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4 community leaders in the online space

Sean P. Egen
4 community leaders in the online space Sean P. Egen

Have you heard? Word of mouth -- in the form of online product reviews and consumer feedback -- is one of the most powerful tools available to digital marketers. Just listen to what four entrepreneurial pioneers whose companies specialize in online word of mouth have to say about it: 

Sam Decker, CMO of Bazaarvoice, says Jupiter and Forrester studies indicate more than 70 percent of shoppers seek out reviews before purchasing a product. Todd Greene, COO and cofounder of Trusted Opinion, believes the best way to decide if you'll like something is to listen to what your friends have to say about it. Daphne Kwon, CEO and cofounder of Expo TV, cites a study that found word of mouth to be the most influential source of product information. And Justin Cooper, cofounder and chief innovation and marketing officer of Passenger, argues that harvesting feedback directly from consumers creates the most powerful type of word of mouth: advocacy.

Each of these companies is helping consumers and brands tap into the power of word of mouth in its own unique way. And as their success stories grow, so too do their client lists, membership rosters and monetization opportunities.  

If you've ever read consumer product reviews on a major retailer's website, you've probably come across Bazaarvoice's work. Serving 270 clients in more than 15 different industries, Bazaarvoice hosts and services user-generated content that can live anywhere on a client's website, introducing "social commerce" into the site.

"Our meaning behind that term is to create interactions between visitors and customers in ways that drive measurable results," says CMO Sam Decker, author of two books on word-of-mouth marketing. Those results are primarily purchase decisions. "There's a lot you can do to create community and interactions, but it doesn't necessarily help the other 95 percent of people make a purchase decision," Decker adds. "Our interactions, our products, are set up in ways to distinctly help those prospects make a purchase decision."

The products to which Decker refers are: Ratings & Reviews, which allows customers to post reviews and potential customers to peruse them; Ask & Answer, a community-based FAQ; and Stories, a brand-engagement product that lets people share stories that may be tangential to the product itself. These products, particularly R&R, have proved to be a boon for many of Bazaarvoice's clients, helping increase purchases and add credibility to their websites -- even more so when not all of the reviews are favorable. While 80 percent of the reviews posted through R&R are positive, conversions tend to be higher for products that don't have 100 percent positive reviews, according to Decker. "It's that authenticity and that sort of balanced approach that people are looking for," explains Decker. 

Bazaarvoice also offers programs designed to amplify the content it gets from consumers. Amplification may include making the content search-optimized, creating landing pages and microsites to attract natural search or even syndicating reviews into shopping-comparison engines like Shopzilla. Poignant reviews may also make it into other marketing materials, such as catalogs or consumer emails. "We've had case studies, with Golfsmith, for example, where you put reviews in an email and make a top-rated email, and it has a 42 percent higher revenue per email," Decker says.

So, given that Bazaarvoice specializes in leveraging consumer word of mouth to help clients boost their bottom line, how much of Bazaarvoice's success relies on the word of mouth their clients spread about them?

"We're definitely on the backs of our clients," says Decker. "A lot of clients speak on our behalf, and we do a lot of press releases and case studies at our summit, and really, the results speak for themselves. And that's what clients are looking for."

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Trusted Opinion
Built around the notion that the best way to get recommendations is through a trusted peer group, Trusted Opinion calls itself a social recommendation network and has about 750,000 members. Recommendations are currently confined to movies, but the plan is to expand the site to include other entertainment categories like nightclubs, restaurants and books and, ultimately, all types of local services.  

Trusted Opinion applies a higher "weight" to recommendations from people in one's immediate network. It applies less weight to reviews from people in other networks who are tangentially connected to those in one's immediate network, and so on down the line. "Our site gives you a percentage score with how you compare to other people on the site," cofounder Todd Greene explains. "So you can browse profiles and find people who share the same tastes in film as you, and you can include them in your recommendation network so that their opinion counts higher than an average stranger on the site."

Upon reading a review, a member can then take several actions, including purchasing a ticket from Fandango, buying the film from Amazon or sticking the movie into his/her Netflix queue. "As we go forward," says Greene, "there are other affiliated monetizing strategies we have, built around suggesting similar movies that you may want to rent, or to buy from Amazon, that are similar to the movie you're checking out."

The network was launched a year ago to prove that peer-group influence is a more effective way to predict consumer behavior than mathematical algorithms. Over the past year, Greene and his partners have learned that the more features they introduce, the more time a user averages on the site. One such feature allows members to give "respect points" to other members. As members accumulates points for reviews, they can advertise themselves as "elite," "pro," or other designated membership levels. Greene says this feature accomplishes two main objectives: It allows members to gain status on the network, and it gives Trusted Opinion a way to identify influential members. It's this second point that may prove to be Trusted Opinion's greatest monetization opportunity. 
"One of the things we're talking about with potential partners is the ability to identify the mavens in the network," Greene says. "So, within a particular social group in our site, we can find out who's influencing the crowd."

