Author Bill Tancer on Using Online Reviews for Your Business

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John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn Cass:  Welcome to the Authority Marketing Roadmap podcast on I’m John Cass, your host and Senior Vice President of Marketing at McDougall Interactive. Today, I’m interviewing Bill Tancer, who’s the author of “Everyone’s A Critic: Winning Customers in a Review‑Driven World.” It’s a book about the new world of on‑line reviews.

Bill is also the author of “Click” and the General Manager of Global Research at Experian Marketing Services. Bill lives in San Mateo, California. Welcome, Bill.

Bill Tancer photoBill Tancer:  Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Well, great. It’s interesting you’re from San Mateo, California. When I first moved to the States, I worked in San Mateo, California at that big, twin towers that’s off the highway there. I feel as if I’ve got a connection with you in that sense.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  It’s a great little town. Right now, we’re having the storm of the century. Hopefully it’ll stay above water.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  I hope so, too. Oh, wow, it’s snowing here in Boston, so we’re both experiencing bad weather. It was interesting when I got your book, because I work in the world of search marketing, and I also wrote a blog post after the Digital Marketing Conference at Suffolk University in June here in Boston on management response to reviews.

David Morris and Brian Payea from TripAdvisor gave a great presentation on the topic. When your book came across my desk, it was top-of-mind and I think very relevant to today’s world.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Good.

How has the world changed with reviews?

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Let’s get into some questions. How has the world changed with reviews?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  It’s changed in a lot of different ways. One of the biggest ways it’s changed is how pervasive and ubiquitous the use of on‑line reviews has become. To give you some context, part of my background, as you mentioned in the intro, I’m the GM of Global Research at Experian Marketing Services.

In that role, one of the things that I do is I work with our Hitwise data sample which is part of our Consumer Insights Division of Experian. That sample, for your listeners who aren’t familiar with it, is a sample of over 5 million Internet users in the US, about 25 million worldwide.

I’ve been tracking what those 5 million people have been doing over the last 11 years, and one of the things that I’ve been fascinated with is the growth of sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp. When we talk about change, over the last 5 years, what I’ve seen is a big change in who’s visiting those sites.

For Yelp, for example, it was the Millennials that were the primary audience, but now, when I index all the different age bins, Millennials still are over‑indexing for visits to Yelp, but every other age bin, including 55‑plus, are either at a hundred, meaning they’re perfectly represented by the population, or even over‑indexing.

It tells me that everybody in our society is using on‑line reviews, at least here in the US. The other thing that I think is really interesting is some of the research that’s been done, survey‑based research from consumers.

An interesting story, when I started writing this book about a year and a half ago, our own data and experience said about 70 percent of consumers look at on‑line reviews before making a purchase decision on‑line. That grew to 80 percent by the time I’d gotten through with my fifth draft.

By the time I was able to make my last edits to the book, it was up to 82 percent, so a growth from 70 to 82 percent in just a little under 2 years.

Search Engines and Reviews

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That’s fascinating, Bill. It’s interesting, in a way, because I’ve thought that one of the reasons why reviews have become so important is because the way that search engines are doing things in terms of how they present information. How do you think that search engines have affected reviews?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  I think search engines certainly have been a huge part of the growth of on‑line reviews, and that’s another thing that we track. I don’t have the data here at my fingertips, but we do look at the amount of traffic coming from search and other channels driving traffic to the TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other reviews of the world.

More and more, we’re finding an increase in local searches happening across the major search engines. Of course, when you do that, one of the first things you’ll get if you’re searching on Google will be Google reviews and also Yelp reviews showing up above the fold in search‑engine results, and that’s going to be a massive influence of traffic or a source of traffic going to these review sites.

I think search is critical for the growth of review sites. Now, what we’re also seeing happening in our data is that mobile’s becoming more and more important in terms of consumers accessing local reviews, for example. Now, a good portion of the traffic going to local reviews are coming off the mobile device.

We’re going to see a little bit of shift from search being the most important to now a balance between search and app traffic going to local review sites.

