After his retirement to a cottage area, my uncle, a teacher who also happened to be a handy jack-of-all-trades loaded with certifications, became bored and wanted a part-time job. He replaced the retiring building inspector in this vast, sparsely-populated region. As it turned out, the old building inspector had enjoyed a long and lazy tenure. He was in the business of looking the other way; of overlooking fairly serious code violations. Just doing his job properly, my uncle began to hear complaints. Sometimes they escalated to threats. And these threats would take on a populist tone: “a lot of folks around here don’t like the way you’re…”
As the new sheriff in town, my uncle was bound to meet with some resistance. But the silent majority were behind him. Who wants a bunch of fishing lodges, gas stations, general stores, and cottages that might blow up and burn to the ground, or parts of buildings that would collapse? “A lot of folks” is relative. Enforcing the rules doesn’t make you everyone’s friend, but it’s someone’s job and it’s supposed to keep things safer for everyone.
This analogy applies to the 180 degree shift in how the marketing bullhorn works: there’s been a new sheriff in town for over a decade now, spurred by online channels. Some businesses still fight it tooth and nail. Good luck with that.
It’s about consumers taking control. Really, we aren’t making this up.
And yes, by contrast, that means that the flipside of this — the company, the marketer, the brand — has “lost control,” at least in the old sense of reputations being easy to fudge unless some inquisitive reporter catches you out and puts the story on 20-20.
Today you can’t fudge a reputation nearly as easily, thanks to online platforms, search engines, and consumer review sites.
By now, that’s become a cliche. Still, it’s nice that even full-time, dyed-in-the-wool marketers are now willing to make the admission, like Lori Bieda’s: “As a marketer I can tell you that we had too much of control for too long. We’d run our course.” (Sort of like life in the woods, unimpeded by a competent building inspector?) Today, experts recommend listening and participating respectfully in this new environment.
If you’re just old school enough, though, you might still be willing to combine one part ignorance with two parts of cynicism, and cling to various forms of denial.
For example: aren’t consumer review websites like Yelp and HomeStars, places where advertisers may pay for enhanced-format listings but also may wind up the brunt of negative consumer feedback, catering to at least two different constituencies? Don’t they have to be nice to advertisers, too? Maybe even give them special treatment? In which case: is the consumer really empowered?
That depends on whether they learned at the knee of the most radical (and by scale, clearly the largest and yet paradoxically, the richest) early entrant into this fray: Google. Today, with so many review sites, blogs, and more recently, frank socializing (Facebook, Twitter) that helps WOM on brands and small companies alike travel rapidly, this seems like common sense. But Google needed guts to push forward with huge investments in search technology to fight spam, and to maximize the relevance of their ad program. The advertising dollars always came after the legitimacy was won. Bean counters always push for earlier “monetization”.
As one member of the team that got HomeStars off the ground, I’ve always believed that you need to avoid any mixed messages. The point of the site is to be incredibly useful to consumers, full stop. To help consumers sort out good vendors from bad, and provide richer details to give people a real head start in selecting the best contractor, repair person, etc. That these reviews come from peers is great. The more we’re able to trust those peers and understand that those peers may share some of our outlook & tastes, the better this will all work. (Related to that, Eric Schmidt of Google just made some interesting remarks about “identity” and the value of Facebook in ascertaining who people really are online.)
Won’t that hurt ad revenues? That’s a question we were asked on more than a few occasions by prospective investors. Having just completed a book on Google’s ad program, I figured I had a compelling answer at the ready. “Google.” Google’s ad program stipulates relevancy. Google’s organic algorithm often punishes some companies at the expense of others. Many companies get upset with Google. And yet Google makes more and more money. Why? Because Google is in the business of creating a level playing field; they’re not in the business of helping one particular company or another — even if someone writes what looks like a big check. By creating a level playing field, they create a currency called legitimacy. That legitimacy leads to more satisfied users — consumers. It also leads the majority of advertisers to believe in the fairness of the system. Good climate for business: not the same as funneling business to one specific business or another. End result: a popular service with higher revenues in the end.
Unfortunately the VC asking the question one day didn’t buy that story — Google or no Google. “I don’t believe Google is in the business of displeasing advertisers,” he said disdainfully. And that was that.
With a review site like HomeStars, life really does get easier if you make the story simple. It’s about turning over power to consumers, period. The fact that the best contractors and retailers in various categories can win an annual award is something we’re very proud of. They earned it. But the award itself derives from deep review content from verifiable, bona fide happy customers. Again, a simple story.
Inevitably, even a simple story has a few wrinkles to it. Online listings and reputations are — to some — seen as an adversarial game. Some business owners believe: if you can’t win, cheat. HomeStars won’t tolerate this.
Consumers who write glowing reviews about work that was not really done may in fact be the business owner’s spouse, or administrative assistant. And some spiteful business owners create negative reviews about their competitors, using fake identities.
HomeStars’ algorithms and methods are getting increasingly effective at catching these fake reviews. Not only do we want to take appropriate action when necessary (such as removing negative reviews we cannot verify), we wanted to create a disincentive for those even thinking of deceiving consumers in this way.
To make this stance as clear as possible, HomeStars has rolled out a number of notations to make review status more transparent, as part of a wider release of new features. Perhaps the most jarring-looking ones are the badges that flag reviews (and by association, at times, the companies posting those reviews) as “suspicious”.
Will a few business owners complain and threaten to tell their friends never to spend any ad dollars with the website? That won’t stop us from working on the consumer’s behalf. Many business owners urge us to keep cracking down on the cheaters. A level playing field to allow consumers to feel safe and empowered isn’t anti-business. It creates a great climate for the new way of doing business. To borrow a cliche: that’s Business 2.0.