How to Generate Business Insights from Online Reviews
Knowing your customers is the single most important business superpower:
It allows you to craft irresistible offers, because you know what's irresistible to your customers.
It allows you to attract the right people in a targeted way, because you know what they will respond to.
It allows you to give your brand a unique voice, because you know what will resonate with your kind of people.
Many brands already know this in theory.
And still, they aren’t able to harness the power of knowing their customers.
Instead, they’re satisfied with doing a bit of market research and running a few focus groups — essentially, collecting a bunch of opinions.
But to really get under the skin of your customers, you need to be able to read the values that are expressed in those opinions.
That’s what this article is all about.
Why are online reviews such a rich source of business insights?
Customer reviews are treasure troves of insight:
They’re free of charge.
They’re publicly accessible and plentiful.
They’re usually spontaneous, organic expressions of a customer’s concrete experience with a product or service — a true measure of what they think.
Because of that, reviewers often use natural, conversational language.
Even if you’re still developing your offer, you can already look at reviews for similar products and services to understand what people like and dislike.
There’s only one downside — and it’s important to bear in mind.
Reviews tend to represent the more extreme poles of the customer happiness spectrum (source). People who feel indifferent about something are usually less inclined to leave a review, so you’ll end up with lots of enthusiasm on the one hand and a lot of scathing criticism on the other.
Where to find relevant customer reviews
Depending on your industry, you’ll want to look at one of the following 7 sources:
Supermarkets and department stores
Dedicated review sites
Reseller sites for your industry (such as booking.com for hotels)
Social media sites
Hauls & experience Vlogs
Directly on your competitors' websites
For more concrete ideas, download this handy list of places to check out (opens in a new window).
Analysing customer reviews
1) List the aspects people comment on
Are you a techie?
You could crawl customer reviews automatically to find the features that people talk about. That’s what Minqing Hu and Bing Liu did in their study about Mining and Summarizing Customer Reviews.
Not your thing?
Don’t worry: you can always go through the reviews manually.
To get some valuable insights into your market and your ideal customers’ likes and dislikes, you needn’t even read all available reviews (some products have tens of thousands of them).
Just remember to use additional sources of information for context.
For example, you could interview 5-10 customers or read customer care conversations.
2) For each aspect, list positive and negative comments in separate columns
This is another one of Hu and Liu’s methods.
It’s a clever way to keep things tidy.
The important thing is to record comments as they appear, so you capture the customer verbatim with all its emotional expressiveness. The easiest way to do that is by copy/pasting their comments into a spreadsheet, like so:
3) Pay attention to these words and expressions in online reviews
Once you’ve got a nice collection of comments, it’s time to dig into the details.
Read for descriptive words
Look for the adjectives and adverbs: words such as cute or fast or impressive.
For example, let’s have a look at this review for Where Does It Come From?
This customer is really happy about the jeans they bought for their son. If we highlight the descriptive words, we’ll see at a glance what matters to this customer:
Thrilled (→ refers to customer experience)
Impressed (→customer experience)
Lovely (→ customer experience)
Special (→ customer experience)
Soft (→ refers to product)
Adjustable [waist] (→ product)
Growing (→ product)
Helpful (→ customer experience)
Pay attention to how people describe the products they've bought from you and their experience. Their descriptions will show you what they really value, and what’s worth highlighting in your marketing.
You can even use their exact words to make sure your message resonates.
Work through SMOG language and motivators
I first came across this advice in former hostage negotiator Richard Mullender’s eye-opening book, Dispelling the Myths and Rediscovering the Lost Art of Listening.
SMOG is an abbreviation for should, must, ought to, got to.
Motivators are words that express the motivation for a certain course of action or a way of thinking — for example: I wish, I would like to, I’m determined to.
Whenever you see one of these words, Mullender recommends paying extra attention to the action following it — because it’s particularly important to that person.
Let’s consider the following example, taken from Boho Homes London.
This is a company that sells beautiful artisanal homewares, made by social enterprises and Fairtrade suppliers in Asia.
One of their customers bought this stunning temple for their home:
Here’s their review.
I’ve highlighted the motivators in bold text and underlined the important points that follow them:
Apparently, this temple is quite a bit bigger than the one on the website, and it was especially imported for this customer. Therefore, it seems that the size of the temple really mattered to him or her.
It’s interesting, too, that this customer talks about future purchases as a decision — emphasising the rational aspect of the purchase.
The fact that the “range” is mentioned points to a desire to match their home decor.
Look out for emphasizers
Words like very, really, truly, incredibly add extra oomph to the words that follow them.
Any comments that contain an emphasizer deserve your special attention.
Sustainable tailors, Gillian June, make bespoke ethical women’s wear.
Here’s a review from a happy customer:
Once again, I've put the emphasizers in bold font and underlined what follows.
