Best Company’s WOMM podcast recently welcomed Matt Vance, author of The Review Cycle and reputation and feedback consultant, to talk about how companies and organizations can harness the marketing power of reviews to drive sales.
Matt starts off by detailing a bit about his background and marketing journey. He started in the field of reputation management in 2014 after graduating from Utah State University. It was then that he started working for a small startup called Malouf. At the time, Malouf focused mainly on sheets, pillows, and other bedding accessories.
Matt’s story continues: “I was the second hire in the e-commerce department. There were about 35 employees there at the time, and in the more than 6 years that I was there, it grew to about 1,300 employees, so talk about some explosive growth in a few short years!
“But I had this very unique opportunity to lead discovery and innovation processes with online reviews—kind of a very niche area; it started with about 100 products on e-commerce sites and by the time I left Malouf, it was over 1,500 product listings that my team was managing across 50 different e-commerce platforms.
“In the middle of that was where I started working on [my] book; I ended up going to another company, a fitness company called iFit, and was able to establish their review management program as well. So, in the mix I was able to consult quite a few companies, but the majority of the experience came from those two large companies where I was very directly involved in the execution of different programs and building that up.”
Matt goes on to mention a key learning from his years in reputation management and trends he has noticed in his research.
“Reviews [are] one of the very key components that directly [affect] sales. In fact, in the book, I talk about a principle that I’ve developed called ‘review elasticity,’ which is kind of like price elasticity (a principle of economics, how price impacts demand).
“Well, I identified a trend of reviews impacting demand just like price going up and down, and it’s a very exponential relationship where your demand is maximized at about 4.5 stars, and then there’s this half life that happens every half star. Some retail sites, I learned, would round star ratings by half stars, which would artificially concentrate the demand at those half star increments instead of being a smooth curve.
Matt expands on this idea, adding that a 4.5 star rating is actually, in most cases, preferred to a perfect 5-star rating in terms of demand: “As we get closer to five stars, your demand actually drops because if you get too close to five (above 4.5) stars, it is believed or perceived as being faked, manipulated, etc.”
So, while it’s a little relative based on industry, Matt recommends you actually want to be right around 4.5 stars for optimized sales.
Matt then shifts gears to talk more about what sparked him to write a book about reviews:
“There’s a date that’s forever burned in my memory: October 3, 2016. That’s when Amazon banned incentivized reviews. Before that, you could give away products and as long as the review said ‘I received this item for free in exchange for my feedback’, it was completely FTC compliant and compliant with Amazon’s terms of service. It was like printing money; it was nuts! We would just assign 10 or so people to leave a review on a new product, which would give the listing enough heat to start taking off on its own. After that though, it was really difficult. That was what led to this book.”
The Review Cycle: Image provided courtesy of Matt R. Vance©, 2022
It was actually Matt’s wife who had an epiphany that he should write a book. While he was resistant at first, his book turned into a long-term project where he was able to take the time to iterate and really include the points he wanted to make.
Towards the beginning of his book, Matt highlights two common motives for people writing reviews. He buckets them as ‘givers’ and ‘takers’.
“Some people [who write reviews] are looking to give back. They’re like, ‘Hey I’ve received a lot of benefits from reading reviews in the past, so I want to pay it forward.’ That’s actually the number one most common motive for people to give back.
“And then you’ve got the takers, or someone who wants an allowable incentive. For example, certain websites will give you a little promo like maybe you get a couple dollars off your next order or something like that, so they’re looking to get some type of the value from that.”
Matt goes on to explain why knowing the reviewer’s motive is crucial to successful review marketing: “It’s important to know [the motive] because you can get into the mind of the consumer a little bit and understand what intrinsically motivated them, and you can incorporate that into your messaging. For example, when you ask for a review, instead of just saying ‘Please write a review,’ you can say, ‘If you’ve benefited from reviews, it’s your chance to pay it forward. If you’d like to leave a review, here’s a link.’ So you can incorporate some of that insight and strategically influence behaviors.”
Matt then dives into the heart of his book and explains in detail what the review cycle is and how it differs from a typical, linear sales funnel.
Figure 2.18, The Review Cycle: Image provided courtesy of Matt R. Vance©, 2022
“The review cycle is a consumer behavior model informed by online reviews. It highlights four steps that we all take as consumers when deciding to make a purchase.
“So these four phases probably sound really familiar, but the first is consideration. You consider making a purchase decision; let’s say you’re considering buying a solar system. Then you start browsing online for different options.
