Five Functions of Online B2B Review Websites

reviewsAlmost three months now as CRO at G2 Crowd, and quite a lot of immersive research later, I have developed a way to look at the B2B online review market that I think provides a somewhat different perspective on the business and on the value provided to its different constituents. I’ve also started to collect best practices around review sourcing, review QA and vetting, data collection and use, and what I think are the boundaries around the different business opportunities. I’m more convinced than ever that the key to success for a review platform is its laser focus on the buyer and the buyer’s experience on the site. The more value you offer to the buyer, the more opportunity you create for your business. Buyer trust has to be the litmus test for any business opportunity that the review site might pursue, online trust is fragile and without it, there is no reason for a buyer to use the site as a resource for supporting the buying decision process. <Note: buyers and other users of the review sites, while some of the detail in this post around the business of review sites won’t necessarily be useful for you, I’d encourage you to take a look at the “for buyers” call outs I will include below, they will offer some specific tips on what to look for, based on the best practices I’ve learned so far>

The B2B peer review market is young, and the participants are still exploring the different options for growing a company and generating profit. Around every profit generating business idea there are risks that have to be evaluated, mitigated or avoided when laid beside the trust metric. In other words, if the business practice threatens buyer trust at an unacceptable level, we have to avoid it, no matter how shiny it might appear, or how quickly it could generate revenue. Loss of buyer trust equals loss of buyer influence, and the business has to be built around the delivery of the best possible buyer experience and service possible to maintain and grow that influence. Risk that and you risk the long term viability of your business.

Who are the constituents involved in the emerging business and business models? Beyond the company employees, board and investors of course, there are the review community members, buyers, software vendors, partners and other consumers of the data generated by the site. I’ll come back to the details of partners and other consumers of the data in another post later. The data also needs a much deeper dive post, but the one thing I’d point out here is that the simplest way to think about the data is in 2 parts:

  • Review data – this is like having a perpetual survey of software users collecting data around the clock from anywhere there is Internet service and users of B2B software.
  • Buyer behavioral data – this data set ranges from what types of problems are businesses trying to solve to how do companies buy.

Based on these constituents and the data I think there are 5 basic functions that the peer review platform and business can address. One caveat before I start with the list is that while the functions are obviously related, the existence of the basic “formula” for the site, does not necessarily mean that the business is focusing or using this function as a way to generate both value and revenue. The functions:

1. Buyer advocacy platform: I list this first because IMO this is the most important and underpins everything else. In looking at some of the other sites though, I’m not sure that it’s always a priority. The purpose of the site IMO is to provide buyers with detailed information that would help them make better buying decisions, based on unbiased (or as unbiased as possible) review data provided by actual users of the products. As a researcher, and someone who recently moved from the analyst role to one leading research on a peer review site, the challenge is to present the review data in consumable ways without injecting opinions from the research team. It’s interpretation not analysis. There are plenty of expert based opinions available to buyers, but not nearly as many true, transparent, uncolored views into the experience of the person using the software to solve real business problems.

<For buyers: The real question for you is do you trust the information presented on the review site. The reviews themselves and the process for collecting and presenting them to you, will tell you whether the data is trustworthy or not. The problem is how do you tell? Keep these tips in mind when evaluating the site and the information there:

  • Does the site publish its terms and conditions, review validation process, methodology for acquiring reviews, community guidelines, and methodologies for any head to head comparison reports on the site and is the language clear and unambiguous? Read them.
  • READ THE VENDOR INFORMATION PAGE – It is very important to understand the business relationship of the vendors to the site. Don’t misunderstand though, there are some activities that are good for you, like giving (or selling, more likely) the ability of branding and adding relevant content to the product and vendor pages. That information may be of help in evaluating the capabilities of the product when viewed in conjunction to the reviews and reports available. Advertising is not inherently bad either, but the way a vendor is allowed to use ads may be an indication of how much influence the vendor has over the site. Having the ability to pay for premium placement in search and comparisons could be problematic, especially if it’s not VERY clear which results are paid (think Google search). Lastly, and this is by far the most important, is there any way for the vendor to modify, customize or in any other way affect the data collected in the reviews in such a way that their reviews could be “tailored” to make their product strengths come out. What this means is that in comparison it’s possible that you would be misled in your evaluation because the data is different between the 2 review questionnaires. This is a clear breach of trust and any site that would allow this is not a buyer advocate. All reviews of similar products should use a standard set of questions to ensure that you are comparing like to like. 
  • Is the research / summary of review data presented without the addition of opinions? The point of the use of review data to evaluate a product is to use the data without the addition of subjective information and presentation. Explaining data or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to understand is good, adding things that are not present in the original data is bad.
  • Are there tools and reports designed to help you find the solution to your problem? These tools can be interactive software based but should offer some additional way to get in touch with a human to help you use the data effectively. >

