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Reviews and ratings help consumers communicate and marketers build brands, David Ward reports.

When personal care retailer Bath & Body Works began carrying a new shoe line called FitFlop, the company found the ratings and reviews from its online customers to be educational.

“Most customers were giving it a five-star review and loving it, but we were also getting a limited number of low reviews,” explains Shannon Glass, associate VP of Internet strategy and operations at the Reynoldsburg, OH-based company. “We discovered from the reviews that the sizing was off, so we changed our product page copy to note that, and recommended how to buy the shoe that best fits.”

Ratings and reviews sections have been an integral part of e-commerce for more than a decade, and are widely credited with helping drive the popularity of some sites, includ­ing Now, with buzz surrounding user-generated content, more brands realize that consumer reviews and ratings can be more than just customer service tools.

“Consumers want to connect and communicate with each other, to learn from each other’s purchase patterns and basically to rely on each other to make the right decisions,” explains Brant Barton, co-founder and VP of business development at reviews software provider Bazaarvoice. “Pro­viding a way for consumers to come to your site and [offer] an honest opinion of your products can really help build trust around a brand.”

Reviews offer experiential touch

Reviews and ratings are especially important for brands in transition from bricks-and-mortar — where products can be touched and tried out prior to purchase — to the Web.

“We’re a very experiential brand — we sell products that people like to smell and touch before they buy,” says Glass, who brought in Bazaarvoice to handle the reviews and ratings when Bath & Body Works launched its e-commerce site. “We view reviews as a perfect opportunity to bring women together on our site.”

Bath & Body Works currently uses only one of three offerings from Bazaarvoice — its Ratings & Reviews software — but Glass suggests that it has been such as success that this fall it will add a second service, Ask & Answer, that allows consumers to post questions about products and get responses from consumers who have already tried them. Bazaarvoice also offers a third service, Stories, which offers consumers the opportunity to describe their experience with a product or service in detail, complete with pictures.

“David’s Bridal is already using this,” explains Barton. “Brides can write and provide pictures about their weddings and honeymoons, and other customers can use them to [get ideas for] their weddings.”

The real power of reviews comes from the fact that they cut across demographic lines. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on consumer products that they’re willing to pro­vide with just a little prodding. And an increasing number of consum­ers truly value insights from other consumers and seek them out when doing their online shopping.

“We’ve found that 40% of the cus­tomers we surveyed saw the reviews, and 25% said it influenced their pur­chase decision,” says Glass.

Not every review will be relevant, so Bazaarvoice actively monitors and manages the reviews and rankings for clients, making sure that complaints about shipping, for instance, aren’t included in the reviews and rankings — though those are often sent on to customer service for follow-up.

Customer reviews and rankings are proving to be so valuable for boosting conversion rates and customer satis­faction levels that many e-commerce sites are now looking to integrate them into their traditional marketing outreach. “We’re now marketing a lot of products with the reviews, espe­cially in new categories, to help the customers grasp that it’s OK to buy that product from us,” says Glass.

Some companies are also using reviews outside of their product pages. “We’re seeing customers using reviews in catalogs and cir­culars,” notes Barton, citing Best Buy and Wal-Mart as major retail­ers experimenting with this kind of campaign creative.

Negative reviews not so bad

Bath & Body Works makes it a policy to post all relevant reviews, adding that even some product criticism has its place. “Negative reviews help authenticate the process,” Glass says. “A five-star product is only good if a consumer knows there are one-star products out there.”

Kim Gnatt, VP of Internet for FootSmart, a multichannel retailer that sells foot and lower-body healthcare products, says the com­pany added Bazaarvoice’s reviews and ratings platforms only a few months ago, but has already seen a 2% increase in conversion rates for products with reviews as opposed to products without.

She adds that reviews are also help­ing to cut down on returns. “We do a lot of our own product development and the reviews allow us to get spe­cific feedback about the improvements consumer want to see in our shoes,” she explains. “We’re able to take that information to our own manufactur­ing, as well as to some of our vendor partners, to help them make decisions on their merchandise mix.”

Though Bazaarvoice completely manages the reviews and rankings, Glass stresses that it is important for marketing, sales and customer service to regularly access as least the sum­maries of the reviews and ratings that come in. She says that she looks at Bazaarvoice’s dashboard “weekly,” with a customer service team looking at the reviews every day.

The online reviews also help the bricks-and-mortar business, because many shoppers first go to Web sites to look at what other customers are saying before heading to a store.

“There are many insights you can glean from reviews and ratings,” she concludes. “Bazaarvoice does a great job in ensuring they are authentic, so it would be shameful for us not to leverage those reviews as a way to stay in contact with our customers.”

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