We’ve all read customer reviews on third-party sites online about their respective experiences at a particular restaurant, store, or with any other service company. For the most part, the reviews are left by people who had an extreme customer experience−either excellent or very poor.

But how can marketers cultivate customer loyalty and customer engagement through effective control over their brands on third-party sites online, especially when it comes to review sites?

Loyalty360 talked to Yext CMO Jeffrey Rohrs about this very interesting topic among loyalty marketers.

How are brands cultivating customer loyalty and engagement through effective control over their companies on third-party sites online, specifically reviews sites?
Rohrs: We live in a reviews-first society. As a consumer, I can review a store, the products in that store, the store’s app, and even the driver from the ride-sharing service I used to get to that store. And the driver can rate me, too. Reviews are so baked into the customer decision-making process that consumers choose where to shop, where to eat, what hotel to stay in—you name it—in part, on the basis of reviews. In fact, a 2013 study found that about 90 percent of consumers said that reviews impact their purchasing decisions.

The search engines we use to make those decisions are now capitalizing on this trend. They are trying to improve the user experience by weighting quantity and quality of reviews in ranking search results. Having a robust community of reviewers across online platforms is now essential, not only to the customer decision-making process but to be visible to the customer in the first place.

Cultivating reviews is all about having your customers leave reviews on the sites that are most important to your audience. But getting reviews is one thing—engaging with customers on reviews sites is another. If you’re not responding to reviews, both good and bad, across sites like Google, Yelp, Facebook, etc., you’re letting your brand be defined by others—and that’s never a good idea.

By responding to bad reviews (and genuinely expressing sympathy for the customer’s negative experience), you’re not just serving the person who left that review. You’re addressing every other customer or prospective customer who will see your response and say, “Wow, this business really cares about customer service.” By the same token, when you thank your happy customers for expressing their satisfaction, you’re projecting a brand that is invested in creating positive experiences, and you’re encouraging other customers to tell the world about their own experiences with you. There are some great examples of this in the book Hug Your Haters, by Jay Baer.

And though it may sound obvious, brands need to make sure that the basic digital knowledge about their brand—crucial facts like location, business hours, contact info, products or menus, promotions, and more—are reflected accurately across search engines, maps, and the digital ecosystem at large. This includes reviews sites.

What is the biggest misconception about online reviews as they relate to their respective brands?
Rohrs: We’re at a point where most sophisticated businesses understand that you have to do something about reviews to build brand loyalty, but many have no idea where to start. There are so many platforms that matter now that the idea of encouraging and responding to reviews across all of them can be daunting. One of the biggest misconceptions is that monitoring and responding to reviews requires a massive amount of manpower and time. This is no longer the case. There are lots of great tools now that help businesses both monitor reviews as they come in, and engage with customers efficiently across these sites. We built Yext Reviews to tackle this problem.

Another thing that businesses tend to miss is that developing their own first-party reviews (meaning, reviews on their own website) can really move the needle. First-party review generation gives a voice to your actual customers in a highly targeted way, which can then also benefit you in a search. First-party reviews appear as star ratings in your search results, which show off your excellent customer service. It’s a great way to show the customer you care because you’re proactively asking for their opinion.

What are brands doing well in this regard and where do the challenges lie?
Rohrs: Brands that are proactively cultivating a community of reviewers do really well. For example, a staffing company called EmployBridge saw nearly a full star improvement in their ratings after they started inviting customers to review them.

One challenge is understanding what reviews actually mean. If I own a spa and I have a 4-star average rating across major review sites, should I be happy with that? Well, it depends on what the ratings for my competitors are. If the average for my industry and geographic area is 3 stars, I’m doing pretty well and am likely to be chosen by customers comparing me to other options. If the average is 4.5 or 5 stars, then I have some serious work to do. Context is everything, so we’re seeing a move toward more industry benchmarking in the space.

What strategies can companies use to better engage with customers online and raise their average ratings?
Rohrs: People who leave reviews on their own tend to be people who had extreme experiences with a business—extremely positive and extremely negative. So many businesses have lower ratings than a more representative sample would show.

For example, if I stay at a hotel and think, “Hey that was pretty nice, I had a good time.” I’m probably not going to leave a review because it didn’t so knock my socks off that I feel compelled to shout it from the rooftops. But if that hotel were to ask me to write a review, I’d say, “Sure, why not?” and that review would be a high one. In fact, 7 out of 10 people say they will leave a review if asked. And the more people that leave reviews, the higher the hotel’s rating will be.

Review quantity is also important. A study we ran showed that a business with a similar rating to a competitor, but with more reviews, captures over 50 percent more clicks on average for a given search. Asking customers to leave reviews makes a huge difference. We call this strategy firing up your fans.

What trends do you foresee in this area moving forward?
Rohrs: Reviews are only going to become more common, and more influential, in the years to come. Humans are social animals. We identify with other people and naturally seek out and trust their opinions. As long as we have ways to leverage other people’s experiences to make better decisions, we will be naturally inclined to use them. Since search engines, reviews sites, digital maps, social media platforms, and other intelligent services are all businesses vying for our attention, they will continue to improve our access to high-quality, unbiased reviews to improve user experience with their services.

At the end of the day, businesses laying the groundwork with effective digital knowledge management and reviews strategies now are positioning themselves well for an intelligent future where these technologies only increase in importance. These businesses will have a significant advantage over their slower-moving competitors when it comes to brand loyalty.

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