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Ever wondered what the world would be like without social media? For companies marketing their products and services online, these networking sites are a boon for engaging with customers and building a strong brand. But keeping a blemish-free online reputation is no small feat.

There’s no denying that the Internet is vital to our everyday lives. While some people sell products and services online, rent their holiday home or book tickets for a show, others use it to up their profile, polish their image or enhance their visibility.

With endless blogs, discussion forums, social networks and consumer review platforms, the Web, in its version 2.0, is not just a wonderful showcase, a tool for self-expression, it is also an extraordinary channel for creating a buzz that can make or break a reputation. For businesses, managing their online reputation has become a full-time job, which is spent tracking rumours, defending and controlling their image, and monitoring their popularity.

Consumers, on the other hand, are wary of this collaborative economy and focus both on the positive and negative reviews posted on e-commerce Websites before sealing a deal. These days, the success or failure of a business depends as much on these reviews as on the services offered. So what’s the alternative? Are both parties condemned to coexist in mutual distrust? Quite the contrary: the solution lies in building confidence by putting certain safeguards in place.

A matter of trust

Once based solely on word of mouth, a company’s reputation is now traceable on the Web. How a business and its customers are affected by online reputation is tied to the level of consumer trust it has created through social channels. A confidence crisis can strike at any time when doing business over the Internet, whether it’s in business-to-consumer transactions or between private parties when selling second-hand goods, organizing a car pool, or renting a flat.

The truth is, the Internet has revolutionized the way we consume. Our relationship to businesses and products has changed. Consumers increasingly shop online and no longer visit retail outlets in person to make their purchase. How, then, can they make an informed purchase decision to buy and choose between different brands in this virtual marketplace? Word of mouth still works, of course, but a new trend has also emerged: a penchant for reading the online comments and opinions of complete strangers. The question is: can these reviews be trusted?

A case study, carried out in 2013 by Bazaarvoice, a commercial network connecting brands, retailers and consumers, and the marketing research firm Newlio found that seven out of ten consumers dispute the authenticity of these reviews. Such comments are obviously critical in the decision-making process and the percentage of online visits that actually lead to a sale (the “browse-to-buy” conversion rate) is closely scrutinized by e-businesses. The fact is, online reviews do steer the decision to purchase. Aurélien Dubot, Product Strategist, EMEA, at Bazaarvoice substantiates this claim: “On average, consumers who read the reviews on online product pages will convert 104 % more often than those who don’t read them.”

A new breed of consumer

Clearly, this is a new way of doing business, and of consuming too. Evidence shows that the role of consumers has changed dramatically since e-commerce has become mainstream, and seeking the opinion and experience of fellow customers is now a key part of many decision-making journeys – whether you are selecting travel accommodation or a health-care provider. Matthias Lüfkens, Practice Leader, Digital, EMEA, at leading PR and communications agency Burson-Marsteller, confirms the trend: “More and more consumers tend to check user comments online and seek the opinions of their friends before making a purchasing decision. These informed customers are no longer receptive to banner ads or other pop-ups.”

While the nature of interactions with vendors has undergone unprecedented transformations with the Internet, these have generally been for the better, with consumers gaining greater choice, greater voice and much more convenience.

For Richard Bates, Global Programme Manager, Consumers in the Digital Age, at Consumers International, a federation of consumer groups with members in over 100 countries, this is a positive development. “It is one of the most vivid ways in which consumers have used the Web to go from passive recipients to active participants in the marketplace.”

e-Reputation: danger or opportunity?

To sum things up, positive reviews are the linchpin of successful business.

But what of negative comments, which can destroy a company’s reputation in seconds? Should they be ignored or deleted from your Website? There’s no denying that misleading claims proved a serious issue with first-generation review platforms. Alongside fake reviews, there have been instances of deliberately malicious feedback from consumers themselves or, worse still, from competitors “masquerading” as consumers.

Fortunately, the market reacted promptly to these dubious practices and second-generation platforms now only publish reviews from verified purchasers. A model which has been snapped up by many brands, sold on the value of consumer feedback to help instil a climate of trust.

