Forget Twitter; Your Best Marketing Tool Is the Humble Product Review

Feedback Has Influenced Design, Supplier Relations for Samsung, Walmart

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Last fall, executives from Oriental Trading Co. read a product review from a woman planning her autumn wedding complaining that her order of fall leaves didn't look anything like the picture on the website. The execs went straight to the warehouse, pulled the product and compared for themselves. She was right -- it didn't look the same. The explanation: The company had recently switched vendors for that particular product, and the new vendor's version wasn't up to snuff. So the company pulled it.

While the first lesson of the story is that you never want to disappoint a bride, the more important one is that marketers are learning to listen. And for all the ink spilled on the importance of Twitter and Facebook as feedback and customer-service channels, there's another social-media tool marketers are increasingly finding useful, not just as an online-shopping tool but as an internal, culturally changing consumer-criticism channel: the humble product review.

The right way to use reviews

EMBRACE THE FEEDBACK. Sure, it's scary to let customers say what they will about your products on your home turf -- your website. But both the positive and negative feedback provides hints to what you're doing well and where improvement is needed. FIGURE OUT WHO NEEDS TO KNOW. Assign a team to read all the lowest reviews. Make sure it includes the right mix of people who can react quickly and fix the problem -- before more customers can get riled.

TOUT YOUR CUSTOMERS' FAVORITES. While negative ones give insight into manufacturer or customer support problems, positive ones can make great ad copy. Use them in circulars, marketing material and on store shelves.

INCORPORATE CUSTOMER SERVICE. Negative reviews can tip off your customer service and support teams to issues that they'll soon be dealing with. Use them as early warning signs.

DON'T STOP THERE. Oriental Trading started with reviews but after seeing how people liked to share their opinions, it has turned its website into a more robust community. It asks users to help solve each others' problems and share their stories, using Bazaarvoice's other tools.

The feedback is altering not just how the marketing department works but also how companies design their products and work with suppliers. And it's not limited to small, nimble players; companies using product reviews range from niche retailers such as Oriental Trading Co. to big, broad-based behemoths such as Walmart.

Samsung used consumer reviews and insights to modify the speaker placement on its flat-panel TVs. After hearing complaints that the speakers on the side of the TV, which add a few inches, rendered them too wide for many customers' entertainment cabinets, it redesigned the product to hide the speakers underneath.

Crate & Barrel kids-furniture subsidiary Land of Nod reissued a $400 activity table with a more-durable wood when consumers complained it was too soft and showed punctures and dents from normal kid use. Even though return rates were still low -- who wants to bother shipping disassembling and shipping back a clunky table? -- the reviews uncovered the problem.

Scouring every complaint
"We're not just guessing, we know exactly which products have issues and what exactly the issue is," said Oriental Trading CEO Sam Taylor, who logged time at HP, Best Buy, Land's End and Disney before heading up the Omaha, Neb., party and craft supplier. "We put together a cross-functional team that cuts across product development, merchandising, sourcing, inventory, e-commerce, creative and quality. The team reads every single one- and two-star review."

Reviews are growing in importance to marketers struggling to figure out how to turn social-media conversations into insights that directly affect sales. But the good and the bad reviews are valuable. Walmart is using them to highlight customers' favorite products in its circulars; Sephora is using it in-store, via mobile phones.

And while Twitter conversation and Facebook chatter is interesting and important, it's not structured, and can be difficult for marketers to implement into their processes. Review data, on the other hand, address a particular product -- and when a consumer is in the mode to talk about it.

"A tweet doesn't give you a whole lot of insight except it's positive or negative, while reviews are about the product, what you like and don't like," said Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, an Austin, Texas, company that manages product-review platforms for both retailers and manufacturers, including many of those mentioned in this piece. His offline analogy is a room where everyone is there to talk about your product vs. a room where they are there to talk about anything.

But even if reviews offer structured data, it's not easy to make them an integral part of a company's internal process and the ones who do have well-defined methods. Samsung uses its product-review information for four purposes: to listen and keep its ear to the ground, to enhance the shopping experience for consumers who are increasingly seeking more information, to build community among consumers and let them talk to each other and to improve customer service and support by helping them be aware early of issues that may arise.

Reviews easiest
Even before Samsung added reviews to its site, it launched an internal process for disseminating that information, said Kris Narayanan, director-marketing at Samsung Electronics America, and that included getting it in the hands of product managers and marketing managers as well as the service and support group. And in some cases, they'll make sure they filter into the R&D group.

Samsung is also listening to consumers in places such as Twitter, Facebook and on blogs, but the challenge there is that content is "very diverse" and finding patterns in it "is nontrivial."

"We use tools to track buzz, track mentions of products and brands and there's a method to the madness but I can't say anyone's discovered it," he said. But "reviews are more structured, we quite often know specifically what products they own and that provides so much more transparency for us in terms of consumer opinion vs. tracking the tremendous volume of buzz."

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