As Trusted Opinion continues to expand its scope -- both in categories and applications -- these "mavens" will no doubt be of great interest to marketers looking for more-targeted opportunities.


Expo TV 
Expo TV takes word of mouth literally. In fact, if a product review doesn't come directly from the mouth of the reviewer, it doesn't make it onto Expo's website. That mouth has to be visible, too; every video review must show the reviewer's face. The resulting reviews, says cofounder Daphne Kwon, are much more personal and move viewers in ways written reviews simply can't. Including the way brands most want to move them -- in the direction of a purchase decision.

"We have a very high clickthrough rate to buy on our video product pages," says Kwon. "It can go up to over 10 percent for certain categories of goods."

Kwon recalls the days when reviewers weren't required to show their faces, describing the faceless videos as rather "spooky" because of their anonymity. "Knowing that your face is on, you become a lot more responsible for what you're saying, because now it's you," she explains. "We're capturing what we think is really authentic, backed up by the fact that it's an individual with the kind of bravery to say, 'Yes, this is me; this is the stuff I own and this is what I think about it.'"

Unlike sites that concentrate on viral video, Expo's focus is on building a library of video reviews on a wide array of products. Reviewers are part of an online community with social-networking features like the ability to leave comments, vote on reviews and earn "badges" for outstanding reviews. Anyone can submit a review for a product they've purchased and want to tell others about, which includes telling them to steer clear of that product. Although, according to Kwon, 85 percent of Expo's reviews are positive. She attributes this high percentage to the fact that, if a person is willing to go to all the trouble of taping and submitting a review, it's usually to endorse something they like.

To encourage quality reviews -- "quality" defined by Kwon as valuable information or good production value -- Expo offers cash incentives, but only $5 or $10 per review, with an annual limit of a couple hundred dollars per reviewer. But Kwon insists that incentivizing for quality doesn't diminish a review's authenticity. In fact, she believes it results in more authenticity from reviewers because, "They feel like they're doing something of value and that we value it."

Authenticity is crucial to Expo's success not just in helping consumers make purchase decisions, but also in getting brands involved. Kwon believes there's no better way for brands to learn how consumers feel about their products than to listen to what they have to say -- and become part of the discussion. A lot of brands are doing just that, including major players like Procter & Gamble.

"Our change-the-world scenario is getting brands to recognize and listen to our community of consumers who've purchased their goods," says Kwon. "We want them to respond to criticisms. We want them to thank people for posting a review, positive or negative."


Passenger bills itself as "the leader in on-demand customer collaboration." The company specializes in facilitating discussions between consumers and brands -- the likes of Coke, Chrysler, Apple and adidas -- by establishing private social networks that allow its clients to listen to and "co-innovate" with their customers.

"What this means," explains Justin Cooper, who cofounded the company with Andrew Leary, "is that you have an ongoing dialogue with the people who ultimately help you shape the brand, through our online community platform." This dialogue enables brands to harvest ideas from outside their corporate walls, while giving consumers a sense of ownership of the process. Cooper cites an example of a television network collaborating with an online community about a series. The network gets valuable viewer input to help shape the series, and the community members get to view content before it's aired and be a part of the creative process. "This is really co-creation manifested into its deepest level," says Cooper.  

Passenger doesn't actually build the online community (or communities) for a client; it designs the experience and configures its platform to meet the client's objectives. The client itself invites participants to join, usually from an internal database. A typical community averages around 2,000 people, and members must participate in the discussion to maintain their eligibility. This creates a sense of exclusivity to encourage member activity, but no tangible rewards or incentives of any kind are offered to members. Cooper believes incentivizing participation dilutes the quality of the feedback clients receive because consumers participate for the wrong reasons. "If you're having to give someone gift cards or cash or prizes or any sort of tangible incentives," he argues, "then you're probably off on the wrong foot."

Along with its platform, which gets updated with enhancements about every six weeks, Passenger also offers several client services, including community management, strategic direction and reporting. This full-service approach, Cooper explains, provides Passenger's clients with all the tools they need to broaden their perspective -- so they don't leave potentially valuable opportunities on the table.

"By broadening your prospective, you can get really great input from people you may not have thought would be able to provide you that input... We say, open up the conversation and have it. Then, if there are specific things you're looking for, go filter the conversation against those things later."

Like each of the other firms highlighted in this piece, positive client feedback is an important part of Passenger's own success. "Critically important," says Cooper. "We don't spend any money in outbound marketing."

The fact that these subject-matter experts rely primarily on word of mouth to market their own services may be the most compelling argument as to its effectiveness. 


Sean P. Egen is a freelance writer.


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