Review vs Testimonial: Similarities, Differences & Myths

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Over the last few years, the line between reviews and testimonials has become a little blurred – particularly in the B2B SaaS space, where we see two things happening:

  • Review platforms and vendors increasingly allow vendors to buy a say in how reviews are collected, what questions are asked, who they’re asked to, and how they’re shown on the review platform.
  • Reviews are increasingly being used as testimonials in marketing & sales materials, and testimonials are increasingly being collected through automated one-to-many in-app, email, or sms campaigns to gather as much feedback as possible.

This post isn’t so much about marketing definitions and figuring out what word to use as it is about the fundamental drivers to build social proof, and how best to use reviews, testimonials, or a mixture of both to build a credible brand.

I’ll do my best to explain how the line between reviews and testimonials has blurred and why review platforms and vendors need to get serious about playing a more honest game in the reviews space.

Defining reviews and testimonials

Before I dig into the differences, let’s start with the definitions.

Reviews

Reviews are positive or negative, written or video product evaluations on third-party review platforms. They are provided by verified customers who have used the product, know its features and capabilities, and can vouch for their performance and value for money. Generally, they should provide critical insights into a product’s strengths and weaknesses (pros and cons) according to individual user experiences.

Review example #1: Freshbooks G2 written review

This is a 230-word, 5-star, positive written review example. It’s made up of three set questions the reviewer responds to. It includes key details that prove the review’s authenticity and the platform’s transparency. You can see the reviewer has been validated and verified as a current user. You can also see how they were selected (invited by Freshbooks) and that they have received an incentive.

Review example #2: Buzzsprout’s Trustpilot written review

This is an example of a 140-word, 2-star negative written review on Trustpilot. The interesting thing about Trustpilot’s platform is its attempt to establish and display its objectivity and transparency with reviews. On the left-hand side, they indicate their rating of Buzzsprout within its category (perhaps to show this one bad review may not be a reflection of other users’ experience). They also have a ‘Company Activity’ section at the top, which lets researchers see exactly what ‘perks’ and features the vendor has access to. This is a great example of how third-party platforms can tick the transparency box when it comes to vendor influence in review collection.

Testimonials

Testimonials are positive written or video endorsements from satisfied customers used on business websites and in sales, marketing, and advertising material. They are provided by customers who have had a good enough experience with the product to be willing to vouch for and advocate for it publicly. Testimonials generally provide subjective views about the product and brand.

Testimonial example #1: Freshbooks website written testimonials

This example of Freshbooks testimonials on their website is one of the most commonly used formats to display this kind of social proof. It features three satisfied customer testimonials and all-powerful direct quotes that paint a picture of the benefits these customers experienced using the product.

The difference between reviews & testimonials

The fundamental difference between reviews and testimonials lies in who collects them. The ‘who’ then determines the other three key factors: who validates them, their context, and ultimately, their purpose.

Who collects them

Reviews are collected by third-party review platforms. In the B2B SaaS space, these are:

  • G2
  • Capterra, Getapp and SoftwareAdvice
  • Gartner Peer Insights
  • TrustRadius
  • Trustpilot (to name a few).
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To collect reviews, vendors (SaaS businesses) must first set up and claim their profiles. Once the platform verifies the vendor as a legitimate software provider, vendors choose between a free or paid plan, and customers can start leaving reviews instantly. While the platform allows your customers to leave reviews, they don’t proactively seek them out unless you have a paid account with the Reviews as a Service (RaaS) option.

There are three ways in which review platforms collect reviews:

  1. Through the customer’s own initiative (free will)
  2. The vendor proactively directs customers to the platform to leave a review for their product
  3. The platform partners (for a fee) work with the vendor to run incentivized review generation campaigns (RaaS)

In theory, this means that review platforms get to decide what questions to ask, in what order, and how to display the answers to buyers. Although, this is changing and some review platforms now allow vendors to ask custom questions in their review collection forms. This is certainly not helping with blurring the line between testimonials & reviews.

