Category Archives: Content Marketing

The Dangers of Tone-Deaf Publishing

Preachy and spammy content doesn’t get published by accident.  Why is so much content out of tune with what audiences want?  Bad ideas about content are a major source of content quality problems — but their role and impact can be difficult to notice.

Certain content practices perpetuate dated ideas, centered on broadcasting messages to audiences, instead of being pulled by what audiences desire. These practices churn out content without designing it to be in harmony with the underlying motivations of the audience. Such an orientation results in tone-deaf content. Misguided ideas about content need to be rooted out, and replaced by content planning that’s backed by substantive audience research.

The Problem of Tone-Deaf Content

Tone-deaf publishing happens when a brand talks at the audience and doesn’t realize the audience is cringing. People stop listening when the speaker doesn’t seem concerned about their reaction. Audiences feel as if they are enduring a bad,  screechy karaoke rendition that makes them want to head home early.

We encounter tone-deaf publishing when we feel we are being talked at. It might occur during a service problem with an airline or telecom provider, when they robotically tell us they “regret any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.”  People hear a pattern of broadcast messages that seem unconnected to their real needs. Customers feel they are being told to stop complaining, and just spend more money.

With tone-deaf publishing, content focuses on what the brand wants to communicate, rather than what the audience is genuinely interested in. It reflects a broadcast mentality: of talking, and not listening and responding. Creators of content mistakenly believe that content will be liked and noticed if it sounds friendly. But tone-deaf content is really about inappropriate substance, not inappropriate style. Audiences have stopped watching broadcast TV not because the personalities were unfriendly, but because TV broadcasts push generic packaged content aimed at a mass segment, and audiences grew tired of not being heard and having their interests reflected.

Tone-deaf publishing is a common problem for several reasons. Many firms embrace a couple of misguided ideas about content that come from the tech sector: evangelism, and marketing automation. Few firms have effective programs to discover and analyze unmet audience needs.

The tech sector historically has been the source of many bad content practices: jargon-laden content, cryptic messages, and stilted writing that’s sometimes produced by offshore contractors who are not writing in their native language. The tech sector has long prioritized cost-saving efficiency over quality in content. It is notoriously bad at thinking like their customers, and actively listening to them. Companies can come across as arrogant: some tech corporate founders are famous for their arrogance, and disinterest in feedback from others. Yet because the tech sector is financially successful, people often assume they always follow good content practices. While some firms do work hard to counter the cultural influences of a product-centric, engineering orientation, the tech sector unfortunately more often has a negative influence on content. Great content in the tech sector is the exception, not the rule.  The sector frequently embraces solutions that promise quick and easy cost benefits, but don’t serve the needs of audiences well, and erode brand value in the long term. Wrong-headed ideas from the tech sector about content can have an undue influence in other sectors, if people mistakenly believe the tech sector has the Goldilocks touch.

Evangelism and marketing automation annoy audiences.  But many people believe they are sound tactics.  They’re seductive because they seem like tools that will further a brand’s goals. Both these tactics enjoy popularity with less sophisticated practitioners of content marketing. Even some people who describe themselves as content strategists seem to condone the practices. Awareness of audience-centric content methods remains limited, so people unwittingly believe that message broadcasting is fine, without understanding how it is ineffective.

On the surface, the two practices seem to have little in common. One is about message delivery, the other is about technical delivery. But they share a common orientation: pushing messages at audiences, while showing a lack of interest in knowing what audiences genuinely want. And regrettably, because these tactics share a common orientation of pushing and controlling the message, they are often used in combination, making the experience even more tone-deaf.

Preachy Evangelism

Content evangelism declares: “This is the truth; this is what you need to believe.” Evangelism in the tech sector was started by an Apple marketing executive, Guy Kawasaki, who studied the techniques of Billy Graham to become Apple’s first evangelist. Kawasaki wrote a book called Selling the Dream, preaching the benefits of evangelism, and showing off his certificate of completion from Billy Graham. Many people best remember the pre-millennium years of Apple as a period when many of its customers were arrogant and annoying.  They knew the truth, and were superior.   Pity the poor person who got in a discussion with an early Apple disciple. That person was often treated derisively for having concerns about the cost of Apple computers, or hardware compatibility, or the availability of software.  Non-believers were on the wrong side of history, even while Apple’s fortunes were tanking. As long as Apple played the evangelism card, it remained a niche player.  Instead of simply debating their competitors, they were essentially arguing with their prospective customers.  Once they finally dropped the arrogant evangelism and stopped being so preachy, they gained market share to become the biggest tech firm around. They finally fixed their product shortcomings, so that their products could do their own advocacy, and people could make their own decisions by directly experiencing the product in Apple stores.

While selling dreams sounds warm and fuzzy, dealing with reality is a much more credible approach.  Evangelism doesn’t accept the customer’s reality: it tries to steamroll it, and get the customer to accept an alternative set of beliefs.  The elements of evangelism are pushy and argumentative:

  • Relentlessly push your point of view
  • Claim superiority
  • Counter objections
  • Sow fear and doubt

Numerous startups have copied Apple’s use of evangelism by appointing a chief evangelist. They act as carnival barkers,  preparing sound bites for journalists and VC funders.  But an evangelist is not the person to put in charge of customer-facing communications if you want to cross the chasm of reaching people other than fanatical early adopters.  Few customers can be expected to develop a hobby interest helping the brand with its marketing grunt work.

