We know that digital presence is a critical part of business strategy, but how can business owners and marketing managers ensure their plans are effective? In this episode, Emily is joined by the director of market insights at SOCi, Damian Rollison. SOCi is a data-driven platform that empowers brands to scale their presence across local search and social media—listen in as the two discuss how you can leverage engagement to improve your online presence and simplify multi-location operations.
On the Yelp Blog: Take a deeper dive into Damian’s insights with his list of things to focus on (and things to forget) when it comes to review response management.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Typically, I share a story featuring conversations with a business owner as well as someone who wrote them a Yelp review. But this week we’re doing things a little differently.
I am here today with Damian Rollison. We’ve been collaborating on a virtual event to teach business owners about the power of reviews and engaging with your online reputation, so I thought we should maximize our time together by recording a podcast episode as well.
Damian and I talk to different audiences of business owners, but there is so much overlap in what we see, what we teach and how entrepreneurs at any level should engage digitally. Damian has a lot of experience with multi-location businesses as well as franchise and enterprise businesses. Today he’s going to bring that perspective and how larger brands approach their online reputation. These learnings and takeaways can be applied to any business owner, no matter how big or small.
To start, Damian, could you introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your role and then give us the download on the company that you work for.
DAMIAN: Thank you, Emily. Thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast. I’m really excited to be here. My name is Damian Rollison. I’ve been working in what they call local search for over 15 years. And I’ve been working for that entire time basically to help businesses understand how to market themselves within digital search and social media channels at the local level. So local businesses of all kinds. For years, I worked with small business owners and with platforms that helped to represent their needs. And now for the last few years I’ve been working with SoCi, which is a company that specializes in multi-location chain and franchise businesses.
The needs are very similar, but they’re at a kind of a larger scale. So we work with Yelp and other publishers to make sure that these businesses are both claiming and managing their basic profile information on various sites and apps that consumers use to find local business information, making sure that the information that they find is accurate for our clients and up to date and that they’re providing all the needed details, hours of operation and links to book appointments and all that kind of stuff.
And then as it relates to reviews, our job is to make sure that businesses are on top of the reviews that they receive, that they get alerted when new reviews come in, that they have an efficient means of dealing with reviews in terms of responding to them in a timely fashion. And that they’re also able to look at reviews as a source of consumer feedback that can help them improve as a business, which is a really important theme. So there’s kind of two prongs to our approach to dealing with reviews. One of them is awareness and using them as a kind of an extension of your customer support activities. And then the other one is to use them as a feedback loop with the consumer tapping into that sort of voice of the customer in order to figure out what you’re doing well as a business and what you need to improve on.
EMILY: When you and I first started talking about having this conversation, what I wanted to focus in on was how some of these multi-location franchise or enterprise brands operationalize their systems because they have to—because they’re dealing with such volume or scale, but also how those operational plans and having something set in place before you have to deal with a customer can really help a business of any size. I think before we even dive into that and talk about the strategy to staying on top of things, I’d love for you to give a little bit of your perspective on online reviews in general, whether it’s multi-location or single location businesses.
I think there’s this fear or emotional attachment to online reviews that sometimes is a barrier to actually engaging with an online presence for a business. So if you could just share a little of your experience with what business owners may fear or what their concerns are and what you actually see in the marketplace of how consumers are using online reviews to talk about their experiences.
DAMIAN: Well, I think there’s definitely a perception out there, and it’s shared by small business owners, as well as marketing teams for larger companies. Multi-location brands share this perception as well that reviewers are there to complain, that they’re there to gain attention for themselves, and that they can be ignored safely because they represent some kind of eccentric, edge case, human behavior of some kind.
And that’s really not true. I’m surprised frankly, that perception has persisted for such a long time, but it does seem to be still kind of hanging around. This idea that you don’t have to pay attention to reviews because they’re all a bunch of cranks or something like that. What’s actually true is that most reviews are sincere customers, you know, people sharing their experiences with their peers in an effort to help people understand when a business is doing well and how they might want to encourage more people to share the experience, the great experience that they’ve had.
Or when they wouldn’t recommend a business, here’s what, you know, what was negative. And here’s why. Most reviews are pretty sincere. There are people who write reviews that are self-aggrandizing, or cranky, or whatever, but that’s the minority.
