This essay originally was published on March 30, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No. 161: Brewing content lemonade from negative feedback."
There's a South Park episode where Cartman tasks Butters with going through all of the things people are saying about him online, except Butters is only allowed to tell Cartman the positive comments—even though the majority are negative.
Online businesses and content teams can fall into the same trap: if only focused on the good feedback, content strategies will be incomplete, spotlighting the cheerleaders and failing to address potential customers who approach digital content with a normal amount of skepticism.
Yes, the internet can be a sea of negativity and bot behavior, but it's also the only place where real customers can voice legitimate complaints about a product or brand. By evaluating the negative along with the positive, content marketers can understand audience preferences and behaviors holistically.
If you're like me or any of the other consumers out there driving $3 trillion in ecommerce spending, you probably saw a flashy ad, made an impulse purchase, and waited for your dopamine hit—I mean, package—to arrive at your doorstep. And depending on what you received, whether you were pleased or annoyed, you likely left a review.
When 3 out of 4 shoppers have left a review at least once and 9 out 10 shoppers read reviews before converting, the post-purchase experience becomes equally as important as driving conversions. At this point, you can find online reviews for absolutely everything, whether it's an esteemed century-old magazine (bad reviews for customer service!) or a bank that catered to startups until very recently (average reviews, no current events mentioned).
Seeking feedback is part of the ecommerce experience. Merchants, including creators, can launch review campaigns, reward reviews with loyalty points, and embed plugins on their website to ensure reviews are visible.
And customer feedback has become a precious commodity for content marketers. The lessons ecommerce vendors are learning from reviews apply to any online content business. It's time to listen to your customer feedback.
But where do you find customer feedback? How do you analyze it? And how do you apply it?
In my current role at an ecommerce returns company, I've explored all of the nooks and crannies where shoppers give brands feedback. So here's a compass for understanding the value of online chatter, so you can turn customer feedback into a content vehicle that inspires sales and attracts audiences.
This advice isn't just for physical products. Anything you sell online, whether it's subscriptions, courses or other virtual goods, are game for customer feedback. It's all about knowing where to look and how to use what you find in that review data.
Where to find customer feedback
Imagine knowing what audiences really think about your brand…what could you do with that information? The first step is understanding the best sources of customer feedback online. The sources below are primarily for ecommerce reviews, although content teams in many verticals can find analogous results with social listening and other methods for mining web data.
Want to know what buyers think of your products? The first place to look is in your product reviews. Not company reviews, which encompass your entire brand, but product reviews on individual SKUs (if you have them).
Tools like Yotpo and Google reviews enable ecommerce marketers to embed reviews on product description pages. Normally on a scale of 1–5, shoppers can leave feedback on their experiences.
Maybe it was a 5-star review and the experience was great. Or maybe it's a 1-star review and the person hated that product. Both reviews are useful.
Product reviews don't just apply to physical goods. They also apply to businesses that sell services, experiences, or paid content.
For example, a ski resort in Utah turned negative reviews into a positive ad campaign, owning their challenge and targeting a more advanced audience. Your niche product or content could do the same: Maybe your content isn't for beginners, and it's aimed at seasoned professionals. Lean into that. Focus your content on the intermediate and advanced practitioners.
Once you know what people think of your products, you’ll also want to know what they think of your brand more generally. Check out Google reviews or tools like Trustpilot.
For example, you may have seen ads for the shoe company Rothy’s. While on the surface, it looks like they’re doing great, if you head into Trustpilot, 73% of their reviews are 1-star.
Despite years of blanketing the internet with ads for the walkable, washable shoes of the future, Rothy's hasn't woven customer feedback into their content strategy. They haven't turned negative reviews into content ideas and haven't addressed the recurring themes that shoppers have been telling them: holes in shoes, bad customer service, and a bad return policy.
So what could Rothy's learn from those reviews and apply to their content?
One tactic I'd start with: update the product description pages. If customers are commenting that shoes are running too small, focus on improving sizing guides. Adjust the content design of product description pages to highlight the return policy, and acknowledge wear-and-tear. Manage expectations, so if a purchase doesn't meet a shopper's standards, they know how to resolve their complaint.
Reviews are your customers trying to communicate with you. Use content to address that feedback.
Return reasons and other opt-out feedback
Full disclosure: My employer, ReturnLogic, develops return management software that helps ecommerce companies manage returns, shipping, and customer data.
However, complex software isn't necessary to gather solid customer feedback. Anyone can collect product return feedback with a simple form or questionnaire. Companies with customer service departments record huge amounts of chat and call data that can be mined for frequent complaints or questions. You can find a goldmine of information with returns management systems, publicly available Google data, or a simple survey asking "why did you unsubscribe?" Then, use your results to iterate or adjust your product.
