Wednesday 7 November 2007

Web 2.1 - Reviews From People Like Me

The surge in user generated content, and specifically "user reviews" has been the backbone of many sites such as Tripadvisor and Amazon.

Why are user reviews so important? How do they need to evolve?

The importance of user reviews centres around the power of peer approval. Put simply, if other people rate something, it must be good - right? This concept is one of the 7 key methods of influence discussed by Robert Cialdini in his book "Influence".
(See my essential reading post for further information).

Peer approval has been a mainstay of marketing techniques since time began. However, it doesn't work for everyone. Some buyers couldn't give a monkeys about what other folks think. Jupiter Research found however that about 50% of users found them helpful.
(See Greg Howlett' summary at Marketing Pilgrim: Five More Important Facts About User Reviews in E-tail).

The other 50%? At the point of purchase on the web, other methods of influence are also in play. These are discussed by Bryan Eisenberg in "Call to Action". One example would be the person who is persuaded by the emotional longing created by enticing copy and lovely pictures. "Imagine yourself here / doing this / owning this" - this does it for them. Some others are influenced by the technical ctiteria of the product. In the case of a computer this might be the hard drive capacity, screen resolution, memory etc. In the case of a hotel maybe it would be the detail on the amenties, location and facilities. For others however, the price really really matters.

The important thing to realise therefore is that for a truly compelling product offering needs to relate to and pursuade on all of these fronts. You need good copy (inspirational, not just factual), great photos, lots of facts & specifications, and you also certainly need user reviews. User reviews therefore are an important part of the equation, but they're not the be all and end all.

Let's not forget though how powerful they are. They give a certain transparency to the product which gives the buyer a level of confidence that they would not get otherwise. They provide unique content (good for SEO). They give users a sense that the retailer has a wide and satisfied customer base. They also show a range of opinions.

User opinions do need to evolve though. We are only now at a very basic level of using them effectively. What does the future look like?

Let's take the example of purchasing a day trip, say a tour of New York City. It might include visits to several key sites and have a tour guide. The website would include perhaps user reviews of customers who have previously been on the trip.

Let's take 3 different prospects:
- John and Mary from Los Angeles, in the early seventies
- The Schmidt family from Berlin, with 3 children aged 2, 3 and 5
- Trixie and Noah, a young couple from London, backpacking around the world

Do these people have different needs? Of course. Would they rate their experience based on different measures? Definitely.

Consider each of the parties against each of these criteria...
  • The pace of the tour
  • The accent of the tour guide
  • The comfort of the transport
  • The cultural commentary
  • Highchairs and baby-changing facilities
  • The amount of commentary at each stop
  • The range of attractions

    What could have been a wonderful tour for John and Mary could be a nightmare for Trixie and Noah. What could have been a fun experience for Trixie and Noah could have been hard work for the Schmidt parents. On every level each customer would view their experience with different rating scales on different criteria.

    User reviews need to evolve to enable customers to filter reviews so that they can see reviews just from "people like me".

    This is particularly important in the case of experiences. Experiences include things like destinations, hotels, restaurants, theatre, travel and other services. The use of a tangible product (e.g. hairdryer, camera) is less affected by personal preferences. With experiences, preferences do count. Peer reviews can actually be misleading rather than assisting.

    The challenge in filtering peer review for experience-type products is three fold:
    1. Identify the customer as they arrive on-site
    2. Gathering customer profile information to store against the review
    3. Filtering the display of reviews so that they match a customer

    Imagine how powerful this could be.
    - I want summer holiday recommendations, but only from vegetarians travelling with children under 2
    - I want restaurant reviews, but only from business users
    - I want ski resort reviews, but only from people that enjoy skiing off-piste

    If you can deliver this content at the right time, you can provide real relevancy. It does however require some clever customer segmentation and profiling to get right.

    Retailing is often cited as providing the right deal to the right person at the right time. I would argue that for online retailing of services, it also involves giving the right information to the right person for the right product.

    That means giving the customer reviews "from people like me".

    This is where the future of user generated content lies. It's a massive challenge and I look forward to seeing who can get it right and how they do it.

    It would be web 2.1.

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