This immediately draws our attention to the most important aspects of the jacket in the eyes of this customer:
The personal touch
Knowing the story behind the different materials
It’s always interesting to check which of these aspects come up a few times in different people’s reviews. Those are the ones you want to focus on in your marketing. They can also guide your product development in a customer-friendly and therefore sustainable way.
Don’t overlook explicit statements
Let’s go back to Richard Mullender’s advice.
According to his experience, a person who says someone's “loud and aggressive” is really telling you that they don't like loud and aggressive people. Equally, a person describing someone else as “friendly” reveals that they like to be treated as a friend. They like people to be nice.
While this may sound blatantly obvious, it’s all too easy to skim over a customer review and overlook the rich detail it contains.
Each word matters — allow yourself to really dig into each review and savour each expression for what it reveals about your customers’ preferences.
The art of hearing the unsaid
Hearing the unsaid is an art and a skill at the same time.
One helpful technique is simply to ask, “what do people not talk about in these reviews?”
For example, let’s assume you’re looking at reviews of mobile phones.
Are they talking about where those phones were made?
Are they talking about the price?
Are they talking about the size?
Are they talking about the feel of the phone’s back and sides?
Think about your product or service and all the things that people could, in theory, comment on. What are people actually talking about — and what comes up rarely?
If people aren't commenting on the price, then it doesn't seem to be all that important. That’s good to know because it helps you set your prices with more confidence.
Another useful technique comes from root cause analysis: take a single statement in a review, and ask “why” seven times.
Let’s apply this technique to the adjustable kids’ jeans in our previous example:
Why does this customer love the adjustable waist?
— Because she has a boy who’s still growing.
Why is it important to dress her growing boy in jeans with an adjustable waist?
— Because she won’t have to buy as many jeans.
Why won’t she have to buy as many jeans?
— Because she can go for a bigger size and let her boy “grow into” the jeans while she keeps adjusting the waist.
Why would she want to go for a bigger size?
— Because it’s more comfortable than jeans that are even slightly too small.
Why are jeans that are a bit on the small side uncomfortable?
— Because kids like to run and play.
Why should kids wear adjustable jeans when they run and play?
— Because they can move freely, the denim protects them when they fall or scrape their knees, and they keep warm even on cooler days.
Why is it important to parents that their kids can move freely, and that they’re protected and warm?
— Because they love them.
Asking seven times Why? means that we have to make an effort to empathise with the customer.
As a reward, we arrive at a much deeper understanding of what's going on in that person's head.
When you ask seven times Why?, some of your answers will be conjecture.
To validate your ideas, you can interview customers (in this case, parents buying jeans for their kids).
Turning insights from online customer reviews into values-based marketing
Now you’re ready to use your discoveries strategically in your own marketing.
You’ll probably have ended up with reams and reams of insights, and you’ll want to prioritise them in your marketing. Don’t explore too many directions all at once — instead, it pays off to stay laser focused on the right messages.
To find that all-important focus, I recommend you prioritise according to the 3 Rs: Really, Reach, Resonate.
What was emphasised in the reviews? (Look out for words like really, truly, utterly, etc. They show you what people respond to emotionally.)
This has a double meaning:
What’s been mentioned the most?
Which aspects have the biggest reach, in terms of impact for the SDGs?
You're an ethical business. You want to make the world a better place.
The most far-reaching values probably deserve the most attention from you.
Which insights resonate most with you? After all, it’s important that you feel that people love (or reject!) your offers for the right reasons.
And finally, I want to leave you with one of my favourite quotes:
So, if you see a lot of complaints about something, consider prioritising that aspect in your marketing, if you can. Especially if those negative comments refer to competitors’ products.
As a straightforward example, think about the fight to reduce single-use plastic packaging.
People are complaining about plastic packaging right now — fortunately!
If your products are plastic-free, or packaged in recycled or reusable plastic, then that’s an easy win for you.
Or, to give you another example — in my own business as a copywriter, I noticed lots of companies complaining about “flaky”, unorganised copywriters who didn’t stick to deadlines.
That’s why I decided to polish my project management skills even more, hire a coordinator and emphasise a sense of reliability in my marketing.
That’s what value-based marketing is all about: taking people's opinions, digging deeper and ask why they hold the opinions they share. Why does it really matter to them? How can you help them improve their lives with your products?
As you write your website copy, product descriptions and newsletters, make sure you use the customers’ own words as much as possible.
If that’s not an option for some reason, look at the unspoken values you uncovered through asking “Why?” and speak about them.
Using this approach, you can go beyond the traditional, superficial advertising of your product. It’s also easier to build a supportive atmosphere among brands in the same industry, because each brand can reach different people’s minds and hearts.
>> Looking for even more advice about getting to know your customers better?
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Over to You
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