A Q&A with Darcy Reifenberger of BzzAgent.

Keith Anderson speaks to Darcy Reifenberger of BzzAgent, by dunnhumby, for the Profitero Podcast Series. Darcy helped launch BzzReviews, which helps brands generate well-written product reviews. In a transcript of this episode, Keith and Darcy discuss the importance of advocacy at the digital shelf, the role of sampling tactics in content generation, how brands can encourage loyal customers to leave ratings and reviews, and why authenticity is critical.

Note, this podcast was recorded before Amazon changed its policy on third-party incentivized reviews.

KA: Thanks so much for joining us Darcy. If you don’t mind, just tell us a little bit about your background and what you do with BzzAgent.

DR: I’ve been with dunnhumby since 2008, leading client relationships for analytics and insight solutions across a variety of key accounts, including Panera Bread and Coca-Cola. Since 2012, I’ve contributed to BzzAgent’s strategic and tactical media initiatives.

Most recently, I actually built and launched a solution called BzzReviews, which is where we help clients generate product reviews and bring authentic consumer opinions to the digital shelf and beyond. What that means is we run end-to-end advocacy campaigns where we place product samples with a targeted audience of volunteers within our network, and ask them to write a review. Then we have partnerships set up with syndication companies. Bazaarvoice is actually our lead partner who helps get the content out to the places that matter most, within their retail network and also brand sites.

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KA: At the digital shelf we think ratings and reviews are among the most important types of content that brands don’t have direct influence over. One of the questions a lot of brands ask as they get more deeply entrenched in e-commerce and supporting their brand online is, “Where do we start? What can we influence? How we do it authentically?” Just tell us a little bit about the way you think about that, and how brands can and should approach it.

DR: I might start by taking a step back and just making sure we’re all on the same page of why reviews are really important in this space. I know we both have a lot of passion around it. Nielsen annually publishes a study called, The Trust in Advertising. In that study, the top, trusted form of media is recommendations from friends and family, from people who consumers know. I think we can all relate to that.

Secondly however, I think on a regular basis, it has also shown that consumers regularly trust opinions posted online, to guide their own decisions. Certainly, with the increased prevalence of mobile usage and people just getting used to researching products online, that’s becoming increasingly important. At the digital shelf, when your family and friends might not be sitting right next to you, it’s really those opinions that are published below on the product page, that are going to be the online peer group of influencers for people.

Increasingly, companies are seeing the value of product reviews in actually impacting sales. Many studies have proven that actual sales conversion impact. Bazaarvoice has noted that there’s about a sweet spot of a 30% conversion lift when you go from having 0 product reviews on a page to about 50. Even beyond that, there’s still a positive correlation of review volume to the number of orders, even at higher volumes.

KA: We work with a lot of brands, benchmarking their starting position versus specific competitors or again, some of the bestsellers or outperformers in their category. The questions that quickly follow are, “If we’re behind, what can we do?” What do you think about the options that brands have for influencing those types of metrics in an authentic way?

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DR: That’s a great question. I would say, before you even get to that point, let’s focus even on the new product launch. That’s a great place to start in terms of making sure that you’re seeding some reviews, even advance of the launch, with people who are going to write great, quality content for you. Generate the content ahead of launch and work with your syndication partner to get that content out to the product page, as soon as it goes live. When you do it in that order and then have all of your other national media go live around the same time, those consumer opinions are already there and visible as the reference point, as new consumers are becoming aware.

From there, you can absolutely look across your product coverage, not only across the breadth of your product line, but then the depth of review coverage. Whether that is the depth of coverage, compared to a competitor or the depth of coverage, compared to, maybe your company’s general goal for a number of reviews you might want to have on every product. That’s where you can then be more surgical around using a variety of tactics to achieve that goal.

Certainly, there are tactics out there where you can achieve a very, very high volume of product reviews in a short period of time. You can do that through a sampling mechanism, but we’ve become increasingly aware of how that can come across as looking rather inauthentic at the destination site.

Instead, what we’ve helped our clients do is to take that overall goal of volume that they want to achieve, and then plot that out, maybe running some various pulses of campaigns over a longer period of time, so that you get a more reasonable flow of content to your site. That approach actually helps boost SEO as well, because with a lot of retailers’ algorithms the notion of recency is one that’s important. You don’t necessarily want to achieve all of your volume at one point in time.

KA: How should brands be thinking about authenticity in the context of these various tactics for prompting reviews and some of these types of campaigns?

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DR: Authenticity is one of the main factors of how we structure our campaigns. It’s really important. The root of BzzAgent is really all about making marketing better. The root of dunnhumby is, having the consumer at the core of everything that we do. We would never want to be a part of something that isn’t authentic. It’s just not a good proposition in this industry. I think, as your audience is thinking about who to engage with, in either a sampling tactic or other mode of generating review content, really emphasizing the importance of authenticity is absolutely critical.

I have a couple of areas that they might want to focus on, when having those types of conversations. I think the first is really understanding who is writing the review and how they are being engaged. Who is it? Are they actually experiencing the product in a way that can be guaranteed? Some content-generation programs that I’ve seen don’t actually have that as an assurance.

