Not paying attention to your online reviews? You might be in for an unpleasant surprise! Eighty percent of customers have changed their mind about purchasing a product or service based solely on a negative review they read, according to Inc. A single star difference in a Yelp restaurant ranking can impact revenue by as much as 9% according to Harvard Business Review. Nine out of 10 customers say that their buying decisions are influenced by the quality of online reviews. And nearly half of all buyers (45%) trust online reviews the most in their decision-making process.

From boosting your business’s ranking in local snack pack results to increasing conversion rates, online reviews are integral to the entire sales funnel. Reviews affect your business’s local search engine ranking, which results actually get clicked on, and consumer purchasing decisions. Nowhere are online reviews as important as they are for first time buyers who are making purchasing decisions about new, unfamiliar businesses. These buyers have only limited, first-hand experience about a product or service. Without any real-world experience on which to base their decisions, they rely on reviews to confidently make purchasing choices. While national chains can often coast by on their reputation, for small businesses selling unfamiliar products or services, online reviews matter can truly make or break their sales.

Why Online Reviews Matter: Closing the Gap between Purchasing Decisions

By the time potential buyers are looking at online reviews, they’ve already determined their need or want and are now in the process of selecting the final product or service. The space between reading reviews and making this selection is incredibly small. For businesses, this can be a bit frustrating as a yes/no decision can be made on the basis of any number of random, arbitrary and subjective pieces of information.

Did a reviewer have a bad day and take offense to an otherwise minor problem? If so, that single scathing review could send customers running in the other direction. Conversely, did the reviewer for a competitor’s service have a better than usual experience with this service? Their glowing praise could sway a prospect in that direction. And with the majority of consumers (67%) reading six reviews or less, according to a Bright Local Survey, decisions are made with less emphasis on the overall aggregate of reviews. In short, the quality and content of each review matters.

Now here’s the good news: positive reviews (for the most part) can outweigh the negative ones. Nine out of 10 shoppers say that positive online reviews influenced their buying decisions, according to Dimensional Research. With Moz reporting that online review signals may account for nearly 10% of how Google and other search engines decide to rank different results, positive reviews can have a significant impact on clicks and sales, especially for smaller businesses.

Managing Online Reputation with a Review Acquisition Strategy

Under-engaging in online media, ignoring an unfavorable aggregate review ranking on Yelp, engaging in online arguments, or simply failing to publicly apologize when mistakes happen are all big no-no’s. The biggest mistake your business can make? Failing to have a review acquisition strategy in place from day one. While you should never, ever work with a company that promises a set number of positive reviews (those are basically spam and downright unethical), there are things you can do to encourage satisfied customers to leave a review about your business:

  1. Regularly survey customers to gauge satisfaction. Include a space in the survey for a short (2-3 sentence) testimonial. Follow-up with customers who leave a positive testimonial and request permission to post this testimonial directly to a reviews section on your website.
  2. Worried that an unfamiliar product or service will be considered a roadblock? Encourage customers to explain how easy or simple the process is on your website. Legal Zoom, a company that helps people set up their own will online, does this perfectly. Customer reviews explaining how straightforward the process is for first-time users who might otherwise be intimidated by a complex legal process.
  3. Incentivize reviews with a product discount or free service sample. While you can’t control what folks write in their reviews, offering free service or product samples is a great way to boost the number of reviews that your business has.

Bottom line: Smaller, less-known businesses with unfamiliar products or services are more vulnerable to online reputation attacks. You can’t opt out of reputation management, so don’t ignore what folks are saying about your business. Encourage your website visitors to leave reviews of your products either on your site or on a major review site. Promptly respond to negative feedback with an offer to try your product or service again. Be proactive and remember reputation management and review acquisition, like SEO, is not a “set it and forget it” strategy. It takes time to build a positive online reputation!