Two years ago, Michael Grant hadn't heard of Yelp. Today, it's his best source for new customers.
"I have Yellow Pages ads and Google ads, but Yelp is my best advertisement," says Grant, co-owner of Albion Plumbing in Oakland, Calif.
Consumer reviews, on sites including InsiderPages, Fav Rav, Angie's List and TripAdvisor, have become an important source of leads for small business owners of all kinds. It makes perfect sense. Word of mouth has always been recognized as the best kind of advertising, and the hardest to get. So-called social media tools -- like Facebook, blogs and these review sites -- have made it a lot easier for customer to spread the word about your business.
A recent survey by Internet marketing company R2integrated found that almost 90 percent of respondents (who were all marketers) were at least somewhat influenced by online reviews, with critiques written by a friend or by a traditional publisher ranking as most trustworthy.
Consumers are talking about you online and listening to others, so it's important for you to monitor these sites and to respond to negative reviews. (For an overview of Yelp, see Yelp for Business: 4 Steps for Success. For an interview with Fav Rav's founder, see The Online Customer Referral Tool Made for Small Businesses.)
But did you know that you can also mine these sites for insights about your brand -- and your competition's? Remember, your brand isn't what you say it is, it's what your customers perceive it to be. Review sites let you step right into their mindset.
Use reviews to understand your brand positioning and your place in the marketplace, advises Matt Goddard, CEO of R2integrated. List all the positive things customers say about your business and about the competition's; look for patterns and compare them. "Maybe 40 percent of your positioning comments are on speed and friendliness, maybe theirs are on affordable price," for example.
Grant, the plumber, used this method to reinforce a couple of things his staff already did: covering their shoes before they entered customers' homes and either being on time or calling if they were running late.
"I already knew to do these things, but when someone writes about it, it showed me that those are important values," Grant says.
If you've accumulated a decent number of review, say more than 30, you can go farther and create a brand matrix, a spreadsheet that tracks key points mentioned by consumers.
"If you wanted to do an insight analysis of brand promise, document what that is and then try to extract information that's either in alignment or misalignment with it," says Goddard.
To do this, make a list of what you think differentiates your business. If you're a restaurant, maybe that includes a romantic ambiance, a massive wine list or a diverse and reasonably priced menu. Comb through those reviews and note how many times each of these attributes was mentioned. You can do the same for your competitors.
Here are some other ways to track your brand via reviews:
Cultivate your profile
While businesses can't place themselves on Angie's List, once a consumer has listed one, the business owner is notified and can fill out their profiles. Other sites offer various options for owners. "There’s an opportunity for branding there at no cost," says Cheryl Reed, communications director for the review site. Take it! Make the time to make your listing resonate by mentioning all the things that make you unique; keep coming back to fine-tune your profile as your brand insight grows.
Do a sizzle scan
Page through all the listings and see what pops out. (This may be easier to do -- and just as relevant -- if you look outside your own category.) Cast an eye toward logos and placement, word choice and photos if they're posted. What makes you stop for a second look? Does your profile have the same attributes? If not, it's time for a redo.
Mystery shop your profile
Print out your profile, along with those of your top five or six competitors. Cross out the names, customer ratings and any revealing information, and then ask others to rank them in order of whom they'd choose. If you didn't come out on top, ask your ad hoc focus group why they picked their top selections. Look for specific words or phrases that attracted them, and probe for parts of the description that resounded. Tweak your copy to improve its appeal.
"In a nutshell, you're trying to understand if a potential customer came onto this review site and decided to choose your competitor, what was it about that content that made them feel more confident about your competitor," Goddard says.
Become an active reviewer of the companies you use in your daily life as a consumer. You'll get dual benefits: First, you'll get the flavor of each review site you use and understand what your own customers experience. Second, when you do respond to a review of your company, you'll have more credibility if you're already a member of the online community.
Image credit: Paull Young