The Danger (and Opportunity) of Digital Word of Mouth
Small business lives and dies by word of mouth. Without large marketing budgets and massive advertising and PR campaigns, small businesses rely on positive impressions of their business to grow their clientele. Traditionally, WoM (word of mouth) is mostly carried through conversation and an individual customer’s impact was minimal with many individuals each creating a small impact. While this kind of WoM is still present and important, digital word of mouth has become a priority for small businesses through review sites such as Yelp and Google Reviews as well as posts in comment sections and threads across social media.
Digital WoM can be a great boon for small businesses, but it can also be a threat as everyone can have an outsized impact on a business's image. While a happy customer may go on and bring up their experience with a few friends in person, writing an online review may be seen by hundreds. This can be great for a business’ credibility, but when a negative review comes around it can quickly become a PR crisis with high visibility to potential customers. What can small business owners expect from digital WoM and how can they help control it?
The Psychology of Digital Word of Mouth
Good news: If you have a great business, most of your reviews are going to be positive. Most reviewers only speak up in two circumstances, when they were very pleased by a service, or if they felt very dissatisfied. On top of that, very few people leave reviews for businesses they visit. In a 2018 New York Times Article, they found that only 1.5% of consumers leave reviews and put review culture concisely, stating that “Reviews are subjective, and the tiny subset of people who leave them aren’t average.”
While consumers can take reviews with a grain of salt, small business owners can’t as they can’t control who takes them seriously. Knowing what sites attract different kinds of attention and how to manage reviews on those sites is important, as each operates differently and has a unique reviewing culture. As an example of this, I parsed through almost 200 reviews on my favorite local coffee shop to showcase the skew to a few review sites.
As can be seen in the graph below, Google Reviews tends to be much more positive than other sites and has a larger pool of reviews to choose from. On the other hand, they tend to be a lot less substantive, with many merely being a rating without context. The ease of reviewing on the service gives an oppurtunity for customers who might otherwise not post a review to give their favorite spots a review, but due to the simple nature, they may not be taken as seriously as a review on Yelp or TripAdvisor.
As opposed to Google Reviews, Yelp and TripAdvisor require a lot more effort on the consumers' end to leave a review, this causes the reviews to lean more into the extremes, but also leads them to be more thought out and credible. More lukewarm reviews are a lot more common on these sites and consumers want others to know why they chose to drop down a star or two.
Managing Online Reviews
Addressing reviews on their platforms using business owner functions is important to managing your business’ image. In the case of negative reviews, owning up to mistakes and making amends shows consumers that your business cares about its customers. At the same time standing your ground and respectfully dispelling misinformation in the rare vengeful review seeking to harm your business is important as well to control a dangerous situation. While businesses have some protections on review sites when reviews fall outside their terms of service, most will not actively remove reviews for you unless given clear proof of misinformation or violation of policy.
On Google Reviews, reporting a review is as simple as clicking the 3-dot icon on every review and selecting “Report review.”
TripAdvisor is also straightforward, with a small flag icon on every review that can be selected to report a review.
Yelp, on the other hand, can get a bit tricky. First, a business owner must claim their business on biz.yelp.com. After going through the process to claim a business, it's just a matter of locating the review on your page and selecting a 3-dot icon, and then “Report Review.”
Congratulations, the review is now reported, and Yelp will be sending you emails advertising their services for the rest of your life.
Just as it is important to address negative reviews on your business, engage with the positive ones as well! Showing gratitude towards satisfied customers will make them feel better about your business and reflect well on your business’ character when browsers see the appreciation your business shows to its customers.
Keep the good work up! Mistakes happen, and you’ll inevitably get negative reviews that can drag you down, but it's best to focus on the positivity people are showing for your business. Address the negativity as it comes but remember to keep your head up and give your customers your best!