What tech vendors must consider before buying into review sites

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The creation of a customer journey map - a visual representation of the events and interactions customers are likely to experience while considering or engaging in a business relationship with your company - is a worthwhile exercise. A key objective is to understand your customers’ needs and do your best to meet or, where possible, exceed their expectations.

While it is nearly impossible to consider all paths or points of interaction, it is possible to guide your customers towards the best experience possible. Unfortunately, there are new forces working against you, seeking to intercept the journey, making it their own (not who you may think). This happens mostly during the purchase or renewal part of the decision cycle (Awareness, Consideration, Decision phase).

Prospective customers - technology buyers - are now interacting with actors that you may not have anticipated. While buyers may gain some insights learning about the industry or even a little bit about you, as a vendor, the advice givers are not all created equal. Some are not even advice givers; they simply want to disrupt the process.

There are many valuable contributors to understanding the impact of technology, business strategy even best practices. Some have experience on topic, some have none. Many are good writers and researchers. Given finite resources, these players need to make a choice, invest in attracting visitors or invest in adding value when they arrive. Very few are good at both, but they are all good at SEO.

The same folks who are interrupting journeys want you as a customer. #irony

Before we get into the specifics, understanding how a journey intercept works is a good place to start. The focal point is the digital part of the journey that most often starts with asking a question on Google. The intercept concept is simple; the execution takes effort.

A third party works to take the web traffic either by buying it (expensive) or winning it on Google (organic). The key to the organic method is to be better at SERP (Search Engine Result Page) than you are [at SERP].

Many actors are competing for the same keywords, including you, a technology vendor. Examples such as 'CRM' and 'Marketing’ are very competitive. The percentage of organic traffic directed by placement on the page, with a Google result, is known. How often a term is searched can be calculated as well. Put those two together and then the amount of traffic directed to a page/website can be calculated within some margin of error.

What is also known is that there is an exponential drop based on where are placed in page 1 of a Google search. Through different methods, the goal is for buyers and potential buyers to click and be directed somewhere else. Getting to position 1, 2 or 3 in SERP is quite difficult.

Mitch1

Why the battle?

In 2009, the social CRM discussion centered around an important topic: 'The customer's control of the conversation'. It was very new for customers to talk back at marketing’s messages. Marketers broadcast; customers listened. That was the way it used to work. Then, things changed. Vendors were now [more] accountable for delivering on their promise. This was forced transparency.

Fast forward to 2018, digital conversations are nearly impossible to control; neither customer nor vendor controls the digital conversation. Again, the battle is on, though it is about the conversation flow, as well as the conversation itself.

Google controls the conversation flow, by controlling the digital journey.

Similar to the social CRM discussion, the battle is about trust and transparency. As soon as someone says "trust me" what is the first thing that comes to mind? Stating a commitment to transparency brings about a similar, visceral, response.

In the world of business, money needs to be made. Trust needs to be earned, through transparency, not by stating it. A third party cannot bring transparency to someone else's conversation, unless of course the third party is 100% objective and not-for-profit (think consumer reports).

I trust someone like me.

Not everyone can afford the price tag of a technology analyst firm. And small to medium size businesses do not have the time to do all the necessary due diligence prior to a technology purchase. The answer is to look for someone they know and trust to help.

A small business owner, say a pizza shop owner, is looking for a payroll system to take care of paychecks, taxes, and W2-forms. He or she does not have a lot of expertise in this type of technology, nor the process, risks and approach.

That owner thinks about providing the best pizza and customer experience they can provide; their focus is pizza. This shop owner is unlikely to pick of the phone and call Gartner.

They will call a friend, college buddy or cousin and ask their thoughts. This would work (and probably is a very large percentage of how this works). For many types of technology, they may look to the next generation, digital natives, to help them along.

Or, type into Google “What is the best payroll software”.

One type of journey interrupt

Review sites can help, but they also compete with every vendor in the software and services ecosystem. By presenting the value of an end-user review as the holy grail to the buyer, they 'encourage' the vendors to play along. With reviews in hand, they work to drive traffic to their property. 