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Review example #3: Constant Contact’s Capterra video review

In this example, Capterra discloses that the reviewer was invited by them and offered a nominal gift card as an incentive to provide feedback. The reviewer introduces themselves with their name, title, and company to establish that they are a real person and that their feedback is relevant. They give their rating and answer four questions, which they probably selected from a list.

On the other hand, testimonials are collected by the vendor or brand to be used in their various push-marketing activities. The people doing the collecting generally sit in three teams within the SaaS business:

  • Marketing & Brand
  • Advertising
  • Customer Success

Knowing this, your first thought might be: What are the chances they represent unbiased views? Well – to be honest, minimal. Because testimonials are collected for marketing purposes, their focus is to emphasize the values and benefits of their products rather than provide an objective evaluation. And that’s why they are always sought from the happiest of customers.

Some of the ways testimonial collection candidates are selected include:

  1. NPS surveys that bring up promoters
  2. Long-term customers who are brand advocates
  3. Customer Success teams who identify ideal customers who have benefited from the product and who are willing to share their experience

Who validates them

So, who validates reviews and testimonials? The same party that collects them.

While this seems fine with reviews (since it’s a third party that gives them the green light before they go live), it can be controversial with testimonials. Because the brand itself controls the entire process from collection to creation, validation, and publication, it can influence testimonials to work in its favor.

The key difference here lies in who has something to lose and something to gain.

The review platform has nothing to lose, no matter what type of reviews are submitted, good or bad. They (and researching buyers) simply gain from having more reviews. However, getting more positive reviews also helps brands rank higher on third-party platforms, which is why many vendors are pushing positive reviews to these sites. And vendors are the ones paying the review platforms.

Review platforms’ primary concern when validating reviews is to make sure that the customer submitting feedback is not fake. By verifying users (sometimes with the help of vendors or by requesting their customer number), they can prove to site visitors that the review is legitimate, like this example from Capterra.

On the other hand, with testimonials, vendors or brands have everything to lose (primarily sales) if their testimonials are anything less than amazing.

Would you buy a product from a brand whose website testimonials point out the negatives of their product? Probably not. And that’s why they are always positive.

So, the validation process of testimonials is an in-house (slightly biased) mechanism that is not transparent to prospects researching products. As a prospect, you basically have to take the business’s word that their ulterior [marketing] motives have not influenced the testimonial. You only get tangible validation if the testimonial is from a large, reputable brand. In these cases, that brand’s reputation helps to boost the testimonial and the product’s credibility.

Their context

In the case of reviews, we first need to clarify that SaaS review platforms are not what they initially set out to be. In the beginning, they set out to serve the software buyers only.

While their purpose is still to be a trusted guide to buyers, they have expanded their focus and offering to include the ‘seller.’

Let me show you what I mean.

If you visit G2’s Research Methodology page, the first paragraph clearly states who and what their platform is envisioned for. This mission statement also shifts the context in which review platforms operate.

Because they are no longer solely buyer-focused, their reputation as a ‘trusted’ and ‘objective’ source of product information is swaying. So, their ‘impartial’ position no longer fully applies.

Add to this the ‘pay to play’ option vendors can take advantage of when they claim their profile on review platforms, and it’s no longer a level playing field.

Testimonials, on the other hand, don’t have this problem.

They are and have always been generated by the business or brand. So, from the onset, the buyer knows they are not objective and expects some level of bias. They factor that into the buying decision.

Because B2B vendors know their ‘conflict of interest’ position, they work extra hard to give customers searching for products as much value in their testimonials as possible. They are determined to make their social proofs as relevant and influential as reviews.

There are several ways they achieve this:

  • Qualitative and quantitative insights—Vendors don’t settle for any old testimonial quotes. They ‘cherry-pick’ the ones that display the value of their product and the benefits customers experience in numbers. They also try to capture the qualitative value by encouraging customers (through carefully crafted questions) to describe transformational benefits through emotive language.
  • Showcasing respected brands – Another highly effective tactic is to showcase respected brands who add credibility to your product. If leading brands are willing to advocate for you, this instills a strong sense of trust.
  • Challenge and solution analogies—If done right, case studies are one of the best and most useful types of customer testimonials. Not only do they lead with and showcase the product benefits in figures, but they also present the challenges their customers faced and how their products solved them.