Content evangelism has become an unconscious tactic in much content marketing — including in discussions about content marketing itself.  Parties do it often without realizing they are doing it. The problem with evangelism in commerce (as opposed to social causes) is that most people want to choose, not be converted. They aren’t lost souls looking for something to believe in. They just want content that meets their needs as they define them, and gives them satisfaction as individuals. They have their own criteria about what’s important to them, which likely is different from what the brand wants to crow about. When people are treated as disciples, customer service invariably suffers. They cease being a source of feedback — people whose interests must be respected and loyalty earned. They are instead considered as a mouthpiece for the company.

Spammy Marketing Automation

Questionable ideas about broadcasting messages stubbornly refuse to die.  They have been updated for the digital age in the form of marketing automation. Automation lets marketers schedule how they push their messages, and uses a heavier hand to steer how people encounter the messages. The central idea of marketing automation is the same as any form of message broadcasting: the brand is in charge, the message is predetermined, and the audience is the variable being manipulated.

Automation sounds like it is smart, but it’s a mistake to jump to that conclusion.  Automation can be clever (hard to do) or dumb (very easy to do).  Automation is simply the absence of human judgment.  If you have a task that doesn’t require human judgment, then automation is the obvious choice. The trouble starts when one assumes human judgment isn’t needed, but it is.

Marketing automation vendors contend that human judgments are central to the process, because humans will review “qualified” leads to try to close a sale.  Rarely is the system smart enough to close sales on their own, so person-to-person conversation needs to happen.  But before this point is reached, countless other people have endured marketing communications they weren’t interested in.

Let’s consider a case where marketing automation generates emails to a group of people who have given “permission” to be contacted as they have not opted out.  The email content contains a link to a landing page related to the campaign.  The marketing team wants to know how many people both open the email and click on the link to view the page.  They find that two and half percent do this. Let’s be generous and assume that through A/B testing of headline and image variations, tracked by customer segments, the brand can double the clickthrough rate, so that a total of five percent now view the page.  Depending on the nature of the campaign, the marketing team might congratulate themselves on their success.

But the other side of the story is that 95% of people who had previously indicated an interest in the brand have chosen to ignore it here. Why is that? The awkward question may be rationalized away by saying these people weren’t ready — the brand will catch them next time. Or they weren’t the right targets.

The troubling possibility with marketing automation is that brands end up alienating the people they seek to build a relationship with. When the vast majority of people a brand contacts ignore the brand, common sense says the brand is engaging in spamming.  Nearly every explanation of marketing automation will deny that it is a technique of spamming. But the persistence of denials betrays the core problem with the approach: expecting the audience to match the message.  Marketing automation vendors suggest that they are responsive to audience needs, because they segment, measure and track audiences. Such audience matching doesn’t really change what’s offered to audiences.  It doesn’t really put the audience in charge. It simply ranks audiences according to how interesting they are to the brand.

A fiction of marketing automation is that it can make people more interested in what a brand has to say.  Proponents imagine that automation somehow makes content more relevant to audiences — that machines are the key to personalization, at least as they define it. What marketing automation can’t do is tell us why all this automated content is being ignored.  Because automation is labor saving, the brand may see little incentive to understand what’s not working.  They just want to scale up what is working. Ultimately, such fishing expeditions have their limits, however.  The waters become over-fished.

The Many Symptoms of a Tone-Deaf Brand

Tone-deaf content is not limited to the tech sector. All kinds of brands fail to deliver the satisfaction people expect from them, and their content communications can play a role in these expectation failures. Some tone-deaf content annoys because it’s in your face, and some irritates because it is clueless about us.

Suppose the issue is sprucing up one’s home. Sounds like a pleasant task.  But a recent article in the Atlantic probes “Why Ikea Causes So Much Relationship Tension” and notes that “each step of the Ikea process is rife with emotional triggers.”  Family therapists note that Ikea is often the catalyst of disputes: “Themed areas triggered related arguments: bedding (sex), kitchen goods (chores), children’s gear (don’t even start).”  Flat-packed, chipboard furniture that many people hope to not own for long, can fuel arguments and self-recrimination about issues such as a sense of equity in effort, confidence in one’s abilities and character, or how style choices mark identity.

No one expects Ikea to fix family feuds, but it is worth considering how their content might exacerbate tensions in the household.

Ikea often acts like a tone-deaf publisher.  Their content — from their signs, to their forms, to their catalogs — alternates between seeming to shout at customers, and presuming customers have enough patience to figure out what various cryptic communications mean.  Their products have names that are frequently difficult to pronounce and remember.  The entire shopping experience is about directing customer behavior instead of letting customers direct themselves.  People are forced to march throughout the entire store, and conform to a regimented process of selecting and collecting goods.  While some people might find the process enjoyable, it is common to find shoppers refer to Ikea as stressful and nerve-wracking.

Excessively cheery copy can risk sounding patronizing.
Excessively cheery copy can risk sounding patronizing.

Ikea’s copywriting is full of empty platitudes:

  • “Taking time to just sit back and relax — it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. That’s why we make soft, cozy sofas.”
  • “Your living room is where you share the story of who you are. So our living room furniture helps you do that.”

