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BazaarVoice’s Brant Barton on ratings and reviews

I’ve written before about the power of consumer ratings and reviews, and even discussed the growing practice of B2B ratings and reviews (complete with a B2B reviews survey), but this is the first chance I’ve had to interview Brant Barton, one of the co-founders of ratings and review leader, Bazaarvoice. If you’re not familiar with Bazaarvoice, you should fix that—the company provides one-stop shopping for everything you need to add ratings and reviews on your site: software that collects and displays the content as well as human editors that quash obscene or otherwise inappropriate posts. Brant, Bazaarvoice’s VP of Business Development, calls Bazaarvoice “the leading global provider of outsourced social commerce technology, services, analytics, and expertise.” I hope you enjoy the interview.


Me: How did you get started at Bazaarvoice? What did you do previously and how did you get to where you are now?
BB: I co-founded Bazaarvoice with Brett Hurt, who is the founder of Coremetrics, a leader in the Web analytics industry and IBM strategic partner. Prior to Bazaarvoice, I led a team of web analytics experts, trainers, and support analysts at Coremetrics. My group serviced over 400 online brands and was responsible for driving customer success with the Coremetrics Web analytics solution. Through that experience, I developed deep expertise in Web analytics and optimization as well as online marketing best practices. Our focus on measurable ROI at Bazaarvoice most definitely stems from the Web analytics backgrounds of Brett, myself, and other core members of our team.
Me: Ratings and reviews seem to be a proven way of raising sales on any Web site. What are your favorite studies that prove this?
BB: Over the last three years, Bazaarvoice has contributed more to the body of industry knowledge on this topic than any other company through multiple customer case studies and research. Three years ago, there was virtually no analyst coverage of “social commerce” or solutions like ratings and reviews. Today, the topic is on everyone’s radar, and as a result, there is a bounty of research that highlights the impact of ratings and reviews on conversion rates, average order values, product return rates, customer service costs, and customer lifetime value and loyalty. For anyone seeking an independent opinion on the topic, I would suggest the Shop.org State of Retailing Online study, conducted annually by Forrester Research. A few years ago, this study found that just 26% of the 137 top retailers surveyed offered customer ratings and reviews, but among those that did offer the feature, 96% rated them effective at driving conversion. JupiterResearch also found that ratings and reviews is the second most important site feature behind search, which is a well known sales and conversion driver. For additional data, take a look at the Industry Stats page at Bazaarvoice.com.
Me: I’ve noticed far more B2C companies using ratings and reviews than B2B companies. Case studies have such a long history in B2B sales that something similar with more credibility, such as customer reviews, would seem like a no-brainer, yet are relatively rare. Do you have any theories on this?
BB: It’s true that B2C leads B2B in adoption of ratings and reviews and many other social and user-facing technologies. B2B purchases are primarily functional, recurring, and time- and price-sensitive, so B2B buyers are often more focused on availability, pricing, secure transactions, and other “practical” issues than B2C shoppers, who may place more importance on finding sites that they find visually appealing, easy to navigate, and informative. Case studies are without a doubt our most effective sales and marketing tool, so we launch every customer on our platform with the goal of generating a success story that will attract new customers from diverse industries. I believe strongly that ratings and reviews will become a mission critical feature for B2B web sites, but there’s definitely a different adoption curve for B2B versus B2C so those case studies are taking more time. That said, we are now working with IBM on their Blue Business platform initiative, and I have high hopes that this becomes the industry’s marquee B2B case study for ratings and reviews! You can read more about this on our company blog, Bazaarblog.
Me: Companies are often concerned about negative reviews appearing on their site. How do you persuade them this is nothing to worry about?
BB: Negative reviews are still a concern for some companies, but the level of concern has notably diminished over the last two years as ratings and reviews have become more widely adopted across the industry and more research is available on the frequency and content of negative user-generated content about brands and products. That said, content moderation is one of the most valuable and strategic services we provide to our customers. Our moderation team’s first priority is to screen reviews for profanity, insensitive comments, competitor references, and other terms and phrases that offer little value to the consumers reading reviews. Second, we flag reviews that contain information that we believe will be of interest to our customers. For example, a consumer might highlight a previously unknown product defect and possibly propose a solution. We surface this kind of information to our customers, allowing them to take action by contacting the consumer for more detail, relaying the feedback to the supplier, changing a planned buy of that product, etc. The bottom line is that all products aren’t perfect, so some negativity is to be expected, but our research shows that reviews are overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the average rating of products across our entire network of customers is 4.3 out of 5. That’s incredibly positive, so the concern about negative reviews is quite small. However, it’s important for companies to realize the power of a valid and constructive negative review, which builds consumer trust in your brand and gives them the confidence to do business with you.