The next two examples show how some leading brands create impactful and valuable testimonials to get prospects over the line.

Testimonial example #2: Monday’s Nissan video

This is a great example of how vendors use reputable brands to build immediate trust. The testimonial is from Nissan and advocates for Monday, the project management software tool. Unlike Review Example #3 above, which is a minute long, this testimonial video is three minutes long and heavily backed by an entire production team. There is more than one customer spokesperson, and their feedback seems scripted and practiced. While this doesn’t have to mean Nissan was told what to say; it does show that a lot of planning and time went into making the video.

Testimonial example #3: Prowly’s Medstar Media case study testimonial

This testimonial example is a pull-out quote from the MedStar Media customer case study. Not only does this testimonial on Prowly’s website share the customer’s feedback, but it also includes the quantifiable return (150 publications) as a result of using their product. The testimonial also identifies and validates the customer by name, title, and company name.

Their purpose

Reviews and testimonials serve similar but slightly different purposes for customers and vendors.

Vendors

For software vendors, reviews and testimonials serve similar purposes. They are prime Voice of Customer social proofs that generate trust, authority and legitimacy, which ultimately drives conversions.

Their purpose is to:

  • Increase brand visibility—B2B SaaS vendors can increase their visibility and online presence by having reviews on third-party platforms. They can also leverage testimonials on social ads to increase their visibility.
  • Establish brand credibility – Reviews and testimonials establish vendors as reputable and trustworthy brands to potential customers. In the case of reviews, the stamp of approval from the review platform usually handles that. In the case of testimonials, vendors will typically be looking for feedback from widely known brands among their customer base to help with credibility.
  • Ratings & badges – Because review platforms are in the business of ranking and mapping vendors, they are highly valued and sought-after assets.  The more reviews your brand has, the higher it can rank. The more badges you earn, the more impressive and convincing you become to prospects.
  • Feedback Source – Honest reviews provide invaluable feedback to vendors on the quality of their products. Negative reviews are as valuable as positive ones because they can be used for future product development. Testimonials can’t really be taken at face value since there is a strong incentive from both vendor and customer to emphasize the positive, but vendors will usually ask more detailed questions to get feedback on specific aspects as a way to make up for that bias.
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Customers/Buyers

For software buyers, reviews and testimonials also act as social proof, but each type provides slightly different insights into product suitability. Both are crucial in reassuring and persuading B2B SaaS customers during product evaluation and final purchase decisions.

The purpose of reviews:

  • Comparison – Reviews on review sites make it easier for buyers to compare SaaS vendors. Having access to hundreds and thousands of verified reviews on one platform across providers simplifies their research.
  • Decision-making— Because reviews share a mix of real user experiences (good and bad) and pinpoint products’ strengths and weaknesses, they help buyers make more informed decisions.
  • Validation – Reviews and ratings from other software users act as validation for buyers. Badges from review platforms also make buyers feel more confident they are making the right choice. To get a badge, you have to have enough positive reviews so they can be automatic trust builders.

Research shows that 55% of B2B buyers consider 3 to 5 solutions when buying software. As a vendor, being in the top 3 – 5 on relevant review platform category listings helps make the cut.

The purpose of testimonials:

  • Real-life business use case — Testimonials give customers insight into how the software has helped similar businesses overcome key challenges and achieve specific goals.
  • Measurable impact — Many testimonials include before-and-after scenarios of pre-and-post-product purchase, all with data to paint a clear picture of the quantifiable impact they can expect to see.
  • Reduced risk—Testimonials from established brands can reduce potential buyers’ perceived risks, making them feel more confident about their purchase decision. Especially when they come from highly authoritative brands in the buyer’s space.
  • Customer insight—Testimonials reveal the type of customers the product serves and share what their customer advocates consider to be the product’s winning features and capabilities.

