It’s become accepted dogma that in the booming internet economy customer rankings and comments heavily influence brand reputation and purchase decisions. (Check out one recent study here and another by Forrester here, as well as an article on the phenomena in the New York Times .) A story last week in BusinessWeek suggests that for Amazon.com – the pioneer in customer reviews – the consumer ratings have become a key reason for the site’s popularity, and the company’s enviable reputation. Over the years, the online retailer has expanded its community feedback features to include personal “wish lists” (that can be shared) and various discussion hubs to facilitate consumer conversations on broad or specific topics. (Check out the variety of review options using the example of the new Microsoft 7 OS here.)

The BusinessWeek article argues that this trove of consumer generated content (in this case reviews) has become a main attraction for viewers – and an important competitive advantage for Amazon.com. With one of the world’s largest collections of consumer reviews, the site is a magnet for users intent on getting information or browsing for products. The article describes the new breed of “information-based shoppers” as a major shift in the retail environment, reflecting a stronger focus on due diligence (largely through the internet) and increased cynicism about traditional advertising or marketing. The focus on finding impartial information and value fits it perfectly with the emergence of a new consumer frugality.

There are numerous lessons here for retailers – and communication professionals – but perhaps the most important is to remember the outcry when Amazon.com originally decided to post the consumer reviews – both good and bad. This was seen as heresy to some marketers intent on presenting their products under the best light and stifling any negative feedback. While there is still debate whether a product can survive negative reviews, there is little discussion about the importance of allowing consumer comments and rankings.

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