Consumer opinion, user-generated content, social media and search are on a collision course that will change the way we think, shop and buy.
It wasn't too long ago that the top reason for not buying online was that consumers were afraid to enter credit card information on the web-- but there is a bit more to it than that. Only a few short years ago the first retailer and product reviews began to appear on the web with eBay and Amazon. Today bloggers have taken control of merchant reviews and every purchase has become a considered purchase.
The online experience still lacks critical tactile aspects of the shopping experience. You can buy furniture online but you can't sit in the chair before you buy it. You can buy a shower curtain online but every manufacturer's desire to be unique has created a thousand different names for the color green.
So how are connections being made? How is purchase behavior being influenced? Well, buyers connect with reviews but they do have to find you first.
Forrester's 2006 State of Retailing Online Study indicates that online sales will top $200 billion this year. An e-Tailing Group, Inc. poll of more than 2,000 shoppers indicated that 92 percent deem customer reviews as "extremely" or "very" helpful in their purchases and about 71 percent of shoppers used keyword searches to find products.
comScore's now famous December 2004 study in buying behavior (along with follow-up studies) indicated that the majority of electronics purchases occurred offline. Estimates created using observational data and user polls cite that from 80 percent to 90 percent of all purchases occur offline. Other category-specific studies have confirmed that behavior is very similar for other consumer goods as well.
Since that time, retailers have focused on creating a more comfortable environment for shoppers in an attempt to increase online buying behavior. Almost every retailer has expanded product descriptions and enhanced customer interaction capabilities, and now also provides a means for customers to interact with one another through product reviews.
What about the search?
Enhancements to the online buying experience often lack a search component. The advent of social media's "tagging" practice has yet to be utilized on a large scale-- with a few exceptions.
PowerReviews is a third party that offers a user-based consumer review and rating service for retailers and is used by powerhouse brands like SideStep.com and SmartBargains.com. PowerReviews is a case study in creating a credible and search-friendly consumer interaction environment.
Doing it right includes allowing customers to tag product reviews and use their own language to make a connection with your products and services. Need proof? Federal Express became FedEx because that's how people referred to it. Allowing users to tag information on their own terms provides a means for increasing likelihood that a purchase connection will be made via the search box.
Reviews shouldn't be the only tagging task. Video and image search is rapidly moving from a means of showcasing your cat's toilet flushing capability to yet another valuable marketing tool. With the right labels video and image files can be a real asset.
Balancing the love/hate
Bad reviews are a foregone conclusion. A wise old Irishman once offered me the following advice after ending an important relationship: "It's not that you two are bad apples, it just seems like neither one of you likes fruit." Of course, that was after more than a few pints of black gold, but I think you know where I am headed with this.
You might have a bad product, but more than likely said product just wasn't the right fit for your buyer and you have more than one option when facing bad reviews. You may silence the opinion, but that could lead to blog reprisals.
The other option will lead to increased sales and perhaps more efficient searches. Product descriptions are almost always regurgitated manufacturer guides and often don't provide enough or the right information for buyers. Simply expanding definitions to include more information for buyers with keyword-rich descriptions based on user feedback will go a long way to reaching out to potential customers, and making sure they have the most accurate information-- for them.
What color is hazelwood?
Learning from your customers is one discipline. Letting your customers learn from each other is yet another. Applying that knowledge to search should be the natural next step.
No one has ever searched for a hazelwood shower curtain. Above all, remember that users search in the manner in which they think. While user feedback might lead you to believe there are few people left who might actually be using grey matter to complete a purchase, they still need to search, find and buy on their own terms.
Kevin Ryan is the chief executive officer of Kinetic Results. .
Meet Kevin Ryan at ad:tech New York and Shanghai