User-Generated Content’s Role in Merchandising: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I talked about the ethics of user-generated content in light of its steadily increasing influence in e-commerce. There are plenty of reasons to seek out authentic reviews other than, well, ethical business practices. Though it comes from consumers, not companies, UGC can be integrated into merchandising both as a complement to brand content and as a tool to inform that content. Product reviews also lend themselves to e-commerce’s trendiest new nouns: search and social.

Google-Friendly SEO

Graham Jackson of Bazaarvoice called UGC “Google juice” for good reason: it is the best unique content available to e-tailers (and we all know who loves unique content). Google‘s latest pet, the Penguin update, is targeted at over-optimized sites–those that concern themselves too much with keywords and large quantities of content, among other things.

UGC-Part2-panel1Reviews provide the holy grail of SEO: unique, continuously updated content full of keywords. Over the past couple of years, Google has incorporated UGC into SERPs, and as we speak, the search engine is rolling out semantic search, which some believe could be “the end of search results as we know them.” These changes are shifting emphasis from words and facts to phrases, intent, and meaning, which makes the natural language of UGC that much more valuable.

Extra Content

UGC fills in the gaps. Unless you’re as serious about your content merchandising as many US readers currently are about Fifty Shades of Grey, chances are there are details missing from your product pages. Some shoppers will notice that and move on. A few won’t care. But more–particularly those primed to convert–will read reviews to look for additional information. All reviews are an extra resource, even the bad ones.UGC-Part2-panel2

Negative reviews from unsatisfied shoppers can alert other customers to product details that will help them make better purchase decisions. That decision might favor a competitor, but it might also be for a different size or color of your product. And even for a company that woos consumers with flowers and personal shopping assistance as well as free returns, getting orders right the first time around is good for both profit margin and customer satisfaction.

If you’re still wary of enlisting product reviews in a merchandising capacity, consider Bazaarvoice’s finding that over 80 percent of 130 billion pieces of feedback is at least 4 stars. And let’s not forget that reviews show people are buying your products, which is a powerful message no matter how fantastic (or defunct) your brand content is.

Engagement Opportunities

Every review is a social opportunity. Businesses continue to scramble over how to make social media profitable, having discovered that they can’t simply show up and win. Whether it happens on Twitter or on a retailer’s site, responding to customer feedback helps; people have been known to remove negative reviews, share positive opinions, and become repeat shoppers after receiving a response to a negative review. Hint: When responding to complaints, don’t be defensive or angry. Here are some good tips for handling bad reviews.

And don’t stop with negative reviews. Respond to positive reviews and address all questions or issues consumers raise. Responding to reviews keeps customer satisfaction up and encourages more consumers to write reviews.

Free Data

UGC-Part2-panel3Consumer reviews are not only rich in keywords, they’re also full of opinions and experiences of the sort that companies pay dearly for (the same could be said for profiles of followers on Twitter and Facebook). Spend some of your market research budget on mining reviews. Take seriously what customers like and don’t like. Reviews can provide excellent feedback about what to change in your marketing and content strategies, as well as what to change about your products. (If your product is causing deafness in pets, for instance, it’s time to reconsider your dream.)

Ways to Develop UGC

The more detailed review platforms become, the more useful UGC is to companies and consumers. I predict the next stage of UGC will focus on adding functionality and cultivating the social aspect of reviews. This is already happening in some places. Yelp is a hybrid social networking/review site. PowerReviews is integrating social tools into its review engine. How long will it be before Amazon Vine reviewers share the same kind of personal info as they do on Facebook?

Give consumers more ways to provide feedback to encourage engagement; for instance, user-generated video is a draw for Millennials. I’m a fan of Amazon’s “picture with notes” option–it captures a bit of the physical experience of a product in a way images and video do not. Adding filter and search functions may help shoppers looking for product information as well as researchers looking for customer feedback.

More complex user profiles can bolster consumer motivation to write in the first place (and help data mining). Trevor Pinch’s study of Amazon’s top reviewers found that many reviewers “derive a strong sense of identity from their reviewing activity.” At its core, UGC is reputation based, and maintaining that is what will keep it from going the way of truth in political campaigns; no one wants to need reviewers of reviews to tell us which ones are honest.

The Ping Takeaway:

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