What’s really important is that just about all consumers 89%, 97%. You hear these studies that survey consumers as to how often they read reviews before choosing a business. The basic conclusion is that just about everybody does this, right? And so they’re seeking information from these peer groups who have encountered this business in the past in order to evaluate their choices.
And when a brand ignores their negative reviews or all of their reviews and doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t respond—and their competitor by contrast is right there, engaging with the reviewer, thanking them for their praise and apologizing for bad experiences, offering to make it right—that stands out in the mind of the consumer. And people are more likely to choose a business—I believe Yelp’s own research indicates that people are more likely to choose a business when the business is actively responding to its reviews. And my experience really bears that out as well.
EMILY: Yeah. I think something that’s so fascinating when we talk about having a strategy is of course the importance of replying to the negative, right? Gleaning insights, making things right, maybe inviting them back.
But a lot of businesses miss the opportunity with the positive too, right? They think, ‘Oh great, this person’s happy.’ And then it just kinda ends there. Those are the people you wanna thank as well. These are the type of people who can end up being ambassadors for your brand. I mean, they are your biggest fans.
Something that I also see a lot in the market is looking at reviews as a star rating and being satisfied with that instead of digging into what the review is telling you. And let me give you an example, you know. You get a 5-star review, right. And you’re happy, but they might be giving you five stars cause they did have a great experience, and they’re also letting you know something that wasn’t so hot, but they’re not docking you a star for it. And so something I see, ‘Oh, we’re doing great. We’re getting a lot of five and four stars, but there might still be insights there that you can improve upon.’
Can you talk a little bit about that from a multi-loc lens? How have you seen businesses effectively take that information and really evaluate what’s being said, instead of just, “We’re doing great”?
DAMIAN: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I actually want to respond to two things that you’ve just mentioned. One of them is, you know, engaging with positive reviews. And I really wanna encourage businesses to think of review engagement, review response as something that’s not just about the person who wrote that review, it’s about every other person who’s going to read reviews of your business and check to see whether you’re responding. So you’re forming your reputation as a business with every response that you publish. And as a result, again, imagine the perception that you create, if you only ever respond to people who complain, right? That shows that you’re in triage mode or that you’re trying to mitigate, you know, the negative impression. But you don’t care about the positive one. Shouldn’t you be thanking your loyal customers in encouraging repeat business? I mean, if you’re not doing that, that’s a conspicuous omission that consumers will notice, right? So I wanted to make that point.
And then in terms of what you can learn from reviews overall, the five star rating system is a very popular tool for a reason, but it’s pretty simplistic. If you really think about it, it’s not very granular and it doesn’t give you any information about what really the experience consisted of in detail, right? And I applaud Yelp for not allowing people to leave just star ratings and with no review text, because people want that text. They want to understand the nature of the experience and from a business perspective—that’s where a lot of the real value comes from. I can share, for example, a story of trying to convince a large discount store chain that they should be paying attention to the content in their reviews to let them know how they’re doing as a business.
And I received a lot of objections to this, but finally the CMO said to me: ‘Look, we know our floors are dirty. We know our staff may be kind of rude. We know our bathrooms aren’t very clean. We don’t really need to know that. We already know that—we don’t really care. But if you could tell us when our shelves are empty, that’s something that we would care about,’ and reviews can tell you those things.
If you’re paying attention to the content and analyzing it with tools like we provide at SOCi—word clouds and sentiment analysis, we can show you which terms are trending at different locations. And our clients have used those tools in lots of interesting ways. We had an example of a restaurant chain, where we were able to point out to them that people were not happy with the food quality. And in particular, there were these trending terms in their reviews around meals arriving at the table that were dried out and not flavorful and all these common terms, clustering around dryness of the food.
And we were able to help the restaurant figure out that it was because of the heating station where the meals were being left before they were delivered to the table. They were being left at the heating station for too long, and so that was causing this dry food to arrive as a result of the analysis of the reviews.
Something that they didn’t know was happening and didn’t think to ask or look for, but the reviews themselves told them, ‘Hey, here’s this thing, that’s trending, this complaint.’ They were able to improve the process of keeping food warm before it was delivered to the table. And as a result, the incidence of those complaints diminished.