Such copy is gratuitous. A furniture vendor uses predictable and ignorable adjectives such as cozy and relaxing, as if some people are shopping for menacing, uncomfortable furniture.  But what’s worse is that it feels fake.  People are being told how they are expected to feel (rather than arriving at that feeling on their own).  And how Ikea tells people they will feel is oddly discordant with how they feel when shopping at Ikea.  The reality of Ikea shopping is sensory overload — anything but relaxing. There are endless choices, and it is often confusing what things are, and what the differences are between them.

Decisions: What is all this stuff, and how is it different from other stuff?
Decisions: What is all this stuff, and how is it different from other stuff?

Ikea’s biggest problem from a content perspective is their evangelism about do-it-yourself assembly. Ikea relentlessly promotes the idea that everyone benefits from self-assembly, flat-pack furniture. They won’t acknowledge that items can be difficult and frustrating to assemble — or that perhaps their instructions make it so. Rather, they try to convert you to believing it is easy to do. If you don’t agree, you can pay them to install it. You have to pay a surcharge for not believing their point of view.

Speechless: Simple-looking wordless diagrams can provoke anxiety.
Speechless: Simple-looking wordless diagrams can provoke anxiety.

Ikea’s wordless assembly diagrams would seem to embody the “less is more” ethos of minimalism in technical communication. Minimalism aims to make communication more direct, removing unneeded words, and so doing save on translation costs. But while Ikea avoids the expense of translation costs by using wordless diagrams, it comes at the expense of audience understanding. And that lack of understanding translates into frustration, and a poor regard for the brand.

“Designed for use in any culture or language, Ikea’s deceptively simple assembly manuals give users the (often incorrect) impression that the project can be accomplished without much time or effort.  If that mute, genderless cartoon figure can build a rolling kitchen island, it stands to reason, surely we can too. When those expectations are dashed, egos take a hit.” — The Atlantic

Ikea’s content problems are numerous, and sometimes subtle. To some extent their core business model of passing along the work to the consumer tends to disregard a basic insight: that shopping for furniture is often an intrinsically stressful experience, due to the many emotional issues associated.  Ikea should use content to make the shopping experience less stressful, starting with what the Atlantic termed the “deceptively simple” assembly instructions.  No one likes to be deceived by fake simplicity.

On the positive side, Ikea sometimes offers more audience-centered content, such as when it talks about how shelving systems can adapt to changing needs, or discusses the stress testing of furniture to assure parents the furniture can handle the rough treatment of their children. These kinds of topics address real needs of buyers.

Putting the Audience Back at Center

Content strategy is not about polishing messages. It is not about being more efficient at delivering content — important as that is.  Content strategy is fundamentally about meeting audience needs, both obvious and less obvious.  All else are details — of little value if audience needs aren’t being met.  This observation may seem unremarkable, until one realizes few  content strategy processes give the audience a central role in the content creation process.  Where is the audience swim lane? What audience input is used in decisions on what content to create?

Deep audience research can uncover both the motivations and needs of audiences to identify issues of greatest importance to people. The advertising world relies on account planners to provide audience insights, while the interactive design world relies on user experience researchers. These people feed into either a creative brief or design brief, which defines the direction of projects.

Brands that don’t routinely uncover one or two significant, non-obvious insights about their audience probably aren’t doing serious audience research. Such insights can become the raw material of themes to address in content: topics to cover, information to include, and ways to frame a discussion.

  • What occasions does the issue remind people of?
  • What aspects, perhaps indirect ones, do people dread in association with the issue?
  • Why do people believe something that’s factually untrue relating to the issue?
  • In what ways do people behave differently than they say they do, or believe they do?

Getting reliable answers to such questions is not easy. It requires indirect probing, and synthesizing connections across different people and topics in a lateral manner.  Such analysis does not lend itself to automation or simple indicators.  Small wonder the tech sector shys away from this kind of analysis.

How to Make Content Audience-Centric

It is not enough to try to imagine how audiences will react to content. It’s far too easy to project one’s own interests onto the audience, or rely on stereotypes, and miss out on understanding the real motivations of audiences, as well as how their offline behaviors and discussions shape their decisions. You might imagine you are seeming empathic with your audience, but your audience feels reminded of their meddling mother-in-law, or a critical high school tennis coach they once had.

Focus on what’s not working in one’s content.  Don’t just focus on improving what is working.  What’s being ignored, or is causing friction, may represent a much bigger target of opportunity.  It is hard for analytics to reveal the story behind what’s not working. The content may be emphasizing benefits that are not important to the audience.  Audiences may tune-out because the content is saying things that are obvious to them, or worse, triggers anxieties.  It is important to work with people skilled in audience research methods, to answer why people would really care about what’s being said.

Social media teams can discover surface problems and issues, but deeper insights require dedicated research, which could involve social media, but would be separate from daily social media operations. Individuals rarely ruminate about what’s not working for them and why that is, and can’t be expected to volunteer answers to brands.  Brands need to actively uncover the motivations that influence reaction to content.

Few writers and content producers have experience with audience research methods. Journalism schools have only recently introduced audience research into their curriculums. Most traditional publishers and broadcasters are focused on attracting and retaining viewers, rather than designing content aimed at behavior change.  Insofar as they are concerned about audiences, they have a ratings mindset focused on popularity, rather than a service mindset focused on supporting activities.

