The reputation economy is alive and well in 2019. Brands big and small, from retailers and service providers to manufacturers are impacted by online reviews. As a result, companies must be proactive and disciplined about managing online reviews to maximize the positive impact on brand perception and ultimately, sales.

Why Online Reviews Matter
According to research by Harvard Business School, a single star increase in the Yelp five-star rating system can increase revenue between five and nine percent. Brands can increase customer advocacy by up to 25 percent by replying to a review or decrease advocacy by up to 50 percent by not replying. As reported in an Invesp study, consumers are likely to spend 31 percent more on a business with “excellent” reviews, while a single negative review can cost a business roughly 30 customers. Additional study highlights include:
• 92 percent of consumers say they will use a local business if it has at least a five-star rating
• 90 percent of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business
• 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
• 72 percent say that positive reviews make them trust a business more
• 72 percent of consumers will take an action, only after reading a positive review

While the motivation to monitor and manage online reviews is clear, many brands still struggle to develop an effective online review management program. The following article outlines best practices across industries in terms of generating positive reviews and responding to negative reviews. For starters, make sure your company values its customers and employees and owns any problems as they may arise, as there is no better hedge against negative reviews than being the best business you can be. Secondarily, it’s important to ensure your company has a solid marketing foundation on which to build an online review management program.

Building A Foundation for Successful Online Review Management
The primary objective of online review management programs is to create a positive brand perception, as many review sites ranking highly for brand-name searches. It is important to understand, however, that many (unfavorable) review sites can be pushed down in the search results, by a robust digital marketing program. Below are just a few of the strategies, tactics and channels to consider when building a strong foundation for your online review management efforts:

• Search engine optimization (SEO): Optimize your website, blog and social media profiles to rank for branded search terms including company and product or service names. Beyond on-site optimization of content and code, build credibility by seeking links and directory listings from high-ranking local business and industry vertical sites. For example, lawyers and law firms should have a properly optimized profile on the State Bar Association, Avvo and Justia.
• Paid-per-click advertising (PPC): Augment your organic listings with branded ad campaigns, especially for terms related to any sensitive issues like lawsuits, disputes or stories in the media. The ads should direct to a relevant landing page, allowing you to control the narrative.
• Social media: Create and optimize compelling social media profiles and organic content on popular platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn to maximize rankings for your brand. These highly-trusted websites rank well for branded searches with minimal effort and while you don’t own the profile, you have control over the content and thus visibility.
• Public Relations (PR): Seek out media coverage opportunities, including expert interviews (via Cision’s HARO), speaking engagements, syndicated articles and awards. Third party validation is a powerful perception-shaping tool and known media websites also have high credibility with Google, not just customers.
• Influencer Marketing: When implemented authentically, connecting with and engaging industry influencers can create high-ranking content with viral potential that can mitigate negative results and help change perceptions. It can also backfire if done poorly, so be warned this is the most controversial method of generating awareness and reviews.

With a robust marketing program in place, the next step is to build out an online review management program. A robust online review management strategic plan should include the following elements, which are outlined in much greater detail in the article, How to Grow Revenue via Online Reviews.
• Team training. The customer journey always starts and ends with your employees. It is essential to train employees to provide a compelling experience which increases the likelihood customers will write positive reviews. Also provide a framework and incentive for employees to identify happy customers and provide the tools that will help them solicit reviews from those customers. Training must also include addressing negative reviews, even if only a select few employees have permission to respond.
• Rules for engagement. For employees trained and certified to respond to reviews, ensure they have a roadmap or methodology to respond to any reviews in a timely manner, especially negative reviews. Employees best qualified (in order of preference) to respond to negative reviews include: customer service, public relations/marketing, product development, HR, sales and legal. The larger the company, the more likely legal and HR departments are to be involved, at least in the planning process.
• Review monitoring. To maximize the positive impact of existing content and discussions, invest time in monitoring social media, review sites and branded search results to identify unhappy customers and respond in a timely manner. A good place to start is free or low-cost brand monitoring tools like Google Alerts, SocialMention and More robust review monitoring platforms include Chatmeter, NiceJob, Trustpilot, ReviewPush and Yext. Platforms have also been developed for specific industries, including the legal profession, with platforms like JustLegal.

