The good, the bad and the useful

Increasingly, there’s no such thing as a bad review and brands are using sophisticated social media thinking to integrate reviewers into their online strategy. By Charlotte McEleny


Despite their increasing importance to brands, online reviews are the subject of mixed opinions. Mistrust around reviews and review sites, due to some businesses posting negatively about rivals, and the sheer quantity of reviews being posted make it difficult for brands to know how to handle this aspect of their online strategy.

Technology has begun to offer ways to alleviate these problems. Automated alerts, for example, can flag up new or particularly damaging comments, but the more solutions there are available, the more confusing the channel can become.

According to research by Lightspeed Research in April this year, 67% of people would be deterred from buying a product after seeing between one and three bad reviews. The same research also shows that of those who do look for reviews, 72% look on shopping websites, while 70% do the same on search engines, highlighting the importance of reviews for retailers. For all categories of brands, 64% said they trusted the opinion of other customers, with Which? (60%), professional reviewers (58%) and friends and family (51%) following.

These figures say a lot in favour of investing in an online review strategy, but knowing what type of reviews or audiences to focus on depends very much on the specific brand, and some are further ahead than others. Sainsbury’s, for example, is moving beyond using Nectar data online to simply encourage reviews from customers, to tie this to in-store purchasing. The supermarket brand is using sales data, via its partnership with Nectar, to send follow-up emails to customers asking them to review specific items. Sainsbury’s says this has already boosted the number of reviews it has received.

Debenhams is also looking to tie online reviews into its in-store experience and is currently sourcing digital kiosks or displays in store that can show customer reviews.

“In the past, reviews were more about hotels and holidays rather than other areas such as clothing,” says Debenhams online trading director Simon Forster. “We realised the way to increase the numbers would be to reach out once people had bought items.

“We’ve now had 90,000 reviews which demonstrates that people are really engaged and do want to give their opinion. Anyone who buys something on the site, after they have had the item for a few weeks we ask them if they want to review it. We also find that the customers who shop in-store increasingly also shop online, so there is an opportunity for them to give online reviews.”

For those still holding back, the main issue is the fear of bad reviews.

O2’s head of social media, Alex Pearmain, says that although it is a big commitment, providing the right context means that even negative reviews can be read appropriately.

According to research by Lightspeed Research in April this year, 67% of people would be deterred from buying a product after seeing between one and three bad reviews

“For brands, actively encouraging reviews can be a bold step but people will do it whether you are involved or not. We want to make it easier so that you can make sure the reviewer does give the real experience in the right context, allowing the reader to make a more informed decision,” he says. “It is important for us because we act as a vendor for a variety of brands. For example, the Sony Experia handset would not be right for you if you weren’t into gaming, so reviews are important because it helps us to get the right products to the right people.”

Pearmain also says that while O2 had previously looked to blogs or traditional media outlets for online reviews, it is now moving towards peer-to-peer networks to get real people writing reviews that real people want to read.

“In the past six months we have reviewed our programme and found that one of the most important factors is that people trust their peers more, perhaps due to the rise of the ’professional gadget geek’. Reviews from people like that aren’t always relevant; why should someone trust a gadget geek’s review rather than the views of someone in their office who is actually a lot more likely to be like them?”

Bad reviews are also the perfect place to start thinking about changing brand perception or refining products, according to Sainsbury’s. The company uses the negative reviews on its site to feedback into product development.

Sainsbury’s head of web and content Graeme Clarke says: “One- and two-star reviews get compiled into reports and are fed back to the buyers and merchandisers.”

Debenhams employs a similar technique, organising reviews by product and sending them to brand teams to alter products that aren’t working or are wrongly described on the website. “For example, last year we had a ladies’ boot and the description was wrong. It received a lot of one-star reviews, but they all said they liked the boot, it just wasn’t made of the material that was described in the copy. We immediately changed it and made sure it was correct, and the reviews since then have been strong,” says Forster.

While negative reviews are a big challenge, another major factor holding some brands back can be justifying the investment a review strategy requires. Sainsbury’s has a measurement strategy in place which is tied to sales impact, to help get company-wide buy-in.

“We have a continuous challenge in driving up numbers of reviews but the key is to measure the engagement and conversation based on those reviews, and therefore understand the direct impact they can have on sales,” says Clarke. “To do this we have integrated our Google Analytics with tools from social commerce technology company Bazaarvoice to cross-measure it. Having the hard stats helps to engage the business.”

As O2’s Pearmain points out, consumers will review or comment on a product whether brands like it or not, and there are more and more sites launching to facilitate this.

Former Virgin Group board member Alexis Dormandy, who helped launch and run Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active, has now turned his hand to LoveThis, a recommendation site that aims to be a trusted source of reviews. The site uses real friends, by linking in Facebook, mixed with reviews from trusted partners including The Guardian and BBC Worldwide.

Dormandy says review sites can be daunting for consumers. “The idea started because there is so much noise out there, there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of information and you can’t go and look at all the sites. In the end it is your friends who can best recommend something.”

The common theme is that a reviews strategy is closely aligned with a brand’s social media strategy, and then with the broader marketing strategy, online and off. Beyond that, information gleaned feeds back to the entire business.