The Myths: Busting the BS

Myth #1: Reviews are better than testimonials & vice versa

Here’s the thing: neither is better than the other. They are simply different forms of social proof. Each one benefits the customer and plays a vital role in every software buyer’s decision. To make the most of both, you’ll focus on generating both. As a buyer you’ll also research both because both offer valuable (and different) insights.

Myth #2: Reviews are objective

While this would be ideal, unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the reviews will be objective. The last section, where I discuss vendors’ increasing influence on review platforms, explains why. Paying vendors have become customers of third-party review platforms. The blaring conflict of interest here hints at limited objectivity. Many customers feel this and believe they are not going to get the full story on these platforms, so they are starting to look for other avenues for a more balanced view.

The ones that are most often mentioned are Reddit and private professional communities ( Slack communities for example). In both cases though, there are serious caveats. Reddit is anonymous by design. And Slack communities are usually sponsored by one or several vendors.

Myth #3: Reviews are more authentic

Some might be, but certainly not all. With the launch of ChatGPT and other chatbots, there has been an increase in AI-generated reviews. While review platforms are trying to combat this, there are still AI-written reviews that are obviously anything but authentic.

Myth #4: Reviews are anonymous

Not necessarily. It depends on how they are collected, and on the industry. If you hop onto any review platform, I bet you’ll have to do a bit of scrolling before you get to an anonymous review. The vast majority, at the very least, have a name. Most also include titles and companies where they work. While they can be anonymous, they don’t have to be.

Myth #5: Reviews are shorter than testimonials

Length has nothing to do with it. Both reviews and testimonials can be as short or as long as the creator wants them to be. Reviews can range from 100 words to 2000 words, depending on the platform that collects them. Likewise, testimonials can be one-sentence quotes, 15-question long surveys, or 3000-word customer case studies. There are no hard and fast rules on length for either.

The Need for Clarity: Who are reviews and testimonials serving?

Review platforms are on a slippery slope.

While a 2023 TrustRadius report found that 61% of technology buyers still consider user reviews to be the most influential resource, some research suggests that an increasing number of review site users’ trust in these platforms is diving.

According to the 2023 State of B2B Software Reviews: Survey Report, 50% of B2B software review site users are limiting their use because of a lack of authenticity and 49% because of perceived review inflation.

So you have to ask the question: Who are these platforms actually serving?

Are they serving customers or vendors?

From the changes I’m seeing, review sites are increasingly focusing on catering to vendors. This is a problem for all parties involved, and I’ll explain why.

  • For review platforms: because it’s undermining their leading ‘objective,’ ‘unbiased.’ and ‘trusted’ source reputation in the B2B SaaS buyer/seller game
  • For vendors:  because their increasing influence on these platforms could be adversely affecting the fundamental purpose of reviews, which are a vital generator of social proof and trust
  • For customers: because they are losing trust and looking to expand their research base to find other, additional sources for the credible and authentic insights they seek when buying SaaS products

But it’s not too late to find a fix—one that will work to serve the customer and the vendor long-term.

Instead of being blindly led by positive review generation and scores, in my eyes, vendors need to start focusing on three things:

  1. Respect for the customer – Yes, you want to make more sales but sneaky tactics only work for so long before your customers become aware of them, and you lose the reputation and trust you’ve spent years building. Enduring and evolving SaaS B2Bs are the ones who are led and driven by meeting their current customers’ needs – not led solely by expanding the prospect list.
  2. Value of honest, unregulated, organic feedback—Be interested in your current customers’ needs, cater to them, and astonish them, and the reviews and ratings you want to see will produce themselves organically. Both reviews and testimonials lose authenticity when customers are told or guided on what to write or say. It’s highly likely prospects will recognize this because it will come across as too positive.
  3. Product evolution – This may seem counterproductive, but you want to see negative and positive reviews. That proves to the prospects and buyers, that the platform is objective. I am also certain that having some negative reviews where you, as a vendor, respond and provide a solution (via the platform) carries more weight and is more trustworthy than the vendor that only has positive reviews. You also need to remember that negative feedback is an invaluable resource for your product development team. That is how you find out what your product is missing so you can improve it.

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