A survey says 78% of people make a confident decision based on reviews. A 10% swing in hotel industry rates happens due to online reviews.
In the ecosystem of online reviews, fake reviews clearly play a villain role. Recently, a European hotel listed in TripAdvisor was the victim of fake reviews.
Another study by reputation management firm ReviewPro says, for every one point increase in a hotel's Global Review Index (GRI), the RevPAR increases by 1.42%.
When it comes to online review management, the big question that strikes hard in the traveler's mind is - 'Can I trust this review?'
Singapore-based startup TheSmartLocal promises to address this issue.
The company was founded by Bryan Choo in August 2012 and he takes care of the technical work and marketing at the company. The startup also has a photographer, team of writers, and editors.
TheSmartLocal is bootstrapped (funded by Bryan) and he says that he could cut down cost as he is taking care of all technical work at the company.
When we asked Choo about how and why he founded the company, he says,
"In the past I often ran into difficulty when searching for things in Singapore. E.G. which driving instructor to use, which contractor for renovation, where to take friends from overseas when they came visiting, etc.
"I had to spend hours trawling forums to get a decent indication. I believe it is still like this in many countries in Asia. I wanted to play a part in changing that, making people's lives easier by reducing their search time and costs.
"For any decision they had to make, they could simply hop on our site which would become a one-stop portal and definitive resource for consumer decisions. Places will be automatically sorted by aggregated ratings and be filled with quality reviews people will enjoy reading.
"What makes us different from other review sites is our focus on providing quality aggregated reviews from a community of invited bloggers and experts. Unlike other review sites, we do not rely on random one-off reviews from strangers and I find this fresh approach vital in ensuring the integrity and legitimacy of our reviews."
Q&A with Choo below.
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves and for whom?
We are trying to solve the problem of lack of exposure towards and input from locals.
Many tourists rely on TripAdvisor to visit places. As such the attractions tend to be very skewed from a non-local perspective.
Also, locals seem to lack the knowledge of these attractions as they aren't covered as much in local media. For example, places like Flight Experience, Ultimate Drive and iFLY Singapore. Is there any Singaporean site where people can read up informative reviews about them? Unfortunately not!
Singapore lacks a strong comprehensive tourism site. We have worked with these companies and have done extensive features, photography and videos of them and hope to fill this gap.
We hope to be a resource for both locals and tourists, providing them more accurate perspective from a local point of view. I have a firm belief that locals do know more about their country than foreigners. Hence the name "TheSmartLocal".
Why should people or companies use your startup?
Businesses will appreciate the added publicity and exposure gained through TheSmartLocal. We reach a key demographic of smart savvy users that rely on reviews to make their decisions.
Statistics show 80% of consumers typically make use of review information before deciding on purchases. We hope to serve this 80% of people.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
I have a strong belief with every project I start on, that if you can create value for users, people are going to use your product. Positive word of mouth will happen naturally after that.
Funding is also a way to accelerate growth.
A big reason why I got into entrepreneurship was because of the creation of value. Businesses that add value will flourish. We believe at the moment we are able to offer far more value than any other Singapore review sites in the market.
What's your revenue model?
Our revenue generating customers are businesses that want to advertise on our site to gain exposure and publicity. These could be restaurants, hotels, attractions and even retail businesses promoting their offers.
So, our revenue model is online advertisement (for now), with perhaps an affiliate partnership at a later stage that is linked to ticket purchases or even restaurant reservations or Groupon offers.
There is a lot of potential for profitability and partnership in this business.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
We did not stray much from our original idea.
We created a YouTube channel recently as we realised businesses would appreciate the extra exposure and value add from YouTube and social media.
If the business does not pick up, then I will focus on my other projects, though I am happy to say we have already picked up traction and if I were to completely abandon the site tomorrow, it will still be profitable and grow naturally on its own.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
People use Wikipedia when they are on the lookout for some information. We hope in three years people will use us in a similar way as a point of reference before making any consumer decision, be it a local or tourist.
We do hope to cover all of Asia by then.
The biggest challenge is to be recognised as an authoritative site that people can trust. This takes time but with a high focus on quality reviews, we will get there, slowly but surely.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
Nothing is “wrong” per se, but things could always be done better. And that itself is a form of innovation.
For example, in the context of web browsers, we had Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox and now Chrome. Each added value by adding something more valuable to the user's experience. It wasn't revolutionary by any means, but just offered more value to the end user.
We believe there is currently a market in the tourism and travel industry for review sites that depend heavily on a trusted community.
Because there is nothing like that at the moment, this would be an innovation in itself, creating a site where every review can be viewed as a legitimate one. We believe the foundation of any review site is based on the intergrity of their reviews.
There are simply too many fake reviews on the web and we hope to bring a new era with the focus on trusted reviews from local experts and bloggers people can trust.
TheSmartLocal is a comprehensive portal for anything related to Singapore - hotels, destinations, restaurants, activities etc. Every country/city needs a portal like this. No question on that.
The fundamental problem the startup aims to achieve is to weed out fake reviews and create a pool of quality and reliable content for fellow readers to benefit.
Competitors like Yelp and TripAdvisor also do the same but with TheSmartLocal every review is manually screened and then either approved or rejected.
The portal makes sure every review is at least 100 words in length and the user doesn't just cast a vote without writing a review. Also, when a user has less than five reviews, this is highlighted at the start of the review. This addresses the credibility factor.
The site also adopts a blog style for reviews, making it look genuine and easy to trust.
TheSmartLocal has leveraged gamification to motivate users to write reviews and has carefully crafted rules to ensure quality. Every month, a top contributor is rewarded.
Currently, the site has about 15,000 reviews. While manual screening is good, it will be a challenge when the company expands its base to multiple countries in Asia and reviews start pouring in.
Overall, all factors needed for a small scale review portal are present. But, as we said, the real challenge will start when the company expands.
Looks like TheSmartLocal is trying to become a mix of Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Recently it launched its Malaysian portal and eventually it is planning to cover the whole of Asia before launching in other markets.
The company acknowledges that it might grow slowly in terms of review numbers, because of its focus on quality rather than quantity.
NB:TLabs Showcase is part of the wider TLabs project from Tnooz.