Consumer Reviews And Recommendations Are Marketers' Most Powerful Tools

Petco, CompUSA, Amazon Show How To Tap This Growing Force

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McCann Erickson is a great agency, but its maxim, "Truth Well Told," is bordering on irrelevance. While too many advertisers are still focused on the business of shouting one message over and over, today the most important communication is not the marketing monologue but the dialogue that takes place among customers.

It doesn't matter how loud or often you tell consumers your "truth," few today buy a big-ticket item (or switch allegiance on a regular purchase) before they know what existing users have to say about the product. This is a low-trust world. Even if the marketer they're considering buying from hasn't lied to them, another marketer has-and it takes just seconds to find a host of opinions on any product or service. There are few truths, just lots of opinions.

That's why "recommendation by relative/friend," comes out on top in just about every survey of purchasing influences. A recent Forrester and Intelliseek study found that over 90% of consumers trust "recommendations from consumers," while trust in various types of ad runs from about 40% to under 10%.

It's also a major reason for Amazon's success in growing sales per customer: Who hasn't made an Amazon purchase based on another customer's review or the "Customers who bought this also bought..." section? And it explains why a recent survey found that 96% of retailers find ratings and reviews to be an effective tactic in lifting online sales.

In such a world the question for marketers and agencies is less "what single message do we want to send?" and more "how do we get people talking about our product, learn from what they say and tap their conversation to inform other communications efforts?"

A key step in that process for many companies will be to add those consumer reviews, ratings and recommendations to their, or their retailers', Web sites. Until recently this was a prohibitively expensive undertaking for many companies-it requires serious manpower to monitor all comments-but a new company, Bazaarvoice, allows marketers to outsource this work.

Two sizeable marketers, Petco and CompUSA, have already hired Bazaarvoice to build and host a ratings and reviews system for their customers. Both companies have found that when these are added to certain areas of the site they improve visitor-to-purchase ratios, presumably because they increase consumers' comfort with making a decision and direct them to other potential purchases.

Beyond that return on investment Petco is starting to deploy the reviews in its marketing. John Lazarchik, VP e-commerce at the $1.8 billion pet-supplies company, has started using consumers' product ratings and reviews in his direct marketing and banner ads, for example. "When we started including top-rated products in banners, the clickthrough rate rose instantly," he says. "When we put them in our e-mails the clickthrough rate improved three or four times."

CompUSA, meanwhile, is using the review-and-ratings results to give suppliers feedback on products that aren't meeting consumers' expectations; to inform buying decisions; and to change point-of-sale practices. Perhaps most importantly, it is just happy that consumers are better informed: "An educated customer is a good customer for us," says Steve Fernandez, CompUSA's analytics and business manager.

Take the example of the people who went to the CompUSA site to buy an iPod Nano and then read in consumer reviews that the screen scratches easily. Did that put them off? No, it just prompted a huge majority to buy a case with their purchase. Saved Apple a few complaints and made more money on the sale for the retailer. These days that-more than any ad slogan-is a truth well told.

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