A lot of the best sampling communities out there have a managed community of people who are writing their reviews. They’re targeted, so that the product that they’re sampling is actually, extremely relevant to their everyday life. Again, that’s where the power of the content that is generated is coming into play. You want to be sure that the reviewer can articulate their experience with the product in a way that’s relevant to the consumers who are going to purchase, making sure that you’re not sampling to the masses, but to consumers who would be most like your buying audience.

Then to the topic of authenticity, making sure that there is disclosure of some sort in the content when it’s out there. That can happen in a variety of ways, depending on how the content is getting to the destination site. We love working with syndication partners because when that content runs through their pipes, it’s automatically badged as having come from a product sampling community or badged as the reviewer having received a free product. That disclosure’s already there and present.

KA: I recall a counter-intuitive study that showed that negative reviews can actually increase the overall perception of credibility because a product that’s got only 5-star reviews just doesn’t seem credible.

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DR: That’s exactly right. Even within a sampling tactic, you’re likely to have some negative reviews. We just ask for people’s honest and unbiased opinions. When that happens, you’re certainly going to see some reviews that come through that have some critical feedback. I think the best practice there is just to be sure that your brand or your e-commerce team has a way of monitoring what’s out there, and a way to respond and reply, and show that they care about consumer feedback.

KA: Can you share, in addition to sampling, some of the various tactics that are out there, that a brand might consider when they’re starting to focus on ratings and reviews? Then specifically, how does BzzAgent use sampling in this context?

DR: There are a lot of tactics out there to generate product review content. Certainly, just making sure that your site is accepting of negative product reviews is probably, just a first and very basic step, but that’s critical. Having a mechanism where there’s that post-interaction email is also a really good way to signal to the consumer that you really want their feedback.

Other best practices that clients have shown is just placing that review call to action in every possible place. Working across your organization to be sure that your packaging is asking consumers to write reviews, that your social media is encouraging consumers to write reviews. Just really positioning your brand as being open to that type of feedback.

Where sampling really comes into play and works nicely within a mixture of tactics is knowing that the community you’re going out to or asking for reviews from is likely to be a community of skilled product review writers. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of that social currency to encourage someone to take time out of their busy life and write a nice review for your product.

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That’s where the sampling comes into play. Again, there’s a distinction between sampling and incentivizing someone. The notion of just truly giving someone a free product with the expectation of getting their honest and unbiased feedback in return is quite different than, let’s say, paying someone to really write a positive review. Again, that authenticity is really key, very critical there.

I would say, within the sampling ecosystem, there’s really four big components of making this process happen, just to review them. It’s having that community of skilled reviewers. It’s having the software or the central management of this whole review request, and the outcome. There’s the fulfillment of the product sample itself, and getting that to the reviewers in the right way. Then the content distribution. Either letting the reviewers go to the right destination or point of influence sites where they should leave their review, or taking the content and then distributing it across the syndication network.

I think at some point, as our e-commerce industry evolves and as consumers become even more savvy over time, most products will likely have a certain volume of reviews. Some brands are playing off of each other right now and trying to have a race of who can get more volume on a product page. I think over time, volume and star rating are actually going to become a little bit less important. Things like, as we see Amazon really going toward recency and even verified reviewers and also helpfulness. Those things are going to help make that quality content bubble up to the top.

I really believe that the substance of the review, the length which ultimately contributes to how much substance can be in the review, that’s what’s ultimately going to inform the purchase decision. You can play all day with generating a high volume. Unless those reviews are actually substantive enough to answer that consumer’s question when they are trying to make a purchase decision, then they’re only going to be somewhat limited in the amount of true value that will come in impacting sales conversion.

KA: I’ve started to note that retailers, including Amazon, are now piloting or maybe rolling out sampling boxes that’ll combine a handful of brands within a category. If I were a brand, how would I think differently about a sampling program like that, versus a sampling program that’s intended to generate review content?

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DR: I think it’s really all about your objective as a brand. The sampling boxes are really a conduit to trial, mainly. Unless they have clear calls to action, where you’re asking them to advocate for your product. To not only try it for yourself, but actually talk to your friends about it or pass along some samples to friends. It really is direct marketing, just with a sample.

At the same time, even if you’re asking those consumers to write a review, they did not necessarily sign up to receive that sample, with the expectation of leaving a review. The key to the sampling tactic, if you want a strong outcome in writing reviews, is knowing who you are engaging and making sure that, that community is the right one who’s going to give you the quality content.

KA: Two topics that we spend a lot of time thinking about and working with clients on are, how to define success and how to measure success? How do you define success, and what should a brand be measuring?

DR: A lot of sampling campaigns, ours included, really do structure their campaigns to yield a certain volume. Usually, if you have a pretty engaged network, you should have at least 65% of those respondents actually writing a really good review for you. I think that general engagement is an important one. Secondly, you should be asking for honest and unbiased reviews.

What we do try to measure and hold ourselves accountable to, is actually the helpfulness rating. In the past, as we were starting to think about review content generation, we were really thinking that the Holy Grail of measurement was sales conversion impact. Certainly, we want our content to be impactful. At the end of the day, certainly a key piece of sales conversion is actually just overall sentiment about the product, and that’s something that’s out of our control. If a product is not so engaging, consumers will write that in their reviews. Then ultimately, we will not be impacting sales conversion.

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But we’ve really seen that the helpfulness rating is very strongly correlated with purchase intent, and certainly even with actual sales conversion impact.

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