“Phase two is you engage with OGC—organizational generated content or branded content. You click into a profile or a website and you look at all the content that the company is saying about their service or their product.
“Third is you engage with user generated content (UGC). You want to validate a decision to either proceed or not proceed and go back to number one and if you want to pursue that option or that product.
“In the fourth, after you’ve decided to buy, you have your post-decision experience—what’s it like using that product or service or experiencing that solar on your home.
“Now it’s a little bit different than say a typical linear sales funnel going from awareness to purchase. It’s a cycle because it repeats, think about it: we as consumers buy things more than once, and this is a really important part—every time someone’s buying something, they may be posting online. And it’s actually changing the content that the next person discovers when they go through that process or shopping journey. So the landscape of content that people are finding (OGC, UGC) is constantly evolving; it’s a moving landscape.”
Later in the podcast, Matt talks about how important it is to manage the expectations of consumers, which is also a key point in his book. He tells a story to exemplify this importance:
“At one point, I was helping manage a pillow. It’s a reading pillow with a backrest, arms on the side, really cushy, you sit in there reading your book. This pillow was getting a lot of negative reviews around size, like it’s too big or too small, etc. and as we audited all the feedback in reviews, we found we weren’t managing expectations of what the size was.
“So we added a new image to the product listing that just had measurements for height and width. And all the negative reviews around size disappeared and we didn’t get any new ones. The rating went up to 4.5 stars, that magical place, and it went on to be the bestselling pillow in the category.”
From this experience, Matt learned that people are willing to rate higher and spend more for an experience that is expected. He advised that it’s important to understand what you’re delivering and then communicate exactly what you’re delivering.
Matt goes on to provide some advice related to marketing with reviews:
“You want [everyone] to leave a review. It’s a numbers game, no matter how hard you try, not everyone will leave a review. We want everyone to have the chance. Don’t be afraid of the negatives. You want that authenticity. Never advocate for manipulation; it’s not worth the risk.
“Asking for reviews fuels every other stage. Then, you want to respond to reviews publicly to showcase a high level of care for your customer. When other people see that, it gives them almost a feeling of insurance. They see you taking care of people.
“The final thing you should do with reviews is marketing. This is the top-of-funnel function where you’re trying to drive traffic to your listing or your offering. And you can do that way more efficiently with UGC content than anything you [as a company] could ever say.
Matt mentions a survey conducted by HubSpot related to trustworthiness that found that 85 percent of people trust reviews as much as personal recommendations. Thus, putting a good review in your ad makes people way more likely to check out your product.
To conclude the podcast, Matt gives his best recommendations for actionable, day-to-day tasks that marketers looking to get into the review space can do.
He states, “It can be overwhelming since there’s so many things to consider, but let’s simplify and break it down into three easy things.
“1. Conduct a reputation audit. You need to measure (baseline) where you’re showing up right now, so I call this a reputation audit. Do a Google search and pull up and click on every single spot you’re coming up in the first three pages. Put them in Excel, add your star rating, take a screenshot, just to get a [visual] idea of where you’re starting.
“2. Start by asking for reviews. You can’t do anything else with reviews if you don’t have any. If you’re a larger company with a review base in place, conduct a one-time catch up of responding to reviews.
“3. Focus on all four steps of the review cycle. Realize you’re going to learn as you go. Remember ABT: always be testing. Put a review in an ad and measure how it goes. Keep doing what goes great, and try something different if things don’t go great.”
Matt ends with his parting advice for reputation managers:
“I would say just start. If you’re not asking for reviews, ask for reviews. Sending a link to leave a review will get something, and that’s better than nothing. You can improve your approach over time.”
Matt R. Vance is a social innovator.
His work and research center around human behaviors, perceptions and experience design. He has built consumer and employee experience programs at multiple global organizations, including iFIT and Malouf Companies and has consulted a wide range of other organizations.
His work has been recognized with honors from Glassdoor, Utah Business, Comparably and The Stevie Awards. His book, The Review Cycle, outlines how companies can master their online reviews and create better experiences for consumers and employees alike.
Matt received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Utah State University where he also ran track and cross-country. He loves to crochet and tell dad jokes. He lives in Logan, Utah with his wife and children.
Find Matt’s book at thereviewcycle.com, at Barnes & Noble, or on Amazon.
Contact Matt at mattrvance.com.
Follow Matt on LinkedIn.