Caveat Vendit: User-Generated Reviews Go Mobile

Over the centuries, the Latin phrase caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware,” has been spoken countless times; a pithy mantra uttered by would-be consumers the world over to ward off the rip-off, or to gently chastise those who’ve unwittingly received a raw deal from an unscrupulous vendor. However, as user generated reviews go mobile, technology is conspiring to turn the very notion of caveat emptor on its head. In an age of consumer-driven online consciousness, unwitting brands may find themselves uttering the phrase “caveat vendit,” or “let the seller beware.”

Imagine a world where millions upon millions of smartphone-clutching, social savvy consumers are able to record their interactions with businesses on the fly, sharing each experience on social sites like Yelp, Foursquare, Facebook, Google+, etc  in real time, just when these experiences are top of mind (and also able to be most accurately related). Sounds like a nightmare for businesses great and small, right?

Sorry, folks, it’s no nightmare. User-generated reviews are now mobile, and they are the new reality for business.

Before you dash off to craft a “no cellphones allowed” sign to hang on the door, user-generated reviews can actually be a good thing for your business. In fact, assuming you are running an upright operation (i.e. no backroom loan-sharking or illicit Bitcoining) and actually providing a product or service that people generally find valueable, you probably stand to cash in on a little online user love.

A quick caveat to remember, though…user-generated reviews are like viruses: while the good ones can make you healthier, the bad ones can kill you.

Related Resource from B2CWebcast: PR Hacking: How Ideas Spread And What Marketers Need to Know

User Generated Reviews Go Mobile

Online site Yelp recently joined the ranks of Foursquare and other SoLoMo review sites by allowing mobile users to post reviews directly on its mobile app. The company is first rolling out the feature onto its iOS app, but plans on doing the same for Android “soon.”

Aside from trying to cash in on bigger ad revenues by giving users more reasons to stay on the app longer, Yelp’s new mobile reviews functionality will help it stay competitive in the increasingly crowded local information and discovery space, which currently houses uber-mobile luminaries Facebook and Foursquare along with a resurgent Groupon.

There is no doubt that mobile is an important element in Yelp’s business model. In its last quarterly earnings report, 59% of its search traffic came from mobile; nearly 10 million unique mobile devices visited Yelp each month during the same quarter. Based on some informal research, data from Yelp’s main competitors seems to paint a similar picture of this overarching trend toward mobile dominance for SoLoMo review sites.

User Generated Reviews Hold Sway

Perhaps more significant than the way users leave reviews is the importance consumers place on the reviews themselves. In a 2012 Inc. magazine post written by Michael Fertik with the appropos title “How Online Reviews Make (or Break) Your Business, the author pulls no punches on the criticality of user-generated reviews for businesses. To bolster his point, Fertik cites two compelling statistics:

  • 89% of consumers viewed online sources of product and service reviews as trustworthy–and another 80% have changed their minds about a purchase based solely on the negative reviews they read.
  • In 2011, 85% of those surveyed said they’d be more likely to purchase if they could find additional recommendations online.

The potency of these numbers may be partially explained in the findings of a new study by researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, MIT, and NYU, which clearly indicates that online group mentality, or “groupthink,” can actually sway individual opinion and action. As detailed in a great post published in Search Engine Watch by Jessica Lee, the study essentially found that, in the online world at least, popular opinion tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, shaping individual opinion in a way reflective of the group.

User Generated Reviews Induce Groupthink

We’re all guilty of online groupthink, whether or not we do so consciously. I for one admit that I’m more likely to read a blog post if it has a large number of shares and/or likes, or to buy a product with the greatest number of positive reviews on Amazon. In much the same way, I’m probably more likely to visit a restaurant (and leave a positive comment about it, if you believe the study’s findings) if it has received a number of positive reviews on sites such as Yelp.

As humans, one could say that groupthink is part of our very DNA; we’ve been programmed to follow the herd, even though we hate to admit it.

On the negative side, the study’s findings also suggest that people are less likely to trash a brand they’ve had a poor experience with, especially if the majority of others are positively disposed toward it. As much as we like to elevate the persona of the contrarian in popular culture, it turns out that few of us have the stomach to be one – so much for rugged individualism.

User Generated Reviews Matter

Here’s the million dollar question: if you compare the above insights into online groupthink with the trend to mobile-driven, user-generated reviews, what do you get? In other words, as mobile reviews proliferate, will users go against the grain and say what they really think, or will they go along with the herd?

Moreover, what happens if brands pay people or companies (which many currently do) to generate positive reviews of their business? Will real consumers, now armed with the ability to leave reviews “in country” ignore the prevailing wisdom and be more critical and honest about their opinions and experiences? Are consumers more likely to be frank in the moment, perhaps when their anger is piqued in the midst of a bad experience, or will they simply forgo the opportunity and let life’s distractions wash away their actual opinions?

Finally, do we as good Netizens owe it to one another (or to the Internet gods) to be honest, even if such honesty is uncomfortable? If I am physically walking out of a store or a restaurant and see someone walking in, am I more likely to tell them not to bother? Am I in any way obligated to do so? In the case of user generated reviews, does the fact that I am telling them through an online intermediary somehow lessen this obligation?

Heady questions indeed. To me, this much is certain: as more users integrate the Internet, social, and mobile into their daily lives, they will do the same with user-generated reviews, first using them as a guide, and eventually contributing to them as a reviewer. This happened to me; I can only assume that it will happen to others.

Regardless, I think it would be a useful exercise for all you decision makers out there to meditate on the concept of user-generated reviews and their migration to mobile, specifically analyzing the extent to which this trend may affect your brand and what, if anything, you plan to do about it.

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