Not all review sites are created equal. Some offer real value. Some invest a lot of money in getting reviews (through email or web ads, plus $10 or $15 in exchange for a reward) or investing in Google Ad Words to drive traffic to the site. Most do both.

Authentic, self-initiated, reviews are quite powerful. But, as an opinion, I believe at most 25% of reviews fall into the self-initiated category.

Another or additional investment option is to attract buyers with SEO-focused posts, leading to a better SERP result. The investment is a combination of technology, people, solid writing and/or link bait.

One example is a ‘top list’ or ‘best of’ - both are a great way to get traffic. Often the goal of these posts is not only about direct traffic, but link backs - having other sites reference these posts. The link back impacts the SERP, and takes a bit of your Domain Authority to do it. Review sites play on your vanity - "You list me or my site and I will in turn link to your list". Everyone is happy, traffic is better, right? I am being a bit hyperbolic. 

Think carefully before you take this action. As a vendor, you are redirecting your customers to another web property from your own, interrupting the customer journey. If someone said something nice, just say so, there are lots of ways to do it.

Top lists can be valuable pieces of content when they are based on review data, within a specific category and focused on buyer issues. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and not always the type of research that helps buyers make a decision.

Authentic, self-initiated, reviews are quite powerful and speak for themselves. But as an opinion, I believe at most 25% of reviews, fall into the self-initiated category.

Show appreciation on social channels all you want, do not give up your domain authority.

Here are the major review site players. This is not an exhaustive list, there are others. Traffic figures are estimates of unique visitors per month.

Mitch2

There should be a laundry list of caveats and disclosures, but I am only going to make a few. I do not have access to any of the sites' Google Analytics nor any inside information. Therefore, this is part science, part analysis, and part calculations with assumptions. Comparing numbers to each other is more valuable than the actual figures. I estimate that figures have a 10% margin of error. The data is compiled from Crunchbase, SimilarWeb, as well as other sources.

  • “Est. Search Traffic” - ‘Google is the starting point’ so it includes organic and paid traffic.
  • “Est. Organic Traffic” -‘Google is the starting point’ but it only includes organic traffic.
  • “Organic Trend” is based upon six-month organic search generated traffic growth trend.
  • “Engagement” is simple calculation with time onsite, pages visited and bounce rate as inputs (not Social).

* Gartner owns all of these properties and they share reviews. Each property notes where a review. There is a measurable amount of referral traffic among these properties, as well.

I am not going to single out any particular site over another, but there are certainly some games being played. Across the review sites, there are things that just do not make sense.

  • Sneaker and watch reviews that generate significant site traffic.
  • Some properties are spending a lot of money to buy traffic.
  • Total review count is not as valuable as reviews for a specific product or category.
  • Quality of review is significantly different across properties.
  • Why are blogs titled "Top x" or "Best x" if there are no reviews for some?
  • Why is a product labelled "Free" if the 'Free' part expires in 30 days?
  • One product review page that generates >15% of organic traffic for entire site is odd.
  • Traffic generated from review gathering process is difficult to isolate from total numbers.
  • They are all lousy at creating a good mobile experience.

Understanding the value.

In the end, there is a business model and no matter how altruistic or philanthropic the message, businesses need to make money. In order to make money, they need to add value that can be measured. Value is determined by buyer engagement: time on site, pages visited and bounce rate.

The premise for all the review sites is the same as it is for the web in general: traffic and eyeballs. No traffic, no value (remember, value needs to consider both sides of the equation). There is value to having a badge, some marketing material to share with your prospects and customers. Everyone loves a badge!

Is their message your message?

I prefer sites that have high-quality reviews, verified and authenticated; just be sure it is a business person and a real review.

There is something funny about this when you spend a moment to consider the levels of indirection. A review site is, in theory, a trusted third party, who needs another trusted third party to validate that the reviewer is who they say they are - does that make it fourth party validation? If one needs a thirrd party validation, it should be done against an organisation with no affiliation, no? Otherwise, is it really third party?  