Content creators should partner with researchers who have experience working directly with audiences.  Such researchers can combine the best of qualitative and quantitive methods, and may have a background in sociology or anthropology.  To understand unmet audience needs, content creators might work with people in different roles, who could be:

  • User experience researcher
  • Design methods facilitator
  • Market researcher with a background in interviewing

The range of research techniques that are available and potentially useful is vast. A few possibilities include:

  • Shadowing
  • Stimulus-based discussions
  • Panels
  • Role plays
  • Design activities
  • Video diaries

The most appropriate methods and approaches will depend on the nature of the audience and content.  Someone skilled in research can organize quick discovery research that will identify promising areas to probe in more detail.

Content strategists can learn from how interactive designers work with UX researchers to explore issues. Innovative designers no longer assume they know what people desire and base their designs on such assumptions. They engage with users before designing a digital product; they don’t just test their ideas after finishing.  That model of continuous user involvement — before, during, and after the creation of a design — needs to be more common in the creation of content as well.

Audience research involves an investment of time and money. Not all content can be based on primary research.  The highest priority candidates will be content themes where there is a wide gap between what the brand believes it must communicate, and what audiences seem to want.  If a large portion of an audience is ignoring content on a theme important to the brand, or is less than enthusiastic about what’s covered in the content, the brand needs to consider how it can connect better with audiences. Pushing harder won’t change the dynamic. Listening harder will.

— Michael Andrews

Content Promotion and Ingredient Branding

Brands wrestle with how to make their content not seem like advertising.  As much as people dislike ads, at least a couple of things are generally clear: who the advertiser is, and what they want from us.  To overcome audience resistance to ads, brands create content that hides either who they are, and/or what they want from us.  It is doubtful such subterfuge delivers long term benefits.  Audiences are too skeptical to be fooled for long.

Brands need to ask:

  • When is it appropriate to talk about yourself?
  • When should you let others talk about you?
  • When should you highlight who you are in your content?

Many brands lack reliable answers to these questions.  To avoid awkward questions about their purposes, they skirt transparency. Brand journalism is a prime example.

The Reputation Problems of Brand Journalism

Brand journalism goes by several names, including native ads or sponsored content. The essence of brand journalism is to talk about yourself — without appearing to talk about yourself.  You don’t call attention to the fact you’ve paid someone else to present content about you. It’s similar to the stealthy product placement in films, where brands spend money to make sure their beverage or other product appears on the screen.

Brand journalism is justified in the name of content quality. Brands argue their story is good enough to be featured with leading stories from a well-regarded publication. They buy access to an audience of a publication, much as they do with advertising.  But they dress up the content to appear as if it’s content from the publication itself.  They disguise their primary role in the content. They make it seem as if it is a collaboration between them and the publication, and that they have a broader public interest motivating the creation of the content.

The Guardian offers sponsored content in a non-transparent way.  To many people, the content will not appear to have paid for as an advertisement.
The Guardian offers sponsored content in a non-transparent way. To many people, the content will not appear to be paid for as an advertisement.  A small link takes the viewer to a long page of generic fine print.  Even with this explanation, the viewer  doesn’t know who exactly paid for the content: one firm is listed as the party that brought the content, but the author is listed as being from another firm, and there is no indication of the commercial relationship between the two.

For the moment, the tactic works.  Audiences still don’t have a clear understanding of the source of content, and generally assume the publishing platform produced the content.  While Google bars sponsored content in its news feed, its search results don’t distinguish  native advertising published in the Guardian from content produced by Guardian staff that is not paid for.  And the area is still lightly regulated.   The US Federal Trade Commission has started looking into the boundaries between advertising and sponsored content, but hasn’t produced any rules that are slowing down the practice.  None of these factors will necessarily continue, however.   Native ads are already getting a grilling by comedians such as John Oliver, so public scrutiny is bound to increase.

Because brand journalism is really public relations, it tends to attract firms with public relations problems.  These are the new advertorials: trying to persuade people who wouldn’t normally be interested in the topic, or the point of view offered.  It’s an uphill battle, and firms that do brand journalism run the risk of being seen as firms with reputation problems.

Reputation Building: Making Your Brand Explicit

There is a difference between letting people know you who are, and talking about yourself.  The basic problem of advertising is not that brands reveal who they are.  It is that advertisers talk excessively about themselves.  A basic tenet of trust is being able to evaluate the credibility of a speaker.  Unless the speaker’s identity is revealed clearly, people can’t be sure they are getting unbiased information.

Content marketing promises to remove the hustle from the content.  Ideally, it offers advice that is not a one-sided advertorial.  The content takes into consideration the range of needs of the audience, and addresses various concerns.  Brands that offer audience-centered content boost their reputations.  They become known for offering objective advice that is not focused on their products. The goal of content marketing should be to become known as helpful, not pushy.  And any brand that hides behind another will be viewed as pushy — trying to buy influence instead of earning it.  Transparency is non-negotiable.

Endorsements remain powerful.  Audiences judge content credible when endorsed by a source they consider credible. Brands need to earn credibility from others, not try to buy it by pretending to have news organizations write about them.

Transparency and endorsement are not conflicting goals.  They are mutually supportive.  Brands promote their interests when they endorse other brands with whom they share interests.

Lessons from Ingredient Branding

Ingredient branding is about making the invisible, visible.  It does exactly what content marketing should be doing: bringing greater transparency and information to consumers.

