Sometimes, it seems like it's all social, all the time. 

But are companies really getting everything they need from the social-media conversation? 

Absolutely not. 

There's ample customer engagement in the social scene, but for many organizations, it's also a loud and noisy cocktail party, with lots of guests all clamoring for the host's attention. It's hard to hear precisely what's important--and there's little mechanism for aggregating information into usable intelligence. 

Yet companies continue to pump precious amounts of time and money into social. The number of small businesses that have increased their social-media budget has quadrupled, and 43 percent of small businesses now spend more than six hours each week dealing with social media.  

But as time progresses, I'm willing to bet companies will find that online reviews offer them a more concentrated customer conversation, one that's easy to listen to and that opens a window into the invisible consumer--the one that got away (and went online to tell about it). Even more important, it's how businesses acquire new customers--after all, when people want to check out a business, they often go to review sites as a first stop, not a Facebook page. 

The Evidence

My team at recently did a study researching two residential property management companies. We used patented algorithms we developed to analyze 8,000 online reviews for sentiment and patterns in both review growth and customer perception.  

The results provided some valuable insight into customer preference and behavior, suggesting ways companies can be smarter with operations and marketing. 

  • Review growth was similar between both companies, despite differences in target markets (upper-middle income versus middle to lower income). No matter how much or how little a person spent on rent, no matter regional differences, people still wrote reviews.
  • Overall, negative terms--like damage, mold, dump--were highly similar but positive words were not. Our conclusion: The factors that drive people to write bad reviews are much more universal than the aspects that inspire glowing accounts. Tenants were fairly unified in the kinds of things that irritated them, but the features they preferred were correlated to the unique properties of each apartment type. For instance, in the higher-end complex, reviewers might highlight crown molding as a positive, whereas the lower-end renters might focus on the clubhouse amenities.
  • Despite general similarities, the top 10 negative terms varied by rental demographic. For example, the lower-middle-income renters focused mostly on pests and maintenance. That's intel that the property management company can actually use. If the company pumps more money into pest control and maintaining facilities, it will see a powerful, positive change in its review profile. Upper-mid renters were more focused on customer service and transparency in financial procedures, so that's where the other company should focus its attention.
  • Brand association was stronger for lower-mid renters, but upper-income renters cared more about a complex's location and nearby amenities. That information is another signpost for the companies: The lower-mid-market company should link the brand name with its amenities (e.g., "The Groves offers..."), while the higher-end business should advertise the neighborhood attractions ("Two blocks from foodie heaven"). 

That social is a game changer, there's no doubt. But online reviews are the dark horse in this race, at least in terms of where businesses are currently putting the most focus. As research continues to show how companies can use reviews to better their business practices and improve customer satisfaction and acquisition, I think that will change.