Who writes reviews?

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That’s interesting. Who’s writing these reviews? You’ve got a lot of good numbers here. Do you have different numbers for mobile compared to desktop, out of curiosity? If you don’t, that’s fine.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  I don’t, but it’s an interesting question. We talked a few minutes ago about how ubiquitous the reading of online reviews are across the population. It is really ubiquitous. That’s not the case for who’s writing reviews.

From a research perspective, that’s a very interesting conundrum, and it’s also very interesting from a marketer’s perspective, that you’ve got a very small pocket of the population that’s writing these reviews. Marketers now are just waking up to the idea that they have to pay attention to these channels. It’s one of the most important social‑media channels.

Then there’s the challenge of “I need to get to the ones that are writing these reviews”, as well as making sure that my customers are reading the reviews. In our research, when I wrote “Click” back in 2008, I came up with a rule that I called the 1‑9‑90 rule.

At the time, using our data we found that only 1 percent of the US population was creating content for social media, and 9 percent were interacting with it, in the form of commenting and voting on whether something was useful, and the rest of us, 90 percent, reading or watching this social‑media content.

This breaks the Pareto principle, 80‑20 rule, 20 percent of your customers generate 80 percent of your revenue, or 20 percent of consumers generate 80 percent of social‑media content. Not the case in social media. We have been tracking this over time. If we look today at something like online reviews, we think the rule’s more of a 10‑90.

We can’t separate out that difference between interacting and creating, but we think it’s about 10 percent of the population that are interacting with these review sites. It’s probably somewhere between 3 to 5 percent of the population writing online reviews, and the remainder are interacting, but then the rest of us just reading the reviews.

One of the things I can tell you, we did look at our Simmons research product. We tried to isolate some pockets or psychographic groups or segments of the society that were most likely to write reviews. The one that showed the highest was a group in our “moms” segmentation, so looking at moms that had young children in the household, children under the age of 5.

That particular group, as a whole, indexed at 800. Or, in other words, that group was 8 times more likely than the population as a whole to write reviews. If you think about it, it makes sense. A mom with young children, bombarded with a ton of decisions to make in terms of what to buy, where to send the kids, what type of classes are the best, what food’s the best, where’s the best doctors.

Because of all these decisions to be made, this one community has become hyperactive and engaging in online reviews, both reading them and writing them. I think that’s something that marketers have to keep in mind. If I look at my products and services, where are the influencers, and are the influencers part of who I see as my addressable market?

If they are, I need to pay attention to this channel more so than the market in general.

How Influencer Marketing Relates to Online Reviews

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  In some ways, what you’re saying is that marketers should understand this reality and then also map out who the influencers are? Is that right?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  That’s right. It’s influencer marketing 101, but I think what a lot of businesses haven’t realized is just how critical online reviews are to their business. For example, I have a client who happens to have that segment as one of key parts of their addressable market, and they don’t have reviews on their site.

It’s astounding to me that they would not think of putting some reviews on their site, either through their own proprietary reviews, or a third‑party solution like Bazaarvoice. This is very typical.

Another research point that we found, and there’s a lot of different research results on this specific question, which is when you put some reviews on a product page or your product, if you’re selling things online, in Revo’s, the last research study I’ve seen, if you got between 10 and 30 reviews on a product page, you can lift the conversion of that specific product from 3 to 5 percent.

For some businesses that could be huge. If we work backwards from there, the fact that putting reviews on your page can influence purchases, then you want to get reviews there. If you want to get reviews there, you got to make sure that you’ve got some of those segments of your customers engaged to write the reviews.

If you’re selling something that would appeal to moms with young kids, you got to make sure that you are targeting them, getting them engaged, and contributing content to your site. And in doing so, overall, help to raise your conversion.