For example, a retailer was hellbent on creating the "perfect-fitting leggings." After months of prototypes and testing, he was ready to launch…but 40% of shoppers wound up returning their leggings. Woof.
How'd they use data to understand their churn?
After digging into both the primary and secondary return reasons, they found out that these leggings were starting to erode after the first wash. The customers directly communicating their issues, so the company focused on its manufacturing and worked on improving material quality.
On the paid media side, they adjusted as well, dialing down the ad spend on those leggings and reallocating the budget to a more popular and well-reviewed product.
What happened next?
Return rates dropped, sales went up, and the retailer could focus on to other products. Boom.
While we recommend focusing first on your own data before looking elsewhere, knowing your competitor's flaws and incorporating those findings into your content strategy can turn heads of your competition's best customers.
In TrustPilot, Google, or your favorite review software, look at your competitor's negative reviews. It's likely you'll identify trends that you can address directly or indirectly with your content.
For example, if customers leave a 1-star review saying a venue is too loud, unclean, or rude to customers, highlight the differences in your venue's environment on your website. Or if you find complaints about a competitor's lack of software documentation and user support, use that as evidence to make more documentation a part of your SaaS tool's content.
Customer feedback is everywhere online, and there are many more sources we didn't touch here—social listening, keyword research data, and audience surveys are also fantastic sources—but knowing where to find data is only half the battle. Once you've established your customer feedback sources, the next step is to interpret that data and use it to shape your content.
How to interpret customer feedback data
Focusing your time on acquiring new customers can be about 5x more expensive than retaining existing ones. Instead, evaluating feedback to improve retention, build brand evangelists, and providing the best experience possible leads to higher customer lifetime value, less churn, and more profitability.
What can you do to harness that audience data before closing shop?
1. Look for patterns
If a copious amount of negativity surrounds your brand despite rising sales or subscriptions, don't pull a Cartman.
Take your customer feedback sources and look for common themes. Investigate what's working and what's not. Invest as much time analyzing post-sales customer and audience behavior as pre-sales. Especially if your sales are boosted by a heavy paid advertising budget, content teams may want to spend more time addressing customer service and retention instead of customer acquisition.
2. Use sentiment analysis or keyword mining tools
There are loads of solid sentiment analysis tools like Brand24, Awario, Canvas AI, etc., that are all useful. Social listening tools can calculate sentiment analysis on a large scale, although that can lead analysts astray. In the aggregate, they miss the details.
But I'd argue Excel or Google Sheets can be just as powerful.
With a simple spreadsheet, you can n-gram large amounts of customer feedback and use term-frequency/inverse document frequency (TF-IDF) to identify the most common words. With the Tf-Idf calculation, content professionals can input a bunch of unstructured data (customer feedback) and process it to understand the critical words and topics audiences use to describe your product. Sentiment analysis from here is easy: are the words that appear most often positive or negative?
If you're not into heavy data analysis, a word cloud might help you understand some macro trends. Understanding the words audiences use to describe your products, services, or brand, can help you laser in and speak the language of potential customers.
This sheet allows you to take a bunch of input (in the tab ‘SOURCE DATA’) and process it to get the ‘interesting’ words and topics based on a Tf-Idf calculation. Tf-Idf is not perfect, but it can give you a first idea of where to look for main topics in a large corpus of text.
Make sure your content strategy addresses the whole customer journey
Your customer journey doesn't stop at the conversion, and neither should your content strategy. The conversion tells you the audience is interested and found something they want, but that's just the beginning of the relationship.
For example, let's say a new person signs up for your course, which is great! But...what if they didn't finish the course? Did they start and stop? Where'd they stop? What if they signed up for a trial but never converted to a paid subscriber?
Without knowing what happens after a purchase or subscription, your content won't be able to address instances where you're not meeting customer expectations. You won't build that long-term audience value, and you won't create evangelists. Don't be a racehorse with blinders who only sees the finish line. Consider the full experience of watching the race, understanding the dynamics of the full event, the before and after.
Mining feedback, analyzing common trends and sentiments, and applying that knowledge can level up your content. Sure, some reviews might be unnecessarily mean or off-base. Don't let that get to you. You don't have to dwell on the negative, but all feedback, good and bad, can be used for content improvement.
Knowing where to find feedback, what to look for, and what to do with it will help your brand evolve, no matter what sector you're in. Yes, you're looking at the sales, subscriptions, and conversions, but you have to know the whole picture—not just the positives. Understanding what your audience thinks about your brand can make your content truly fantastic. Otherwise, you might just look like Cartman.
David Gonzalez-Cameron has spent the past 6 years working at startups and focusing on ecommerce. Currently he is the Director of Growth Marketing for ReturnLogic.