Responding to Customer Online Reviews and Comments
With foundational marketing in place, a trained team and brand monitoring tools, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: negative reviews. While we will focus on addressing negative reviews, there are a few quick notes worth consideration:
• Never delete reviews. It’s never a good look for a brand to delete reviews, as it implies there is something to hide. The only exception to this rule is any content that violates legal, ethical or security standards.
• Never incentivize reviews. Compensating customers for positive reviews is a violation of terms of service for many review sites, especially Yelp! While most sites frown upon back-end rewards for positive reviews, it’s doesn’t technically influence the action or sentiment (unless everyone knows, in which case it could be considered a violation).
• Always respond to reviews, both good and bad. It’s a best practice to respond to all reviews, as it demonstrates a level of care and commitment to customers that competitors may not share. Responding also provides an opportunity to emphasize company core values, even when responding to bad reviews.
• There are a few exceptions to the above “always respond” rule. In some cases, responding to a negative review can be counter-productive. Specific examples include: 1) reviews so obviously fake, off-color or otherwise clearly violate the terms of service that they can be quickly flagged and removed 2) questionable reviews where customers, fans or others have responded and adequately addressed the issue 3) responding before you have all the facts or 4) if you’re too worked-up to provide a thoughtful, level-headed response.
• Take the right tone. Don’t be defensive, demeaning or curt. Be courteous, honest and thorough. Take the high road. Provide facts, not feelings. Wait until you have all the facts and are in the proper mindset to provide an informed, level-headed response.

One common challenge companies face is determining which reviews are fake and which are real (positive or negative). When evaluating reviews to qualify them as “legit” take the following steps:
• Verify they are real customers/clients based on your internal database
• Review profile history and other reviews for authenticity (timing, location, language or other odd/inorganic patterns)
• Look for trends that may indicate they were paid to review by a competitor or other “hater”
• A profile with very little history is suspect, as is a profile with very little information about the individual and little consistency in types of businesses review or too much consistency

Owning The Issue and Turning that Frown Upside Down
According to research, a customer that has a bad experience tells 5 people. If the brand rectifies the issue and satisfies the customer, they will tell 10 friends. That statistic is amplified via social media. As such, there is significant motivation to turn bad customer experiences around. Once you’ve determined a negative review is legit, there are steps you can take to maximize the opportunity to turn them from a hater to an evangelist or to at least neutralize the review. Here are my five recommended strategies for addressing negative reviews:
1. Acknowledge the complaint/issue and apologize. Sometimes, unhappy customers just want to be heard. At the very least, you look good to those reading the response.
2. Provide contact information to get the conversation offline as quickly as possible. Whether the conversation goes well or sideways, you don’t want customers or competitors seeing the back-and-forth if possible. You may provide a high-level recap publicly, once an issue has been resolved. Since most customers do not update their negative reviews after resolution, it’s helpful to outline the steps you’ve taken to address the issue.
3. Fix the issue and communicate how you’ve ensured it won’t happen again. Sometimes, customers are more interested in protecting others and are less concerned about their own well-being. Either way, it’s smart business.
4. Ask what you can do to make it better/make them happy. Always better to ask what would make them happy, as it may not be as expensive a fix as you might expect.
5. Once you feel you’ve adequately addressed the issue/s, circle back to request an updated review/rating. While I’ve personally updated negative reviews proactively, once a company has addressed any concerns, don’t assume consumers will do it without you asking.

In the end, delighting customers and turning them into brand evangelists is a highly effective strategy to grow your revenue and protect your brand online. For more information on this topic, read this previous post: Online reputation management: going beyond search results.

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