Ingredient branding is a tactic used for marketing consumer products, but generally isn’t associated with content marketing.  With ingredient branding, a brand explains the features of its product that rely on the technology or know-how of another.

We encounter ingredient branding in many products, including our computers.  “Intel inside” is a label on many computers that indicates who made the microprocessor.  The information reduces uncertainty for buyers about the provenance of the product.  Intel offers computer buyers additional information about its components.  The computer manufacturer is endorsing Intel, who has an opportunity to explain the capabilities and benefits of its product.

Other prominent examples of ingredient branding are information about the capabilities of Gore-tex treatments on clothing, or Teflon coating on cookware.  Ingredient branding makes something that’s not visible to consumers, more evident to them — for example, Dolby sound.  Good ingredient brands can spark curiosity about a product that might be otherwise seen as unremarkable, such as when the Pink Panther cartoon character represents Owens Corning building materials.

Ingredient Branding and Content Marketing

Historically, ingredient branding has been limited to point-of-sale content: providing a sticker or an informational tag.  But the concept can be extended to all phases of marketing for a range of products.

All kinds of products and services rely on a complex web of partnerships.  The more complex the product or service, the more bewildering it can seem to buyers.  Products appear as a black box that defies understanding.   People may worry that important aspects are outsourced to contractors of uncertain reliability.  The business pages are filled with stories about product recalls due to faulty third party components, systems crashes due to poor contractor performance, and disruptions due to supplier bankruptcy or supply chain bottlenecks.

Many products and services are built on a stack of components provided by different sources.  Perhaps a critical element  of the firm’s operations relies on the abilities of a supplier. Will they continue to modernize and accommodate new requirements yet to emerge?  A service might seem slick right now, but how well can we count on it a year from now?  What’s under the hood?

Content marketing can use ingredient branding to demystify a product or service, and surface stories about the development of the product that answer concerns of buyers.  What challenges are suppliers and customers trying to solve together?  Do they have a common roadmap for the future?  Stories can demonstrate a reliable relationship, in contrast to the more fragile arms length relationships that exist elsewhere.

Suppliers and their customers can reciprocate in sharing stories about each other.  Suppliers can highlight the use of their products by others.  Those using the products can mention their use and the reasons for their choice, and link back to the supplier for buyers wanting more detail. For the supplier, it is a chance to show they work with astute customers.  For firms relying on the supplier, it is an opportunity to affirm their belief they are using the best available resources for the benefit of their end customer.

Greater transparency is gained through illuminating relationships.  Trust is increased when brands don’t talk only about themselves, but about their partners.  They show they are invested in the success of their partners.

Buyers don’t just rely on a supplier: they rely on an ecosystem of suppliers.  They deserve to understand what that package offers.  Brands have an opportunity to endorse others in their ecosystem, both those who they rely on, and those using their product.  By focusing on the wider picture, they expand the conversation, and attract a wider audience.

— Michael Andrews

Content Strategy for Product Reviews

By most any measure, product reviews are one of the most important types of content.  Audiences spend serious amounts of time consulting reviews of products, relying on them to make decisions.  Some devote even more time to reviews, expressing their own views about products and services.

Despite their obvious importance, there is little consensus within content marketing precisely how product reviews matter to audiences.  Content marketers tend to focus inwardly on their own interests, rather than the audience’s.  They want to talk about their own products, and ignore the existence of competitors.  Depending on their skills and inclinations, content marketers will emphasize the role of owned media (if favoring branded content), social media (if favoring social media influence and reputation management) or promoted media (if relying on PR or promotional favors such as special access).   Yet such attempts at influencing customer opinion of products are of little value unless one first truly understands audience needs.

Brands need to embrace an audience centric perspective toward product reviews if they want to sell more online and become a trusted source of product information.  Audiences don’t just consult product reviews to evaluate products; they actively evaluate the information in those reviews to determine if relevant to their situation.  The discipline of content strategy can help brands identify the different elements audiences seek from reviews, and what information brands need to deliver.

The significance of reviews

The importance of product reviews continues to grow. For nearly every product category, people are buying more online each year.  For some categories such as travel, more than half of purchases are made online in some countries.  Even with more localized products such as groceries, online purchasing is increasing.  Buying online requires confidence that one is buying the right product or service.  Consumers are also spending more on digital products and services, which also require review information.  Even when people buy a product or service locally, they rely on online reviews to make decisions.  Time is limited, while choices proliferate.

The vast quantities of product review content need to be managed appropriately.  This content can be enhanced to make it more useful to audiences to support their buying needs.  However, brands for the most part have neglected to do this.  Most rely on a simple template of allowing their customers to rate their products with stars, and leave some comments in an open text field.  The benign neglect of product review content results in an unsatisfying customer experience — the information is not as helpful as it could be.  It hurts the brand hosting the review, because they provide information that doesn’t really answer the needs of audiences.

Product review content is a distinct genre with a long established history.  In many respects, online product reviews are less helpful than their pre-digital ancestors.  To understand the potential of the product review genre, I will draw on an extensive study of reviews by Grant Blank: Critics, Ratings, and Society: The Sociology of Reviews.  Blank’s book, which was published in 2007, barely discusses online reviews, but instead provides a very detailed examination of reviews by newspapers, magazines, and various kinds of consumer surveys.  His insights provide rich material for rethinking how online reviews should be managed.