Bad Reviews

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That’s interesting. What happens if someone comes along and writes a review but that is a bad review? Can a bad review be good for you?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Yeah. That was one of the most fascinating things about the book. I want to back up for a seconds here. I found there’s this huge gap or huge inefficiency in our ecosystem. I noticed it as I was doing research for this book that when you talk to business owners, oftentimes — at least I found when I spoke to about a hundred small business owners throughout the U.S — you got this response when I asked them what they think about the review sites. They say, “We don’t pay attention to them all. They’re a lot of noise. It’s a form for people to complain.” Yet on the other side of it, like we mentioned, there’s a lot of data out there that shows that these reviews are really critical in terms of acquiring customers, retaining them and your revenue.

When it gets right down to it, it’s those negative reviews that seem to be what’s turning business owners off to paying attention to them. A good friend of mine has this saying that he told me a long time ago which was “No one likes to hear their baby’s ugly.”

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  All right.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  I think that applies to reviews. You’re pouring your life blood into this specific product or service, and no one wants to hear people tell you how bad that thing is that you spent so much of your time and effort on. What’s interesting — and I tell this to all of my business owners, my clients, when we talk about online reviews — there was some research done on at NYU.

The research showed that a few negative reviews could be really good for your business. One of the conclusions of the study that was done on at NYU is that a few negative reviews give a little bit more credence to those 5‑star reviews that you have on your page.

There are certain negative reviews that are much better than others. If it’s not a deal breaker…I think in this specific study, they looked at digital cameras. They presented respondents with a bunch of different reviews. The negative reviews that said something like, “This battery can only get you 400 pictures, the battery life is not that good.”

A lot of consumers reading that think “400 pictures? That’s plenty. I’m not going to take all of that in a day.” This negative review isn’t so bad. I feel better about buying this camera.” versus the deal breaker, “This camera just takes horrible pictures” may not be as good for business.

I think we found in the product space, and now we’re hearing also, anecdotally, in the service realm, that a few negative reviews is good for your business. Hopefully that’ll help some business owners get over the challenge of dealing with those things.

Reviews and the Buying Process

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  From my perspective, working in the search field as well, and content marketing, what’s interesting to me, when you look at Google, you do a search on something, say it’s for a restaurant, or you are looking for an attorney, or looking for a professional services company, the results that come up are often pointing to, say, local search, Google Plus local, and there’s reviews in there, or it’s Yelp.

In a way, it’s not really surprising that there are more reviews because basically the search engines are teaching us that reviews are important as part of the buying process. What would you say to that?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Yeah, absolutely. I think — we had talked about this a few minutes ago — the fact that when you search on a business product, oftentimes what you get above the fold are the review results. It does instill in us as consumers that we have this ability to access a lot of information to make a true cost-benefit analysis of our purchases.

We definitely see the effect of that search over time, the search results and the growth of online reviews. I do think it’s instrumental. It does condition the consumer that, “You know what? You can get a lot more information about what you are thinking of buying before buying it, and make a smarter decision.” I agree with you. It’s changing the way we behave.

Getting Reviews for Your Business

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  You talked a little bit about the importance of getting a review and then how bad reviews can help you in some ways. Say a business owner is convinced that they do need to get more reviews, what does a business need to do today to get reviews?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  I highlighted a couple of rules behind getting reviews for your business. There are a lot different things that you need do. I think the first thing before anything else is you have to be passionate about your own business. If you’re dispassionate about what you’re doing, then you are going to have a challenge getting those reviews.

In the book I also profiled those who write reviews. You find a good portion of the population fall into either a group I call the communitarians, or individuals that feel like they’re giving back to the community by writing reviews; or what I call the benevolent reviewers, which are people that find themselves ingratiating the business — they love a business so much that they want to go and write reviews.

I did a couple of case studies in the book and one of my favorites is a Locksmith in New York called Lockbusters. This is a great example of how you can get your customers to write reviews for you.

Jay is a 20‑something Locksmith. He was working with his dad in New York and they fell out of sorts, and he ended up quitting his job working with his dad and ended up broke living in his mom’s apartment.

