Business owners are a goal-oriented and driven lot. They often focus their energies on their business to the exclusion of leisure, hobbies, even vacation and family. But they may also project this mindset onto their customers and assume that if anyone is going to volunteer their time to write about a business online, it’s going to be a handful of friends and family or else some seriously aggrieved customers.

We hear these comments from small business owners all the time. Maybe my mom or brother will write something positive, but who else is going to bother?

Truth: Most Reviews Are Positive, But Negative Reviews Are Over-Represented

In fact, customers have a wide variety of motivations for rating and reviewing the products and services they buy, both altruistic and self-serving. And as it turns out, the vast majority of online reviews are positive across products, services, industries and online communities. A study by Keller Fay Group and Bazaarvoice found that so long as posting a review is relatively easy, the review distribution in any given community tends to follow a “J-curve” with positive reviews outweighing negative reviews 8 to 1.

Still, negative reviews are over- represented on review sites thanks to the so-called “adverse reviewer problem”—the truism that disgruntled customers have a greater-than-normal incentive to bad-mouth a business online. These people know that complaining publicly creates attention for them and pain for the business that “wronged” them.

According to one survey, of the 57% of US online consumers who have had unsatisfactory service interactions in the past month, almost half of them (27% of all) have vented in online reviews or via Facebook, Twitter or blog posts.  Another study compared the reach of negative vs. positive comments about businesses and found that on average, unhappy customers tell 24 other people, while happy customers tell just 15. Clearly, there’s opportunity to unlock more of the positive sentiment customers hold back and get them sharing the good word about any brand.



Some popular recent statistics about the power of reviews and ratings come from researchers who were able to show a causal relationship between Yelp star ratings and restaurant activity and revenues. One study demonstrated that an extra half-star rating on Yelp causes restaurants to sell out up to 49% more frequently at peak hours.  Another found that a one-star increase on Yelp yields a revenue increase of 5% to 9% for restaurants.

These are eye-catching numbers. Why should a business care about anything other than the number of stars customers are giving it?

Truth: Customers Consider Star Ratings in Context

A four- or five-star aggregate rating on a review site can seem a very satisfying achievement, but as marketers we should know better. Customers who look to reviews for insight aren’t sheeple, after all. They actually do read reviews and consider ratings in context, and they increasingly cast a critical eye on both. In fact, they probably view a blank or flimsy 5-star review with loads of suspicion, and rightly so:  fake reviews are all too common these days.

Fortunately, consumers also scrutinize negative reviews. They know that very low ratings typically reflect just a single aspect of the total customer experience. For example, product reviews that complain of poor customer service are almost universally voted down by potential buyers because they are seen as self-important and unhelpful for evaluating the product itself.  For hotel ratings, we see the same thing: In an analysis of one-star hotel ratings on TripAdvisor, researchers noted that the most prominent issues driving dissatisfaction were front desk service issues, “principally those involving front desk staff responsiveness and empathy.”  But if you’re a budget traveler who’s more interested in price and location, those reviews are not likely to sway your booking decision.

One study examined exactly what makes a review persuasive and found that the quality and content of the reviewer’s argument is by far the most important factor to most consumers. Other factors such as the reviewer’s bias or expertise had little impact on a review’s credibility.  So, it turns outs, substance matters more than surface in customer reviews.


Most of us appreciate constructive criticism, though we prefer it to be private. Negative online reviews, however, are not always constructive, and they’re never private. For business owners, a bad review can literally ruin your day. You find yourself angry at the reviewer, your staff, yourself. You’re paranoid that the next customer you serve is going to turn around and stab you in the back. And you worry about the consequences of a bad review just sitting out there.

There’s nothing fuzzy about the logic of this situation:  Good reviews make good reputations, bad reviews bad ones. Right?

