Star ratings, consumer reviews, online user forums and upstart bloggers – they all shape the way today’s consumers evaluate products and services online. In fact, all types of online user-generated content have redrawn marketing boundaries and shifted the power into the hands of the consumer. Organisations have an important role to play in this dynamic, and the ones that get it right foster loyal customers.
A consumers’ online experience is largely based on trust, since there often is no face or personal relationship associated with a transaction. With the advent of Amazon in 1994, consumers learnt to trust a faceless organisation with their credit card details and purchase products online. Advance forward by only one year and eBay taught consumers to not only trust the organisation, but also other online consumers through their peer-to-peer auction site. Fast-forward to today and all forms of e-commerce are common practice.
Yet, while the distance between brand and consumer may be thousands of miles away, this gap doesn’t matter if we can interact with others who have already made the purchase. In fact, consumers are making more informed decisions than ever before – their ability to compare, review and educate themselves about a product or service is higher than pre-Internet days when consumers relied on push marketing from companies, or a helpful sales assistant to explain the features and benefits. These days we rely heavily on other online consumers’ word of mouth and, more strikingly, users we most likely don’t know. Surprisingly, 71% of consumers are likely to purchase a product based on social media referrals.
From push marketing to pull marketing
Online interaction between a brand and a prospect is vital in order for the consumer to make an informed and trusted decision. This depends on what other users have said about their experiences, and how they rate the product or service. It is vital that the organisation takes responsibility to curate this user-to-user interchange if they are going to be perceived as trustworthy. This means including a prominent star-rating system next to the products, as well as soliciting and providing consumer feedback in an easily accessible and logical location on their website. It’s no surprise that search engines value live user-generated feedback on websites by rewarding them with higher search engine rankings. Effective use of user-generated content means favourable SEO. According to OnCrawl.com, “This form of crowdsourcing can bring extra value and authenticity on your website, please your community and your SEO.”
Brands can encourage more user-generated content by developing user-generated forums and galleries, and even integrating user content with the online shopping experience. Beauty products retailer Sephora has capitalised on the trend of selfies and beauty bloggers by hosting a Sephora Beauty Board, where consumers can upload images of themselves wearing Sephora make-up. The US online clothing brand Modcloth allows loyal customers to upload images of themselves wearing Modcloth branded outfits in a user-generated style gallery, making the looks shoppable with either the actual items in the photo or similar products. These brands are not only signalling to prospective buyers that they are safe and well-loved, but also that they foster advocacy and loyalty within their existing customer base.
Keeping a pulse on the market
Curating user-generated content has another benefit for brands – it’s a way of keeping a pulse on the consumer sentiment. By fostering a community, organisations can learn what users like and don’t like about their product or service. This is invaluable customer feedback that should help feed a cycle of continuous improvement. It is the responsibility of the organisation to give their customers a voice and listen to what they have to say. After all, consumers are going to say it anyway, therefore brands should stay a part of that conversation.
We live in an evolving collaborative economy, which has been made possible by our online community. Organisations must foster both user-to-user and user-to-brand relationships – those who do this are rewarded with loyal brand advocates.
Greta Paa-Kerner (@gretapk) is a course director for the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). She is also a principal lecturer at Bucks Business School, which is part of Bucks New University.