Sometimes you have to pay the piper

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The stats are undeniable—few of us like going it alone, at least when it comes to buying stuff in unfamiliar categories. On the consumer side, the Spiegel Research Center reports that nearly 95% of shoppers read online reviews before buying. And on the business-to-business front, a G2 Crowd and Heinz Marketing study showed that 92% of buyers are more likely to purchase after reading a review from a reputable source.

To get a better understanding of how b-to-b review sites work and how marketers should approach them, I spoke with Claire Alexander, general manager of Capterra, a software review company.

Alexander recommends approaching review sites like social media, encouraging b-to-b companies to monitor and respond to reviews regardless of their favorability. And since the order of appearance on these sites is based on bidding, not reviewer preference, marketers will want to test their way to success, paying the piper for a lead at a rate that works for their business.

Why are review sites so important?

Review sites are important because buyers are starting their buying journey online. Word-of-mouth is really powerful, and it still exists. However, now it's amplified by the online interaction of consumers. It's word of mouth from all of the people who have left reviews on review sites. Making sure that your product is accurately represented on review sites is so important because it forms a first impression about your product and if they want to pursue it in the future.

Why is it important for businesses to interact with and respond to negative reviews?

There's always an opportunity for a vendor to respond to a bad review. Speaking as an individual consumer, I really appreciate and watch how vendors respond to negative, positive, and inaccurate reviews. The way they respond tells me a lot about how they think about their customer. Responding to it is just as important as not.

How should businesses make the most out of their reviews?

I would suggest that you care about the reviews on sites that have very high traffic volumes, like Capterra. Think about it like a social media channel. You want to understand the dialogue that's going on in those channels, and you want to participate wherever you can, in ways that are constructive for your brand. Just like you're trying to get your message out through display advertising, you want to think about the reviews channel as one of those mechanisms. Some of the best practices I've seen are vendors who incorporate group review collection in the normal course of doing business. It becomes part of their process. Actually, review pages that have a spread of positive and negative reviews, versus products that have just positive reviews, actually have higher conversion rates. People trust the reviews more when they see a mix of positive and negative reviews because, let's face it, we all know nothing's perfect. If you respond graciously and highlight the things that do work, you're going to attract people to your brand.

How can businesses work with review sites to drive leads to their website that they can use?

As a vendor, what you're trying to do is gain awareness. Review sites like Capterra have their sort option defaulting to sort by bid. Through the bidding process, vendors at the top of that list are paying more than vendors lower down on the list who are on the next page. In order to figure out the best option for your business, you need to figure out why you're using the site. If you're using it as a pure performance channel play, then you're wanting to optimize for cost per customer acquisition. You should be setting your bidding strategy to optimize for that cost per acquisition. To benefit from the traffic that major review sites get, it's often good to show up on the first or second page of their directory results. People just click on the first thing see. Essentially, review sites are monetizing with the same structure as Google Ads.

Cost per acquisition for leads can be misleading since these leads may or may not turn into sales. How do you advise your customers on determining real CPAs?

It's hard sometimes to know what your cost per acquisition is. Oftentimes, there's sort of a divorce between marketing and product, so marketing has a really hard time tracing the value that it's driving through the product. Marketer's need to be able to understand if the leads they are generating from these sites are high quality and leading to the next step of the buying process. The product, engineering, and marketing teams all need to work together to see the full picture of the leads they are driving. That's something that I would encourage every marketer to talk to their general manager and their CEO about in order to optimize the energy spent in creating these leads.

How should a company worried about brand recognition think about review site marketing?

Brand recognition does not have an impact on the site's algorithm, but it would have an impact on the customer's likelihood to click on that product. The issue, of course, is that building that awareness is hard work, it's expensive, and it's not as predictable or immediately controllable as the last-click channel. The way I would encourage businesses to think about it is striking a balance between making sure that the business is going to be steady and also building in experimental wiggle room. Figure out if it's returning anything, and then decide how to move forward. Having the ability to do that is predicated on actually knowing how much value you're driving from a specific channel. Again, we as marketers need to push for full transparency into the lead conversion and retention process. Without that, we can only make our best up.

How do sites determine if reviews are legitimate and protect vendors from false reviews?

If the inaccuracy is obvious enough, such as two separate businesses getting their similar names mixed up, then the quality assurance team is going to take a look at that and decide whether or not to take it down. Review sites also try to validate that the person leaving the review is a real human being. There's a huge game out there on Amazon and Facebook and other large sites where machine-generated reviews are posted. It's totally wrong and gaming the system. They also scrub for reviews left by people flagged as spammers or black hat types. Typically, those don't get published. There are other cases when a vendor will say that the person leaving the review was never a customer. Here, review sites should ask if that person legitimately could have used this software. Even if that individual isn't on your customer log, it's entirely possible that they might be getting legitimate access or illegitimate access to your products.

What change would you like to see in the near future of review site companies?

We, like many businesses, are so dependent on Google. Google could decide to enter into our category, as they have for example in travel, and just crush us overnight. I hope change comes in moving from this very performance-driven product play to a more brand-driven direct traffic play, where our livelihood isn't completely dependent on Google—and where we have developed relationships with buyers so that they come to us. It's a fun challenge but it's complex to execute.

What are two 'do's' and a 'don't' when it comes to review site marketing?

Do care about it. Do take advantage of every opportunity to engage your customer base with both positive and negative reviews because you can learn so much to inform product development and marketing copy. Don't be afraid of those negative reviews because, again in my mind, the truth sets you free. I think the most successful partners that I've seen have embraced reviews as a learning opportunity and an engaged dialogue. They understand they're not going to make everybody happy, but their growth mindset helps them. Again, when you have an organization that is oriented towards getting better rather than ignoring uncomfortable things, it leads to a stronger, powerful, more effective organization. I would say embrace reviews on top platforms for that alone, because it will help your company overall.

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