Typically, purchasing decisions are not made without doing research and gathering information. However, the means by which consumers are getting the information to make educated choices is rapidly changing.
It is becoming clear that the future of main street business marketing has been shifting toward the confluence of local, mobile, and social (Lo-Mo-So) factors.
The Big Three are Going Social-Local
Over the past 12 months, there has been a pronounced emphasis on the social part of the equation, as proven by the actions of the online search giants.
Google appears to be at the forefront of the social movement, as they have recently purchased the review powerhouse, Zagat, with intentions of incorporating their 30-point review system into Google+ Local which is rapidly replacing Google Places.
More recently, the company purchased the esteemed travel brand Frommer’s, and I suspect we’ll see this influence within the Googleplex in the coming months.
Google’s competitors were quick to take notice of this transformation, as evidenced by Yahoo!’s recent coup of stealing Marissa Mayer away from Google. Mayer has been a long-time advocate of the importance online reviews play in local purchasing decisions. Among other things, this proves a renewed emphasis at Yahoo! on the importance of the social-local connection.
Not to be left behind, Bing has also made significant changes. Bing Local is now “powered by Yelp,” which combines the local business pages of Bing with the local reviews on Yelp.
A Social Wind is Blowing
There is no doubt that the next battleground in local business marketing is going to surround reviews. This can already be seen within the restaurant industry. You can easily find restaurants with hundreds of diner experiences documented across half a dozen platforms. Other industries are heading that way quickly.
While most people love to talk about a good meal, the same doesn’t appear to be true for all professions yet. Most physicians, cosmetic surgeons, accountants, and painting contractors have less than one review, on average.
However, due to the changes taking place within search engines, it’s likely that this will shift in the next 12 to 24 months and those savvy businesses that put processes in place to garner reviews will reap the rewards.
The Unique Power of Reviews
Ongoing research proves that reviews have a significant influence on local online commercial effectiveness. Reviews increase traffic and have the ability to get people talking.
As search engines continue to promote social connections, they are also beginning to weigh reviews more heavily in their search algorithms.
Therefore, the businesses that garner the most reviews tend to rank higher, generating more traffic. That should be reason enough for local businesses to sit up and take notice.
But there is an even greater reason for local businesses to cultivate reviews: they boost conversions. Reviews provide the social proof that the human psyche needs in order to feel comfortable making a purchasing decision. For instance, while on vacation, you want to find a good restaurant.
You could ask the concierge for advice, or you could jump online and get recommendations from hundreds of people. More than likely, you’ll head to the place with the most positive online presence including high placement in the search results, with a lot of favorable reviews.
It’s easy to see how, moving forward, the success of local businesses will be based on their online reviews, and the social proof and trust they foster among their customers.
Diversify for Better Results
One of the keys for small businesses is going to be learning to integrate reviews from different social media platforms. It’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.
Reviews must be secured across a number of relevant review sites. There are the generic ones: Google+, Yelp, and Superpages and there are others that are more industry-specific, such as HealthGrades, Vitals, and RealSelf.
This diversity is important because of how the various search engines operate. While no one outside of Google knows exactly how their local algorithm works, it makes sense that they would more heavily weigh reviews generated within their own properties.
Likewise, Bing is going to favor Yelp reviews because of their recent alliance. Conversely, you can see why Google might give less credit to Yelp reviews.
Lo-Mo-So From Theory to Action
In order for a small business to truly take advantage of the power of online reviews, they first have to develop a complete and optimized local listing within Google+ Local, Bing Local, and Yahoo! Local. Next, they must put systems in place to gather client reviews.
Even for the most tech-savvy customer, leaving an online review can be a difficult and frustrating process. One must first create a membership, then complete a profile, and finally craft and post the review itself. It can become a daunting multi-step process that dampens the enthusiasm of even the biggest fans—so much so, they simply don’t leave a review.
There is also the ever-increasing concern for privacy. Even in our highly social world, most people aren’t comfortable publicly proclaiming their support for any business, let alone businesses of a sensitive nature such as legal, medical, and dental, where reviews are perhaps the most important.
Unless a company puts enabling processes in place, we’ve observed that fewer than 10% of clients who say they will leave a review actually follow through.
Finally, keeping with the Lo-Mo-So theme, one of the keys to take advantage of is mobile accessibility. According to a recent study by Google, 78 percent of consumers want to be able to find more information in just one or two clicks. The same percentage of users want to easily find a search bar.
Therefore, large, easily navigated buttons in a clean, mobile design can increase engagement and aid in interaction.
This means that local businesses should have a mobile website with at least basic features, such as site search, “click to call,” and “click to map.” More advanced options can include QR code scanning, featured offers, and push notifications.
Feedback from our peers has always been a key part of how we form decisions. Today, the ways we gather experiences from one another are rapidly changing.
By realizing that most purchasing decisions begin with someone typing in a search bar, savvy local businesses can position themselves to take full advantage, by improving their rankings and securing favorable reviews.
Image Credit: Devnull