And that’s an example that has more to do with negative sentiment, but with positive reviews too—there’s a goldmine of information about what it is that people like about you. Perhaps it’s isolated to the customer service practices of certain locations or certain times of day or days of the week that you can extend to the other times when people aren’t having as great an experience and you should really be paying attention to that.
Even as a small business owner, you’re gonna accumulate enough review content over time that it’s gonna provide you very specific information about what you’re doing well and maybe not so well that you can learn from or in order to improve that customer experience. It’s basically a free source of information that companies spend millions of dollars conducting consumer surveys to provide basically the same feedback that you’re already getting—if you would only pay attention to it—in these online reviews.
EMILY: I wanna dig in on that food dryness example, because something that I think is fascinating there and is a good learning for our listeners. If they’re reading that information, right, and they’re not automatically jumping to, ‘The server needs to be faster. The server’s gotta get the food from the lamp to the table faster.’ They were looking at it holistically like, ‘Okay, this is happening. There’s probably a couple ways we can address this problem. Is one speed from the kitchen to the table? Is another changing the lights, the area where the food is waiting?’ And I think the learning there for businesses is don’t always react and make massive changes based on immediate review feedback.
Look at it with your layer of understanding of your business, and then look at solutions that might feed into that. Any advice that you can give about looking at this feedback with a grain of salt and almost when to identify if it’s a trend, or like any stories there for how you can maybe break that down or look at online reviews without automatically jumping to changes every time you get a criticism?
DAMIAN: Yeah. Well, I think you can think of these things as falling into different buckets of priority. That’s probably a good perspective to bring in general. One of the things that we enable in our platform is alerts when certain phrases occur in reviews, and sometimes you do want to act, even if there’s only one incidence of something, because it’s just so important.
So for example, again, with restaurants. We have restaurant chains where they’ve asked us to alert them whenever a review mentions raw chicken. That phrase, right? And you can imagine, yeah, that’s something that from a health perspective and from a PR perspective, you wanna take action on very quickly and deliberately, even if there’s only one incident. But with something like the dryness issue, if that only occurred once you’d probably wanna write it off to a bad experience with that one consumer. They might not even be reporting their experience with total accuracy again, if it’s only one example, right? That’s just a statistical thing where you want to have a sort of critical mass of incidents that are similar enough before you decide that something needs to be done.
And that’s where statistical analysis can be really helpful. And that sounds like a sophisticated thing that only some companies could potentially have access to—and it is true that within our platform, we’re automatically tallying the number of times similar phrases appear, and you know, that makes it a lot easier—but we didn’t start out that way. We actually, the reason we do this is because early on when we were providing these tools to just monitor and respond to reviews, we heard feedback from our own customers.
In particular, there was a chain of eyeglass and contact lens retailers that we worked with for many years. And, they told us that they were maintaining a spreadsheet, an excel spreadsheet. Every time they read a new review, they would log, what was this review about? What other topics did it mention? What kind of sentiment was associated with those topics and how does that correspond to trends that were detected in other reviews?
So after a while, they had this Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of reviews with all of those data points logged, and they would report to the CEO on a monthly basis about what was trending in the reviews. And we said, we can make this a little easier for you. So we began to develop these tools that would do a lot of that stuff automatically.
But it was based on the perception of that team that we really did need to pay attention to those trends. There was value in a lot of different directions, in that particular case, to speak to your point about not jumping to conclusions, but acting sort of, you know, calmly and judiciously, and taking a more comprehensive approach.
What they would do is if a certain customer service problem, for example, was to crop up a certain number of times, they would add it to their staff training manual. That this was something that you needed to be aware of, right? And they would even use a review as a kind of a pocket case study of when somebody has this kind of a complaint about a return, for example, this is how you should handle it. And here’s an example of how this didn’t go well based on the content of a review. So that was a great way to utilize reviews to improve customer service in the long term.