Being a Millennial, he realized that when his age group needed a Locksmith, what they did was they went to Yelp, and they looked for the Locksmith that had the best reviews. He was shocked when he looked at the reviews of Locksmiths across New York — they were all horrible. They had like 2, 2 1/2 stars.

He thought to himself, “You know what? If I could be the Four Seasons of Locksmiths, if I could provide incredible service, if I could give people reason to write about me coming out and fixing their lock at 2 AM in the morning, I could probably own this town in terms of the Locksmith trade.”

He set up to do just that. If you go and you look at his Yelp page right now, I think he’s got 255 reviews with a solid 5 star. I’ll give you an example. One of things he does, and this is one thing that I mentioned is one of the rules of getting good reviews is give your customers, give your clients, something to write about.

He goes and he fixes a lock at a job, someone’s gotten locked out. He brings with him a little oil can. And when he finishes he goes through the house or the apartment and he oils all the hinges in the apartment.

Takes him about 5 minutes to do, but yet it blows his customers away. “My God, this guy. He not only came and he fixed my lock, but now all the doors in my house that used to creak, they don’t creak anymore. 5‑stars.”

I think its a perfect example of what’s happening. The great thing about reviews, it’s raising the bar of service and we’re finding that a lot of businesses that are engaging in reviews and taking them seriously, they are starting to raise their service to get better reviews because they know that’s going to result in increased business.

I think it’s a great example of how you get some positive reviews.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That’s a wonderful example, Bill. That’s something everybody should look at. It reminds me, in a way, of a company I remember, Conference Calls Unlimited. In the early 1990s, they were running Pay‑Per‑Click ads, and they weren’t getting a very good return on investment.

Zane Safrit, who was the CEO of the company, decided to change things and stop doing pay‑per‑click, and instead concentrate his marketing dollars on his customers. He’d do things like if you gave a referral, he’d send you a rose. I got one of those because I did a referral. It was a bit odd, but I’m still talking about it 10 years later.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Yeah, you’re still talking about it.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Yeah, exactly. For good customers who did a lot of business, if they were marketers, he’d send them off to Seth Godin conferences for free. While there, people would ask them, “Why are you here?” “Oh, I got sent by Conference Calls Unlimited.”

I think it was really interesting. Instead of putting the dollars into marketing, necessarily, it was putting the dollars into his existing customers.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Yeah, exactly right.

How to Deal With Bad Reviews

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  We talked a little bit about how to get reviews, but what happens if you get a review and it’s a bad review. How should companies deal with that?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  There’s been some excellent research done on this topic. You’ll find that the majority of business owners decide not to engage in their negative reviews.

The research is showing, if you look at three different responses, the first being not responding at all to a negative review, the second being responding inappropriately, maybe engaging in an argument on an online forum, in public, and the third being responding in an appropriate manner. The worst thing you could possibly do, of those three, is to not respond at all.

I believe what’s behind that is – people are reading these bad reviews, and it’s almost like, through non‑response, you are implying that you don’t have a defense to whatever this person has said. Responding inappropriately showed better than not responding at all. It just shows you how bad it is not to respond. Of course, to respond appropriately is the way to go.

I found, in doing research for the book, that there are business owners who have taken this to the next level. There’s another great example in the book I talk about, which is Hotel 41, a hotel in London. That specific hotel’s been in the top three hotels, out of 1,800 hotels in London, over the last 7 or 8 years.

In fact, the Red Carnation chain out of South Africa, which owns Hotel 41 and a couple of other properties, has taken the number 1, number 2, number 3 position in London, over the last 5 years, and hasn’t moved from that position.

They formed their business to revolve around reviews. They make reviews central to their business. I was talking to their GM. He was sharing some examples about how he responds to reviews.

He takes the review as an opportunity, not just to put his case out there and deflect some of the angst in a negative review, but he also uses the response to reviews as an ability for him to push some of his brand message.

