I had breakfast the other day with my brother-in-law, a dentist who has been working for the same practice in San Diego for some 20 years. The practice spends a fair amount on online advertising, he told me. "But you know what's bringing in patients?" he said. "Reviews."
When new patients explain why they picked this practice, they say they have read reviews in various places. The new patients keep coming because the reviews are uniformly good: an average of 4-1/2 stars from the 13 reviews on Yelp and three 5-star reviews on Google+. The practice has a Facebook page with the reviews widget in place; they're all 5-star. Reviews are scattered across several other sites, like the Yellow Pages.
The reviews are not just positive. Most of them are downright enthusiastic about the staff, the facilities, and the way they're treated. The practice promotes its ability to save you money, attracting a large uninsured patient base. It's not only the affluent who rely on the third-party testimony of real customers when making purchase decisions.
There are two types of influencers in the purchase journey. There are the known influencers who have earned their status within their spheres of influence. The problem with an online approach to reaching this group is that most of them are not likely to be wielding their influence through social media; some may not even have accounts at all. That's the point Nick Hayes made in the recent interview he did with Paul Gillin on the FIR B2B podcast: He questions whether all the effort to market to influencers via social media isn't just a waste of time.
But there is that second group of influencers: Those customers don't know, those who convince others to spend their money based on their tales of their own experiences with a brand. None of those who reviewed my brother-in-law's practice are recognized experts or thought leaders in the dental field. None produce regular commentaries for consumer publications. They are just customers who were delighted enough with the service they got and the price they paid to share their stories. And based on my brother-in-law's unscientific poll, those shared stories are driving more new business than paid advertising.
Of course, it's not just one dentist's opinion. A 2013 survey by Dimensional Research found that 90% of respondents who recalled reading online reviews said those reviews influenced their decision. The results should be alarming to companies who don't provide customers with an experience that inspires positive reviews: 86% said their decisions were also influenced by bad reviews.
More recently, a BrightLocal Consumer Review Survey found that 88% of respondents read reviews to determine the quality of a local business and 72% said a positive review makes them trust a local business more.
Those ads may play a part, creating the initial awareness that drives them to look for testimonials. But it's the reviews that seal the deal.
For most businesses, all efforts-from product design to manufacturing, from customer support to marketing and PR-should serve the same underlying goal:
Get good reviews.
Reviews come in all manner of formats. There are reviews left to review sites like Yelp. There are those you can add to multi-purpose sites like Facebook and Google+. There are media outlets that focus on reviews, like Engadget, and bloggers who post reviews along with their other content. People record reviews for YouTube videos and offer up their opinions as status updates on Facebook, Twitter, and every other platform imaginable. If you want to measure the effectiveness of your business, top to bottom, tallying up your reviews can tell you a lot.
The community managers at Laundry Service, a social agency, rate every comment left to the client communities they manage from 1 to 5 based on how well they synch up with the brand's key messages. If that sounds like an old-school metric, that's because it is. Going back to the pre-web newspaper days, media relations professionals have measured how well they did by counting the number of key messages that got into the newspaper reports they placed.
Besides delivering the goods to customers so they'll want to write glowing reviews, businesses should take a couple other steps. One is to encourage happy customers to post reviews. Even a dentist can include a card in that bag with the toothbrush and sample-sized toothpaste and floss they give patients on their way out: "Please rate us on Yelp," it can ask. The other is to aggregate reviews on your website. By collecting all those reviews in one place you shift the earned media on Yelp and Facebook to owned media you control on your own site.
That's what the automaker Hyundai did after realizing its reviews were scattered across a multitude of sites and that most car buyers, despite their online research efforts, would never find them all. To solve that problem, they aggregate professional views on one site. And for years, financial services company USAA has encouraged customers to leave reviews directly on its website.
The power of reviews reinforces two points I have been harping on for years:
- We spend too much time focused on measuring things that don't matter, like the total number of likes a Facebook page has attracted. I like the way Sprinkler marketing VP Jeremy Epstein put it: "With social media, it's not about how engaged followers are with a brand, but how engaged a brand is with its followers." We need to start measuring that.
- We invest far too much of our social media dollars on generating awareness and spend to little time finding ways to get our happiest customers to share their stories. Pushing some of those dollars toward the bottom of the funnel can't help but produce more third-party endorsements.
If your investments in attracting business aren't focused on producing great reviews, you could wind up like some San Diego dentists who are confounded by the fact that, despite the size of their media spend, they're losing business to my brother-in-law's practice. The one getting all the 5-star reviews.