We have a mission statement at Bazaarvoice: “Changing the world, one authentic conversation at a time.” It’s not just a slogan on our website for me – it’s truly our mission and our cause. Authentic, aggregated feedback and conversations have the power to change so much more than commerce: education, government, workplace environment – things that carry personal importance to me, as well as to my company. Think about this: this is the first time in human history that word of mouth, which has been with us since the dawn of humanity and the days of the earliest bartering and bazaars, is digitally archived – and it will undoubtedly change the world.
But if we don’t protect the integrity of these conversations – if they aren’t truly authentic – their power to change the world is weakened. That’s why, when I read in Slate that Zappos and other retailers have begun editing their customer reviews for spelling and grammar, I knew I had to respond.
As the market leader, we at Bazaarvoice consider ourselves stewards of our industry – and as such, we have a duty to protect it. I wrote the piece below for Forbes’s CIO Central blog, where it was originally published. I’m excited to discuss this with you on the original post, or here on our blog. I look forward to hearing your perspective.
From Forbes CIO Central blog:
Do customer reviews peppered with grammar mistakes and typos hurt your brand and dampen sales? Zappos – and a growing number of online brands – think so. The world’s largest online shoe retailer angered some “creative spellers” last month after a Slate article described how the company uses hundreds of freelancers to doctor online customer reviews, correcting grammar and typos.
Companies “clean up” customer reviews based on the rationale, supported by recent research, that well-written reviews, whether positive or negative, sell more products. So a gushing review claiming to “luv the thin straps on this sandale” will actually turn off potential buyers, whereas a well-crafted critique of the same shoe – “I appreciated the workmanship of this sandal, but found the straps too narrow” – will lure more buyers.
According to Panos Ipeirotis, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who studies consumer reviews on the Internet, “A well-written review tends to inspire confidence about the product, even if the review is negative. Typically, such reviews are perceived as objective and thorough.”
The problem is that a New Yorker reader skimming reviews of a jazz CD has a very different view of “well-written” than a tween shopping for a cute Katy Perry tee. Both want the review to be authentic, informative and useful – but the tone and word choice couldn’t be more foreign to the other. By trying to impose a uniform standard on a very diverse audience, companies that “correct” customer reviews are making a big mistake.
Why? Because tampering with customer reviews erodes the authenticity of reviews and ultimately destroys customer trust in your brand. It’s human nature to trust authentic content, and people have an uncanny way of sniffing out false and fraudulent content. The reason that customer reviews have been so effective at driving sales is precisely because the content doesn’t sound like marketing copy. It’s real, unlike the “perfect” world of marketing.
Think about it this way. Would you correct a friend’s tweet or Facebook post? Interrupt someone explaining why they love a certain restaurant to point out a clumsy turn-of-phrase? Nitpick a colleague for using shorthand in emails sent from his iPhone? This level of social intrusion is almost unthinkable. Yet companies do this to their customers when they “correct” their reviews. By doctoring authentic customer content to make it more uniform, a brand dismisses the tremendous diversity of people, tones, life phases, geographies, and preferences that make up the rich social web and the cultural differences between genders, generations, and geographies.
Zappos uses Amazon Mechanical Turk to “fix” customer reviews. Using the service, Zappos assigns HITs – human intelligence tasks – to freelancers, providing strict copyediting guidelines modeled on bug-fixing routines in computer programming. But even if you’re editing reviews in a subtle way – just fixing a typo here and there or correcting the spelling for all mentions of your brand – you’re still imposing your voice on your customers.
The future of e-commerce is about engaging customers in an open dialogue, not shutting down authentic, real feedback by “correcting” users. If you look at an assortment of reviews across some our client sites, you find a tremendous diversity of tone, jargon, and slang. Sure, there are a few spelling mistakes, but what comes across in successful review programs is an authentic open forum where customers’ opinions are valued.
So why do some companies insist on fixing spelling mistakes in reviews? The answer lies in “classic” marketer thinking. For decades, marketers were used to the unidirectional communication mode – pushing messages at consumers in hopes they’d get people to notice the brand and buy its products. But social media has changed the company-customer equation faster than anyone could have predicted even five years ago.
Even highly innovative and creative companies like Zappos sometimes get caught in the net (no pun intended) of trying to maintain control over their brand experience. Zappos is a hyper-modern company that has written the textbook on passionate customer service and incredible corporate culture and for that, I admire them very much. It was also among the first to really understand and use the power of social networks like Twitter to drive brand and business growth – but among the last you’d expect to behave in an “old-school” way when it comes to social. The Zappos experience shows how incredibly hard it can be to turn control over to your customers. But the new marketing relationship demands it. As explained by James Gilmore in Authenticity, humans crave authenticity from each other and from brands.
Today, customers expect brands to engage in a multi-directional and experiential conversation with them. The highest-performing businesses regularly use consumer insights in 80% of sales and merchandising decisions, according to an article in GOOD Magazine. In other words, smart brands understand the power of authentic word of mouth to drive sales – but it has to be “authentic” to work. Doctored reviews are not authentic, and they can even be insulting to the original author. Early on in our business, we learned that people who submit reviews return three times on average just to see if they posted. Can you imagine their reaction where they see that someone edited their voice?
Understandably, many companies struggle with leaving reviews untouched. What if someone posts a flaming review that’s also riddled with grammar mistakes and typos? It’s never a great moment to read a review like that, but unless it includes profanity or offensive content, let it stand – and reach out the disgruntled customer directly offering to remedy his problem. The fewer gag rules you place on your customers, the more authentic and valuable their feedback will be. After years of helping thousands of companies implement customer review programs, we’ve learned again and again that negative or “ugly” reviews are actually a gift. They open the door to a dialogue and enable brands to quickly address any problems that arise. Because reviews are written for altruistic reasons, they can be the best source of customer intelligence and marketing research for the brand – more trusted than the traditional survey or the focus group.
To correct a conversation is to corrupt it. Don’t make the mistake of “correcting” your customers’ reviews. Everyone, even the worst spellers, deserves to be heard. Who are you to judge what slang stays and goes? You wouldn’t judge them in the store (at least not out loud) by correcting their words, and you shouldn’t do so online. Let them be who they are, let them act altruistically to help each other with no specter of being monitored by a grammar coach, and people who are like them will be more influenced and help your sales even more long term.