So, a great example — they have a restaurant at the property, at Hotel 41. It’s a South African restaurant. It’s great food. He goes and sometimes will stop by his guests’ table to find out how things are. A guest, while he’s doing that, comments that this one particular dish that he’s had is one of the best dishes he’s ever had in his life.

The GM remembers that. Another thing is, don’t just respond to your negative reviews. A lot of reviewers like to be thanked for their positive reviews. This GM goes onto TripAdvisor at the end of the day. He sees that his guest has posted a review of the hotel and gave him 5 stars, didn’t mention the restaurant.

The GM, in his response to a positive review, says to this guest in a public forum, “Thank you so much for your positive reviews. It was great seeing you tonight at our hotel restaurant. I also want to thank you for telling me that dish that you had…,” can’t remember what it was, but he names it, “…was one of the best you’ve ever had. I’m so glad we could make your visit and your meal special.”

Just a brilliant tactic. He’s made the response specific, so it’s not boilerplate, just thanking somebody for their response. He’s also taking it as an opportunity to push one of the things that he offers at Hotel 41 in a very effective way.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That’s a great example, especially by giving the example of the meal that the customer took. You’re more likely to go to that restaurant and want to order it, because you know it’s good.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Absolutely.

What’s the future for reviews?

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  What’s the future for reviews? Are there new technologies coming up? How do you think businesses are going to deal with reviews in the future?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  The reviews are going to grow, and they’ll become more and more pervasive. We mentioned in the book that almost everything is reviewable these days, from sites like Rate My Professors, where students are rating their instructors, to Lulu, which is a site where women can rate their on‑line dates, to a number of other sites.

They’re growing. There’s a big challenge, though, in terms of reviews. This is going to become more evident as they grow and become even more pervasive, and that is that there’s something missing when we go and we look at reviews, and that’s perspective.

So I give some examples. One of them is The French Laundry, here in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s a 3‑Michelin‑star restaurant, incredible restaurant. Two different diners can have two completely different opinions, based on the exact same experience, just because they have a different perspective.

A person who maybe is in their late 40s, is used to fine dining, has eaten in a lot of 5‑star restaurants, can have one perspective. A Millennial, who just hit it big on his IPO and has never set foot in a 5‑star restaurant, might have a completely different opinion.

I found a case of that happening. It was the same scenario. It was a service scenario, where in fine restaurants oftentimes your plates are not cleared until everyone at the table has finished. One reviewer gives it 5‑stars, “it’s so nice not to be rushed”. He finds that in this day and age, especially in Silicon Valley, in the Bay area, service has become lax. But he likes it that he is not being rushed.

A Millennial sitting at a different table, reviews on almost the same day, gives service 1‑star. He finished his food. His plate is sitting there in front of him and all these wait staff just walk by and just leave it there while his other guests continue to eat. He is incensed. “Why didn’t they clear my plate? That is just lax service, 1‑star. ”

One of the things that we need in this space and where we are going to see some innovation, is finding ways to put perspective into the review ecosystem.

So that when I go and I look for a review, a review site is going to know about me, either my own review activity, or maybe third party data, to know we have got to triangulate to what this specific consumer’s perspective is. Give him reviews that would match how he is most likely to think about things.

A great example of this already happening — there are two companies, both in the cosmetics space. One being MakeupAlley and the other being Sephora, that are starting to do this. MakeupAlley, if you’re a woman looking for cosmetics, maybe you’re looking for a moisturizer — the site will ask you what your age group is. It will ask you your complexion, if you have dry or oily skin.

Then it will narrow reviews down to those individuals that have those same variables as you do. That is a great example, and Sephora is starting to do this as well, of taking all the reviews, the massive amount of reviews, and start to narrow them down, so that you will get more useful, relevant information off of review sites.

Using Reviews to Improve Customer Experience

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  That is interesting that you gave that example because I think in a way it reminds me of a prior job at SDL, which is a global customer experience management company. They were always talking a lot there about [how] the perspective of customer experience depends upon the individual culture. In this case, you gave an example of the age of the person, the Millennial.

