Modern Marketing

Crowdsourced Opinions: Get Ready to Be Steamrolled

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Last summer I was talking to the marketing director at a company that makes a well-known desktop software product. He was frustrated by the difficulty he was having getting the attention of IT managers in small and midsize businesses.

We visited the reviews section of Spiceworks, a busy community of more than 2 million IT pros who work at precisely the kinds of companies he was targeting. The ratings were mostly dismal, averaging less than two stars.

The marketer was agape. He had never even heard of Spiceworks, much less known that his product had been the subject of more than 600 discussions there. Since then, a campaign to activate satisfied customers has nearly doubled the ratings and gotten the marketing effort back on track, at least to those target customers.

Nearly every active Internet user is familiar with ratings services like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Amazon Reviews. Ask any consumer electronics maker, hotel manager or restaurateur how important star ratings have become to their business and you’ll get an earful. But this is just the beginning.

What started in consumer markets is spreading to B2B industries. At HR.com, human resources professionals can look up peer reviews on prospective service providers and get profiles from Glassdoor.com, which is where people rate the companies they work for. More than 40,000 posts on the professional-trucker site Layover.com include hundreds of discussions about the best rigs to drive and trucking companies to work for.

At Ridgid Forum, professional contractors swap advice about plumbing and HVAC equipment. Restaurant pros at FohBoh.com ask each other for guidance on kitchen equipment. The same story plays out among the radiologists and Radiolopolis and the MDs at Sermo, which just raised $35 million to continue building its elite community.

Customer ratings in industrial markets lack the structure and discipline of their consumer counterparts, but that will change. With the launch of Amazon Supply last year, the e-commerce giant set its sights on achieving the same kind of throw weight in compressors and capacitors that it has built in books and electronics. Google wants to become the ratings engine of choice for any business with a physical outlet. Google Maps now shows ratings of banks, hospitals and CPAs alongside restaurants and dry cleaners.

This trend strikes terror into the hearts of many business leaders, who previously had been able to paper over mediocre products and service with advertising and press releases. They fret about fraud and manipulation and complain about lack of oversight and quality control. Do they have a point? Yes. Does it matter? No.

Two years ago the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched SaferProducts.gov, where consumers can share experiences without edits or filters. The site has proven to be a valuable early warning system about potentially hazardous products. Crowdsourcing has the U.S. government’s stamp of approval.

The inherent weaknesses of crowdsourced opinions has not stopped this trend from reshaping entire industries. People have shown a willingness to put more faith in the opinions of others they’ve never met than in the words of professional critics. The reason is that we assume their peers have no agenda. They share because they care.

Few businesses will be immune to this power. Technology will make opinion-sharing easier, and the technology to aggregate and summarize sentiment will improve. B2C and B2B companies alike will be forced to account for themselves in the only form that matters: the market. In the end, customers will be the big winners. So will the companies that put quality, service and ongoing engagement at the center of everything they do.

Paul Gillin’s latest book is Attack of the Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How To Avoid Becoming a Victim. Learn more and download a free chapter here.