Farming Magazine - May, 2010

COLUMNS

Farm Marketing: Online Reviews: Grain of Truth or Grain of Salt?

By Diane Baedeker Petit

Any time I’m considering buying a computer, a camera, a car or any other expensive product, the first thing I do is go online to research the item. Not only do I visit the manufacturer’s Web site, I also look for customer reviews to hear what other people think of the product.

You can find reviews in various places. Some online retailers let customers post reviews right on their Web site. There are also sites devoted to customer reviews, and most of these sites feature a graphic showing average ratings so visitors will know whether the majority of customers liked the product or not without having to read every review.

The 21st century version of word-of- mouth, online customer reviews have grown into a form of social networking, and like word-of-mouth, these reviews can enhance or work against your marketing efforts.

While electronics and vehicles may be the most popular types of products reviewed, online reviews can be found for just about any kind of product or business, and farms and farm products are not immune.

A few months ago I wrote about a site called localharvest.org that, among other features, allows visitors to write reviews about farms. People who visit the site are specifically looking for information about local farms and farm products.

Another site I recently came across, yelp.com, is more of a social networking site built around reviews. Reviews are broken down by categories like restaurants, automobile mechanics and even government agencies. Beyond that, the site works more like Facebook; each registered user has a page where others can see all the reviews that the person has written on any type of business, along with friends, fans, compliments from others, and their lists and events. Others can also see statistics on the user’s rating distribution so they can tell if the person tends to rate businesses highly or lowly.

I did find reviews for local farms on Yelp, most of which were quite positive. While my sampling was small and unscientific, I was definitely left with the impression that folks generally have high opinions of local farms and their products.

From all the online reviews that I’ve seen about farms, it would seem that farmers are doing a good job making sure that customers have a good experience when they visit the farm or buy their products. I did run across a few negative reviews, which had more to do with service than products.

If you work hard to ensure that customers have a good experience and tell others about it, they may not only be sharing that information over the fencepost, but over the Internet, as well. That good word can spread much farther geographically through cyberspace, possibly bringing in new customers from beyond your immediate area.

Online reviews must have an effect on sales, because it seems that some businesses try to engineer reviews to their advantage. There are some reviews that stand out as either too glowingly complimentary or way too nasty. One has to wonder whether these extremes are written by the manufacturer or a competitor, respectively. After all, these reviews are fairly anonymous; anyone can register and pose as a customer.

The way some reviews are written just doesn’t ring true. Some of the positive ones sound like they were written by a public relations professional working for the company. Some of the negative ones tell people, a little too emphatically, not to buy the product.

The negative reviews that suggest another similar product are particularly suspicious.

So, while it may be a good idea to develop a strategy to generate genuinely good reviews for your business, trying to be devious can actually be obvious. Customers can spot a fake review and will ignore it.

If you familiarize yourself with the ag-related and non-ag sites that folks are using to review products and services, maybe you can formulate a plan to turn some of the sites’ users into customers and existing customers into reviewers.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.