Sunday, 27 January 2013

Peer to peer recommendations - still important?

A few years back (2007) I completed the CIPR's postgraduate diploma in Public Relations. Part of that was undertaking a dissertation, and my chosen topic was on the value of social media for peer to peer recommendations for PR. I kept up a blog on the work at the time so feel free to check it out, although clearly no longer active.

The premise I had at that time was the effects that marketing research had shown for Word Of Mouth (WOM) could be harnessed by businesses using social media. People like hearing what their friends value, what they are buying, reading, eating.

Things have moved on a fair bit since 2007. According to the TripAdvisor website, there are now more than 75m individual reviews about hotels, restaurants or other travel-related guidance on their site. It's no longer just a small subset of in-the-know techies writing the reviews; it is you and me, your friends and even your parents. Amazon will prompt to you revisit and rate products you have purchased. Unlike 'review', 'rate' asks little of you as a customer, thereby further increasing the likelihood you will respond. Most ecommerce sites will also provide you with "share" options to tell all your friends about the service you have just used. Again, this is asking very little of you as a customer, and provides that business with a brand advocate without any investment of time or effort.

Mashable recently posted a somewhat sceptical piece on the current value of a LinkedIn endorsement. It suggested that the service has made it so easy to just hit a button and endorse for skills that the reader - be they recruiter or potential business associate - has no way of validating whether those recommendations are genuine or just the result of someone logrolling (giving in expectation of the same favour in return). If you apply that same logic to the rating options on other websites, do brands still benefit from providing this as a way of showing peer to peer recommendations? Do we, as consumers, see this as valuable, and does it affect our purchasing decisions?

I have begun to consider whether there is the same value in "peer to peer" review as I had originally suggested, and whether instead it's time to discuss the value of "friend to friend" review. Going back to the huge increase in users of peer to peer review sites such as TripAdvisor or TopTable or CheckATrade, do we (as potential customers) still hold these views of strangers to be valid? I know I'm not the only one to have been paralysed by checking out a hotel over and over on TripAdvisor then getting to the hotel and had a fantastic time anyway. Similarly with Amazon reviews: reading is subjective; just because one person hasn't enjoyed a title, why shouldn't you?

I'm not saying I don't believe these review services offer value. There is always value in seeing crowdsourcing as a measure of popularity: if a restaurant gets 50 five star ratings, there is a good chance that it will be better than the restaurant next door with 50 one star ratings. What I am saying is could there be something even more valuable on offer if we start to look at a more granular level at who these people are?

TripAdvisor already does this to some extent by allowing for filtering by type of review: romantic, business, family etc. This goes back to the original premise of 'peer to peer' social media WOM for PR, which was that you are influenced in purchasing decisions by 'other people like me'.

This is intensified if those reviews are from the people we actually know are like us, in other words our friends. Consider for example services like Spotify where you are connected in with Facebook friends, seeing what tracks they are listening to. You are much more likely to only be connected to people you genuinely 'know' on Facebook. At least much more so than we 'know' our Twitter contacts, or know any of the people whose reviews we are reading on TripAdvisor.

So how much more powerful could these recommendation services become when we start looking at what our genuine friends, with whom we know we share interests, are sharing? And could we begin to look at how to harness this network even further for brand advocacy?

More to come on this topic over the coming weeks.