Leverage Collective Input to Drive Revenue

Though it may initially seem counterintuitive, the notion that a large group’s collective input is often more accurate than an expert’s judgment makes sense. Rarely is an individual’s opinion as broad as that of an interested crowd. Besides, every expert is limited by his own experience and perspective. Yet conventional wisdom says consumers rely on knowledgeable experts for advice. The result: an entire industry built on experts reviewing various products and services to enable buyers to make informed decisions.

Using the average input of a diverse group turns this proposition on its head. Consider instead the mass’s average opinion as the most reliable information source. James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” supports this theory, which is often used as the basis of business keynotes. When Halsey Minor, Grand Central Communications CEO and CNET founder, recently spoke at the Software & Information Industry Association’s (SIIA’s) Information Industry Summit about challenging currently accepted practices, this was one approach. Online marketers can utilize this strategy to drive usage and sales.

Many online retailers use popularity lists to promote top-selling products. Buy.com lists the top five items in different categories in its “Most Popular” product listing. Overstock.com highlights three “Top Sellers” in the middle of the home page. iTunes has a list of “Top 10 Songs” on the home page and links to its full top-100 list; interestingly, the list has an RSS (define) feed, too. Similarly, The New York Times bestseller list drives sales across the country; booksellers often tout “Best Seller” status and discount books on the list. As an online book marketer, I’ve used The New York Times list to promote books and seen sales increase as a result.

Online publishers also utilize collective opinion, often in terms of most viewed or emailed stories. Both NYTimes.com and WashingtonPost.com prominently promote their top stories. Click on NYTimes.com’s “Most E-Mailed” link on the home page to reveal a list of the 25 “Most E-mailed Articles.” Product manager Eliot Pierce says, “The email-this-article functionality empowers readers to send articles to colleagues, expanding our audience, increasing our brand exposure, and helping raise awareness of our advertisers. This tool enables an article to bubble up and reach a wider audience.”

Promoting consumer lists also helped NYTimes.com’s premium product usage. When consumer lists for Premium Crosswords were introduced in 2003, “The Top Ten Puzzlers” list helped boost the Premium Crosswords subscriber base over 10 percent. Based on this success, NYTimes.com is assessing other ways to leverage readers’ collective opinions, such as with a “Readers’ Reviews” feature to rates movies.

With over 250,000 voters in 70 markets worldwide, Zagat Survey built a trusted brand around the notion that rating restaurants based on the experiences of thousands of ordinary diners is more accurate than relying on a single featured reviewer. “We give people sound information to make smart decisions through the power of their collective voice,” says Tim Zagat, founder and CEO of the survey-based dining, lodging, and leisure information provider.

Using Collective Input on Your Site

Though experts needn’t find new callings quite yet, users’ wisdom can aid your site and improve revenues. (For insights on how to use individual customer comments, see “Help Wanted: Engaging Consumer Advocates.”) Here’s how to leverage your visitors’ collective outlook on your site:

  • On the home page and throughout the site, promote your top viewed or emailed stories (publishers) or top purchased items (retailers). If you have more than 5-10 items, consider putting them on a separate page and linking to it from the shorter list. Set the list off visually to add promotional value. Consider adding popularity lists by category.

  • Include your top five list in email newsletters to drive readers back to the site.
  • Add forward-to-a-friend functionality to the list to encourage users to share it. Practice good privacy policies, and don’t use these email addresses for any other purpose. Your aim is to promote your brand and drive new users to your site.

    Additionally, add links to other site areas. To maximize the email’s effect, include forward-to-a-friend and registration functionality within the message.

Analyze Collective Insight

To determine users’ collective opinion and its effect on your site, follow these steps:

  • Track top-viewed pages, emailed stories, or purchased items. (Obviously, this must occur before you can promote the list.)

  • Collect and rank volumes by content or product category. You can then promote more lists focused on specialized interest areas.
  • Monitor the increase in the number of forwards articles or products get from being on the list. By association, the revenue from these stories or products should increase.
  • Analyze the type of articles or products on your lists to monitor existing and emerging business trends. For example, many stories on NYTimes.com’s “Most E-Mailed Articles” list are by its most popular Op-Ed columnists. Giving readers a different perspective also helps. A recent top article was “A Humble Old Label Ices Its Rivals,” which rated different vodkas.

It’s usually easier to sell more of something that’s already proven popular than something less popular or unknown. As an online marketer, use the Web’s automatic data-collection capabilities and viral nature to full take advantage of this phenomenon. Site visitors are a self-selected group with a lot in common. Introduce them to the wisdom of their peers!

Meet Heidi at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 28-March 3.

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