A Deloitte Consulting consumer survey released earlier this month found 62% of consumers now read consumer-written product reviews on the internet -- including 42% of people 75 and older.
One-third of respondents said that, as a result of recent product recalls, they now look for more information on packaging and products, while 18% now said they look for more information about products on the internet or other locations as a result.
Even smaller purchases
And while online product reviews long-ago reshaped marketing and shopping for high-ticket or high-involvement categories such as cars, electronics and entertainment, they appear to increasingly play a factor even in relatively mundane categories such as food and personal care.
"There's an inflection point with respect to this notion of transparent markets," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman of Deloitte Consulting. "Consumers, because of technology, are able to much more easily find out where a product comes from, what's in it and what people are saying about it. Companies have to learn to compete differently, because if they do have certain skeletons in their closet and don't find those, someone will."
The March pet-food recall, for example, exposed for consumers that dozens of brands had some products made by the same contract manufacturer -- Canada's Menu Foods -- containing at least one common ingredient: tainted wheat gluten from China believed to have killed anywhere from dozens to thousands of pets.
The rolling series of recalls drove millions of pet owners to the web, heavily using search to get the latest news. But it was hardly the beginning, or the end, of consumers using search, consumer reviews and brand websites to get product information even in once seemingly low-involvement categories.
Reviews on nearly everything
The Deloitte study found that while 45% of consumers had read at least one product review in the past year on home electronics, 14% had read reviews on pet products, 18% on beauty and grooming products, and 17% on food and household cleaning products. Remarkably, all those package-goods categories came in ahead of motor vehicles, about which only 13% of consumers had read online reviews, as purchase frequency trumped involvement.
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Deloitte's findings jibe with a study released last week by ComScore showing surprisingly large audiences for package-goods brand websites. Many -- or, in some categories, most -- of those visits came via search.
Along with the increasingly ubiquitous use of search for everyday purchases comes growing exposure to product reviews. A review or link to a site with a review is usually among the leading organic search results for any product query, said Pete Blackshaw, exec VP of Nielsen Online Strategic Services. The best recent example was the iPhone, where prelaunch Google search results were laden with positive consumer reviews of prior Apple products, he said.
"Whether we're studying baby products or electronics or health care, the reviews are becoming a growing form of de facto advertising," he said. "But marketers are held hostage to the commentary. Negative feedback becomes media, too. And these algorithms reward the reviews that get the links. It's often emotional, unprintable reviews that get the link love."
Regardless of the invective, 98% of people in Deloitte's study found online reviews credible and 82% of people found them credible enough to have bought at least one product as a result of them.
Beyond buying search, marketers need to go on the offensive to tilt the balance of "link love," as it were, in their favor, Mr. Conroy believes. Part of that is having websites where consumers can easily find product information. But as marketers have tried to make their sites into something more than "brochure-ware," some have lost sight of the fact that many consumers go there mainly for product information.
"These sites are so packed with information that they're often horrible to get around in," Mr. Conroy said. "Marketers need to make to the case for why people should buy their products, as opposed to leaving it to their whim."
Taking the offensive is even more important, he said, given the growing potential for online reviews to affect offline shopper marketing. In Deloitte's survey, 61% of consumers said they'd like to have the ability to scan a bar code in a store and use that to immediately find product information, user reviews and competitive pricing information.
Researching in the aisle
Some services, such as Frucall, already offer such capabilities for mobile devices for a fee, allowing consumers to tap into Amazon reviews. With growing adoption of internet-enabled cellphones and other wireless devices, such as the iPod Touch, it may not be long before consumers' online review-seeking goes offline.
"It definitely will be a factor down the road," said Randy Peterson, search-innovation manager for Procter & Gamble Co. "In places like Japan, people already are using their mobile phones to get more information right in the store."