Product Reviews as Social Media Marketing

A “Ad Age” cover story declared, “Forget Twitter, Your Best Marketing Tool Is the Humble Product Review.” I wouldn’t recommend forgetting Twitter; it’s often one of the better sources of insight into why your product reviews are whatever they are. However, the underlying point is well taken: product reviews, and more generally the consumer-driven responses to delivery experiences and subsequent product/service use, are increasingly important aspects of your overall marketing program.

I spent the last 10 days in India, attending business meetings and leading a series of social media workshops in Dehli, Bangalore, and Mumbai. The overall excitement around social media was huge; the workshops were sold out even beyond waiting lists and standing room.

Social media’s global applicability as a formal marketing component is clear. What isn’t clear is how to integrate and tap it, with far too many brands still looking at the social Web as another place to talk. It’s not, and the “Ad Age” story around the role of the product review explains at least partially why this is so.

Like all other forms of social media, the product review is a response, not a talking point. It directly indicates the degree to which your marketing claims were validated, rather than making some abstract assertion about how well they resonated.

Think about wine scores. A $10 bottle of wine can earn a 90-plus rating just as a $100 bottle can. This is because the rating combines the expectation, which is obviously different for a wine costing $10 than it is for a $100 bottle, and the actual experience of drinking it. A pleasant, drinkable $10 wine typically outperforms a slightly off $100 bottle because of the delight the $10 bottle brought and the disappointment the $100 bottle brought, all in relation to the expectation prior to drinking.

It’s no different in products and services and in what drives reviews. Southwest Airlines gets consistently high marks because frequent business flyers and value-minded vacation travelers know exactly what to expect and because Southwest has put in place a set of operational processes that more or less guarantee the perfect delivery of precisely that service every time. Above all, Southwest Airlines’ customers value and appreciate consistently getting places on time, and Southwest’s internal operational policies ensure this happens.

One of the formal methodologies I present in my social media workshops is touch-point analysis, which is aimed directly at quantitatively understanding how likely your business is to consistently deliver talk-worthy experiences.

With talk-worthiness, the degree to which people are likely to talk about a specific aspect indicates that aspect’s value within your social media program. High talk value means you should be paying attention to what people are saying on this specific touch point.

With consistency, if the experience is great one day and so-so the next, you’ve got a potential for negative exposure on the social Web. In the case of wines, it’s all about consistency (aside from higher-end wines where the possibility that a particular bottle of wine may not be good actually adds to the excitement and enjoyment of said wines). Basic table wines, served in many parts of the world at mealtime, are simply meant to please the palette, relax the mind, and generally blend in to a meal. What gets mainstream wines talked about is the consistency of the experience. “Try this one; we’ve loved it” is the likely outcome of a consistently delivered experience.

The importance of consistency arises from social capital, part of which is related to personally providing a recommendation. When someone provides a recommendation that another finds valuable, his social capital increases. This follows from the underlying fact that helpful recommendations are a form of beneficial social content.

Those who contribute more valuable content to the social Web than they take out accumulate social capital over time in the same way that economic capital accumulates on a balance sheet. Consistent delivery is therefore core to maintaining positive reviews and earning enthusiastic, unconditioned recommendations: Tracking product reviews over time provides a clear feedback system for the overall business.

Taking this further, knowing which aspects of your business are both talk-worthy and consistently delivered is critical to success, especially if they’re tracked over time.

In my Bangalore workshop, for example, I talked about my experience with checked bags on Indian airlines. For most U.S. air travel, a common stress point around flying is boarding the aircraft, due largely to passengers’ tendency to crowd around the entry area. This is driven in turn by the perceived need to board earlier rather than later out of a concern over limited overhead space. This pre-boarding stress would be eliminated if checked bag delivery systems worked better!

Imagine stepping off the plane, heading directly for the checked-bag retrieval area, and finding your bags waiting for you rather than having to stand and wait on them. If that were the case, instead of jamming around the boarding gate clutching anything you wanted to see again, you’d walk into the airport and hand all of your bags to someone else, save a purse or small bag with a laptop or book in it. Then you’d comfortably board the plane, knowing that the rest of your bags would be ready promptly on arrival. How would that change things?

This is exactly what I experienced at Bangalore’s new International Airport (I was based in Dehli, so my business travel was entirely within India). I arrived at the terminal, stopped in the restroom, and walked to baggage claim, which was directly in the path that led to the airport exit. Not downstairs, not over in some other building, but immediately adjacent to where I was heading anyway. As I walked up to the conveyor, along came my bag! I exited the airport less than 10 minutes after I’d landed, both bags in hand.

During the Bangalore workshop, I spoke with Anjana Kher Murray, the head of corporate communications for Bengaluru (Bangalore) International Airport. She explained that the airport was designed around passenger processes. In other words, they had built social media, the idea of generating favorable conversations, directly into their business, and then wrapped quantitative metrics around it.

Check out the testimonials and ask yourself if you’d say the same about your nearest airport. Incredibly, its performance standard for baggage delivery is 7-10 minutes after arrival at the gate. The airport delivered, literally, and I’ve been talking about it ever since.

Product reviews are a key component of understanding your social readiness and performance, right along with intelligently gathering comments from Twitter and similar sources. Integrate reviews and overall listening into your marketing program, and track these important sources. They are the keys to maintaining your ability to consistently deliver excellent experiences and to encouraging the kinds of conversations you really want on the social Web.

Meet Dave at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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