April 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Talk it up

(Page 2 of 3)

Under those rules, a customer product review stating that a dog food brand made the customer’s dog ill, for example, would be rejected for posting, given that the illness could be the result of other circumstances. In that case, the review would be passed along to customer service for a follow-up with that consumer, to Petco’s buyers and to the product’s manufacturer. But how about a review stating that a dog didn’t like a purchased toy? “That’s okay,” says Lazarchic. “I like some books, but not others. It’s an opinion.”

Consumer comments and reviews have another utility, as outdoor adventure outfitter MountainGear.com found after it launched customer reviews from ASP provider PowerReviews last November. Customer feedback can narrow the gap between consumers’ expectation and their experience if it’s used to adjust product descriptions on the site. According to Whitney Parsons, MountainGear’s Internet marketing manager, PowerReviews moderates reviews submitted for posting on the site for language considerations such as profanity and to ensure that the review is product-focused: if it meets those criteria, it’s posted.

“If something didn’t meet your expectations, we are going to share that so everyone else can form their own conclusions about it,” says Parsons. So when a customer gave a product a two-star rating out of a possible five, MountainGear dug further into the review to find out why. The poster’s negative comment about the product, a pair of hiking boots, was that the weight as listed on the site was actually a pound heavier-a significant amount of weight for a hiker. A check by MountainGear determined that the poster was correct, prompting a change in the product copy. “That let us provide the correct weight for everyone,” Parsons says.

Turning up the microphone

Parsons says she’s also seen benefit from a program element in which customers who buy a product are invited to supply a review of it a few weeks after purchase. “We have seen a lift in the number of repeat orders just through that e-mail contact,” she says. But the program’s biggest plus may be in magnifying the positive effects of hearing from one satisfied customer by sharing those comments with other customers. “It has been amazing to see how happy consumers are with the products,” says Parsons. “It’s a great thing to have.”

Petco’s and MountainGear’s choices about how to turn up the microphone on customer opinion on their sites represent one approach to the issue that keeps some marketers on the sidelines regarding the use of consumer-generated media. That’s the fear that unedited, such an exchange might backfire on the site and the brand. In both cases, consumer posts are moderated, and depending on the circumstances, some reviews aren’t posted.

Both programs strive to balance a marketer’s desire for control of messaging with the need to keep what’s expressed by consumers authentic. “The average consumer today can recognize corporatespeak and PR spin,” says Derek Gordon, vice president of marketing at Technorati Inc., a search engine for blog content. “So this takes bravery on the part of the brand because they have to accept that if they enter the conversation, they are not always going to hear what they want to hear. They can’t control the total outcome of the discussion.”

Sites that want to exercise more control in presenting the consumer voice or engaging with it in an Internet forum have other options. Canadian-based technology provider Genuosity Inc.’s hosted service, KudosWorks, captures and posts customer testimonials, not reviews, on marketer clients’ sites. Marketers using KudosWorks get access to two links from the technology provider: a link to a KudosBoard seal they can post on their site and a link to a testimonial capture page their site can present to customers.

Customers who’ve purchased an item from a retailer that uses KudosWorks get an e-mail a few weeks after purchase seeking feedback on the product and inviting customers satisfied with the experience to write a testimonial. Interested customers are directed to the KudosBoard icon back on the retailer’s site. A click there pops up the testimonial capture page, which explains how to enter a testimonial in text, video, or audio form. Customers who enter a testimonial and send it to a designated number of friends are entered into a rewards contest.

Accentuate the positive

“A lot of people in word-of-mouth marketing feel all you should care about is having somebody out there talking about you,” says Genuosity CEO Herbert Ong. “We focus specifically on the positive. So we capture testimonials. If you sell fishing poles, and just sold one to somebody, it’s logical to ask them to share that with their friends. Because their friends are going to be your target market.” Ong says that KudosWorks maintains an authentic voice with a program design that motivates referrals of existing testimonials, but does not motivate consumers to create testimonials in the first place.

Graham Morfitt, vice president of marketing at outfitter ModernOutpost.com, says that using the consumer’s voice to talk about products is “infinitely better” than other, conventional mass media approaches the small retailer has tried in the past. But he’s more comfortable with capturing and presenting testimonials via KudosWorks than with some other consumer voice vehicles. “You are creating a positive image for yourself, and you have a lot more control than you do on a blog or forum,” says Morfitt, who adds KudosWorks has been up on ModernOutpost since last year.

Recently, ModernOutpost selected 100 customers who’d purchased from the site and who also had phone or other communication with the company and invited them to submit a testimonial if they were satisfied with the product. “Just through that e-mail follow-up, we received about 20% back, and we were able to choose the ones we wanted to display,” he says. “KudosWorks has built in a lot of controls on what we display, who we display, and how we ask people. As a marketing tool, this is the closest thing I have seen to being able to control word of mouth.”

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