December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Getting them to write

Retailers employ simple tactics to gain more customer reviews and avoid the dilemma of blank pages.

When an e-retailer’s product page promotes customer ratings and reviews but there are none to be found, that can raise any number of questions in a shopper’s mind. And they’re not good ones.

“Why should I care? Maybe it’s not a very popular item? If no one leaves reviews on the site maybe I shouldn’t be shopping here,” says Nathan Decker, senior manager of e-commerce at sporting goods and apparel merchant Evo, which features reviews. “There is a risk in lack of reviews content as much as there is an opportunity in having a lot of it.”

Retailers and reviews experts agree that if a merchant is going to offer reviews, merchants must have reviews to show.

“If a consumer sees no reviews for product after product, they’re going to go to another site where they can read reviews-and the retailer without reviews may have just lost a sale,” says Pehr Luedtke, CEO of PowerReviews Inc., a ratings and reviews vendor.

He cites research from Shop.org that shows 59% of consumers use product reviews to make decisions, and thus are looking for them on sites, he says. In addition, The E-tailing Group Inc. reports that 78% of retailers believe ratings and reviews are the No. 1 social tool that drives sales.

Successful tactics

It is not uncommon to see retail web sites that offer customer ratings and reviews with a great number of product pages without a single review. Not only can this send a bad message to shoppers, it’s wasting a valuable tool that can increase conversion and sales.

“We’ve got numbers that show increased sales on items with higher reviews, and the increases are substantial,” says John Lazarchic, vice president of e-commerce at Petco Animal Supplies Inc., which uses ratings and reviews technology vendor Bazaarvoice Inc. “The ROI on reviews is one of the better ROIs you can get.”

E-retailers have found ways to entice customers to provide reviews. These tactics include holding contests, promoting reviews through e-mail marketing, sending follow-up e-mails after purchases, and honoring prolific reviewers. Many retailers have successfully used these tactics, including Evo (6,600 reviews), Golfsmith International Holdings Inc. (30,000 reviews) and Petco (50,000 reviews).

Three years ago, Petco was a beta client of Bazaarvoice. It was enthralled by the concept and wanted to fill its site with customer feedback with the goal of increasing conversion and sales. But 45 days after it launched the feature, there were still no reviews.

“We were baffled. We had the Be The First To Review This Product button on every product page. But reviews were not getting traction,” Lazarchic says. “So we ran a contest: ‘Write a review to win a $100 gift card.’ We went from no reviews to more than 500 in a couple days. Enticing customers with a reward is a key tactic.”

A retailer must ask customers to write reviews in order to get reviews in the beginning and to a slightly lesser degree as time goes on, Lazarchic adds. “Once you reach a critical mass,” he says, “it becomes more self-fulfilling.”

Petco’s approach to gaining more customer reviews has paid off. On average, products with reviews have a 20.4% lower return rate than products without reviews. The return rate continues to decline as a product gains more reviews. Products with more than 50 reviews have a 65% lower return rate than products with no reviews. This has resulted in considerable annual savings, Petco says. The company declines to give an exact figure but experts say product returns cost an e-retailer up to 10% of the order value.

More contests

Like Petco, Evo held a contest to garner reviews.

“We ran a contest that we heavily promoted sitewide and in an e-mail asking customers to write a review for a chance to win a $1,000 shopping spree,” Decker explains.

Evo, a PowerReviews client, measured success not by dollars but by the number of reviews the contest created, Decker explains. “We saw a 49% increase in reviews during that contest period compared with the same periods before and after the contest,” he says.

Evo began its customer reviews journey by e-mailing every customer who had made a purchase during the previous year asking them to write a review. “We had 2,000 active items at the time and got 10% coverage with reviews right out of the gate,” Decker says.

Golfsmith recently went beyond tactics like e-mail and redesigned its e-commerce site, making customer reviews a priority throughout.

“We give some of the highest rated products high visibility on the home page,” explains Matt Corey, senior vice president of marketing. “And when you do a search for a product, you can sort by ratings. We’ve placed ratings directly under the product names on product pages. We’ve integrated ratings and reviews practically everywhere on our site. The minute we deployed our strategy, we saw double-digit increases in the number of reviews we received.”

Following up

While contests are popular, the most important method, many retailers and experts say, is to follow up a purchase with a simple request.

“If I could give only one piece of advice to retailers seeking more reviews, it would be that 21 days after a purchase, send a carefully worded e-mail message asking the customer to write a review, and do so in a way where the message can in no way be perceived as marketing,” says Luedtke of PowerReviews. “This needs to be a pure solicitation for honest feedback.”

And this is exactly what some retailers are doing.

“Three weeks after a customer makes a purchase we e-mail them asking them to write a review,” says Decker of Evo. “It’s a request to promote what we call product democracy-giving the customer a voice to influence other shoppers and influence our buying team and its decisions.”

Evo’s follow-up e-mail reads: “What do you think of your new gear? We’d like your opinion about the product(s) you purchased recently at evogear.com. Submitting a product review lets you decide which products are best, giving you a forum to influence other shoppers and product selection at evo. Promote product democracy, Vote Now!”

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