews is beyond the influence of marketers. New research from the Georgia Institute of Technology highlights how powerless brands can be. Its study covered 1.1 million restaurant reviews over nine years and found that even the weather plays a significant role – if it is uncomfortably hot or cold, ratings suffer.

This does not mean brands can afford to do nothing, but before jumping in with both feet, it is probably best to test the temperature of the water first.

Case Study: Intercontinental Hotels Group

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is the world’s largest hotel group by number of rooms. Made up primarily of franchised properties, the company provides brand guidance to its franchisees, but most customer service decisions are made by the individual hotels. The tasks of encouraging, managing and responding to reviews are dealt with on both group and hotel level.

Intercontinental Hotel

“We provide the brand service so it’s understandable that there might be an incentive for franchisees to coast on the good reputation of others in the group, but that undermines our business as a whole.

We need to make sure everyone is adding to the brand,” says vice-president of distribution and commercial marketing in Europe Apurva Pratap.

Collecting reviews only from verified guests, IHG encourages franchisees to engage in dialogue with reviewers. It is company policy to respond to reviews of 3 stars or lower within 48 hours. If the hotel has not followed up within the time, the parent brand will.

IHG also uses the IHG Social Listening Portal. Its marketers get an aggregated view of the blogosphere, social media and review sites such as TripAdvisor, which is then turned into a measure of guest sentiment.

Econsultancy Best Practice


Graham Charlton

Online reviews work. Consumers trust user reviews more than most other sources of opinion.

On the flip side, negative reviews can deter potential customers, so it’s no wonder that organisations sometimes try to manipulate them. The BBC recently found that 49 per cent of patient reviews about Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust on the NHS Choices website came from staff accounts.

Brands, retailers, and authors have all been caught out. These instances undermine consumer trust, so how should marketers
use reviews?

Credibility is key

Credibility matters so marketers should take care not to interfere with the process. It may be tempting to censor a negative review, but this can be self-defeating. Negative reviews can serve to make the positive ones more believable.

Moreover, if negative reviews outweigh the positives, then that is a cue to investigate the reasons why. Is a particular product unreliable? Is there a problem with customer service levels?

The potential drawbacks of opening up for reviews can deter some businesses, but it is important to remember that, even if you don’t offer them, people will find them on sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, and in Google results.

How to use reviews

Reviews can be used in a number of ways, all of which can aid conversion. The most obvious use is on product and landing pages, but retailers Kiddicare and Amazon have gone further and embedded reviews into navigation, enabling shoppers to narrow their product search to the top-rated products.

They can also be used in search ads, so that an average review score for the business is shown. This has led to an increase in click-through rates.

Online reviews can also be used offline, and in wider marketing efforts. For example, car maker Kia has been using online reviews in its showrooms, as well as print and TV ads.

Another great example is wireless hi-fi brand Sonos, which used a billboard ad that asks  people to Google “Sonos reviews”. If they do, they will see five sites with overwhelmingly positive reviews of its wireless speakers.

Should you repond?

When a customer leaves a negative review, it is understandable that businesses feel the urge to respond, but it is wise to be cautious. After all, there are plenty of examples of Basil Fawlty-style responses to negative reviews, and these are normally counter-productive.

Instead, brands should respond to negative reviews in a positive manner, acknowledging the issue raised and offering to take steps to resolve it.

Sponsored Viewpoint

Prelini Udayan-Chiechi
Vice-president of marketing EMEA

There’s a great quote from Scott D Cook of Intuit that nicely summarises the shift in power between brands and consumers: “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.”

Consumers trust peer-to-peer engagement, online reviews and personal reviews before company ads. A study by Bazaarvoice and The Centre for Generational Kinetics found 84 per cent of millennials are influenced by user generated content (UGC) and 59 per cent use the internet as a news source, with over half (51 per cent) trusting a stranger’s opinion over friends and family. So why is this important? It is no longer merely the case of ‘content’ being king, but how UGC is driving consumer decisions.

Ratings and reviews are a great starting point for brands to respond to consumers in a social context. Brands can garner invaluable insight into someone’s interest level in a product or service, while also interacting with consumers directly. However, scepticism towards the authenticity of consumer reviews can be problematic, with companies not having adopted the appropriate measures to ensure that content is free from fraud, or that they are transparent in their approach. Often, companies can be found cherry-picking content – posting only positive reviews and removing negative comments.

These companies fail to see that they’re missing the chance to learn and make adaptive business changes from consumer feedback, and that trust in the brand and its worthiness of great content is being undermined. Take your consumer comments and use them to improve business processes in your organisation or marketing efforts.

Aviva, for example, responds to all reviews that receive 3.5 stars or less. The importance of following up on comments can’t be understated if you’re to understand what is damaging the brand. Argos was receiving low ratings for its own-brand TV and found that people were unhappy, not because of the product but because of the sticker on the screen that left a hard-to-remove residue. Wakefield Research shows that intent to purchase doubles if a brand responds to negative reviews.

On the flip side, homewares retailer Williams-Sonoma uses UGC across all marketing efforts. Its homepage prominently features the top-rated products, while its email campaigns and banner ads also use snippets of reviews.

Brands need to show they care and will take feedback on board. Sometimes, it’s best to let your brand advocates combat negativity through peer-to-peer engagement. More importantly, although millennials might be setting behaviour trends, other generations are close behind, thus transparency coupled with authenticity is key.