As the explosion of mobile use and rapid-fire growth of local Web apps change the way that users consume content and interact online, the death of the Web debate rages on. This evolution means different things to different people; for us localites, does it also mean the death of the customer review?
Well, death may be too apocalyptic a scenario, but the review has reincarnated—to continue the death analogy—into a new organism, going from long-form discourses to likes/dislikes, check-ins, tips and tweets. This interaction has changed the local landscape along with the publishers, advertisers, platform providers and app-makers that have come to conquer it.
For small business owners, the lifeblood of local, this means you can no longer rely on customer reviews for your word-of-mouth strategy and that you need to get savvy about the new local shorthand.
Start by checking out check-ins. Check-ins are happening across the Web and not just on Foursquare, which averages one check-in per second. Gowalla, Brightkite, Facebook Places and other local services enable people to hook up with friends and share info about new spots while on the go. But while this community of users grows, local merchants have not followed at the same rate.
Most check-in platforms allow you to “claim” your venue. Go do it. Take advantage of the aggregate information and identify your most loyal customers and learn about them. When do they visit, how often and from where? As these platforms get better at analyzing and serving up data, you’ll be better able to see how your customers move throughout your city, why they come through your door and, most interestingly, which businesses are funneling them to your doorstep. You’ll also be able to tell which of these services has users that most closely align with your demographic.
Once your customers have checked in, get them to like you. The more Likes you amass on Facebook for each of your business profiles, the better your search strength on the network; and, as one of the top referrers of traffic to online local guides, it also drives people straight to your door.
But don’t forget to show as well as tell. As Web use continues to wither away, online video is exploding. Tips, photos, videos and online menus are all part of the rich content that paints an overall picture for your customers, and people like getting a visual image before visiting a new spot. Create a story line about your business, capture it on tape and upload it to social networks, your Web site, local guides like Citysearch and video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
To acknowledge these new currencies is a step in the right direction. Motivating consumers is another. And some of the biggest motivators are rewards. Coupon and discount strategies are nothing new to small business owners, but many of the new interfaces that allow digital deployment of deals are. Sometimes it’s about moving low-demand inventory, and sometimes it’s rewarding your most faithful followers. Facebook, Foursquare and other services offer solutions to help you do both. And remember, rewards don’t need to be monetary to make your patrons feel loved.
While it’s imperative that local businesses evolve their communications, marketer beware: It’s just as important to avoid some of the common pitfalls.
First, while Like may be the new review, remember that 1,000 Likes on Facebook aren’t nearly as valuable as 200 customers who had a great experience in your restaurant and are likely to return with friends.
Second, be aware that you can become too Twitteriffic and turn your audience off. As we’ve seen from celebs like John Mayer and Miley Cyrus, overexposure can breed disdain. It’s important to be smart, measured and authentic with your audience engagement. Brands like JetBlue, Whole Foods and Zappos have struck the right balance in reaching out to customers without crossing over to Twitterspam.
Last, bringing the house down is not always a good thing. San Francisco’s Mission Minis reportedly got caught in a Groupon frenzy and then struggled (to the tune of thrice-daily supply runs and 48-hour order delays) to keep up with the demand. If you’re jumping on the group discount bandwagon, make sure you have the infrastructure to do it.
A thumbs-up from a friend has always had more value than a dissertation from a stranger—both in real life and online. While reviews aren’t truly dead, they’ve certainly changed shape, and it’s important to keep pace with consumer behavior. Experiment with new tools and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Plenty of other companies are navigating the same territory and can help guide you along the way.
Kara Nortman is svp, publishing at CityGrid Media.