As a vendor, the question that needs to be asked prior to signing up is "What is the goal of their content? To help buyers or to attract buyers?"

As a vendor, the question that needs to be asked prior to signing up is "What is the goal of their content? To help buyers or to attract buyers?"

As smart as many of writers are in regards to journalistic capability and even creating fun and interesting narratives, that is all they are doing. The authors are smart bloggers who, often, have never actually used the software, deployed the software or purchased services. They do spend a great deal of time reading and researching, more than most (if not all) buyers, which may be good enough. There are some really interesting articles and lists, but many of these lists do not help buyers.

Review websites need to own keywords and SERP for hundreds of software categories, terms and products. Simple math suggests that this may be possible, but at some point, this will not be sustainable. Google will change; mobile, voice, visual. Reviews do help traffic, as user-generated content is valuable for SERP. The cost is that as a vendor you are sending your traffic (journey interrupted) to someone else to help their buying decision. Why not take out the middleman, perform the fourth party validation yourself? (a bit of rhetoric).

The goal of review websites is to interrupt your customers' journey. Your buyer becomes part of their experience.

If you do not pay, the buyer of a technology will either be presented with an alternative (competitor's) solution, or you will not be positioned as highly in certain landing pages. For some, if you do not push customers to review your product there, you will not appear on reports. This is where traditional analyst firms are actually more transparent than review websites.

Transparency by a proprietary, grey box, algorithm, is not possible. It is important to remember that people design algorithms. Reviews that are not authenticated at all, do not add value. There is a whole discussion to be had in regards to the value of a review in exchange for a gift card, no matter who offers it.

The demographic breakdown of reviewers is a question that should be asked as well.

As for me, why the discussion? Because I can and I felt that everyone should understand.

Transparency. (I did need to say it for those who do not know me) If I can help you or your business to understand more about how the game is played, please reach out. Full disclosure: I have been on all sides of this equation. Vendor marketing, enterprise software analyst, implementation consultant, and part of a review website property. I need to maintain confidentiality and take that very seriously. All of what I have written here is based on a simple analysis, tools available to anyone, and connecting the dots - that is what I do.

The customer journey that you have been carefully modeling is an important effort. Prior to making decisions on how and where to spend your marketing dollars, it is a good idea to understand the ROI of each dollar spent. SEO, SEM and SERP take time and effort to bear fruit; they take even longer to get back if you give them up for short-term gains. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There is a market where playing the game does make sense (lead generation, for example), just make sure you know the rules.

My Columbo moment

One final thought. Some would have you believe that a "bad review" is actually good for business. This is an area I am going to disagree with, strongly. While negative feedback is extremely valuable something that can help a business to grow and get better, when companies stack rank vendors, this does not hold water. A negative review, or set of reviews, against one product can artificially skew the landscape – just like analyst firms were accused of doing back in the day.

A negative review is often an indication that there are a number of users who have a level of dissatisfaction with the product or service and from a customer experience perspective, this should have been addressed by the company. The nuance is that customer reviews are different from customer feedback systems. Bad reviews move vendors from favourable positions to unfavourable positions on the pretty pictures. If they are good, then they should positively influence the position on charts, and perfect reviews should be dinged.

I am going to follow this up with a buyer focused article, as the buyer experience is what really matters, right?

If you are not the customer, then you must be the product.

About Mitch Lieberman

mitch

Mitch is a transformation leader who helps organizations to establish the vision, define strategy and deliver successful programs. He has creative and practiced approach supported by a strong governance model, and a touch of growth hacking. Mitch helps organizations to successfully build and deploy modern system of engagement. 

His core objective is to help companies to achieve valuable business outcomes through a balance of technology and hard work. Mitch holds a strong belief that success is achieved by creating tight alignment between business strategy, stakeholder goals and individual jobs to be done.

think strategically, execute effectively and build a coalition to achieve goals one step at a time
connect the dots, recognize patterns and simplify the complex, creating a shared vision

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