Basic types of reviews

Blank categorizes reviews into two basic types: connoisseurial, and procedural.  They are different approaches, and each has unique strengths.

Connoisseurial reviews reflect the skills and knowledge of an individual reviewer.  For a connoisseurial review to have impact, the reviewer must have credibility with the audience.  Readers assume the reviewer knows what she is talking about because she has written other reviews on the same type of product or service, and has built a reputation as someone with deep knowledge who can be relied on.  A connoisseur’s impact is measured by how much they influence their audience, or possibly how much they influence the producer of the product.  Sometimes a reviewer’s impact is so great that they attract a regular audience of readers who may not even be looking to purchase a product, but enjoy hearing what the reviewer has to say, because they share interesting insights that add to the reader’s understanding of a topic.  Connoisseurs don’t try to review everything, only the stuff that’s most notable.

The classic kinds of connoisseurial reviewers are the great restaurant, theater and movie critics.  People like Craig Claiborne reviewing New York restaurants, or Roger Ebert reviewing movies.   Their reviews reached many people, and could have a big impact on the suppliers of the products they reviewed.  Some connoisseurial reviews are done by a corporate entity known for their expertise in an area, such as restaurant reviews by Michelin (France) or Gambero Rosso (Italy). 

In the post-mass-market, digital age, it is tempting to believe that connoisseurial reviews no longer play a big role, but this would be a mistake. Some connoisseurial reviewers started in legacy media but have moved entirely to the digital world.  People like David Pogue and Walt Mossberg reviewed technology gadgets for influential newspapers before starting their own blogs. On a smaller scale, connoisseurial reviewers are evident in many places.  In this age of self-branding, people want to show off their knowledge. Members of LinkedIn and Quora answer questions posted, often in the hope of building their reputations. Numerous platforms cater to the output of bloggers and video bloggers who comment on the offerings of fashion, technology, and products for children. Some of these bloggers and video bloggers have developed enormous followings that rival the reach enjoyed by legacy-media critics.

Procedural reviews reflect the results of tests on a product. They generally compare several similar products, and note the differences between them. The tests are meant to be transparent, and reliable, based on uniform criteria — the same test will yield the same result no matter who conducts the test.  There is an emphasis on developing data on a number of attributes of a product, and converting these data points into a numerical score that audiences will consider objective.  Because they compare many products with complex attributes, sometimes they yield surprising results.  The purpose of compiling all this detail is to support the purchase decisions of readers.

The archetypal examples of procedural reviews are the product evaluations of Consumer Reports (US), or Which? (UK.)  PC magazines did extensive procedural reviews of computer related products, with multicolumn data tables comparing features and performance results.  Among digitally native publishers, procedural reviews are less common, but some specialist sites will review products to test them for their real battery life, or their shock resistance.

While Blank considers connoisseurial and procedural reviews the two main categories of reviews, he acknowledges some hybrids that often involve surveys.  A notable example of a hybrid is a Zagat guide, which combines a procedure for reviewing restaurants with the judgments of different individuals who act as dining critics.  Zagat was the first product review to utilize public opinion surveys of customers.  Another prominent survey of critics is the Academy Awards.

Other types of hybrid review include those that that use a procedural process to evaluate products based on their historical performance.  Morningstar does this for financial products, while Consumer Reports surveys car owners to get warranty and repair data.  The popular but controversial university rankings by US News also combine survey and performance data.  Yet another kind of review-like listing involving surveys are lists that rank products according to their popularity.  Popularity reviews include the Billboard charts, the New York Times bestseller list, and box office charts for films.  The presumption of such lists is that what is most popular is what is best.

What makes a Quality Review?

Reviews that are beneficial to audiences must be credible, useful, and timely, no matter what approach is used to construct the review.

Audiences consider the credibility of reviews as essential.  Brands cannot presume that a review will be read at face value.  Audiences can spend a lot of effort unpacking the meaning of reviews.   They look for two qualities: that the reviewer is disinterested (in the sense that he doesn’t have a financial interest in the outcome of the review), and that the reviewer is knowledgeable.  Both these topics are concerns with user-generated reviews.  Audiences don’t know exactly who is making comments or writing reviews online.  There have been numerous accusations of firms either writing fake favorable reviews of their products, culling bad reviews about them, or sabotaging rivals with bad reviews.  Sometimes firms do this directly (in one widely reported case, the CEO of Whole Foods trashed a competitor anonymously) but other times firms hire surrogates to write reviews beneficial to a particular brand.  Even when audiences are convinced a review is written by a “real” customer, they may still have questions as to how much that customer knows what they are talking about, and how reliable their judgment is.

Even when the review is credible — devoid of obvious bias or misunderstanding — the review is not necessarily useful.  The utility of a review depends on the goals of the reader consulting the review.  Blank identifies two major goals audiences have for reviews: to make decisions, and for learning and enjoyment.  Some readers need very specific information to make purchase decisions; some want an overall judgment rendered, while others simply want to feel they understand what’s important about a product, and what developments are happening.  The differing goals point to different qualities in reviews: one focused on granular detail, the other highlighting big themes and trends.