But I think the other thing businesses gain from these reviews is understanding their customer experience process. Have you got any insights on that aspect of it, how companies can use reviews for improving the customer experience?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  Yeah, absolutely. This is one of the things I encourage business owners to do. It’s actually two things. One is go through all of the reviews for your own business and find ways you can improve. Oftentimes business owners are going to disagree with negative reviews, but if you go through all of them en masse, you’ll find, sometimes, a common thread.

The second thing which I’ll talk about in a second is competitive analysis. There is this massive database out there for you, not on just your own customer service and service issues, but also those same issues that your competitive set have. You can often learn a lot about how you can trump the competition by looking at the challenges that others have.

A good example — there is a great restaurant here in the Bay area called Pizzeria Delfina. In fact, this is the guy who is famous. A few years ago, he was angry about a couple of negative reviews he got, one that just said “this place sucks”. So he had black tee shirts made up for his staff that all said “this place sucks” with a Yelp 1‑star on the back and put those tee shirts on his wait staff, his hostess, on the busboys, on the chefs. It was his way of giving the finger to on‑line reviewers and specifically negative reviewers.

But in talking with him, he made this interesting point. Even though he hates reviews, he learned something by going through them. One of the things he found that was a negative on his reviews that was pervasive was that the pasta dish that he serves at his restaurant, people were saying that the size, the portion, was too small.

They were complaining about the fact that his pasta dishes were so small. He is trying to run a traditional Italian restaurant, where the pasta dish is the first course. But he realized that that wasn’t clear to the diner when they ordered them. They thought they were getting maybe an entree size portion of pasta.

Just through reading reviews he was able to figure that out and then offer two different sizes, an appetizer size and an entree size, to help his diners understand the difference between the two. By doing so, he solved the problem. Here is somebody who really hates reviews, but yet learned something by paying attention to them.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Do you recall, and you may not, Bill, but do you recall if he also explained the reason why they would offer those pasta dishes at that particular size, because it was the tradition? Do you remember that?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  He didn’t detail that on his menu. His diners were deciding “I’m going to get the pasta instead of this pizza,” and assumed that it would be an entrée sized portion.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  All right.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  He realized that he had made the assumption that people would know a pasta course is just that. It is meant as your first course and wouldn’t be that large. Then by offering two different sizes on the menu, it immediately solved the problem. The discovery of this issue came through reading the reviews.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  The reason I ask that question, I was recalling the example that you gave of the other restaurant with the Millennial and thinking about the global customer experience management issue from SDL, which is that part of the process for marketers is to understand that different people come from different backgrounds and you have to watch out for what they are looking for and what their perspectives are.

We always have to look for that as marketers.

Bill Tancer photoBill:  I think so. One of the other things we will see in the future, getting back to your other question, is incorporation of reviews into CRM files.

The customer relationship management files where businesses, especially those that host reviews on their own site, will start to be able to understand more about their own customers and what they like and don’t like by incorporating the reviews that those customers give into the actual CRM file.

Reviews and the Authority of a Business

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Great. I think you’ve done a great job here, Bill. I’ve got one last question that relates to authority marketing. How do reviews affect the perceived authority of the business?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  How do they affect the authority? That’s a good question. One of the things that consumers look at is the volume of reviews — how many reviews does that business have? It’s not just so much the stars but the number of reviews the business has. I think that’s probably, in terms of authority — I think volume probably is the biggest part of it.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Thank you, Bill. Thanks for talking with me today. I really appreciate it. How can people reach you and find your book on‑line?

Bill Tancer photoBill:  You can reach me and find the book on‑line through my website You also can find the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, anywhere else that fine books are sold. You can also follow me @billtancer is my Twitter name.

I really enjoyed the talk today and I look forward hearing from your listeners.

John Cass McDougall InteractiveJohn:  Thank you, Bill. I enjoyed it too. Well, thanks for joining us today on For more conversation, you can subscribe to the Authority Marketing Roadmap podcast on iTunes. We’ll see you next time. Thanks again.

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