Just over 20 years ago, when I first got into marketing, professional reviews were the lead driver of foot traffic to storefronts.

Magazines like Consumer Review and reviews from other print publications, as well as television review shows, would often dictate how well a product would be received once in the open.

It led to a booming industry of professional reviewers, some of whom made a very nice living being known as The Review Person.

But things change.

Jump forward 20 years, and the swan song for the professional reviewer could be about to play out, at least in the tech sector.

It’s All About the Peer

In a recently published joint survey carried out by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, and involving more than 2,000 U.S. consumers, it’s clear to see that peer reviews have grown beyond just friends advising each other on a new purchase. Now, social connections and search play a far greater role in the purchase cycle, often ignoring professional reviews altogether.

11 user reviews before making a decision

Some of the key findings include:

  • 65% of consumers have bought a product they weren’t intending to buy after reading a positive review;
  • 74% of consumers search for reviews online before making a decision;
  • Consumers read an average 11 reviews before making a decision;
  • Peer reviews are trusted by more consumers (77%) than professional ones (23%);
  • A well-written, fair and reasonable review, with statistics and facts and where the reviewer is named, are the top four factors that will influence a consumer to move from intent to buy;
  • Amazon leads the way in consumer trust, with 39% of the surveyed audience trusting the site completely.

These figures, and some of the other ones in the fuller report, should act as a wake-up call to brands that are still investing in the traditional method of product review – buy advertorial or pitch the mass media – and ignoring search and social graph impact.

Why the Landscape Shifted

It’s easy to blame social media and the advent of easy sharing and research for the trending rise in peer reviews overtaking professional ones. Many brands have cited the lack of accountability when it comes to peer reviews, and as such these reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The thing is, it’s actually the accountability factor that’s helped increase the authority of peer reviews and decreased the need for professional reviews. [pullquote position=”right”]With nothing being invisible thanks to Google Search and other visibility tools, what goes online is there for millions to see.[/pullquote]

If a review on Yelp is seen as false and made with bad intentions to the recipient, it’s removed and the user can’t post other reviews of that business.

If a blogger makes false claims about a company, not only are they liable for prosecution, but the commenters will leave links with the real story for other visitors to access.

And with the likes of the Federal Trade Commission (U.S.) and the Advertising Standard’s Authority (U.K.) addressing the murky waters of false advertising on social media outlets, it’s no longer okay to be a paid shill to promote garbage (if it ever truly was).

There’s also the inherent trust that we build in each other, the more we interact online. Through natural conversations and everyday back and forths, we get to see who’s similar to us in both beliefs and interests.

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That manifests itself in our willingness to take their recommendation of something they’ve tried and take a look ourselves, versus some stranger being paid to write about something

And perhaps therein lies the biggest reason for the growth in peer reviews.

The Strength of the Advocate

Whether someone is paid to review a product neutrally, positively or negatively, we know money has exchanged hands. Depending on how long a contract with a publisher is, the author of a professional review may word it in such a way that it’s encouraging the brand to rehire the author.

It’s similar to the failings of focus groups, where the feedback can be biased because of the desire to be invited back and be paid again.

Because of this, people are naturally wary of a professional review and how unbiased (or factual) it truly is.

Switch that around with our social connections who don’t have a play in the game except to help you make your decision. “Yeah, the iPhone is excellent but the speed of the Windows 8 phone was crazy fast compared to my iPhone.”

Peer reviewers (or opinion sharers) aren’t in it for money; there’s no bias; there’s no hidden agenda. It’s simply an honest opinion of theirs to help you make the right choice in yours.

That difference is becoming more evident as we start to filter our connections into groups based on relevance and context to our needs at that time. As these groups and authority within them grow, the professional review will struggle to keep up.

For any brand not making inroads to the peer review marketplace, they might struggle to keep up too…

For a copy of the Executive Report on the survey, click here.

images: Weber Shandwick and KRC Research

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