I spend a lot of time thinking about growth. I help companies generate more traffic, generate more leads. I spend my days thinking about scale, share of voice, acceleration. I have worked in search, in display, in mobile, brand advertising, direct response advertising. I’ve been around the block a couple of dozen times. Someone that I was working with looked at the plans that we were putting together, and he said, “OK, so what do we do with all the traffic we are going to get?”
Nobody ever asks that question.
For many companies, how to treat your visitors is an entirely separate exercise from getting visitors. There are “Acquisition Managers” and “Site Experience Engineers” and “Director of Low Intent Consumer Engagement” (that is a real title, by the way). Each of these chops up the consumer experience into silos. But customers don’t perceive your efforts that way. Acquisition and engagement are part of a continuum for consumers.
So, as my client and I started to talk about ways to engage the new visitors that we were starting to drive. He immediately jumped to reviews as a method of engagement (and I can also share that they have a measurable impact on search engine visibility). And I think when I was an SEO guy, I would have stopped the conversation right there and dialed up PowerReviews. But my experience as a CMO of a $200mm fashion retailer tells me a different story. We had product level reviews on many of our 20,000 products. The SEO boost from those reviews was 1-2%. But we were redesigning our pages and were trying for simpler. So we started doing some multi-variate testing of the new page design. Amongst other things, on the new page, there were no reviews. At the end of the testing, we saw a meaningful difference in conversion on the cleaner page. And when we did all the math, removing the reviews resulted in about a 9% increase in conversion.
I, to put it mildly. was shocked. How could this be? Reviews are supposed to add the texture and nuance that drives consumer trust and conversion. In our case, it was the exact opposite. Why?
Our brand already had a high degree of trust with our consumers. We were the authority in our space. This is where math fails a little bit, because we couldn’t do a sophisticated sentiment analysis, but it was our opinion that reviews are too subjective. Products got bad reviews because they didn’t fit, or the color was not as expected, or the shipping was too expensive. Reviews tended to be experientially-based rather than product-based regardless of how they are written. And reviews are written by two kinds of folks – those with an axe to grind or those who are cheerleaders. And to be honest, neither is unbiased.
So, I started to reflect on my other experiences in online retail over the last two decades, and at the largest online furniture retailer, we tried to improve the customer experience by adding all of the product specific Q&A from our customer service department to the product page. We had questions like “How heavy is this item?”, “Will it fit through my door?”, “What is the seat depth?”. These aren’t sexy questions. But we saw real conversion lift with this tactic. But my client doesn’t have 200 call center employees with reams of data at their fingertips. What he does have is 7 years of customers who have experience with his product. They know the facts about his products. And by shaping the information that is asked for from those consumers by making them specific questions about the product (“Will it fit in a space X by Y?”, “Does it work in Europe?”, “How long is it from shoulder to cuff?”) it removes the subjective nature of experience into objective fact distillation.
It is the answers to questions that make you want to buy. It is the product as solution that justifies the purchase (honestly, shopping online isn’t all that much fun, so if you end up on a product page, the impulse to buy is probably pretty high). UGC does make me want to buy the product. It is the information that removes the reservation. But why doesn’t that work in the review space? Frankly, the review justifies what you want to hear. If you have enough reservations, inevitably, you will gravitate towards those reviews that make it easy to walk away. If you want to make the purchase, you will, of course, focus on the positive reviews. Product reviews can be self-reinforcing events. The cheerleaders hang out with the cheerleaders, and the axe-grinders hang out with the axe-grinders. Reviews are a self-reflexive lens.
I’ll share a personal holiday shopping anecdote – I bought a Chromebook for my kids for Christmas (shhhh…don’t tell them). I read a million reviews and they were all positive…but too high-level. I don’t actually care about processor power or inane memory specs, those things that professional reviewers care about. And the product reviews definitely fell into the “GOOGLE ROCKS – The Chromebook is the end of Apple!” or the “It isn’t as good as Windows because you can’t install a faster graphics chip, who would buy this….” And, truthfully, those reviews were just noise. I had one simple question – is there something like Skype for the Chromebook? That is what I needed to know. That was my point of reservation. I travel a lot, and I love to video chat with my kids while I am away. It is meaningful to me and them. So I asked that question on a product forum (NOT on the product page, mind you, but rather a forum that I had to search for…). As it turns out, it doesn’t do Skype, but someone was nice enough to tell me that you can do a private Google Hangout, and someone else told me that Skype was actively working on a browser only plug-in, so there would no need to download a client. These were objective answers to my objective question. And that single bit of information that was relevant to me, when answered, made the purchase decision simple.
Consumers are looking for information, not opinion. Decision purchases are made on rationalized facts, not influence. Passion and emotion run high on the engagement end of things (Do I like the site? Is this a good price? Is my credit card safe? Will my friends laugh at me for buying this?) All of that happens before the decision to buy. What drives the “Add to Cart” button click is information that helps me make the decision.
And just like Detective Joe Friday, we all really just want the facts, ma’am.