Me: Sometimes, I see legal teams worried about the liability associated with allowing anyone to post content to a Web site. How do you allay their fears?
BB: There’s simply no fool-proof method of ensuring that all user-submitted content is 100% truthful, factually correct, etc. As expected, most companies address this concern through disclaimers and language in their Web site terms and conditions. The best “insurance policy,” however, is a moderation process that allows fine-grained review and control of content. Our content moderation team screens all user-submitted content for language that could pose a liability concern. When we come across something that concerns us or violates a moderation business rule requested by our client, we flag the content and escalate it to the client for review. In our history, we’ve seen only a handful of cases that raised the liability red flag and these were easily addressed by our client. At the end of the day, companies that want to tap into the power and benefits of social commerce and authentic customer word of mouth must be willing to accept a modicum of risk. We have 250 customers that would testify that the benefits are worth it!
Me: In your opinion, what’s the biggest impediment to B2B customers implementing ratings and reviews?
BB: B2B buyers have different objectives than B2C buyers. Whereas B2C purchases are often discretionary and are often made to satisfy a purely personal objective (i.e., I need a new wardrobe for spring), B2B purchases are typically functional and are made to satisfy an organizational need. I believe that the ratings and reviews technique is equally applicable and helpful to both types of buyers. For B2B buyers, the ability to see what other corporate buyers think of a product reduces the risk of a purchase, which is a valuable benefit for companies large and small. The biggest challenge I see with B2B is getting buyers engaged to share their opinions on products. In the work context, a B2B buyer may have very limited time to write a review. With B2C buyers, writing reviews can actually become a pastime! Fortunately, we have solutions for the engagement challenge. Our Community Management team has worked closely with our customers over the last three years to test and refine best practices for driving customer engagement to generate high volumes of user-submitted content, from ratings and reviews to product-focused questions and answers. These practices include automated post-purchase emails, contests, and promotions that provide economic incentives for submitting content. I believe that nearly all of these best practices are applicable to B2B, so the challenge is really to get B2B organizations mobilized to implement those practices. The great news is that ratings and reviews and other social media tools have the potential for dramatically more impact for B2B businesses than B2C businesses, given their power to radically increase trust between companies and their suppliers and the sheer amount of B2B spending.
Me: Do you see the Internet emerging as a force that punishes bad behavior in corporations (and rewards good behavior), much like the media and government have served as those forces in the past? Can ratings and reviews be part of such a force?
BB: Absolutely. We’re smack in the middle of a massive reckoning, thanks to the Internet and technologies that make the reputation of a company, its products, and its brand a conversation among consumers, partners, employees, etc. There’s no doubt that user-generated content about brands, products, services, and the companies behind them is a democratizing, equalizing force. Put simply, your brand is whatever the masses say it is, not what you say it is. The Internet gives the masses a collective voice but also enables each individual to have a personal voice to relate unique, specific experiences, good and bad. This is extremely threatening to some companies, but I think the companies that are worried are the ones that should be worried. If you deliver great products and great service to your customers, if you are 100% committed to living up to the promises made by your brand (and branding), then I don’t think there’s much to truly worry about. But a half-hearted commitment to customer satisfaction and product/service quality won’t cut it. This is great news for consumers, and I’m personally very proud that Bazaarvoice is playing such a fundamental role in the emergence of the customer opinion as a governing force in the marketplace.
Me: What do you see coming in the future for ratings and reviews and Bazaarvoice?
BB: Bazaarvoice is growing along multiple dimensions. We initially focused our business on the huge opportunity in Retail but are now working with leading brands across multiple verticals, including Financial Services, Insurance, Healthcare, Travel, Media, Consumer Packaged Goods, and others. Last, we’re rapidly expanding internationally, with a growing presence and customer list in the UK, Continental Europe, and now Asia Pacific. The future is bright and full of opportunity for Bazaarvoice. Regarding product strategy, we remain focused on delivering leading edge social commerce solutions that delight the consumers that use them and that deliver measurable value to the companies that offer them!
Me: Thanks, Brant, for sharing your answers with my readers.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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