How to use social proof to your advantage

6th Nov 2015

Whether it's herd mentality or a psychological phenomenon, there’s no denying the power of social proof. The increase in community-based features on ecommerce sites make reviews an integral part of the buyer’s cycle; customers now seek validation before they buy – particularly when it comes to high value items.

According to ConsumerAffairs, a top consumer advocacy and review website in the United States, most online purchases (93%) start in search engines, where consumer reviews often feature prominently. Nearly 90% of consumers consult online reviews before they make a purchase, and 70% of consumers said they trust online reviews as much as direct recommendations from their family and friends. This represents a huge opportunity for brands to make an authentic connection with their customers in their moment of need. Brands can use customer testimonials, expert reviews and positive interactions with their customers on social media and in the organic search channel to establish social proof. They can use review platforms to build customer trust and offer an outstanding experience, especially when the majority of reviews around the brand and/or its products are positive.

Zac Carman, CEO of ConsumerAffairs, explains: “Positive word-of-mouth is the most valuable tool modern marketers have in their toolbox. Consumers trust recommendations from other customers far more than they trust information they get directly from brands. We created our accreditation program and enterprise SaaS platform for brands specifically to meet this consumer need.

“Positive sentiment toward your brand helps increase conversion rates, while overwhelming negative sentiment could have you losing potential customers at the zero moment of truth – the decision-making moment when a purchase is made or passed on.”

Harnessing the bad for good

Negative reviews can be used to a brand’s advantage and it’s what brands do with these reviews that matters most. To many inexperienced brands and a surprising number of established brands, negative reviews – or any that are lower than five stars – are perceived as a downward spiral to customer decline. The concern is understandable, but for consumers, negative reviews bring a level of authenticity – no brand has a perfect record of service.

An internal study conducted by ConsumerAffairs data scientist Sean Guillory, Ph.D., showed that consumers don’t trust brands that have a consistent five star rating, and with Amazon recently announcing plans to sue fake reviewers, brands must prepare to face increased transparency around review collection processes to ensure consumers are met with authentic feedback.

For brand representatives, the best response to a negative review is to reply authentically, acknowledge unhappy customers, and work to resolve any complaints being reported. As Carman explains: “There's always going to be someone who has a bad customer experience but allowing that story and your response to be displayed publicly for other consumers to read shows customers that you’ve learned from your customer’s feedback, and that you’re able to resolve the issue and take steps to prevent the negative experience from happening again in the future.

Resolutions are a unique part of the ConsumerAffairs SaaS platform and partnership. Consumers deserve to be heard and acknowledged, but brands also deserve the opportunity to make things right to generate a positive outcome on both sides. If a brand fails to resolve an issue, the consumer’s voice and story will be heard and the lack of engagement demonstrated. If a brand makes an effort and the consumer refuses to work with the brand to reach a positive outcome, the brand’s effort will visible to other consumers so potential customers are able to see the brand’s commitment to work with customers.

And, the organic search channel memorialises and rewards those efforts. Any brand can claim that they have excellent customer service, and most do. Consumers have gotten savvy. They’re no longer buying brands’ claims.  But for the brand that handles negative reviews correctly, there’s an archive of that interaction – receiving the initial complaint, acknowledging fault, reaching out to the customer and solving the problem – that reaches consumers as they are doing product research.

The most damaging tactic a brand can choose from a reputational standpoint is to ignore a negative review.

“Don’t forget, your customers are your product experts,” says Carman. “If your marketing message is saying one thing and customers are saying another, then there’s a disconnect. Trust is broken, which is likely to decrease conversion rates. But if customers back up what your marketing says, there’s a huge surge in conversation rate. And if you're doing that ahead of competitors then it’s an insane competitive advantage.”

And from a Voice of the Customer perspective, customer reviews – especially negative ones – can provide invaluable feedback about a brand’s product or service. The savviest brands are using customer reviews proactively, as a giant focus group that feeds back into their product research and intelligence.

Reputational marketing tools

Replying to customer reviews isn’t always enough to satisfy customers’ need for authenticity, particularly when brands are collecting those reviews themselves. Partnering with a third-party review platform like ConsumerAffairs allows brands to authenticate and verify customer feedback.

Carman shares further advice: “Pick a few winners, third-party review sites that are trusted and have a large volume of traffic, that are established, have been around for a while and have a great demographic of consumers. Don’t just put your brand there and allow the feedback to come in organically but actively partner with those third-party sites. 

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