Finally, audiences want to feel that reviews are up-to-date, and that the information will not be rendered obsolete soon.  They look for clues that something has changed: perhaps a slight model change, a different source now making the product, or indications that service quality has deteriorated or suddenly improved.   Audiences are sensitive to changes, and believe that reviews should indicate a consistent experience with the quality of a product.  Brands are expected to be consistent, and signs of inconsistency are worrying.  The collective body of opinion reflected through different reviews is meant to help audiences predict how a product will perform for them in the future.  One can see this phenomenon in the reviews of apps in an app store.  A new version of a popular app is released, and suddenly reviews turn negative.  Has the new version betrayed the vision of the prior versions, or is this grumbling a temporary product glitch that will be soon corrected?

While credibility, usefulness and timeliness seem like obvious standards for reviews, they can be challenging to realize under a decentralized, crowd sourced model of relying on review content that is user directed and generated.

What reviews say about products, reviewers, and readers

Reviews reflect objective and subjective qualities of products, reviewer orientation and bias, and audience preferences.  It can be hard to untangle the interplay between these elements.

About the product

The first difficulty is knowing exactly what precise product the review addresses.  Products and services are always changing, and sometimes these changes introduce uncertainties.  Have the tech specs or has the product offer changed?  Is the product now made by a different supplier, or using cheaper materials?  Has a defect been fixed, or is it a random, continuing problem?  Was the delivery experience good or bad because of time of year?  Was a hotel stay bad because of a manager who has now been replaced?  Has the priced changed, and accordingly expectations have changed as a result?

Brands sometimes make changes without changing the product name or model.  Other times, they introduce new product models for minor variations, and consumers become confused if their experience with a product they bought is relevant to the model currently for sale.  Not only do reviewers talk about past and current experiences, they may be inclined to speculate about future models or offers.

When comparing products, a difficulty can arise in deciding what features are considered essential to a product category.  Is having a choice of color an essential quality on which to judge a product?  Products with more features can appear more capable, but are not necessarily “better.”  All watches tell time, and some watches do much more than that. Figuring out which watches are comparable and should be reviewed together may involve some arbitrary decisions.

About the reviewer(s)

Readers typically know little about who the reviewer is, and what motivates them.  Many people have a suspicion of reviewers who seem overly enthusiastic or negative, which can reflect either a personality bias unrelated to the product (e.g., agreeability or snarkiness), or a naivety about what is reasonable to expect.  Positive reviews can reflect post hoc rationalizations justifying a purchase, and negative reviews can reflect buyer’s remorse.    Reviews can be as much about the reputation of the reviewer as about the reputation of the product.   In France recently, in an ultimate face-off of reputations, a reviewer of a restaurant was successfully sued for damaging the reputation of that restaurant.

In addition to whether reviewers have reasonable emotional expectations, readers wonder about the reviewer’s knowledge of the product category, and whether that knowledge is appropriate for their needs.   Reviewers may be expert users of a product or novice users, and may be either brand loyalists or first-time customers of the brand.  Each condition carries its own set of expectations.  Experts may criticize entry-level products as inferior; novice users can be wowed by mundane products, or possibly overwhelmed by them.  In some product categories, people apply different frames of reference to evaluate a product.  For some people the service at a restaurant is most important, for others, the authenticity of the food.  Different audience segments often rate products differently, applying different criteria.  When brands don’t appreciate these differences, the reviews become jumbled.  Yelp reviews tend to average three stars because everyone tends to focus on different characteristics, which all manage to cancel each other out.

About the reader

Like reviewers, readers have different priorities, which can change in different situations.  Sometimes an individual may prioritize convenience; other times he or she may prioritize price or features.  Readers will generally have more enduring preferences about products, which will shape their preferences toward reviews.  Broadly speaking, some people evaluate products (or categories of products) on a rational basis (cost/performance), and others on an emotional one (how it makes them feel).  But such distinctions are less clear than might first appear.  Most people choose clothing for emotional reasons, but will avoid a purchase if it doesn’t fulfill expected cost or performance criteria, perhaps learning that it looks great when new, but doesn’t hold up.  Some product categories, such as hiking and biking gear, appear to be about performance criteria, but these criteria are often a means of self-expression rather than utilitarian need.  When the product is truly experiential, perhaps an online course or digital music, it can be harder for individuals reviewing content to rely on explicit criteria.  Instead, they are more likely to try to compare the content with something else they have experienced previously, or to rely on the judgment of others who they feel resemble them.  In the magazine era, people who read certain magazines could be expected to judge products in similar ways, because they shared a common point of view about products, what was important and how to judge that.

Implications for digital content strategy

Audiences today face a multitude of sometimes-conflicting problems.  They may face an avalanche of product reviews about certain products such as the latest smartphone offerings.  They may have trouble comparing the usefulness and quality of different reviews of a product.  They often have trouble comparing two or more different products from different vendors, since reviews tend to focus on individual products.  They may be overwhelmed by the choice of products available, but find only some of these products are reviewed at all, and those that are reviewed have a paucity of information.  They may feel overwhelmed by apparent the irrelevance of many reviews.  They may feel many reviews seem to be more about the reviewer than the product itself.  They may feel scared to buy something when finding dramatic negative reviews, or angry when they didn’t pay attention to a negative review and later had a bad experience.  They may read many reviews but feel little wiser because the opinions seem confusing or inconclusive.

