In a recent IBM survey of over 1,700 CEOs from more than 60 countries, online customer communities ranked second only to face-to-face interactions as the most important channel through which they plan to engage customers.

Online customer communities have been around for a while now, and new ones are showing up all the time in both the B2C and B2B sectors. Some even suggest that such communities will supplant social media as the most popular way for businesses to connect online. Is this likely? Considering that social media is an important element of many such communities, probably not.

But whether you’re a business service vendor or customer, joining and interacting with other businesses in an online B2B community offers several important advantages. Here’s why online communities that allow vendor reviews are a valuable resource for businesses researching purchases:

  1. A study by the Acquity Group revealed that 94% of B2B buyers conduct research before deciding on a purchase.
  2. A 2014 survey from the Demand Gen Report supports the case for online communities that provide a platform for evaluating software and service providers; 97% of B2B buyers in the study believe that user generated content—like peer reviews and group discussions—is more credible than other types of content.
  3. In the software industry alone, for example, a study conducted by Software Advice found that 63% of buyers consider reviews in order to create a shortlist of solutions to evaluate.
  4. Two-thirds of these buyers found online reviews valuable to their research, and 59% said they were likely or extremely likely to choose a product based on reviews.
  5. According to the State of B2B Procurement, only 48% of B2B buyers visit suppliers’ websites in order to make purchases.
  6. In a study from Avanade, more than 60% of enterprise buyers said that reviews are more important than information from the company itself.
  7. Customers like to leave reviews, and often just need a little encouragement to do so. Nearly 60% of software buyers said they wrote reviews to help others.

Clearly, being part of an online B2B community that allows you to offer and receive reviews can be of great value, whether you’re a buyer, seller, or both. Encouraging your customers to provide reviews within a business community shows just how much you value their feedback.

What About Negative Reviews?

But won’t encouraging reviews invite negative reviews as well? The fact is, whether they are thrilled with your services or have a complaint, customers will write reviews. And when negative reviews appear in the mix, B2B customers actually view this as a sign of credibility. Among software buyers, 76% thought products with a mix of positive and negative reviews to be more trustworthy than ones with all positive reviews, according to a Software Advice survey.

If you’re a vendor, being engaged with your customers in a community will give you the opportunity to address their concerns and maintain positive customer relationships. Responding to feedback you receive demonstrates your willingness to provide the best possible customer experience.

“Negative reviews provide authentic feedback about the parts of your product or service that don’t quite work for your customers.” – Manya Chylinski, Founder of Alley424 Communications

Turning Negative into Positive

Use negative feedback to identify and correct mistakes and also to gain an understanding of how you might improve your products and services. Participating in the conversation with a customer who has a complaint is the best way to mend the rift and begin to truly build engagement.

Community Content is Powerful

The true benefits of online community participation often defy—or at least resist—measurement. DemandGen Report’s 2014 Content Preferences Survey found B2B buyers relying increasingly on content to research and make buying decisions. This is very good news for online communities, where content plays a significant role.

Community content is used to spark discussions, answer questions, and provide a solid research base for community users. Being actively involved in a community that provides research tools and content, and allows vendors to participate in discussions, places you in an ideal position to connect with potential customers and provide the answers they need.

This post was originally published on the InsideUp marketing blog.