I’m a passionate fan of customer reviews. I want to know how real people have enjoyed a service or used a product that I’m interested in. So, I found it timely that just after speaking with an expert in that area for our latest trends report, I received an email from the folks at Bob’s Red Mill asking me to answer a question about one of their products I had bought. That kind of interactive user-generated engagement is exactly what John Swords at TurnTo says offers companies a competitive advantage. Swords’ company is in the business of providing customer content solutions to merchants and brands so he’s got a horse in this contest, but the argument makes sense. Why do I sometimes go to Amazon even when I don’t plan to buy from them? Because they’ve got loads of reviews. “UGC outranks all other forms of marketing, including search engines, when it comes to shopper influence,’’ Swords told us as part of an interview for our 2018 Trends: Predictions From Ecommerce Marketing Experts. TurnTo’s own research from 2017 showed that 81% of consumers are willing to pay more or wait longer to receive products that have user-generated content associated with them. But there is the conundrum of how to ensure that user-generated content is authentic, something that Swords says is absolutely critical for online merchants. I totally get that. I recently spent hours searching online for new appliances for a kitchen renovation. Some sites attract a tiny number of outrageously angry consumers who blast a product. Other sites include reviews that have that whiff of fakeness. Finally, seller sites often feature hundreds of reviews, but they’ll include a disclaimer that the customer was compensated to provide a review (such as with a sweepstakes entry). Swords recommends displaying information about the reviewer, including when they purchased the product and any relevant profile statistics, such as expertise and preferences. This helps other shoppers better understand the perspective of the reviewer and identify other shoppers with similar tastes or needs. Shopper profiles for clothing sites are particularly helpful. Knowing that a person about your height and weight fits into large versus the medium can save the hassle of a return. And don’t publish anonymous reviews. “Consumers see right through that,’’ he says. Here are three other suggestions from Swords for deploying UGC in 2018: Enhance the engagement. Platforms that allow customers to talk with each other and answer questions are not new, but there is growing evidence of ROI – not just in attracting new customers, but in creating loyalty among those who participate in the community. People who receive answers to questions convert at a higher rate than those who don’t. Sending customers emails with info from fellow shoppers “is very contextual and personal,” Swords says. Although I couldn’t answer the question for a Bob’s Red Mill prospect, I was intrigued by the email. It kept their brand front of mind as I sought baking products during the holiday season. Ditch the browser. Advancements in email client apps are bringing browser-like capability to the inbox. Interactive email makes it possible for shoppers to rate and submit UGC directly in their inbox, without opening a web browser. This substantially increases response rates and improves the user experience. You understand this suggestion if you’ve ever started to rate a product or service, and then just given up because of a balky interface. Capture timely reviews that have staying power. Any type of product that turns over rapidly can be at a disadvantage when it comes to ratings and review coverage. Most reviews come in response to a post-purchase email after the shopper has received the product. For fast-turn and flash commerce sites, this results in review submissions long after the product is discontinued. The solution? A one-question survey, such as “Why did you choose this?”, presented at order confirmation. This captures the enthusiasm and research and purchase motivation behind the items just bought. The comments make for powerful social proof that can be displayed on trending product pinboards and grid pages, and featured on the product detail pages to other shoppers. Having lost myself down the many branches of Pinterest, Swords’ final point makes perfect sense. “UGC can shift the model to consumer-to-consumer, build trust and offer a more authentic experience,’’ says Swords. “A strong community built around a successful UGC program can help shoppers bypass the instinct to go for the lowest price or the fastest delivery.’’ And my own experience with UGC taught me that I can pose questions to other users of Bob’s Red Mill – a great reason to stay engaged with the brand. To read more from John Swords and other talented marketers, check out 2018 Trends: Predictions From Ecommerce Marketing Experts.