EMILY: Absolutely. And you hit on something that I’d love to dig a little deeper on, which is how being proactive and having a plan in place before you get the feedback can really help remove that emotion and help you be strategic in your response. I don’t wanna make a generalization about all businesses, but typically, when you’re dealing with multi-location, you’re maybe giving it to someone else right there. Maybe there’s like a marketing team or an external team handling it, but the practices are the same, like having templates and having a plan for how you respond is the same. I would love it if you could kinda walk through some of your advice on how to create templates and maybe what a response template looks like, and also how you can have a template, but customize it effectively so you don’t look so canned.
DAMIAN: Yeah, templated responses can be really powerful, but they do need to be used in the right way. And so what you really don’t want to do is, you know, have a response to every review that says, ‘Thanks for your feedback. We take your input very seriously. We hope you will visit us again.’ And then over and over and over again, it’s the same three sentences, right? So templates should not work that way. The best way to templated responses is to imagine that you’re doing this, you’re launching into a review response for the first time.
You’ve already accumulated some reviews. So you’re at some kind of midpoint where, you know, you have reviews you can look at to develop the right kind of responses. You should read a bunch of reviews and see what’s trending or use tools that will help you to uncover that and develop responses for the common types of positive and negative reviews.
Let’s say, you know, half a dozen, maybe 10 of the most common things that people say in your reviews—and believe me, the same kinds of complaints and the same kinds of positive things do occur frequently. And so you may want to have two or three different responses, with slightly different wording for each of these common types of topics that will occur and then you’ll wanna leave certain things blank so that when you use this template, you’re gonna fill in the person’s name so that it’s personal. You’re gonna remember to mention one specific detail of something that they talked about in their review.
Again, you read the review carefully, you’re paying attention. You’re responding to the specifics, not just in general. And you may even wanna vary the wording slightly, you know, from one usage of the template to the next, right? So you wanna make sure that you don’t have to rewrite the response every single time.
Let’s say 80% of the work is already done for you in choosing the correct template. But you’re filling specific details to personalize that response so that it does not feel robotic to the reader. And then, you know, you’ve covered a good percentage of the reviews that you’ll receive, but never will you cover all of them through templated responses.
So you’re reserving your energy to craft an original response in cases where you see a review that you haven’t seen before, right? Don’t just choose, you know, a vaguely appropriate template in those cases, but craft an original response, right? And over time, if that type of review occurs, you know, more than a few times, create a new template for that.
But let that be an organic activity, that, again, it’s assisting what should be a really human response protocol that feels human right at its foundation.
EMILY: I think that’s spot on. And I think another big part of this whole strategic element is the removal of the emotion. I liked what you mentioned about saving your energy for when you do need to write something specific and not having to think about it every time from scratch. Could you maybe talk a little bit about how you think consumers actually see critical reviews and what role a business can play in turning that perception around?
Because to me, a critical review is not necessarily a negative mark against the business. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for how a negative review can be perceived. So I would love it if you could share some insights on that.
DAMIAN: We’re actually in the midst of a study right now—we accumulate lots of data, as you might imagine, in the course of the work that we do.
And one of the things we were interested in trying to figure out was, as your average rating increases, for example, is it more likely customers will choose you, you know? Does your rate of conversion from search to offline transaction—does it go off, and what we found is that, yes, it does. Especially in the range from about three and a half stars up to about 4.9. Interestingly enough, when you go from 4.9 to five stars, the conversion rate dips down again. And why does it dip down again? Because people are suspicious when businesses only ever have five star reviews. And Yelp does a good job of weeding out cases where reviews are inauthentic.
But consumers still feel—this is sort of more, a general statement about all the reviews we encounter, whether it’s Amazon, you know, all different kinds of platforms. Consumers still feel that if a product or a business only ever gets positive reviews, there must be something weird or wrong or fishy about it, right? And so people like to see a mix of mostly positive, but sometimes negative reviews, because that sounds authentic to them. And then it’s just a matter of, okay, what has the business done to address a negative experience that may sometimes occur?
Because after all, none of us is perfect. There are off days. Managers in a bad mood. Somebody doesn’t notice that somebody’s waiting for something. Anything can happen to the best of us that might create a negative experience and spark a negative review. But what is the business doing to address that, right? And so, again, I don’t wanna harp on this, but review response is a very powerful tool for mitigating the negative effect of occasional negative reviews.