The current free-for-all in user reviews doesn’t serve brands well either.  They have little insight into how reviews are used.  They often don’t have a sound operational perspective on how to act on review information.  Some brands treat reviews as a social media channel and try to respond to comments as if they were on Facebook.  Other brands discourage reviews by asking customers to fill out private surveys.  Many Amazon vendors aggressively solicit reviews and even suggest what rating should be offered.  Those customers who do submit online reviews may not be representative of all customers.

Brands need to ask themselves some core questions.

How do we know which reviews are influential?  When ratings are aggregated, all reviews are considered equal.  But not all are equally useful to audiences.  Which specific reviews are useful and how do they influence others?  Some sites allow readers to rate reviews that are useful.   But often “useful” reviews are ones that are long, with lots of description of the product, offering information that should be in the product information, instead of offering true evaluations.

How do we improve the review experience?  It can be hard for readers to find the kind of information they seek or that reflect aspects they consider important.  They also rarely are able to discover other products they don’t already know about through reviews.

How do we encourage high quality reviews and feedback?  Too many reviews are of poor quality, or lacking essential information.  Many products aren’t reviewed at all.

Managing reviews as strategic content

Reviews are too important to be left to a junior forms designer on the UX team.  Reviews can be a strategic asset, if the right structure is in place to ensure that the content offers value.  When viewed through the lens of content strategy, there are many things that can be done to make reviews more effective.  I’ll share various ideas on how to improve the product review experience.  Not all of these ideas are appropriate for all products, and will depend on the breadth, depth and diversity of products being reviewed.  The ideas share a common theme: enrich the information by providing more explicit connections between information items.

Better product review information

Customers often comment on specific product features.  They deserve a better structure to enable them to do this.  Today reviewers are generally invited to leave comments in one big unstructured text box.  This needs to change.  One possibility would be to adopt the annotation functionality appearing on some blogging platforms.  Reviewers could provide their own comments about their experiences next to the product information describing a feature or product attribute.

Some sites elicit ratings about key product attributes, which allows these more specific ratings to be aggregated.  Potentially such attribute ratings could be compared across different products, although in practice this is rarely done.  Readers want to know how the experience of customers of one product compares with the experience of customers of another similar product, but online product reviews rarely provide this ability.  Part of the problem is that many product-oriented sites lack robust metadata to enable product comparisons; instead, they rely on highlighting what other products people looked at, which may not in fact be comparable.  Sites should combine a detailed taxonomy with database queries of product attributes and performance, to suggest what other products are most similar.  Ideally, this comparative product set could identify what attributes of are most valued, and which are the biggest concerns to buyers (durability, portability, ease of learning, etc.) Even if these attributes are not explicitly captured, they could be inferred through text analytics.

Finally, retailers and other providers of product review content need to be more proactive in managing the product architecture information. There are so many similar products: variations for different markets or buyer segments, minor product changes, white label products sold under multiple brand names.  Using the product taxonomy and product attributes and performance database, the review provider should identify similar product models that have a common basis, where possible.  Since consumer review information may be scant for a specific model, it is beneficial to highlight review information about related product models, including information about the brand’s overall reputation.

Providing context about reviewers

The use of real names is not always necessary and may not always be desirable.  But providing more context about a reviewer can help readers, and if done properly, benefits reviewers as well.  Many sites provide little incentive to reviewers to post their comments, and those that do often reward activity over quality.  Sites may acknowledge someone as a “top reviewer” because of the number of reviews posted, regardless of how relevant or useful they are.  Review providers need to move away from a social media popularity mindset, and instead think about review posting more in terms of community discussions.

The reputation of a reviewer rests on what they know (post on) and how useful their comments are to others.  The concept of reputation points used in community forums can be applied to product review forums.  If a reader deems a review useful or not useful, that reputation carries to the reviewer.  Reviewers who earn a threshold number of reputation points may receive a benefit that is unrelated to what they are reviewing: perhaps a small sum that can be donated to a cause they support.  The recognition of reputation is important for encouraging quality reviews, and helps readers evaluate reviews as well.

Readers also want to know what reviewers know about.  By correlating a person’s reviews with product categories, it is possible to provide a high level summary of what the reviewer has written about previously.  Readers could see the products a reviewer most actively reviews by brand or category.  This scent may offer the reader an indication of other content written by the reviewer they may be interested in seeing.  If the reviews are published in a community of interest focused on a product category for fans or enthusiasts, it may even make sense to allow readers to follow a reviewer who has deep expertise in a given area.

In summary, providing more context about reviewers can improve the reader’s evaluation and discovery of relevant products.

Supporting reader needs and actions

Product review content shouldn’t be considered in isolation from the product information: both influence buying decisions.  Ideally, review platforms should provide the ability for buyers to choose what criteria is important to them, and see both product information and related user comments about these attributes.  With such an approach, it may be possible to use analytics to correlate what review content a reader accessed, with the outcome of their purchase decision.  While there are many variables to track (potentially over multiple sessions), if the datasets are sufficiently large it might be possible to infer patterns.  It may then be possible to infer the impact of specific review content.  What kinds of comments, about what aspects of a product, had the biggest impact on purchases?

Conclusions

Product review content is a strategic asset, and needs to be managed as such.  Brands need to move beyond thinking about reviews as a simple popularity contest involving the awarding of stars.   Customer reviews are not just another passive KPI metric like customer satisfaction surveys: they are active content that drive customer behavior and business outcomes.  To leverage the power of this content, the content must be structured and enriched to support customer goals.

— Michael Andrews