Customer Video Reviews for E-Commerce

One would be hard-pressed to find a singular label that describes EXPO. You could refer to it as a consumer-generated video review site of manufacturers products. You could also describe it as a moderated social commerce video network, where the “social” is about users sharing product experience and offering advice about those same products. In my interview with EXPO’s president Bill Hildebolt, he talks about the value of their business model for e-commerce, and the special challenges of balancing search engine visibility for their own brand with that of their clients.

How EXPO works:

Back in 2005, (that’s considered ancient in “Internet video years”), EXPO created a video platform allowing members to post and share their videos on the EXPO website. Since then, EXPO members (aka, the “EXPO community”) have been voicing their honest, authenticated opinions about products they buy and sharing consumer experiences in video. EXPO then takes, manages, and moderates those consumer video reviews for public display and promotion on the EXPO website.

The EXPO “Tryology” video Plan: Free trial products, reviews, points, and rewards

  • EXPO works with large companies (almost all of them manufacturers) on making their products available for review by the EXPO community.
  • EXPO enlists consumers to apply to receive free products, which upon meeting the manufacturer’s necessary criteria, have those products shipped directly to them, to test out for a review. The main requirement consumers are given about the product they’re reviewing: that they share their honest opinions.
  • EXPO then moderates all of the consumer video reviews, to make sure that the content meets their criteria for being “authentic” and “usable.” Then, all of the reviews are matched to their database for automated categorization and display on the EXPO website.

More on EXPO’s Business Plan is explained by Bill in my interview below…

The benefits of the EXPO video network:

  • Community members earn points for their video reviews, which they can turn into rewards for gift cards and merchandise.
  • Prospective customers can receive advance notices from thousands of consumers like them, and watch their reviews in a video before they buy.
  • In return, manufacturers purchase the license to these reviews (now the property of EXPO), which they can in turn, feature on their website.
  • EXPO makes money off the licensing of the user-generated videos (UGV’s).

So, how many user-generated videos (UGV’s) are we talking about right now? According to Bill, the last count was over 250,000 – a very impressive number. “Our reviews are a great source of content, and they cover a variety of different product categories.” He says.

The EXPO interview

Grant: Explain to us EXPO’S Business Plan with Video for E-commerce

Bill: Our business model has two main components: licensing content and licensing technology.

Licensing content itself breaks down into two areas: licensing existing content & generation of new content.

  • Licensing existing content is where clients, who range from manufacturers to retailers to comparison shopping engines (e.g., shopping.com, shopzilla, smarter, become.com, etc.), can tap the library of 250,000+ reviews that have been built up by our community over the last several years.
  • For new products where we may not have content or other areas where our community just isn’t as active, we have two programs: “Tryology” and “Most Wanted”. With Most Wanted, we just provide added incentives to the community. Tryology is a trialing program where manufacturers provide samples of the product that we distribute to demographically targeted community members.

Technology licensing is also a material part of the business. A lot of our clients are just getting started in video and our content is often the largest collection of video that they have access to. As a result, we also provide them access to our technology to help distribute and play the content, and even take uploads and activate their own communities.

Does EXPO consider itself a social video network?

Bill: We do, but I think we always want to have the word “commerce” somewhere in there. It really is all about products and people’s experience with products. If you don’t like the word “commerce,” you could think of it as a “social advice network,” or a “social product experience network.” Commerce can come off at times negatively, even though we’re not actually selling these products ourselves. That’s because our primarily client base is actually the manufacturers and not the retailers, although we obviously do some work with retailers and care very much about their ability to use our content and get value from it. But really, it’s about the consumer experience with products. That sort of speaks to everything that we do.

How is your video business solution valuable for e-commerce?

It’s valuable to e-commerce in that we very firmly believe that in all the research that says people are heavily influenced by the reviews of other consumers. Seeing a person that they can identify with, sharing their own product experience, greatly influences the viewer in making the own decision on that same product for purchase.

Our content really speaks to that, in the most visible, visual, visceral, and emotionally impactful way. With our content, you’re going to see video reviews of people holding the product, touching the product, turning it around, using it, relating to it both physically and emotionally, talking about it… There’s so much emotion and inflection that goes into the spoken voice, and the visual cues that we take from looking at something. We’re delivering that around a product experience all day long.

The community that has built up on our site to deliver that content very much understands the mission that we’re going down, and have bought into that mission. So they’re very much there to help other consumers understand these products and the kind of experiences that they have. So the content is very authentic, very transparent, very compelling.

