Are review sites the new brand managers?

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Is the customer the new intermediaryIt’s no news that the relationships between brands and their customers are changing. But the rise and rise of a new intermediary is something we should all ponder. Once we relied on frontline staff, advisors and others to help us glean the best choices. Increasingly, as the popularity of review sites like TripAdvisor can attest, buyers are getting the lowdown on what’s good and what’s not from people just like them – customers.

The good people at Clear Returns spell out the changes in this nice summary:

  • Research from Google says 84% of customers felt that online research and feedback helped influence their buying decisions and that site visitors who interact with reviews are 105% more likely to purchase; and
  • An Econsultancy report revealed that 43% of shoppers now use their smartphones to compare prices and read customer reviews, up from just 19% the previous year.

That’s not surprising. In a world brimming with choices, buyers want to know that they are making the right decision – and review sites and searches are a critical part of establishing whether a brand does indeed do what it says on the box.

That has implications not just for how brands behave, but also for how they manage their reputations and their experiences. Writing on Business 2 Community, Nathan Labenz talks about what he calls The TripAdvisor Effect. “Brands were a natural fit for radio and TV advertising, and brands thrived with the proliferation of cable channels, which kept advertising costs down while offering unprecedented demographic targeting. With the rise of user-generated content, however, brands have faced challenges. People are talking about brands on social media sites in ways that brand managers can’t control and often can’t even detect,” Labenz observes.

But while he questions whether this loss of control makes brands irrelevant, my reading is that this new feedback loop changes the influencer set and thus the interactions that brands must manage in order to remain competitive. It means brands must be findable and traceable of course and that they must look to encourage good things to be said about them. That, as Labenz says, does indeed put reviewers and critics in a powerful position of influence. It forces brands to not just monitor but also to react as never before to what consumers are saying about them.

However, the way a brand is managed now, through conversation and social exchange, is a key change-point. Awareness has become scrutiny. The scale has changed along with the ability to control what is said, by whom and where. And the onus to deliver has changed. Brand management is now less about how the branding itself is presented and much more about how it is talked about. Brands have gone from being seen during commercial breaks and when shoppers were looking to buy to being always on show and judged in real time by any consumer with an internet connection.

That can be scary. But it’s also easy to overlook that there are some significant upsides for brands in this shift. Brands can at least see (something of) what is being said about them. They can encourage people to talk about what they have done right. They can acknowledge and correct their mistakes. But to do that, they must often change how they manage themselves and the expectations of their customers. And they must be able to sort the fair calls from the unreasonable rants.

Here’s an interesting sideline. While the Google and Econsultancy findings are supported to some degree by take-outs from the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, there is also evidence in the Barometer to show that people look to a range of sources, not just review sites, for credible and honest information covering the wider gamut of brand engagement, integrity, products, purpose and operations. For example, while buyers most trust consumers to tell them how a company serves its customers and whether it prioritises customer needs ahead of company profits, they trust employees to tell them about working conditions and benefits and they look to the CEO for information on partnerships with NGOs, financial earnings and performance and what senior management have achieved.

Review sites operate effectively at a transactional level. They provide a day to day journal of the interactions between buyers and brands. They enable people to discuss experiences in a world where brands are adjudicated, at least in part, by the experiences of others. They are the basis for reaction. They enable people to pass judgment and to publish those judgments for all the world to see.

But, for me, the rise of the review site doesn’t, and shouldn’t, fundamentally change what brands are about. It doesn’t change how brands are formulated or even how they function. Brands represent promises – just as they always have. It’s still up to a brand to develop and bring an idea to market and a brand must continue to control and drive that. A brand must retain its own identity (in the wider sense of that word) and the need to manage that is as critical as ever – it can’t be led around by the nose, dependent for its strategy on the whim and feedback of customers.

Because any brand that ends up being managed that way isn’t really a brand anymore. It’s an approval rating.

Photo of “muybridge leapfrog”, taken by BS Wise, sourced from Flickr

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