For years, Zagat’s was the de facto resource if you wanted to get the skinny on restaurants and accommodations. Marketing-speak being what it is, savvy travelers and selective diners turned to Zagat’s to learn what real travel advisors (patrons themselves) had to say about ambiance, service, food quality, presentation, and price-value perceptions.

Problem was, as travel became more of an “everyman” activity, the old publishing model couldn’t keep up with increased needs for timely, rich information. Proliferation of web-ready devices built on the early Zagat type of objective scoring model to include user-generated content, allowing it to achieve scale. Today we have access to on-demand information from our handhelds, filterable by location, price point, cuisine type, rating, and many other criteria.

With loads of information from multiple sources immediately available to help orient our search, it’s still the insider’s scoop we seek. All the flowery menu descriptions in the world don’t matter much if the real experience doesn’t match up. We want to know what people had to say yesterday about the service or noise level, or whether the venue’s advertised prices are worth every savory bite.

Service companies from restaurants, hair and nail salons, accountants on to catering companies should factor reports from Open Table, Yelp! and other portals into their ongoing marketing (including mobile marketing!) and operational planning. As consumer adoption of mobile devices continues to grow, so, too, will the production of user-generated content like ratings and reviews. Consumers generally feel very empowered and justified in their quest to share firsthand experiences with the world.  Thanks to smart phones, now people can act right in the moment to immediately impact the prospective customer in a cab around the corner tapping on his phone.

Serve my appetizer with my meal, instead of before? You can bet it’ll be in my review. Fry my hair with the keratin solution? I’m sure going to let all my friends know with a Facebook share.

user generated content

As cross-channel commerce platform BazaarVoice has reported, consumers place more trust in the opinions expressed by peers, family members, friends, and even other unmet consumers than they do in the sanitized, self-serving brand messages pushed out by brand-side marketers. The additional decision-making capability afforded smartphone-carrying consumers means that user feedback just got more powerful.

A few things to consider for your business:

  • Take steps to proactively search brand mentions around the web, both in social as well as regular search venues. Systematize the collection and results reporting of findings, both positive and negative. What previously unknown issues are occurring with regularity? How can these accounts be used to improve your employee training or procedures?
  • If the opportunity exists to directly address reported problems, be sure to do so. There’s nothing like a page full of complaints with no brand response to send the message that your company doesn’t care about its customers. Some of the greatest brand ambassadors were once dissatisfied customers whose issues were taken seriously.
  • Be mindful of public perception of your brand image, and use that information when developing awareness or lead generation programs. If your direct mail or email marketing message centers around how great your stuff is, but 90% of online reviews suggests it stinks, the disconnect will likely mean eroded positioning or low conversions for you.