Finally, part of the beauty of video in a visual is, you can find that person who looks like you. They may or may not be somebody you know (as a friend), but you can still see the person and relate to the person. You get a very quick sense of if these videos were shot in their own homes. You feel invited into their homes to experience what they’re experiencing around this product; and it’s a very compelling way to do product research.

Let’s talk about the screening process for video reviewers: How does it work?

The interesting thing about it is, the community is open to anyone. We spend a fair amount of our time and resources enhancing the community. One of the things that are explained is, when people wake up in the morning, they don’t tend to typically think, “I’m going to create a video review today.” Even when we get new members into the community, it may be months, years before they create a video. They’ll come in and do other things; they’ll make friends on the site, they’ll experience other things. It’s a 64,000-person community, and our community group and managers start to get a sense for users and watch their behaviors. Some people obviously leave and don’t engage deeply. And others start creating videos. At EXPO, we give them “points” for creating content. Our users build up points, which are redeemable for goods (like AMEX points). We do a pretty good job of collecting demographic information and other personal information. We start to get a sense of who they are. They go deeper and deeper in the community that way

One of the things that happens after you start creating videos and start developing awareness of you and on a part of our community, is you may be invited into a special assignment that we have. Those assignments can range from, here’s a bunch of top-selling products that we don’t have enough videos on yet, so we’ll create extra points if you do those. Or we’ll say to everybody that we’re looking for videos in a particular area, or on particular products.

The other one that we do is, we have a sampling program, called a “triology,” where manufacturers will give us products, and we’ll send them out to demographically-targeted members of the community. And to get into a program like that, it literally is an application process. They do fill out a survey, and it goes quite deep, and we learn a lot about them from that. And again, it’s just to make sure that they’re demographically targeted, and the right kind of person to answer the questions. We’re never asking them to be positive or negative. It’s all about the targeting

So yes, it’s an open community, and kind of a “psychographic,” where people opt in and say they’re interested in video reviews, going beyond the sort of standard text review for creating the content.

What do you find manufacturers – who are licensing these videos – really find appealing to them?

There are a few things. One is, and this has really be a pleasing, wonderful transition over the last three years… We started developing the library in about 2005. So from 2005-2007, we didn’t work with any manufacturers; we just built out the library and the community, so we could be a base. The community knew that they were talking to us, and they were invited to say whatever they wanted. We just wanted to build a really true and authentic community. So we did just that for 3 years!

Then, we went to manufacturers starting in 2008. It’s funny how things have changed, but as recently as that, we would get so much from manufacturers saying about consumers reviewers, “I just want them to say good things! I don’t want them saying anything negative!”

It has literally flipped now, to where the concern is, if there isn’t enough critical content in their reviews, and they’re going to come off as shilling or non-authentic. The funny thing is, we’ve always had this bias towards enhancing the critical content. Because the reality is, in text or video, people tend to be pretty positive about the products that they talk about. So one thing that the manufacturers absolutely want now, and I think it’s great because we’re totally aligned with them, is they want that critical feedback as much as they want the positive.

That leads into the second thing that they want, which has also been really gratifying: They also want the insights. They want to learn from the community. Absolutely, they want to use this content in their marketing materials. We’ve talked to their marketing departments – that’s our primary customer for sure. But they’re very interested in the insights. They’ll high-five each other when a customer says something that they know has come through their marketing materials. The message is on point, the customer’s experience has aligned up with the marketing, and they’re thrilled with that. And conversely, when you can see that the customer review is stuff that’s out of line with the marketing research, they’re surprised; and they want to really dig into it. So again, they’re looking into the insights that our consumer video reviews provide them with.

And then the 3rd thing: Absolutely, they’re interested in their demographic, their own perceived “community,” if you will, talking about the product. They’re very laser-focused on that. You might think that they’d be all right with having reviews from anybody and everybody. However, the truth is, if they make products for moms, then they want moms reviewing the products. If they make products for young tech enthusiasts guys, then that’s who they want reviewing the product. They’re very interested in those people’s perspective on whatever it is that they’re doing.

I would say that those are the 3 really big things that they’re looking for: The authenticity, the insights, and the demographic targeting.

Are there any limitations to who can use this? Can EXPO work for more than big brands & manufacturers?

I think that anything you can touch is very much in the wheelhouse. Services like say, insurance, banking… those are a little trickier because they’re not really tangible; and people tend to have a hard time describing those services, and its hard to demonstrate that in a consumer video review. But certainly, anything you can touch, and that people are passionate about, those are all absolutely right in the core.

