November 19, 2011

why everyone wants to know what you think

This article was originally posted on November 18, 2011 in my column in the Daily Muse, and also in Forbes.

Like this brand on Facebook. Leave a tip on Foursquare. Rate your transaction on Amazon. Review us on Yelp. Seems like everyone from the corner store to Microsoft wants your opinion these days. Since when did you get so important?

Well, since now. Brands want your endorsement because recommendations from real people have become extremely valuable—traditional ads just aren’t enough anymore. Facebook’s Gokul Rajaram told Forbes that Facebook’s social ads make people about four times more likely to buy a product than other ads on the site. And I’ve seen similar results working at the tech start-up—the personalized billboards our users share via social media get up to 100 times more engagement than typical banner advertisements do.

Taking a friend’s advice is nothing new. But social media has taken what used to be off-hand recommendations to friends and family and amplified them around the world, to a point where people you’ve never met can weigh your opinion in their next decision. I call this trend the rise of the endorsement culture—a culture where everyone is a promoter.

Don’t think that’s you? Think again. Your voice is now stronger than you realize.

The Democratization of Endorsements
Today, we’re asked for our recommendations so often that it’s hard to remember how this whole endorsement culture started. Yelp launched in 2004 and built a recommendation engine based on reviews from real people. Shortly thereafter, e-commerce sites started to give credit to users who referred their friends—a strategy that drove early user acquisition for many of the flash-sale websites like Rue La La and Gilt.

But it quickly become about more than just endorsing brands and businesses. eBay’s peer-to-peer market pioneered the need to give feedback on individuals. Amazon followed suit, with its seller reviews paving the way for the web-sharing economy (Airbnb and Getaround, among others), which relies heavily on our willingness to vouch for and endorse each other.

“I don’t buy anything without looking at reviews,” explains Kellee Van Horne, 27, who worked in online sales for a large Internet business. “It seems like no one trusts companies anymore, so recommendations from real people are more important.”

Same goes for offline purchases. No longer do I have to trust a box which proclaims its contents to be the “best-tasting cereal in America”—I can instantly verify that opinion with real people on my mobile device.

Quantifying Your Influence
No matter what we’re purchasing or consuming, endorsement culture is changing the way we make decisions. This, of course, has major implications for businesses. They want me to like their products—but how do they find out how who influences me, and whose recommendations I’ll take?

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