As the Crowds Get Less Wise, an Opening for Brands

The honeymoon with the wisdom of crowds is pretty much finito. And that opens up an interesting opportunity for brands to do some public good.

This isn’t to say that crowd-sourced online ratings are dead. But the relationship has certainly gotten complicated.

When the Web first burst onto the scene in the 1990s, excitement took hold for a new kind of democracy. As Rich Barton, the guy who started Expedia and Zillow, once told me: “Everything that can be rated, will be rated.”

Before the Web, if we wanted to know whether a book or restaurant or barbecue grill or dentist was any good, we’d either have to rely on experts (a newspaper, a guidebook) or word of mouth from friends. The Web, though, let anyone rate anything. And while any individual rater might not be credible, the idea was that a lot of raters in aggregate would give you a pretty accurate assessment.

We bought into this, big-time. Amateur reviews on Amazon started to have a big influence on a book’s sales. TripAdvisor could make or break a hotel. And then the big dog moved in: Yelp turned into a powerful force in every community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As eyeballs moved to those sites, expert reviews withered. The media cut back on book reviews. Guide books lost influence or disappeared.

But, as always, power corrupts. And the crowds have been corrupted. Last month, Yelp started publicly shaming businesses it catches paying for fake reviews. Within a couple of years, 15% of online reviews or ratings will be fake positives paid for by the reviewees, says Gartner Group. That’s enough to skew the aggregate, calling into question the crowds’ wisdom.

Now you’ve even got Lifehacker writing about how to figure out what reviews to trust.

If this trend continues, as Gartner predicts, ratings sites will get increasingly corrupted. At some point, maybe soon, consumers are going to get sick of it. And then they’ll look, once again, for the voices of credible, proven experts.

This could be a really interesting play for the right kind of brand with the right kind of incentive. Old media has spent the last decade laying off expert reviewers. They’re not likely to bring that back. But a brand could pull this off, and generate a lot of good will.

Let’s take business book reviews. Mainstream media used to do a lot of them. Now, publishers will tell you, it’s almost impossible to get reviews for anything but blockbusters from the likes of J.K. Rowling. Business books rarely get written about.

It might be interesting for a brand to hire a journalistic editor and start a serious-thinking on-line business book review site, featuring credible and authoritative writers. What kind of brand? Maybe one that would benefit from a better-informed business community and would want to be linked to concepts like thought leadership and journalistic narrative. A bank like Citicorp? McKinsey consultants? General Electric?

Apply this thinking to anything we’ve been leaving to the crowds: restaurants, hotels, doctors, toys, college professors. The right brand could become the expert we all appreciate having around.

There is precedent in history, and a great example is the Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil funded experts to write reviews of travel destinations, and the guides became trusted companions. Mobil was just the right kind of tangential brand to pull it off: It benefited when people drove and bought gas, but it had no direct benefit in which hotel they stayed at. Mobil played that perfectly.

Here’s to hoping some other brands find new ways to rise above the crowds and bring some expertise into the game.

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