This does mean having a structure and strategy in place to ensure that there isn’t a wastage of resources. As with all social media, measurement is key, although different brands will have different objectives. Sainsbury’s wants to know how reviews affect sales directly, while for others reviews may be providing content on a site. For others, they may be used in offline points of sale, the measure of which may be more focused on how many quality reviews they are getting and how that can be improved.

Charlotte McEleny is senior reporter at new media age

Fact focus

Why should I use consumer reviews on my site?

Consumers are having conversations about brands whether you are actively involved or not. Having the option to include reviews on your site means you have more control over how you use them, using negative reviews for product development for example.

What kinds of brands can use consumer reviews?

While reviews online were initially used for big ticket items, such as holidays or cars, this is increasingly being expanded to clothing or food as people become more used to seeking out advice from their peers online.

Should I also pay attention to reviews on third-party sites?

While you cannot control reviews as easily on third-party sites, you should be aware of what people are saying. Social networks, such as Facebook, are also useful and can be a distribution platform for gaining more feedback on items, or posting information about when your brand has acted on a review or feedback.

Casestudy: UBISOFT

Online reviews work best when brands take a long-term and strategic approach. That means enabling reviewers to build a solid relationship with the brand, giving them exclusivity and recognition; and making that relationship a two-way street.

Games producer Ubisoft launched its Your Shape/ Fitness Evolved game for the Xbox Kinect in November 2010. Following the launch the brand wanted to engage influencers and their followers and build positive sentiment around the product even when there was no specific news. Ubisoft’s key objectives were to maintain buzz around the product and increase sales, while ensuring the product stayed in the top three search results on Google.

Prior to launch, Ubisoft worked with social media agency Immediate Future to identify the game’s core community of influencers – mothers with limited time – and used a strategic reviews programme to build relationships. The project identified passion points around the game, then monitoring tools were used to find appropriate online communities. Within these communities, reviewers were selected based on relevance, influence and social media reach.

Reviewers were invited to a pre-launch event in October where they could see and play the game. The programme used the game’s additional pieces of downloadable content to tease out further reviews over a period of four months to keep the conversations going.

The reviewers posted about the game on their own sites, rather than Ubisoft or third-party sites, but they were also encouraged to use the #yourshape hashtag on Twitter to maximise visibility.

“Recommendation is massively important when you’re trying to establish a new brand, especially with an audience that doesn’t normally consider the games category as relevant to them,” said Alan Dykes, head of digital marketing UK at Ubisoft. “Reviews in mainstream publications can drive awareness and initial consideration, but the approval of highly targeted bloggers provides the peer recommendation that could prove the tipping point to purchase.”

To further strengthen relationships, reviewers were invited to an exclusive event in conjunction with global beauty brand Nivea, where they could train with Sarah Maxwell, celebrity fitness instructor and Nivea’s fitness and lifestyle expert, who featured in the Your Shape downloadable content. Reviewers were offered various treatments at the event and were encouraged to share followers with other parenting titles using a highly trending hashtag.

The event gave Ubisoft the chance to cement relationships with the ’mummy blogger’ community and gave bloggers such as Amy Windsor at Bitchin Wives Club and Kerry Farrow at Multiple Mummy the opportunity to tie additional game reviews into their post-event write-ups.

As well as the reviews programme, pre-launch event in October, and exclusive Sarah Maxwell event in May, Ubisoft held six competitions to give away the game, and hosted live Twitter interviews with Maxwell. The reviews ran as a separate activity, although the events were used to further strengthen relationships with reviewers, by giving them first refusal on attending.

The Your Shape reviews programme, which accounted for 20% of the overall campaign budget, reached half-a-million people online. Combined with the overall social media strategy, it has led to more than 300,000 product mentions on Google and more than 5,000 entries to win a copy of the game. It has ensured Ubisoft is still generating coverage from reviewers eight months after launch.

Top tips you need to know

  • If your brand generates a lot of online reviews, work out a system to prioritise them to maximise your investment.
  • Having a few reviews on each product, particularly positive reviews, makes a more believable case for your product. Look to increase the number of reviews on each by contacting customers via email to prompt reviews post-purchase.
  • Bad reviews can be positive; collate bad reviews and feed back into the business.
  • If you act on a bad review and improve, feeding this back to your customers will make them feel that they are being listened to.
  • Consider a multi-channel approach to reviews – loyalty cards can be a way to track in-store purchases and a way for brands to then encourage reviews online about in-store experiences. Likewise, online reviews can be displayed in-store, via kiosks or digital displays.

Top trends


Simon Forster

Online trading director

Debenhams Direct

The next step will be using these reviews in-store, not just online. As a customer you are going to want to know what peers thought about a product; the concept is not exclusive to online. We’ve seen a number of retailers start to show them in-store, using in-store digital point of sale and in-store kiosks. Again it helps people decide whether they want to buy or not.


Alex Pearmain

Head of social media


We started social reviews for the Windows 7 phone. Instead of concentrating on the tech industry we wanted to put it into the hands of real people. We sought people in Edinburgh and London that aren’t geeks and don’t have the latest phone. Each day they would be given a task, for example a piece of content they’d need to share, to show them what the phone could do, but aside from that there were no other requirements. Then if a second person wanted to have a go, they were prompted to get in touch with the first reviewer via Twitter or Facebook and they’d need to pass it on. This creates an unbiased review every time it gets passed along.”



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