Marketing Your Small Business with Customer Reviews

Friday Mar 14th 2014 by Julie Knudson
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Customer comments and testimonials make great small business marketing fodder. We asked the experts to share the best way to leverage customer feedback.

Customer testimonials make great small business marketing tools, but the process of acquiring them—and using them effectively—can feel overwhelming. And for some people, the thought of asking customers for reviews makes them squirm. Fortunately, we talked with a couple of experts who say there are a number of painless ways to start leveraging those great customer comments.

How to Solicit and Use Customer Reviews

"One idea is to approach your top customers—five or 10 of them who you know absolutely love you already—and ask them for a review," suggests Lowell Sheets, CEO and founder of Baltimore-based business communications and marketing agency Sheets and Associates.

Customers may be willing to give you a phone interview, or they might send you a few sentences by email. Once you've received their input, your job is to package their testimony. "Put it into written words and email it to them," Sheets says. "Ask, 'Is this the gist of what you said; is this what you meant, and can I use it?'"

Another method is an email marketing campaign that creates awareness of the online presence you already have on review sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor. "The emails could contain post-purchase reminders, as well as links with a message that says, 'Check us out on Yelp / TripAdvisor,' or 'Like our business? Rate us on Foursquare,'" says Chris Campbell, chief tracking officer at Review Trackers, an online review-management and reputation-monitoring platform based in Chicago.

You can also generate reviews by providing offers specific to those sites. Campbell says that Yelp, Foursquare and Google+ Local are just some of the sites that let businesses post such offers. "Not only is this a great way to attract potential customers to your establishment, it's also an opportunity to give them a pleasant surprise, which in turn can give them an incentive, or at least some encouragement, to write positive reviews," he explains.

Most businesses content themselves with gathering a few good reviews here and there, but Campbell says they're only reaping half the rewards. "There are so many ways you can leverage these reviews to increase your visibility and gain a competitive advantage," he says. Simply thanking a customer for a good review can go a long way in demonstrating that your business takes feedback to heart.

And it doesn't hurt to share positive reviews where other clients—both existing and prospective—can see them. "Customers today use multiple digital channels to research information about local businesses," Campbell says. When people say good things about you, be sure potential customers who may be researching your business know about it. "It's good to cover all your bases and be in a position to reach out to information-seeking leads," Campbell says.

When adding reviews to your small business website, Sheets says that placement is critical. First, don't bury them on a hard-to-find review page. Instead, dedicate a spot on your home page for your best testimonials. "They can float in a widget," Sheets suggests. Next, rotate the reviews so customers will likely see a different one each time they visit.

Businesses can use a similar method to gather testimonials, too. "There should be a button or menu item on your website that says, 'Leave a review' or 'Rate your experience,'" Sheets says. This gives customers an easy way to say good things about you, and it also gives your business a quick way to confirm it received permission to use customers' comments.

The Value of Negative Reviews

It's a rare company that garners all five-star reviews. But Sheets says there's actually a significant upside to criticism. "If you had to pay for a focus group to evaluate your business policies, your performance, your service or your people, you'd pay a lot of money," he explains. Reviews that point out deficiencies give you that kind of constructive information without spending anything. Of course, that's only a good thing if you actually make use of the data to improve your practices and connect with your customers in a more meaningful way.

Campbell says small business owners may be "terrified of the impact that bad reviews and low ratings can have," but he believes they can be good for your business in the long run. Not only are bad reviews valuable for improving your operations, they can actually make you look more real. "Today's consumers are smart and savvy, and if they see a business with 100 percent positive reviews and five-star ratings across the board, they might doubt the authenticity of what they're seeing," Campbell says.

In an era where reports of reviews being bought and paid for are plentiful, prospective customers might be inclined to follow the old adage: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.

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