Bazaarvoice, for one, notes that the volume, authenticity and quality of the reviews are the most important factors. That is to say, a product with an average score of 3.5/5 and 50 reviews will convert to a sale more often than a product with an average score of 5/5 but only two reviews. At last, something you can bank on.

In practice, however, things are more complex. All comments – negative or positive – are beneficial to companies, says Dubot. That’s why it is important that brands encourage all customers to give feedback online, and that they themselves respond to criticism to provide context.

Consumer reviews offer a wealth of information which companies can draw on to improve the quality of their products and services as well as their customer relations. Showing brand sensitivity by giving customers a channel through which to air their views is essential if a company hopes to maintain a competitive edge. As Dubot explains: “There are three main steps that go into building and upholding a reputation of excellence: encouraging customers to share their experiences and join in conversations by responding to comments; leveraging these conversations by harnessing the customer’s voice as a hallmark of quality through all communication channels; and, finally, using the voice of customers within the company itself, ensuring that each and every employee is involved and monitored on the basis of his or her customer satisfaction.”

A call for transparency

But what happens to values such as honesty and transparency in this marketing game? For Bazaarvoice, the risks are negligible: “There is less and less room for misleading practices. These days, every consumer has a voice and a great many channels through which to get heard. Brands that mislead their customers will not last the distance, because the joint voices of consumers will soon speak louder than those of the brands.”

Instead, companies need to reassure their customers by guaranteeing the reliability of online reviews. Bazaarvoice encourages customers to send a strong signal to potential buyers by stipulating that the reviews posted on their Website comply with an authenticity policy, are non-biased and not “steered” by the company in any way.

Establishing safeguards

The consumer’s role is undergoing profound changes in this collaborative economy, partly due to online community platforms such as eBay or Airbnb, which allow anybody to participate in the demand or supply side of a market, or both.

Yet while this disruptive innovation gives rise to a host of benefits in terms of choice, value and opportunities, a number of sensitive issues are still calling for attention. In the conventional economy, there is a legal framework for settling disputes that arise from business transactions, and it is tempting to apply the old rulebook to this virtual marketplace. A quick fix? Indeed, but one which is doomed to failure. The shift brought about by the collaborative economy opens up opportunities but could also create loopholes encouraging some enterprises to sidestep existing regulations at the expense of consumer safety and protection. These aspects are as complex as they are pressing and there is a need to extend the protection enjoyed by consumers in the conventional economy.

Bates is optimistic: “The proposed introduction of a pan-European Online Dispute Resolution platform in 2016 represents a notable development in this respect, which Consumers International will be watching with interest, as does the development of an International Standard on online reputation. This would represent an important step that could help assure consumers that reviews are genuine and impartial.”

Fighting fakes

In order to combat fake reviews, it is essential that companies cultivate a relationship of trust with their potential customers, based on transparency. An international benchmark, in the form of a standard, would force companies to pay more attention to consumer reviews. But it would also provide an invaluable source of information to improve the design and reliability of products and services sold online.

The goal, ultimately, is to ensure that consumers end up being as well protected in the collaborative economy as they are in the conventional economy. But how to achieve this? The onus is on ISO/TC 290, the newly created technical committee dealing with online reputation, to explore the different avenues for improving Internet and social media practices, making sure all stakeholders in the value chain are involved, and building an element of trust in these new technologies and media.

A daunting task to be sure, for the resulting standard will need to ensure the reliability and transparency of the three steps involved in processing online reviews – collection, moderation and faithful delivery.

Case studies

Two companies have turned negative consumer reviews into opportunities.

Castorama

To keep its review volume high French DIY retailer Castorama implemented in 2009 a successful programme for customer ratings. As a result, between January 2011 and January 2012 the number of reviews increased by 17 %.

Read more: www.bazaarvoice.com/fr/industries/Castorama-renforce-sa-plate-forme-ecommerce.html

Boulanger

France’s leading multimedia leisure and consumer electronics retailer Boulanger established a strong online presence. The company’s product catalogue is constantly evolving based on customer feedback.
   
Read more: www.bazaarvoice.com/fr/industries/boulanger.html


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