By Dave Munro

There has been no more powerful form of marketing than good old fashioned word-of-mouth. Customers trust the opinions of buyers who have actually purchased a product over that of ANY marketing a company can deliver. And now it’s even easier to share or get opinions from online communities—ratings and reviews online have replaced the low-fi conversations of days past. Today, instead of getting recommendations from a small group of peers, consumers are able to pick the brains of thousands of other consumers who have experience with the product they’d like to buy.

In today’s digital marketplace, word-of-mouth takes place on many different platforms, including social media, websites, blogs and review sites, and the ratings and reviews within branded or retail shopping sites. Online reviews are at the fingertips of most any modern shopper, whether they are shopping online or they are in a brick-and-mortar store and looking up information on a mobile device.

While it may seem that brands are at the mercy of the online community and their opinions—good or bad—there is a way to make sure that ratings and reviews are working in their favor. Managed correctly, a ratings and reviews program can significantly boost sales and build brand credibility—not to mention, provide valuable insight into what customers are really saying about your product.

Here are three factors brands should consider regarding online ratings and reviews, and how to make sure they are getting potential customers over the hump from consideration to purchase:

1. Quantity Matters

According to Power Reviews, there is a 44 percent increase in conversion when products have 11 or more reviews. This doesn’t even factor in the actual score or star ratings of the reviews themselves—just the sheer presence of a significant number of product reviews is enough to provide that extra boost to get someone to further consider making a purchase. Additionally, as the price of the product increases, so does the propensity of the purchaser to look for reviews, so if you’re selling anything in the mid- to high-price range, product reviews are a must.

What to Do: One way companies can help encourage more review volume is to ask customers to provide reviews directly, and to do it in that sweet spot of excitement about a new purchase. That sweet spot depends on the product. For example, with a refrigerator, you don’t want reviews until people have had a bit of time with the product. For shoes or jewelry, you want to capture reviews during the new-purchase excitement. The best way to get reviews in this sweet spot is to know when exactly that timing happens, and how to reach your customers at that exact time, which can be a challenge for companies that sell products through retail. But with mobile product registration methods, which are faster and more convenient for consumers, it’s incredibly easy for brands to know exactly who their customers are and how to reach them to encourage reviews at the right time.

Another way to encourage reviews is to incentivize customers. Providing a coupon code or some other ‘reward’ for posting a review is a good way to get customers to share their experience. Not only that, but it can also be a nice way to create loyalty. The important thing to consider is that ethically speaking, incentives are fine as long as you offer them for ANY review—not just positive reviews.

2. Negative Reviews Happen

Someone with a complaint is more likely to write a review than someone who has a good or great experience. And while brand managers may be tempted to immediately delete or shut down negative comments, having some negative reviews can actually be helpful. A list of only positive reviews may actually have an adverse affect on a potential buyer’s perception. Negative comments and low ratings show that the reviews are authentic—that companies aren’t just seeding the positive reviews, or that brand advocates aren’t just posing as customers writing glowing reviews, or worse: deleting all the negative reviews. We’re all human with different tastes and it’s not likely that everyone will love a given product.

What to Do: When you have some negative evaluations in the mix, people find the reviews overall more believable. Allow negative reviews to live online, but take a shot at publicly addressing the concerns—right within the review if possible. This helps create goodwill by showing other customers and prospective buyers that you are listening to your customers and you care about their experience.

If you’re faced with more negative than positive reviews online, it may be time to go back to your product and figure out why. If there’s a problem, fix it— and then figure out the subset of your customer base that will be most satisfied with your product and ask for reviews from that group as outlined above.

3. Context is important

Reviews that say, “I like this color,” or “works great” aren’t really helpful for consumers looking for advice on whether to buy a product. Of course, there are going to be people who simply want to assign a star rating and write a brief review, but the reviews consumers find most helpful and informative provide a detailed account of the customer’s experience and context for how they are using it.

What to Do: Using a service like Power Reviews, brands can promote useful reviews on their own websites by providing relevant, engaging questions and then syndicating those reviews to retailer sites. An important step in the process is also moderating reviews to weed out those that are irrelevant or simply spam.

Today’s word-of-mouth is instant, it’s prevalent and it can make or break a product. Brands can stand by and watch the conversation take shape, or they can be proactive and make ratings and reviews an effective part of their overall brand strategy.