The hidden world of reviews: The biggest challenge facing comms today

The hidden world of reviews: The biggest challenge facing comms today

Tim Williams

Tim Williams

Did you hear the one about LA-based musician Jered Eames organising an entire European tour for his band Threatin by faking a huge online following? The story was hard to miss at the end of 2018. Labelled ‘the great heavy metal hoax’, Eames’ scam was covered by NME, BBC, the Telegraph, and Rolling Stone, to name just a few.

He has since claimed that the hoax was, in fact, a cleverly orchestrated publicity stunt. Whether it was or wasn’t, only he knows, but it undoubtedly was an impressive use – or, should I say, manipulation – of online tools to build a reputation for his band. After all, he succeeded in organising an entire European tour from his computer in California – and at legitimate venues too.

Eames identified that building trust among venue owners and event organisers would be key. Consider this: as soon as he contacted a venue, venue staff will have checked out the band’s website and social media pages. While reviewing the latter, they would see healthy follower numbers, but this is in itself means nothing – you can’t book a band just because the page is followed. What will have had the biggest impact on Threatin’s reputation as a band worth putting on a stage was the comments and reviews posted on the channels. They acted as validation and social proof of the band, its quality and its ticket-purchasing following.

Sound familiar? That’s a simplified breakdown of the process that consumers and businesses go through when they want to learn more about a product or service they might purchase and the company they’re purchasing from. The days of buying without doing any background research first are long gone.

The evolution of reviews

Research in 2017 established that online reviews impact purchasing decisions for 93% of consumers and 92% of businesses. Firefly’s own research among consumers revealed that print and online media reviews influence 28% of people, YouTube and other influencers affect 11% of people, but way out in front are reviews in retail outlets, like Amazon, at a staggering 61%.

Communications departments have, generally speaking, got to grips with the role that media, analysts, third party review sites, and social media play in the reviews process and how to influence them.

However, there is a hidden world of reviews, threatening the positive work that we do and undermining the messaging and reputations we spend years developing.

Virtual assistants and voice search

One of the largest threats is the way consumers are increasingly using virtual assistants and voice search. In fact, Gartner predicts 30% of all searches will be done without a screen by 2020. Fast forward to 2022 and voice commerce sales are expected to be worth a combined $45 billion in the US and UK alone.

Companies that prioritise activities towards voice technology now have the chance to get ahead. It will be, however, a challenge. Whilst search engines rank multiple results to an ‘enquiry’, virtual assistants, such as Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, list only the top results in their verbal response.

Ask Siri for “the best restaurant near me” and it will state the following information: name of the restaurant, the food it serves, how moderately priced it is, and its average review score. Of those pieces of information, only its review score influences its position as the one Siri recommends.

As the use of virtual assistants and voice search become the norm, businesses must prioritise being at the top of the recommendations list. The key way to do so is through reviews.

SEO and AdWords

There is increasing evidence to show that search engine optimisation (SEO) is also impacted by online reviews. According to MOZ's Local Search Ranking Factors Survey, online reviews make up 10% of how Google and other search engines rank search results.

Review score also impacts the position of an advert on Google. The search engine will accept a lower bid from an advertiser if what’s being advertised is more likely to be clicked by the user. So, let’s say there are three advert slots for a certain keyword, with one at the top and two at the bottom; the one at the top in the best position may have been a lower bid, but has been prioritised because of its stronger review rating. The reasoning is simple: Google wants to present its users with the best options, even if they earn slightly less from the ad.

Social media

As Jered Eames proved, reviews on social media channels have a big impact on how a person, service or business can be perceived by those yet to experience them first-hand. His band’s Facebook page is full of comments saying how great the live show was – showing both how Threatin can sell tickets and how good they are live.

In this case, the reviews weren’t real, but the influence they can have on decision-makers is clear. For the venue organisers he duped, based on his website and social media pages, there was no reason to believe he couldn’t sell a reasonable number of tickets at the likes of Camden Underworld. If anything, Eames and Threatin were a safe bet for a Monday evening gig.

But then, social media is also what brought Eames’ European tour dreams crashing down. The sharing of the story of his deception spread like wildfire across social media channels. In the end, social media was responsible for both his rise and the inevitable fall.

Fake reviews

It’s not just Eames who has used fake reviews to get ahead. Some businesses also employ this unethical and immoral practice, whereby they either give themselves positive reviews from a fake account or leave fabricated negative reviews for competitors.

The likes of Yelp and Amazon employ tools that identify and remove fake reviews, but they’re not yet advanced enough to catch those more authentic-looking ones. Comms team must be swift in responding to or reporting any fake reviews that slip through the net – after all, they’re directly affecting reputation, so should be attended to with the utmost urgency and importance.

Harnessing the power of reviews

From initial research, through purchasing, to post-purchase customer support and then leaving feedback, online reviews play a part in every stage of a buyer’s journey. With the impact they have on buying decisions, businesses simply can’t afford to be passive or close-fisted when it comes to managing reviews.

To truly harness the power of reviews, an effective reviews programme must be measured as equal in importance to many other communications tactics and activities. That means we must have in place the processes and contingencies for identifying a threat, finding a solution and implementing it as quickly and effectively as possible, as well as the funding to make this possible.

The reputations we spend years building can be damaged in seconds as a consequence of online reviews – it’s time for the comms world to get to grips with this challenge. Because if we don’t, it’s not just the reputation of businesses that’s affected, it’s ours too.

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