The funny thing is, I sort of thought when we first started doing this, is that it would be great for the auto and electronic industry – where there’s this sort of high-end demonstration. Really, where the strength has been is, it has been in electronics; but more in the beauty, the consumer packaged goods – which really weren’t ranked high in the area of text reviews in the past. But people who have very personal experiences with those products, and so may people own them already. And historically, while they’ve had very private experience with these type of products, that’s what the manufacturers have been interested in pulling out and exposing in social media and video, to better understand and really change the way they do marketing around those products. Which frankly, almost surprising, are core strengths for us.

Do you ever find yourself in a situation that you may need to showcase to a business how they could get the most value from showcasing these videos on their own web properties?

Absolutely. I think understanding every client – where are you going to generate value from this content? Here are the ideas and here are all the different applications – it ends up being a huge, huge part of the relationship. Because typically, again, we’ve got a big community and we’ve been doing this for many, many years. We know that when we go into an engagement, 1) We know we can get the content, and 2) We kind of know ahead of time that… I mean, we don’t know if people are going to be positive or negative about it, but we certainly know how many videos we should expect, how strong we are in that demographic or whatever. So we don’t worry about getting the content; that’s never the issue. The issue is, to your point, what is this particular brand going to get out of it? Some brands invest a ton of money in their website. Other brands in the industry don’t want to invest that time. And because of that, you can put up the videos on their website, and if not doing anything. Some brands really value YouTube, or Facebook, or neither or both. Some brands really want to be point-of-sale. A lot is sold online, but they still really value that distribution into the commerce stream with the thought that, well maybe people are buying the product in a grocery store, but they’re still researching it online, so let’s do that.

And, some people want to actually put our consumer video reviews literally into their own marketing materials! So there you got to work with the agency, and make sure everything’s timed appropriately, and make sure that it’s legally approved; and you’ve done everything to make sure that the content is going out in a marketing message where, it’s being appropriately positioned. That’s a lot. It’s almost hard to think of any other media that would get used in so many disparate forums. And yet its a nascent media. So when you first do a campaign with somebody, they may be going, now where do I go? It’s a great question, actually.

How does EXPO utilize all this user-generated video for it’s OWN visibility? Is there an SEO strategy behind it?

We do it really badly (laughs). One problem we have is that we’re a little too under the radar. That’s a result of the fact that we did decide to put all of our emphasis on the success of our clients. We were trying to build EXPO into a big destination, and ultimately that could be seen as, not necessarily a big conflict of interest, but a conflict of priority. It’s a conflict of priority for several reasons: 1) our ability to get the content. If you’re catering to the visitors other than the community, then you’re going to under-invest in the community in developing it. And also, it’s going to be a distraction, like: Are we trying to get traffic for ourselves, or are we trying to get traffic for our brand manufacturers, or retailers, or others that we may syndicate the content to? So, rather than do that, and kind of try to be the starts of the show, what we’ve tried to do is make our community and our clients the stars. We’re sort of like this middleman who brings everybody together, and plays a key role in making sure that everybody’s happy with the relationship and getting what they want. But ultimately, we’re a “thin client” in bringing everything together.

So yes, we pay attention to our site, and we think about video SEO and things like that. But we really do it so that when we’re talking our client about using the content, what’s the appropriate SEO strategy for them, and how can you get the most visibility around their content? Sure, if we create our own microsite on EXPO.com, we want to see it get some traffic and support the cause. We put the content up on our own profile page on YouTube, we want to see some success around that as well. But again, we first need to make sure that whatever we see is working, our priority has to be to make sure that our clients are doing all of those things for their own websites. We know they’re most happy if it’s their site that’s in the #1 spot in Google, and we’re backing them up in the 2nd, 3rd or 5th slot.

Anything you can share on plans for the future of EXPO?

We’re now putting in place the capability to really get the content out, (including through YouTube and Facebook). When we work with their manufacturers to support the distribution of the content, or retailers (like our client Shopping.com which licenses our entire library of content). Whether we’re working direct or through partnerships, we’re really creating that ability now get that visibility that it deserves, and get it front of users that are doing product research. All the numbers are coming back very positively, that it’s clearly helping potential customers do just that.

About EXPO’s Bill Hildebolt

As President and Co-founder of EXPO, Bill oversees Finance, Operations and Business Development. He helped design the company’s landmark Videopinions product and has been leading the company’s efforts in SEO, SEM and content syndication along with capital raising and management. Prior to co-founding EXPO TV in 2004, Bill spent over ten years in finance. Most recently, he was a Principal at General Atlantic Partners, a technology focused private equity firm in Greenwich, Connecticut. Bill has also worked in corporate finance at Morgan Stanley and at Wachovia. Bill graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was Student Body President and the Harvard Business School. You can read very sporadically written blog posts from him at the Collision of Commerce and Media and Life As a Start-up.

@twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/bhil


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