Tom Webster was shopping for a pair of shoes so he did what people do when they are looking for something: he turned to search. And that’s when it happened. He noticed reviews from blogs were ranking higher than even those by mainstream media.
That’s an anecdote I recall from Webster in a recent podcast with Mark Schaefer called Influence Marketing is hot and about to get hotter. How it is that content, from the lowly blogger, could possibly outrank an article – written by a bona fide reporter and published by an authoritative domain of traditional news site – in search?
Given the complexity and secrecy of search algorithms, it’s hard to say definitively, but there are several plausible explanations. Bloggers tend to have greater expertise with the object being reviewed. For example, running shoes reviewed on a blog, are likely to be evaluated by a very passionate and experienced runner who also happens to blog, as opposed to a news writer picking up an assignment for a day (or a post, as is the case these days).
Location and proximity can be a factor – as is site speed, bounce rates and a reported 200+ factors in Google’s search algorithm alone; there are other search engines. Social relevance is increasingly playing an important role – which is why Google+ is a worthy network on which to engage.
Webster noticed something else: those reviews he found in search results were overwhelmingly positive. Despite the noise in the marketing world over dealing with a difficult blogger, most are by my observation, reluctant to write negative reviews. A better strategy for bloggers who want to build a community is to write about products that will help their readers; it’s simply easier to avoid writing about products they do not like. Why waste such valuable time?
Sales Meets the Product Review
A short while ago, I received a sales pitch to try a PR product. I countered, as I often do if the product catches my interest, with an offer to review the product in a few weeks when my schedule cleared up a bit. My proposal is always simple: give me access to the product for as long as I need to give it a thorough test and if I like it, I’ll write about it; if I don’t I’ll provide my feedback privately.
The salesperson agreed and promised to follow up in a few weeks; in actuality, that person followed-up several times in-between and it was apparent to me our previous conversation was forgotten the moment it ended. I didn’t respond to those interim messages.
This week I received another follow-up email and responded quickly: yes the timing was right and I’d be glad to review the product. The salesperson sent me a link to a site to begin a free trial – enter your data, which I deduced also meant adding my credit card data, and I’d be off on a 30-day free trial. I wasn’t sticking around to see if it would auto-renew.
I wrote back that I didn’t think we are on the same page. We had a few more exchanges where I reiterated my offer to review the product, but the company had to provide access. My correspondent replied this wasn’t possible without checking with the “team” and providing me a briefing first.
This struck me as oxymoronic: If I gave the company a credit card, I could start using the product immediately without a briefing; however as an obviously cowboy-blogger out to smear a product, I clearly needed a little more handholding.
Blog Reviews are Smart Marketing
That exchange ended it for me; I was no longer interested in reviewing the product. The company did follow up, but I simply don’t have the time; there are a million other products I can review with far less friction. Product reviews require extra work if one is to provide a service that’s useful.
It’s a lost opportunity – and for this particular product – it’s really too bad because they had essentially a no-risk chance to earn a good review from a blogger with considerable vendor and product experience.
I have been, and still do occasionally, find myself on the opposite end of such exchanges with other bloggers, where I’m the one pitching a product review. Too often I find the establishment, particularly old school marketers, shun the lowly blogger: there are bigger more important people to pitch.
Except that’s exactly the wrong way to think about blogger relations and it stems from the fact our little marketing world is saturated with a single goal: how to go viral. As an industry, we’ve been ill-conditioned to go for that home run – that big hit that sends massive traffic and scores measurable sales. It’s a terrible way to think because marketers and PR pros can spend a decade taking big swings and never hit a home run.
A better approach is steady hits – base hits – load the bases and knock a run in one at a time; then do it again all game long. One, two, or three product reviews by credible bloggers – the magic middle – makes a nice list of links.
These provide third-party validation and social proof. These make for great links to share in social channels, sales support packages, emails, blogs of your own and a quick response to a question – or crisis – on social media. A company that earns 10 product reviews is winning on the social web, but it doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen if every swing we take is for the fences.
Arming the front line with social knowledge
Influence marketing is a real phenomenon and it is, as the podcast noted above conveys, just beginning to heat up. There are billions of blogs on the web – and it was highly likely five years ago that sales people pitching products are going to bump into bloggers; today it is inevitable. Businesses need to provide training and guidelines for how to manage such engagements.
Not every blogger is going to be a buyer, but they might in fact, be in a position to influence the buying decision of others. The companies that think about this opportunity – and empower their sales team with both well-conceived policies, resources and the flexibility to act quickly – are those that are going to be in the best position to win in the era of influence marketing which is just beginning.
People will continue to search for products online; and for the foreseeable future, reviews on blogs will appear in those searches. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering if Tom Webster got his pair of shoes.
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Confluence: Kredibility, Social Scoring and Marketing
Photo credit: Flickr, Cas, Thumbs Up (CC BY-SA 2.0)