Truth: All Reviews Can Help Your Reputation

Keep in mind that extremely positive and extremely negative reviews are never the most persuasive. A review that gushes about a given

The Good News About Bad Reviews

Got bad reviews? Don’t panic—it’s better than you think. In fact, we dare say there’s no such thing as a “bad” review. As pointed out by digital marketing maven Lisa Barone, negative comments from an unsatisfied customer may smart at first, but they can have a lot of upside. For example, they help you:

  • Project legitimacy and authenticity
  • Correct issues that need correcting
  • Steer potential customers away from a bad fit
  • Demonstrate care and service by how you respond

And it turns out that your most vocal naysayers may actually be your best customers acting as self-appointed “brand managers” for your business. A recent study found that devoted customers actually vent the most in online reviews, ostensibly trying to steer the companies they like back on course. In fact, they sometimes make stuff up just to make a point!

bakery might be read as the reviewer’s self-administered pat on the back for his fine taste. A review that rues over a shoddy trim job by an otherwise respectable lawn service might be seen as an empty screed by one of those people who’s never satisfied.

In fact, it’s the diversity of voices and opinions that create authenticity and ultimately value in a business’s online reputation. In evaluating a product or service, consumers want to hear from more than just its ranters and ravers. They triangulate on the truth from many points of view.

If this all sounds like so much hocus pocus and wishful thinking, it isn’t. Research has actually corroborated the fact that readers of mixed reviews form more positive judgments of a brand than those exposed to positive reviews alone.25 Not that you should seek negative reviews, exactly, but rather recognize that when they do occur, they must be viewed in context and can be used to your advantage. (See Master Class: Responding to Negative Reviews.) Unless they completely overwhelm the conversation about a brand, negative reviews create opportunities to build your reputation more than they dismantle it. But you have to be paying attention.


Praise is good. Everybody likes praise. The more praise we get, and the more glowing it is, the more we outshine our competition. So why should a business want anything other than glowing praise in its customer reviews?

Truth: The More Substantive the Review, the Better

Positive reviews are good, but substantive reviews are better. To be meaningful—that is, to pique interests and sway purchasing decisions—a review should relate how real customers experienced a product or service so that other real customers can decide whether that product or service is a good fit for them, too.

In providing gritty detail, such reviews often highlight aspects of a product, service or business that you, as a marketer, maybe never thought about and would never have advertised. (Examples: a boutique’s own jeans brand runs a bit small; a restaurant’s portion sizes are Weight Watchers-friendly; a staff member is particularly quirky or humorous.)

This “highlight effect” is good:  It provides additional hooks to get customers in the door and steers them to what they’re looking for— or away from what they’re not. Positive, negative or neutral, it’s reviews with substance that do the most for customers and therefore for the business under review. Not to mention that richer reviews also make better search engine fodder, casting a wider net of content that can potentially place the reviewed business listing higher up in the search results for diverse queries and keywords.


In this Age of the Customer, customers have unprecedented means by which to voice unfettered opinions:  hundreds of online review sites, ubiquitous social media channels, and hand-held apps that connect them to communities of other consumers 24/7. If top brands and Fortune 500 companies have trouble keeping on top of their reputation in this environment (and they do), what hope does a small business have? Shouldn’t a small business focus on its product or service and let its reputation take care of itself?

Truth: A Little Attention Goes a Long Way

Consider the golden nuggets of opportunity we’ve uncovered so far:

  • Consumers trust each others’ opinions more than expert opinions or any form of advertising
  • Pretty much everyone turns to customer reviews to help them make purchase decisions
  • Customer reviews tend to be favorable, but few of us actually write them, leaving more positive sentiment to be unlocked
  • Some negative reviews help a business look more authentic and provide a chance for it to showcase its customer service in its response
  • All reviews can help qualify customer leads and boost the visibility of a business

Online ratings and reviews have the potential to be the single most effective and rewarding marketing channel for small and local businesses, and yet most marketers and business owners do very little to foster and shape reviews because they assume it’s out of their hands. They take a wait-and-see approach—forever.

The rest of this book is about how to turn customer reviews into an addressable marketing channel. It’s about being proactive with respect to getting more customer reviews and being responsive to the channel over time, minimizing the damage and increasing the reward of any activity there.

Remember:  A little bit of attention to customer opinion goes a long way. Here, what Forrester calls “the four Vs” are always building on each other:  the greater the volume of opinion shared; the greater velocity at which it’s disseminated; the greater visibility it has; and the greater volatility it shows as one experience tips off another.26 We’re going to cover what to do to keep these four Vs growing in the right direction for any business.

“Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement.”

— James Cash Penney

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