Online interactivity has permanently altered the landscape of local business marketing. Local business reviews featured on search engines, internet yellow pages, and business directories impact customer impressions, actions, and word- of-mouth. This reality has not evaded the leadership of Google. In fact, Google reportedly offered $550 million to acquire Yelp and leverage its estimated nine million local business reviews across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
From the October TMPDM/comScore Local Search Study: "...the importance of ratings and reviews is growing with 57 percent of responders, who indicated such information is important in the decision-making process; however, only 27 percent of these consumers have actually written reviews. This is the new word-of-mouth marketing, and companies need to learn to manage the process."
What are local business reviews?
Local business reviews are a form of social media -- possibly the most important form of social media for brands with a local business model.
Displayed along with business listing data on search engines and interactive business directories like Yelp, Citysearch, and Yellowpages.com, local business reviews serve as a very public medium for customers to provide feedback.
The social aspect of local business reviews function, to some degree, as a micro-barometer of brand reputation. The impact has ignited a variety of responses from business owners and management, ranging from unbridled apathy to apoplectic delirium. Generally speaking, local business reviews cannot be removed by the owner of a business listing. Transparency is paramount.
As a result, business review management is starting to percolate as an integral part of social media focus for brands with a local business model.
John Moore, marketing strategist with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), shared his thoughts with me on local business reviews:
"Every local business should be listening and learning from the online word-of-mouth conversation customers are having about their business. The smartest local businesses are going one step further by responding online to positive and negative reviews from customers."
Why are local business reviews important to national and regional brands?
Local business reviews are important to brands for a handful of reasons. Here are three biggies:
- Local business reviews affect brand reputation and the actions of prospective customers. As a result, negative reviews provide companies the opportunity to publicly engage dissatisfied customers and seek resolution to correct adverse customer experiences. As a brand, demonstrating that you care about what customers have to say is a best practice.
- Local business reviews inform brands about customer experiences and can provide actionable business intelligence regarding products, services, and policies.
- Search engine visibility. Simply having local business reviews increases your business listing rankings in the local business results of Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Why do brands with multiple locations need a solution to manage local business reviews?
It is much more difficult for companies with multiple locations to manage local business reviews than SMBs. It is easy for the owners and management of SMBs with one or 10 locations to monitor and take action/respond to reviews.
For brands with hundreds or even thousands of locations, it's a different story. Location-based managers are focused on day-to-day operations, and corporate leadership is generally invested in a broader, brand focus. This is particularly true for chains, and to a lesser degree franchise models, whose ownership is generally more hands-on at the local level.
In my role as an online marketing and brand protection consultant, I have been advising brands throughout the better part of the past decade to directly engage customers who blog negative experiences, when appropriate. The results are positive. In the public forum of a personal blog or social media site, these customers have their grievances addressed and corrected. Many times the customer is a bigger fan than before their negative experience, and often it impacts word of mouth.
To put into context, the reviews on local business directories are generally more important to address than a blog with little visibility. Therefore, a reputation management solution that proactively monitors and addresses the impact of local online business reviews is a priority.
What is the solution to manage local business reviews?
There are three fundamental elements of a local business review management strategy: monitoring reviews, responding to reviews, and proactively generating reviews.
There are a lot of top-notch brand monitoring/reputation management solutions out there like Cymfony and Trackur, but none detail local business reviews -- until now -- like the new Marchex Reputation Management tool, and it is currently accepting users for a free trial.
The Marchex dashboard monitors data from more than 8,000 sources and reports local business reviews, as well as news, blog, and social media mentions for specific locations.
In addition, Marchex ensures the accuracy of information in existing online business listings found on search engines, internet Yellow Pages, local business directories, and vertical business directories. The tool displays the details of each listing such as business name, address, and phone number. The tool also makes recommendations as to where to add new listings for more local visibility online. This information is refreshed daily.
The Reviews section displays reviews in their entirety, the review source, date, and a chart breaking out the percentage of positive, neutral, or negative reviews.