2. Brand advocacy platform: This is one of the most obvious and straightforward ways for the site to generate revenue. There are some boundaries around certain activities but once those are laid out, the list of services offered can be developed. Brand advocacy, or offering the software vendors a platform that can be used to provide a premium experience for buyers, can include branding profile and product pages, adding rich content to the pages including video, providing access to demo and free trials, and simplifying the buying process if a buyer selects that solution. Content can be provided by the vendor, or could be licensed from the review site itself, particularly competitive comparisons, reports and compelling reviews. This content license might also extend out to the vendor’s website or other marketing material. Business software can be complex and trying to find the best solution to a specific business problem takes a lot of research. Anything that provides trustworthy information to help in the evaluation has value to the buyer. This information might extend across the business to identify adjacencies, that is, other solutions (or products) that are often used with products of interest to provide more business value. This is dependent on the buyer needs of course, but showing adjacent solutions can provide the opportunity for the buyer to get more value from a specific solution choice.

Brand advocacy includes the capability to provide useful content to buyers on the brand’s product page(s). In other words providing content on the site directly from the vendor, or licensing site content to appear on those product and company pages, is common and provides some additional data to the buyer. These can be a type of “advertisement”, and as long as properly presented and as factual as possible, there’s nothing negative about them. When ads can become an issue revolves around a few practices, including putting competitive ads on other product pages and presenting content that is of questionable origin. This includes search placement (at least if not very clearly identified as paid) and competitive comparisons that are unfairly presented in a way that could be seen as biased by the influence of the vendor on the website owner.

<For Buyers: READ THE VENDOR INFORMATION PAGE – okay, sorry to be redundant but this is really important. Content and licensed content that appears as ads are fine as long as they are presented in such a way as to be transparent and credible. Paid placements, ads that appear as factual content and practices that present unduly influenced competitive comparisons are not okay, and should be a flag to buyers to be very careful with the information on the site, verify and verify again (or just go to a more reputable site).>

3. Advertising platform: Advertising in online properties is commonplace but there is a difference when the site is providing insight and education that helps buyers make purchase decisions, especially when the price tags are as significant as business software and highly competitive. Presenting credible content is a service, presenting questionable content as if it were credible is misleading and a disservice to the buyer. Disguising advertising as competitive analysis, if it isn’t clearly identified as advertising is a problem (to me, allowing this at all, even if identified as sponsored, is not good business practice).

<For Buyers: Transparency, once again, the most important thing here. You should not have to worry that information that is presented is true and credible. If the site allows certain advertising practices that mislead or disguise ads as credible content, it is not the place you want to use to do your research. Why should you have to dig around to find out if something is an ad versus verifiable content. If the site truly puts buyer advocacy as the first priority then you shouldn’t have to struggle to establish credibility. Trust based relationships are based on integrity and openness.>

4. Data Platform: Review and buyer behavior data have a lot of value to several constituents, as I mentioned earlier in the post. There’s quite a bit more to the value and use of that data, but I want to save that for a much more detailed look in the near future. It’s not hard to understand, from the buyer’s perspective, the value of the review data. Finding people in situations that are much like my own, similar business size, industry, role and business problem can really help lead you to the “right” solution to a business problem. As long as the data is presented in an uncolored way, and it easy to find and digest, the site is valuable to buyers. To find the best match, it’s often useful for the buyer to share data as well, which of course feeds into the overall data platform. In addition it’s not unusual, if the buyer grants permission, to follow up in the future to get more information about the selection and decision, and of course to provide the buyer the opportunity to review the solution that was selected and implemented.

<For Buyers: Read the site privacy policy and terms of use (and if they don’t have those, don’t interact with the site). Data use should be permission based, in other words the site should request the right to use the data you provide. This can provide quite a bit in return, everything from helping you get a better match when looking for users in similar business situations to you, to getting free demo’s, trials and follow up information from a set of vendors.>

5. Add on to traditional market analysts and consultants: The data has value, as I already stated. In some size businesses the interaction with the site could be sufficient to support developing a short list of solutions to research in greater detail. This is particularly true with small and medium size businesses where the selection process is somewhat less complex. In larger companies the process usually (but not always) involves more stakeholders, more participants, more approvals and more formal governance. In those situations it is useful for the data from the review sites to be used by a partner, an analyst or analyst firm or a consulting firm for example. This is a newer area for exploration for most of the review sites, but one that I believe could offer a lot of assistance to buyers in the future.

<For Buyers:Working with a site that has partners and can go beyond just helping evaluate products based on the reviews to introducing you to additional resources simply add more value to the research and the overall experience.>

These five functions are currently in use across the peer review market in varying degrees. It’s still an evolving market though, and business models are being defined and explored. As the market becomes more defined I believe that the sites that are clearly focused on the buyer advocacy functional first, have the greatest potential for adding value and for long term health and viability.

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