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The Online Review Playbook: Using Reviews to Get Free Advertising

Casey Morgan
June 10, 2020

Are online reviews really free advertising? The quick answer is yes! Totally. The long answer? Yes, but you not until you lay some groundwork.


Online reviews are free in that they don’t cost anything but time and effort. That said, while you can get decent traction on your own, there are many reasons why investing a small amount in the right tools can help you multiply how effective you are at gathering reviews. Whichever path you choose, this piece will help you understand how to use online reviews to make yourself more visible online. In marketing, this is known as earned media. It’s something you work to get, but in a sense it’s free advertising, baby! We’ll cover:


-      Why reviews matter (and boy, do they)

-      Why negative reviews are a good thing(seriously)

-      How businesses get more reviews (and how they fail to)

-      How the right tools make it all easy (So. Damn. Easy)

-      How reviews can create better customer services(and crazy-good long-term ROI)


Sound good? Let’s do it.

Why Care About Reviews?

Have you really thought about the true impact of reviews?They dictate whether someone will work with you or not. It’s that simple. And think about it—when’s the last time you bought something online without reading a review? You’re not alone. Here are some eye-opening stats:

Reviews Are Part of Nearly All Purchase Decisions

A report by BIA/Kelsey and ConStat revealed that 97 percent of people read reviews for local businesses before working with them. 90% of people who read online reviews before purchasing said that positive reviews helped sway their buying decision.


Low Scores = No Business

This isn’t just about having reviews; your overall review score must be solid. According to SearchEngineLand, 87% of people won’t work with a business that has a 1 or 2-star rating. If your score is that low, keep reading.


More Stars = More Revenue

Harvard Business School reports that improving your review score by a single star can increase your revenue by 5-9%—that ain’t bad. But as we’ll explore in the next section, there is such a thing as too many 5-star reviews.


Reviews are essential. And done well, they help you turn your happy customers into an automatic marketing machine. More reviews lead to higher search rankings and a glowing online reputation, which brings new customers to your door organically. Pretty neat, right? But before we get to the how, let’s dispel a few misconceptions about reviews.

A Few Negative Reviews Are a Good Thing

According to a study by Spiegel Research Center, customers are skeptical of businesses that have a full 5-star-rating. Ironically, perfection can undermine the authenticity of your reviews—people will think you’re too good to be true. Customers see businesses with a few negative reviews as more authentic, and 82% of them will read your negative reviews according to research by Power Reviews. This sounds scary, but it’s actually a good thing. Your response to a bad review is an opportunity for you to show that even if you make mistakes, you fix them, and most people will notice. 89% of consumers will read your business’s response to reviews according to BrightLocal. Providing excellent service (even if you made a mistake) goes along way to boost a prospect’s perception of you.

The Dark Side of Reviews

There will always be cases where customers leave bad reviews about insignificant things like the lights in the bathroom being the wrong color. There have been rare cases where people use reviews to attack a business. In one instance, anti-vaxxers attacked a pediatric practice with dozens of fake bad reviews for their pro-vaccination stance. These things happen. For the most part, negative reviews help you find legitimate ways to improve your business. The more you improve, the better you look in the eyes of existing and future customers.


As for those rare bad reviews? If you follow our next steps carefully, your positive reviews will far outweigh your negative reviews and you’ll be rewarded in more than just shiny stars. And if your star ratings and reviews aren’t looking so hot right now, don’t sweat it. Our next section covers strategies that will help you improve fast.

Getting More Online Reviews

There are typically two kinds of people who leave reviews without being prompted. Either you knocked it out of the park, and they want everyone to know about it, or something went wrong and they’re on a mission to destroy you from the safe anonymity of the internet. But chances are you have plenty of great customers that would leave you glimmering reviews if you just had a good way to ask them. In fact, Bright Local reports that 68% of them will leave you a review if prompted. Asking for reviews is a critical part of the process (perhaps the most important) but there are a few things you need to think about in order to have an effective strategy.  


Choosing Platforms to Target

Depending on your industry, there are a handful of places where someone can leave you a review. We’ll cover a full range of options in another post, but for now, ask yourself: which platforms do you want to target? Restaurants might focus on Google My Business and Yelp. A healthcare practice might care more about a mix of Google, Facebook, and Healthgrades. Asking your current customers where they’ve seen your reviews is a good way to find platforms as well. Try to keep your list to a few key places, so you can ask customers to leave you reviews on those platforms. Aim to have a good balance of reviews across each platform, so no matter where someone finds you, they’re left with a great impression.


Soliciting Customer Reviews

Next, it’s time to start asking for reviews. Businesses have a few different approaches, but your ideal strategy will require you to ask a few key questions:


Who Do We Ask?

Some businesses think it’s best to target a list of customers they know are happy. In theory, this makes sense, but in practice, the approach is flawed for two reasons. First, selecting specific customers or attempting to prevent certain customers from leaving a review is referred to as“gating” and is deeply frowned upon by review platforms like Yelp and Google—there have even been instances where brands get their reviews purged because Google or another platform thought they were gating. Second, it’s contrary to the idea of reviews. Reviews exist to give people an unbiased look at how a business performs and any effort to bias those reviews threatens the authenticity people expect. So, worry less about who gets an invite to leave a review (any customer should qualify—don’t fear negative reviews) and worry more about when is the right time[CM4] to ask for a review.


When Do We Ask?

