Natalie Sportelli from Thingtesting on the importance of online reviews, how to leverage UGC, and DTC trends
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User-generated content works magical wonders on me. Show me a product review from another user saying I need something, and I usually buy it.
My husband, on the other hand, is not such an easy sell. He begins the purchasing journey the same way most informed and careful consumers do—by diving deep into product research.
As it turns out, my snap purchasing decisions put me in the minority. When it comes to influencing purchases, what other people think about a product matters—a great deal. In fact, 99% of consumers read reviews before making an online purchase, and 98% consider them an integral part of the purchasing process.
I wanted to learn more about the importance of reviews, how to leverage UGC in e-commerce, and any new DTC trends to pay attention to. So, I did what any journalist would do, and reached out to Natalie Sportelli, the Head of Content at Thingtesting.
Banknotes: Tell me more about Thingtesting, including your mission and how you discover new DTC brands to list in the review directory.
Sportelli: Thingtesting was born as our founder Jenny Gyllander's passion project.
It began as an Instagram account where she shared her transparent reviews of emerging online-born brands. Today we're a Forerunner Ventures-backed startup on a mission to build a platform where consumers can discover thousands of new brands and share their honest experiences with them.
We want to create a place on the Internet where people can discover and talk honestly about new things. We spot brands all over the place, from social media feeds, to founder recommendations, to our "submit a brand" page, and more.
We're lucky to have our community really engaged with sending us things they're seeing that should be added to Thingtesting as new brands are spotted.
Banknotes: What role do online reviews play in the success of a DTC business?
Sportelli: Reviews are such an important part of any direct-to-consumer business because they have a huge impact on relationship-building with customers and driving sales.
Every founder wants to create something meaningful that people are going to love and tell their friends about.
A lot of studies show that over 90% of consumers read reviews before purchasing something, so delivering an amazing product and experience should be the goal of producing and introducing anything new to the world.
Banknotes: Why is it important for brands to have robust third-party reviews?
Sportelli: It's not a secret that people have started to question the trustworthiness of the reviews they read online more than ever.
Cherrypicked, sponsored reviews and fake reviews create deep distrust with consumers, as well as confusion about what they can really believe before they buy something.
Honest third-party reviews platforms like what we're building at Thingtesting offer an objective point of view from real people who want to use their experiences to help others make more informed decisions around purchasing products.
Banknotes: Why is user-generated content (all kinds) important for brands? What role does UGC play in a brand's marketing and content marketing strategy?
Sportelli: UGC is so important because it creates another layer of connection between a brand and a potential customer. Seeing brands in the wild, and not on a polished product page, can achieve a different angle that marketing pages alone can't accomplish.
It goes a long way to appeal to people by being more relatable. UGC, and especially UGC reviews, are super effective if they're honest and help inform others' purchase decisions. Makeup brand Youthforia, skincare brand Topicals, and underwear brand Parade have done a great job on social of sharing how people use or wear their brands.
The world of physical products has so many opportunities to encourage people to share how they use or wear these things in a way that fuels self-expression.
Banknotes: What role does UGC play in Thingtesting's content strategy?
Sportelli: On social, our community's UGC is really exciting to see because we get insight into what they're testing and reviewing. Our Thingdrop program fuels this because they're assessing things that are really new to market.
People love to see and experience new brands, and so UGC on social media lends itself well to showcasing that excitement and sharing experiences that help inform others.
The most important form of UGC for us is, of course, reviews. In our editorial stories, we like to embed reviews from our reviewers, because as you're reading about a brand, its founders and mission, you can also read about how customers liked the product.
It creates a really strong story around the value we offer in terms of discovery, education, and reviews of new online brands.
Banknotes: You come across a lot of different DTC brands in your day-to-day life. What trends have you seen over the past year that other DTC brands and marketers should pay attention to?
Sportelli: In terms of social, it's not enough to only post about your brand on Instagram. We will see brands go all-in on figuring out TikTok.
I also see brands spending more time figuring out membership or loyalty programs that reward their customers and give them ways to get more involved with product development. Overall, I think we're trending towards more of a raw, unpolished relationship between brands and their customers.
How can they really meet them where they are and deliver what they're asking for? There's a new playbook for 2022.
Banknotes: What are some of your favorite DTC brands you've come across?
Sportelli: When I think about my favorite DTC brands, it all comes down to products that are high quality and that I want to buy over and over again.
Chocolate brand Tony's Chocolonely, non-alcoholic aperitif Ghia, Zuzu's sparkling drinks, Yola mezcal, Floom flower delivery, tinned fish brand Fishwife, coffee pod maker Cometeer, dog shampoo Rowan, and bra maker CUUP are all brands I've purchased often because they deliver a great product and experience every time.
Many of them are tackling old categories in a new, or different way, and I like to support that.
Banknotes: Are you seeing any trends running through the reviews you see, and what can DTC brands learn from this?
Sportelli: One thing I find really interesting is how many reviews begin with, "I really wanted to like this brand, but…" and then they share what didn't work for them.
With such a big focus on aesthetics online and how brands are marketed to consumers in general, the products don't always live up to expectations once it's in customers' hands. On the flip slide, our reviewers really appreciate when the product's claims live up to what they were anticipating.
Branding is nice, but people want what they buy to serve its purpose and serve it well. This tells brands that first and foremost, the product's quality is everything, and delivering that should be the priority.
Banknotes: Thingtesting has an active community of reviewers. What role does community currently play in the DTC world and at Thingtesting?
Sportelli: Community is especially important in the DTC world, because the cost of getting in front of customers continues to rise. If you have a dedicated group of people in your corner who love your product and care about your mission, you will have a leg up in getting others in the door as well.
Community is really important for us, and I think about it in terms of our site visitors, social followers, and newsletter subscribers, our reviewer community, and our Supertesters — our most engaged users who in some cases have written more than 100 reviews on Thingtesting. All of these groups play a role in engaging with brands on Thingtesting, because they can be browsing brands, reading our stories and reviews, writing them, or even participating in our product-testing program called Thingdrop (often featuring just-launched brands), exclusively for our reviewer community.
It's cool to connect this really energized group with new things they're excited to test and then share their experiences on Thingtesting.
Banknotes: What are some ways DTC brands can improve their content marketing initiatives this year?
Sportelli: Serving the customer and answering their questions will always go far in providing them value beyond what you're selling.
If your content marketing is serving you and not your customer, I'd think about ways to get insight into what they care about and how you can deliver something informative, and from a place of authority, that can strengthen the relationship and build trust.
The more credibility and authority brands can bring to their content, the higher the chance that it will stand out from any other marketing materials and be referenced elsewhere.
Put yourself in your customers' shoes and ask yourself what they would truly benefit from, and how you can provide that.
Consumers have an abundance of choices when it comes to purchasing products from fun, new DTC brands.
And, brands that are collecting UGC—including online reviews—are building credibility and trust with consumers faster than those brands that aren’t.
DTC brands that want to connect with their audience in more meaningful ways would do well to capture UGC and third-party reviews and use it as a selling tool in their content marketing initiatives.