Every year, BrightLocal produces its flagship report on online reviews, the Local Consumer Review Survey, and in last year’s results we noticed some alarming trends that we felt worth further analysis and discussion.
Of particular note are the stories the data tells us about the feelings and behaviors of those in the 18-34 age group (who, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be referring to as ‘young people’ from here on in – especially as it makes a 37-year-old like me feel a little more youthful).
Not only did young people’s responses to the survey often differ wildly from the average responses of other age groups, but at times they contradicted their own responses to earlier questions.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the findings of the survey to see what insights we can glean, and what you can use to inspire your marketing strategies for young people.
How Often Do Young People Search for Local Businesses Online?
With web use steadily growing from year to year, and the prevalence of smartphones significantly contributing to it, one would expect that the frequency of searches for IRL businesses would trend higher as we become more reliant on it as a discovery tool in all parts of life.
Not so with young people! In 2019, the percentage of young people who said they never used the internet to find local businesses rose to an astonishing 15% (from just 3% the previous year).
As you can see above, decreases were seen across mid-range frequencies (e.g. at least once a week, once a month, 6-10 times per year) but these responses didn’t move over to the left side of the chart, as you’d expect with an increasing reliance on the web.
Instead, there’s been a migration of responses from across the board to the far more apathetic response of ‘Never’. I should highlight that this question has been asked the same way, of the same representative group, year on year, and this is the first time we’ve seen a shift like this. (As a comparison, it’s worth noting that although the overall percentage of respondents (all age groups) who said they ‘never’ use the internet to find local businesses crept up from 8% in 2018 to 10% in 2019, the percentage that said they looked daily also leapt from 27% to 33%.)
This statistic alone has left us with a lot of questions…
Are young people finding other ways to seek out local businesses? Are recommendations from social media taking the place of original research and online reviews?
Are young people even actively ‘seeking out’ local businesses? Have the prevalence of influencer marketing and targeted advertising simply turned social media into a brand recommendation delivery machine, to the point that young people don’t, for example, choose to go to a restaurant and look for one, and instead have one in mind from the offset?
As they’re less likely to need infrequent services (like plumbing, lawyers, doctors), is the idea of a ‘local business’ reduced to shopping, entertainment and eating out? Having been raised on the internet, are they more likely to instinctively purchase from businesses online rather than shopping locally, as research from Invesp suggests?
Or is it simply a question of semantics? Have the meanings of ‘use the internet’ and ‘local businesses’ slightly changed for young people? Do they now perceive ‘use the internet’ to mean using a web browser (rather than an app like Yelp or Google Maps) and ‘local businesses’ to mean ‘businesses in the town where I live’? Has this change in meaning led to this change in results?
There’s a lot here to chew on, I’m sure you’ll agree. We’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts and theories in the comments below.
Do Young People Read and Trust Online Reviews?
Now that we’ve taken a look at young people’s use of the internet to discover local businesses (and come away somewhat shattered and disillusioned), let’s dive into the meat of the survey: their use of, and attitude towards, online reviews.
This time around, many of those who had previously read online reviews ‘regularly’ or ‘occasionally’ are instead ‘never’ reading online reviews.
In itself, this is a huge surprise (especially considering what you’ll learn a little later in this piece) but put in the context of the previous chart, it makes perfect sense: a big increase in young people not looking for local businesses online must naturally lead to a similar increase in those not reading reviews for local businesses.
Still, that’s a bit of an increase in young people who ‘always’ read online reviews for local businesses (50% up to 52%), so the cause isn’t by any means lost. We’re perhaps merely seeing the emergence of two separate groups in this demographic of digital natives: those who have grown up to trust the online world and those who have learnt to be far more wary and distrusting of it. The emergence of discourse around the negative effects of social media and wider online practices on younger generations certainly bears this theory out.
Taking this theory further, let’s see what happened when we asked those young people who did say they read online reviews to tell us how much they trusted them.
And it’s the same story… a few more young people becoming entirely trusting of online reviews (from 39% to 41%), but a huge jump of 13% saying they ‘don’t trust online reviews at all’.
Quite aside from making me scream, red-faced, into the void, “Then why are you reading them?!” this reaffirms my belief that we might be seeing the two diametric experiences that can come from a youth growing up with the web.
It’s a broad thing to hypothesize considering the limited data in front of me, but I can’t help but think that, for young people at least, the movement of responses in the above charts from the middle ground to the left and right is indicative of a society in which the gray area is disappearing and online experiences and discourse are trending towards black/white extremes.
Sadly, it looks like fake reviews aren’t helping the problem. Here we can see more young people than ever before being confident in spotting fake reviews online and seeing them regularly.
One could certainly make the argument that the lack of trust expressed in the previous chart strongly suggests that this is just a very distrusting generation, perhaps battle-hardened by scrapes on social media, and that the number of fake reviews online hasn’t grown significantly, but by pretty much all accounts, fake reviews are indeed a growing problem.
My hunch is, instead, that young people today are just more web-savvy and aware of the kinds of dodgy online tactics businesses are willing to employ to get your custom.
How Much Are Young People Engaging with Online Reviews?
As you’ve seen, there’s a consistent trend across many of our survey questions in which responses from young people are starting to skew towards the negative and distrusting. This might paint a picture of apathy, of a youth spent viewing the online world through an increasingly skeptical lens, but interestingly this hasn’t led to a disengagement with online reviews. Rather, the reverse is true.
As our survey shows, young people who read online reviews for local businesses read 30% more reviews than the average consumer before trusting a local business, and spend 35% more time reading them than the average consumer.
This fits in with the narrative of a digital native with a discerning eye, their bullcrap-detector permanently on. It seems that although some young people take their distrust of online reviews and choose never to engage with them, some go the opposite way and spend more time than any other age group combing through the reams of reviews left by other consumers.
How Can Local Businesses React?
Whichever way you look at the data above, you can’t deny we’re seeing some fascinating swings in the attitudes of young people. Whether 2019 was just a bad year for trust in, and use of, online reviews (or whether it’s a quirk in the data that will rectify itself next year) remains to be seen, but I for one will certainly be monitoring the perception of this key marketing tactic as the year goes on.
But if your local business primarily deals with young people, what can you do to ensure you’re still attracting them in 2020?
- Try to get a presence on top lists in your local area, as these can dominate the organic results of local-intent searches. Get in the lists of top things to do, the top restaurants, etc. And if you can, make sure the lists are on websites where young people are a prime audience.
- Get more active on social media, and consider social media advertising on Instagram in particular. Facebook’s trending towards older age groups these days, and Twitter has never been a great place for local businesses to advertise, but Instagram is your holy grail if you can easily sell your service or products on a good image or short video.
- Use in-store tactics to get your audience to share their visit with you. Encourage the use of a hashtag, run a social media competition, or create an attractive and quirky ‘Instagram wall’ in your store or shop to make it a can’t-miss selfie opportunity.
It looks like 2020 might be a bumpy year for young people and reviews, but I hope some of the ideas and theories above help you to weather the storm!