Time it right and you’ll get loads of new reviews. Time it poorly and you’ll get few reviews or increase your likelihood of getting lukewarm or even negative reviews. Here are a few examples:


  • Let’s say a customer had a less-than-stellar experience with your company. Instead of asking for a review while they’re fuming, try to correct the issue, then ask them to leave a review. You might be surprised by how positive they are.
  • Let’s say a healthcare and dental practice performs surgery or other procedure on patients. Post-op is not a great time to send a review invite. Give patients time to recover, then shoot them an invite when they’re feeling well again.
  • A customer just had a great experience visiting you for a service or to buy something from your store. Before they leave, you ask them to leave you a review. They’re happy and probably would leave you a review, but they’ll forget by the time they get home. Not ideal.


When to ask matters, but you’re limited depending on how you ask someone to leave a review.


How Do We Ask Them?

There are only a couple of ways to solicit reviews from customers, and they don’t get the same results. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons to a few methods.


  • Asking in Person – This has the benefit of a more personal touch, but it’s limited. Asking in person requires your staff to remember to ask each visitor, which means they must remember each time. Plus, customers will need to remember to leave a review later, when they’re worrying about something else. On top of that, some people may feel uncomfortable about being asked at all. Business can see success asking in person, but there’s a much better way.
  • Send email or text invites Text and email invites are super effective. Not only can you tailor the timing, you can also send many invites at once, and during a time of day when customers are most likely to respond. And did you know that U.S. smartphone users send and receive texts five times more than they make and receive calls? That means invites sent by text message are incredibly effective. With the right tools, it’s as easy as a couple of taps on a smartphone for a happy customer to leave you a glimmering review. Not bad, right? For most, text and email are the most effective ways to get hundreds of great reviews, fast.


How Often Do We Ask Them?

Having fresh reviews is important, but your goal should never be to annoy. Worry about getting good feedback instead. It’s smart to ask any customer to leave a review who has recently bought goods or services from your company. Once they do, you probably won’t want to ask them again for at least 6-9 months, at which point it’s perfectly acceptable to send a new invite for them to refresh their review. If you sent an invite to customers and they didn’t leave a review, feel free to send them a reminder after a week or so, but more than that becomes annoying.


Should I Offer Customers Something in Exchange forReviews?

Some businesses wonder if they should offer an incentive to customers for leaving a review (a gift card, a discount, or what have you). While this seems like a good way to get more reviews, platforms like Google frown on this approach. The issue is that when you offer something for a review, you probably aren’t getting honest, authentic feedback. Without real, unbiased reviews, your business can’t find out how it can improve, and consumers can’t make informed decisions about who they choose to do business with.


The good news is that if you take the right approach to gathering reviews, you won’t need to offer incentives to get lots of them.

Managing and Replying to Online Reviews

So, you’ve kicked off your program and you’re getting lots of reviews. What’s next? Two steps will help keep you on top of everything. But like many of the things we’ve covered, these steps can be arduous without the right tools to help (see our next section).


Monitoring Reviews – Someone on your team should be checking for new reviews daily across the platforms you’ve selected. This person should also be keeping an eye on the overall review score to make sure it’s climbing. Done right it only takes a minute or two.

Replying to Reviews – Whoever is responsible for monitoring reviews should also reply to positive reviews to thank customers.For negative reviews, they should reply with a proposed solution to the customer’s problem right away. We’ll explore the nuances of responding to negative reviews in another post.


Using Tools for Automatic Review Generation

Between managing lists of customer information and sending review invites, there’s a lot that to accomplish before you get the “free advertising” promised by great reviews. Luckily, tools like Swell Review  make it easy to automate large portions of the process. Here are just a few things you can do with it:


  • Automatically Solicit Reviews via SMS Text – No asking in person. Just set up a list, a message, and a send time (or triggering event, say, a completed transaction with an appropriate delay), and the invites go out over text message automatically. Customers can leave you a review with a few taps on their phone.
  • Monitor and Reply to Reviews Across All Platforms – If you’re getting reviews across a few platforms, it can be total chaos to keep track of your scores and reply to positive and negative reviews quickly. Swell brings everything into one place. You’ll get a dashboard to see your review scores and you can even reply to reviews on different platforms without leaving the Swell app. This makes it super simple to address issues and turn a customer’s negative experience into a positive one.

Reviews for Serious Long-Term ROI

As we’ve shown, reviews are essential. They help you maintain a better presence online, bring new customers to your door, and help increase your revenue. They also make you appear more valuable. Customers are willing to spend 31% more on a business that has great reviews. Plus, according to a report by Spiegel Research, displaying reviews on your website can help you increase conversion by as much as 270%. That’s huge!


But it gets even better. The hidden benefit of reviews is in the feedback you get. When you get regular feedback, you’re constantly uncovering ways to improve your products and services, which leads to more great reviews and more loyal customers. Once the process is set up, reviews create a growth machine that takes minimal effort to maintain. And that is what we mean when we say free advertising. A little up-front effort paired with the right tools (see our last section), and local business growth can be effortless and exponential.

The Swell Approach

Swell helps local businesses grow through the power of customer engagement. With Swell, you can automatically gather hundreds of great reviews, reply to them, and view a clean dashboard with all your star ratings in one place. But that’s just the beginning. Swell was built with local business growth in mind, and also packs tons of features that help businesses streamline text, email, and webchat messages, while also giving them tools for collecting valuable customer feedback. With Swell, the process of creating a growth engine is as easy as following these three steps:


Discover– Learn from honest feedback to improve customer service, you online reputation, and search ranking.

Connect – Create meaningful interactions and build trust through text, email, online chat, and more.

Grow – Use feedback to fuel a stronger online reputation and to get higher search rankings, so you can attract more business.[CM9] 


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