And I would say the best case scenario is that you’re somewhere in that higher echelon of ratings, but you do have a few reviews that aren’t so positive and yet you’ve taken the care and time to address them. And that’s gonna create the best impression in the minds of consumers.
EMILY: Is there any advice you’d like to share for folks about engaging digitally, representing themselves online, anything that we didn’t cover that you think would be some great advice for them to end?
DAMIAN: Well, we think of local marketing for businesses that want to build awareness of their brand, their company at that local level—we think of it as breaking down into three pillars or three main areas of focus.
And we’ve talked about one of them, reputation management, quite a lot today. You cannot accumulate reviews unless you have social profiles. And so, you know, social media marketing and search marketing are the two other things that we emphasize very strongly. And so for search, we think about things in terms of Yelp and other sites that people turn to when they don’t know what, which specific business they want, but they know they want a Mexican restaurant or a dry cleaner or whatever.
So standing out in search is super important. You wanna make sure your profile or profiles—every business has several of them because there are several platforms that people turn to—there are several of them where you wanna make sure that your profiles are claimed and optimized with all the information, all the fields filled out that you can possibly fill out with engaging photo content, showing what the experience would be like of visiting your business and all the rest of it.
Reputation management—pay attention to those reviews and then social media management. That’s a real growth area right now, with a lot of moving and changing parts. We still encourage businesses to be present and very active on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, if you’re B2B—you know, the different platforms make sense for different businesses, but we’re paying a lot of attention to Snapchat and TikTok these days too.
Depending on your brand, that may be a really good place for you to investigate, especially if you’re targeting younger demographics. But whatever makes the most sense for your business. You wanna make sure you’re weighting your marketing efforts across search reputation and social. Don’t just do one of those things, but do a combination of all three.
EMILY: I think that’s great advice. And I think when it comes to social, you know, you see a lot of different things in terms of how people represent and reflect themselves online. Have you noticed a trend of the personal and almost like less polished performing well on social, and the insights there about what kind of content business owners can produce that’ll really land with their audience?
DAMIAN: Yeah, it’s actually kind of a helpful insight because a lot of people feel that they can’t do social media marketing effectively because they don’t have a big budget to produce these slick polished videos and, you know, pieces of collateral and so on. But it turns out that especially in these emerging platforms, you know, TikTok is the biggest growing platform in social, as we all know. People actually like low tech, quick, easy shots from your phone-type video content more than content that’s slicker and more, you know, high budget, and so it’s more appealing to people.
I would—this is not exactly an example of that—but I’ve been paying attention to local influencers, which is a really emerging trend on TikTok. So there are people who gain huge follower accounts by posting content around things to do in San Francisco, for example. And if you look at their accounts in comparison with the accounts of, you know, traditional publishers who are trying to do the same thing, the informal, local influencer content has 10 times the follower count, if not more, than traditional publications do.
And that’s because they’re really embracing this sort of personal, authentic, not-as-sophisticated, but more sincere type of content. This is something that any business can do. It kind of relates to search priorities. When you’re marketing your content for search, you wanna make sure that it has expertise and authority behind it, that you’re providing content that’s useful to people. And that really extends to social marketing as well. These things really go hand in hand. You wanna think about: What are you good at? What advice can you offer to your community? What value can you kind of give away for free tips and tricks for how to do things?
What, you know, if you’re a carpenter, you might show people how to build something, for example, and you’re going to gain a following based on sharing your expertise in an authentic way that will lead indirectly, but in a meaningful sense, toward winning new customers.
EMILY: That was great, a perfect set of guidance for folks.
It’s that balance of being yourself and being a part of the brand and letting customers in through, you know, the camera lens essentially. This has been awesome. And I do wanna give you a chance to point people to how they can work with SOCi and just, you know, a little bit of a recap on who SOCi is and who the right folks who might wanna reach out and partner with the brand.
DAMIAN: Yeah, absolutely. So we focus on search, social, and reputation for multi-location brands. We are the marketing platform for multi-location we like to say. So if you are a chain or a franchise or even a franchise owner who wants to encourage the brand to get involved in this type of marketing at a bigger scale, you can definitely reach out to us. We’re happy to talk to you about our offerings. You can go to meetsoci.com and fill out the form, and we’ll be in touch.