Back image of a person wearing an adaptive backpack by JanSport, with a girl in a wheelchair in the background.
When backpack maker JanSport launched its new Adaptive Collection earlier this year, it leveraged customer reviews driven by product sampling in order to drive sales. — JanSport

Why it matters:

  • 98% of consumers read online reviews at least occasionally when browsing online, according to BrightLocal.
  • Consumer interaction with online reviews is up 50% since before the pandemic, according to PowerReviews, as consumers adopted more digital shopping habits.
  • In turn, brands such as JanSport, MeUndies, and La Colombe Coffee Roasters are weaving positive customer reviews into their marketing messages; offering product samples to solicit reviews; and even leveraging employee reviews to stoke brand equity and drive business.

Product sampling, question-and-answer polls, and more sophisticated analytics have become key tools businesses use to optimize the marketing power of customer reviews.

Major brands such as backpack maker JanSport, underwear brand MeUndies, and La Colombe Coffee Roasters are using these tactics and others to turn their customer reviews into a more powerful form of user-generated content.

As e-commerce volume has ballooned since the start of the pandemic, online customer reviews have become an even more important element of the purchasing journey for consumers, according to industry experts.

A recent survey from BrightLocal found that 43% of consumers said they regularly read online reviews when browsing online for local businesses, for example. That’s up from 19% in 2019 and 26% in 2020. Almost all consumers surveyed — 98% — said they read online reviews at least occasionally.

Research from PowerReviews, meanwhile, shows that consumer interaction with online reviews — including actions such as searching, filtering, and clicking to expand and read an entire review — spiked 89% higher at the start of the pandemic, but has since stabilized, with growth still strong at 50% over pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, the top five factors that improve shopper confidence online all revolve around reviews, according to the Bazaarvoice Shopper Experience Index. These include, in order, the average star rating; the number of reviews; details in reviews that resonate with shoppers’ needs; how recently reviews were written; and the presence of lengthy, detailed reviews.

“The fact that we conduct research online makes it even more important, because we don’t touch and feel [the product], said Zarina Lam Stanford, Chief Marketing Officer at Bazaarvoice, which offers solutions around user-generated content, including reviews. “We read what other people have to say in the reviews or the commentary. The power of word of mouth is paramount.”

[Read: How To Turn Deinfluencing Into a Marketing Opportunity]

JanSport’s product samplings and video tutorials fuel winning customer review campaign

When backpack maker JanSport launched its new Adaptive Collection specially designed for individuals who are mobility challenged earlier this year, it leveraged customer reviews driven by product sampling in order to drive sales. The line included both the Adaptive Backpack and an Adaptive Cross-Body Bag, both of which included specific functionalities such as adjustable loops and anchor straps for securing the backpack to a wheelchair.

The company has long incorporated user-generated content into its marketing efforts, but this campaign called for feedback from a unique customer niche. Working with PowerReviews, JanSport said it wanted to make sure it got the product in front of the right audience.

In November 2022, the brand launched a sampling campaign — providing products to users and soliciting their reviews — and paired it with an online video tutorial, according to a PowerReviews case study.

The effort garnered a 90.2% review completion rate — above the industry average of 85% for such campaigns, according to PowerReviews — and a 4.7-star average rating.

As a result of the campaign’s success, JanSport said it was considering using similar product sampling for all of its new product launches.

Andrew Smith, Vice President of Marketing at PowerReviews, said product sampling is especially effective for new product launches, so that brands can gather reviews from a select group of consumers before the products actually become broadly available to the public. While the consumers who receive advance samples are not required to submit reviews, they generally feel compelled to do so, he said.

“Product sampling is a really good solution for new products,” said Smith. “It’s like the chicken or the egg scenario. What comes first? The reviews or the product? With product sampling, you kind of have the best of both worlds.”

[Read: Loyalty Programs From Jet Blue, Sweetgreen and Others Evolve to Deliver Experiential Rewards]

If the review is legitimately about the product and is negative, we are big believers that that should absolutely be displayed on the front page. We've done a lot of research on this, and what we find is consumers get suspicious if everything is completely positive.

Andrew Smith, Vice President of Marketing, PowerReviews

MeUndies leverages reviews from customers and employees to earn consumer trust

Prompting customer reviews by offering incentives — known as inorganic reviews — is another strategy that brands are using to ensure they have a high volume of user-generated content.

MeUndies, which offered a subscription service in which customers receive new underwear each month, took several steps to bolster its product reviews when it introduced a total of 68 new items in 2021, after several years of minimal new-product launches.

The brand began using tools from Bazaarvoice to solicit customer reviews, and also added a “Write a Review” button on its website. It also launched multiple sweepstakes offering customers a chance to win in exchange for reviewing products in certain key categories.

In addition, MeUndies also started collecting reviews from staff members. The company labels its staff reviews with custom badges, so that shoppers can see that a staff member left the review. Customer reviews that were incentivized are also labeled with a special badge, as are reviews left by customers who actually bought the product, which verifies the authenticity of the review.

“Most of our customers read reviews before purchasing, and they expect our reviews to be extensive, cover every detail of the product, and to be recent,” the company said in a Bazaarvoice case study.

Reviews from employees are especially valuable, according to MeUndies, because customers have confidence that the reviewer is knowledgeable about all aspects of the product and service.

Since making the changes to the way it gathers reviews in 2021, MeUndies said it has recorded a 218% increase in approved reviews submitted through email.

Another aspect of MeUndies’ review process is its ability to respond to negative reviews. It works with Bazaarvoice to moderate its reviews and respond online to negative reviews. This gives the company not only an opportunity to provide a more positive experience for the customer, but it also allows other customers to see that the brand is seeking to provide good customer service.

Smith of PowerReviews said his company also moderates reviews to weed out profanity and other inappropriate activity, but he said negative reviews can actually help bolster the credibility of the review content overall.

“If the review is legitimately about the product and is negative, we are big believers that that should absolutely be displayed on the front page,” he said. “We've done a lot of research on this, and what we find is consumers get suspicious if everything is completely positive.”

People like to see a range of about 4.5 to 4.9 stars in a review he said, noting that having all five-star reviews is generally not perceived a genuine.

La Colombe taps analytics to weave key words from five-star reviews into marketing content

Brands are also getting better at incorporating review content into their marketing efforts. Coffee roaster and café operator La Colombe Coffee Roasters, for example, appreciates the positive reviews it receives so much that it has featured them as integral elements of its marketing.

When the company was planning a summer tour to promote its Draft Lattes, for example, it noticed that one reviewer said the mouthfeel was “like being on a cloud.” It designed the webpage for the campaign to feature the review, front and center, the company said in a PowerReviews case study.

The company also uses review content in paid ads and in email campaigns. Emails with content from reviews get more traction that emails that lack review content, La Colombe said.

La Colombe uses tools from PowerReviews to analyze five-star reviews and identify words that are used in multiple reviews so that it can key in on these terms that it knows will resonate with consumers, the company said.

The company has also used a sentiment analytics tool, which leverages natural language processing to read all reviews, and then assign a sentiment score to each product. It then compares these sentiments with those associated with competitors’ products.

Going forward, Smith of PowerReviews said he expects that reviews will become more personalized for individual consumers.

“In the future, brands may be displaying reviews based on certain algorithms around how a consumer has interacted with their site,” he said. “I haven’t really seen it happen yet, but if there’s 1,000 reviews, there’s no way a customer is going to read them all. Using automation to sort them in a way that’s going to resonate with the consumer is where I see the industry going and how I think reviews can become even more impactful than they are already.”

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