Responding to reviews
As an organization, define best practice responses and actions per your brand culture. Again, transparency is paramount. Your successful response to a negative review can lead to the reviewer deleting the review, or editing it to be positive. As a guideline, here are some review scenarios and recommended responses to win the hearts and minds of your target audience:
The poor customer service review. If a customer has been forced to wait for an extended period of time or was treated to a display of attitude, it is important to acknowledge the issue and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. If the review is fake, there will likely be no response, but prospective customers will observe your sincere attempt to resolve the issue.
The unsatisfactory product or service review. If a product or service does not meet expectations, acknowledge the disappointment, share your determination to provide some redemptive options, and ask for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution.
The flawed/destructive product or service review. Let's say you're a well-known dry cleaning brand with a few thousand locations. One of your locations gets nailed with a horrifying review describing how a priceless wedding dress was destroyed by a solvent in the cleaning process. This can be an extremely distressing experience for a new bride. Acknowledge the sensitive issue and ensuing anxiety and suffering with a sincere, empathetic apology. Ask the customer for permission to discuss the problem offline, seeking a resolution. Make every effort to exceed expectations offline.
The vile name calling and threats review. Do not engage these types of reviewers, the reviews speak for themselves in a self-defeating light. Take action to have these types of reviews deleted by the business directory hosting the review. If the review is submitted through a Google Maps business listing, click the "Flag as inappropriate" link found under the review, and submit a report. Google will likely remove the review upon review.
The brand champion review. If the review is a genuine five-star, five-alarm rave, why not publicly thank them for their kind words and engage them on their observations? This is a judgment call, but if the review provides valuable insight, it is logical to build upon the comments. Imagine turning a forum for customer reviews into a glowing, ongoing conversation that increases conversions.
Here's another thought -- reward prospective customers for researching your reviews. One example is to publish an exclusive coupon code or offer within your review section, driving prospects to a specific web page, microsite, or offline transaction. This is also a great way to get a feel for how many customers are sizing up your reviews. The perspective here is that reviews are part of your virtual brand real estate, so why not strategically use this social forum to better serve customers and increase revenue?
Don't be discouraged by the threat of fake reviews. In the Wild-West world of local business reviews there are a lot of fake contributions by both local businesses and shoddy competitors. It will not be long before steps are taken by business directories to ensure more transparency among reviewers. This will make the process of registering to provide reviews more cumbersome, but will eliminate a lot of the phony clutter.
How do brands go about responding to reviews? It's simple. While Yelp is the most advanced, offering a "business owner interface" to publicly and privately respond to reviews, most other directories simply allow you to create an account. Introduce yourself by name and as a customer care representative. Business representatives can respond to reviews on Kudzu by logging into the Business Center and selecting "Manage Your Reviews." Citysearch allows business representatives to officially respond to reviews only if they are paying advertisers.
Local business reviews empower existing customers to influence prospective customers. Brands with a local business model are best served to embrace social media and allocate resources to proactively encourage these reviews.
Evidence reveals that asking customers for reviews dramatically affects the number of positive and insightful reviews a business will receive. It is easy to "stack the deck" by offering something in exchange for the review -- such as a discount, coupon, or exclusive offer.
The quid pro quo nature of this transaction tends to generate a much higher return of favorable responses. This approach is particularly recommended for brands that feature products or services that lack emotional appeal.
What are the benefits of a program designed to generate local business reviews?
- They fortify an equitable brand reputation
- Increase conversions to generate more business and sales revenue
- Dilute the actions of disgruntled employees and bitter competitors attempting to sabotage or discredit your company
- Provide a competitive edge
Managing the process in-house to generate, verify, and publish local business reviews is arduous and also lacks the impartiality of third party verification. There are several companies emerging in this space, one of the leaders is Customer Lobby. Customer Lobby is rapidly advancing business review management technology and currently provides this value-added service to more than 200 industries that rely on local customers and word of mouth.
I spoke with Ted Paff, the president of Customer Lobby, about the importance of local business reviews. He stated, "Reviews are increasingly the tool potential customers use to choose who fixes their car, shingles their roof, or does their taxes. But, with the exception of businesses in the hospitality industry, getting reviews can be difficult. The nice thing about reviews is that by digitizing your customers' goodwill, you are creating a durable digital asset that you can leverage for years to come."
Managing local business reviews is a new concept, but it will evolve quickly. Reviews have the potential to help or harm your brand. Are you prepared to engage your customers at the front lines of social media?
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