Social Media Reviews – Value, Morals, and Ethics

No hidden agenda. One of the primary objectives of social media is to produce advocacy and word of mouth marketing such that real customers promote your product/service to their family, friends, and colleagues. There is no denying the power of having “trusted agents’ stand behind a brand. Are you more likely to value a recommendation of a friend telling you where to go for a great latte or are you more likely to believe the neon sign on the diner window, “World’s Best Coffee” (as Will Farrell did in the movie Elf)?

So it is no surprise that the use of reviews plays a strong role in marketing and customers’ buying decisions. As a brand, you want to give people incentive to take action and write a review on your behalf. The question is, how far can you go before your practices and tactics are considered unethical?

This past week there was an article in the New York Times, “For $2 a Star, an Online Retailer Gets 5-Star Product Reviews.” In that article, Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated “More people are depending on reviews for what to buy and where to go, so the incentives for faking are getting bigger.” And Mary K. Engle, the Federal Trade Commission’s associate director for advertising practices said that “Advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it’s now presenting itself in different ways … We’re very concerned.”

Yes – bogus and deceitful reviews are immoral, unethical and downright wrong. But there is nothing wrong with giving your customers an incentive to post a review so long as you are not manipulating what they say. You want to know how a brand can drive a positive review. Pretty simple. Deliver an awesome product or service. This is the most important factor for success and likely to produce winning reviews. And if you are really doing that why not put some incentive in place? Let me give you two real scenarios…

A number of years ago, I headed up a mainframe product line. We sold high-end computers (7 figure price tag) to corporate enterprises. A B2B play. When it came to final negotiations, the client would always beat us up on price. As they would whittle us down, the final agreement was usually, “OK, we’ll give you x% discount if you agree to do a press release with us.” In other words, the final price was agreed to with the addition of advocacy. The client would agree to state something like “we selected ___ because of their stellar product.”

My second example highlights a word of mouth play by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. Now we all know that Zappos is the poster child for customer support. This is because Tony has the greatest appreciation for customer interfacing to the benefit of both the customer and his brand. When Tony released his book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” he offered the book for free to anyone that had an active blog, some traffic to their site, and were willing to write a review. No influence on what they said about the book, just a gentlemen’s agreement to write a review. (You can read my review at “Delivering Happiness – The Key to a Great Company.”)

So why shouldn’t a company offer their customer a discount or rebate to write a review after purchase? It is going a step too far if you ask them to write something specifically, but a simple request to write their objective review makes much sense.

In a world where buyers are looking for input and according to Hubspot, people are 71% likely to purchase when referred by social media, “marketing reviews” is a win-win for the consumer and the brand (assuming the brand really has something compelling and valuable to offer). This should turn into regular concept and regular practice.

So I have no problem working with brands to put in place a strategy that is aimed at production of product/service reviews and increasing word of mouth marketing. Any reason why you would not do the same?

Make It Happen!
Social Steve

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Social Media Reviews – Value, Morals, and Ethics

  1. Steve, as usual, a great topic for discussion. Here is my take – I do believe it’s reasonable for a merchant to offer an incentive to bring a friend or to tell a friend, etc, and the incentive could be along the lines of a discount on a future purchase. As long as the incentive is reasonable relative to margin and customer acquisition costs, it makes good business sense and it’s very much in line with a reward from a loyalty program (repeat purchases create some sort of future rebate).

    Social media makes it easy for merchants to offer incentives for sharing, or reviewing (you can do this with our software from Moontoast). Knowing that a friend referred a service or product or retailer to me because he/she is getting a discount on a future purchase would be interesting to know (and typically is not disclosed), and it might compel me more to consider the merchant if I knew that one of my friends was pleased to the point where he/she will potentially purchase more than once from that merchant and hence is interested in some sort of incentive for a future purchase, in exchange for sharing or recommending something about that merchant. Conversely I am usually skeptical of anonymous reviews and ratings.

    From your note above I assume your “editor” trusts reviews from people she knows. What about reviews from people she doesn’t know?

  2. Thanks Jeff. Good comments. My editor has a higher trust for people she knows, but also values reviews from others as well.

  3. I’m not sure there’s an easy way to police it, but I do think that buying ratings will have a negative impact on the overall value of ratings. It seems unlikely that someone will give a strongly negative review when the vendor is attaching some benefit to your posting the rating. Even just knowing that the vendor will read the review could cause people to alter what they write. That could be either positive or negative (I’ve been known to blog about companies/products when I can’t get satisfaction thru typical customer service channels). Just the fact that you’re getting a product for free, in return for the review, will make you value it differently. If I pay $50 for a tablet case I’ll probably have higher expectations than if I got it for free.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with simply saying “if you like our product/service, please post a comment on Amazon, Yelp, etc” but incentivizing it will drive bad behavior.

    I think this is very different than the “in return for us cutting the price, we want a press release” example (something that I’ve done as well). Inherent in the “ABC company chooses XYZ Technology” press release is the fact that ABC probably did evaluate multiple products before making their choice and they did, in fact, choose you. For a high-end product, they probably did a proof-of-concept or bake-off that you clearly won. That’s different than me browsing multiple products on Amazon and picking one — possibly based someone else’s reviews. The press release is simply saying “ABC Company compared us to others and chose us”. That’s stating simple facts.

    What would I like to see in the perfect ratings & reviews system? An algorithm and easy display that shows:
    1) Whether I bought that product via the platform or not (did I really buy it on amazon or book that hotel through TripAdvisor?)
    2) How my star rating compares to other ratings I’ve posted. If I’ve posted 100 reviews with an average rating of 3.5 stars, my 5-star review for this product is probably more meaningful than if I’d posted only 2 other reviews, each with 5 stars.
    3) The median rating, not just the mean. Some products (I was looking at reviews for a left-leaning political book on Amazon) will drive a lot of 5s and 1s – but it’s really not a 3-star product. The median for that book might be 4.2 stars but it’s driven down by a bunch of 1-star reviews from people who never read it.

    Lots more can be improved, and will be, as more people try to game the system.

    • Barry – some interesting thoughts here. One question – are you inferring that consumers do not do comparison shopping and “bake-offs” before they make a purchase decision and only B2B purchases go through some evaluation? I think I asked a rhetorical question and thus why is it OK to give a B2B purchase a discount in return for press release and not okay to give a B2C play a discount for a review (independent of positive or negative)? Also, when we rant about a product or service on the social web (I’ve done this) do we not want a response from the brand. I have no problem putting something negative up to be read by the brand if they “earned” that response. Do you really think people are less apt to put something up negative if that is how they feel in fear that the brand will read it?

      Best,
      Steve

  4. I definitely agree that while it’s ok to offer your customers an incentive to write a review, it’s not ok to bribe them into writing a review that isn’t truthful. Transparency is always the best policy.

  5. Tony Hsieh’s idea of giving samples to bloggers with the hope of getting a reply was a great idea to create word of mouth and build good relationships. For small to medium businesses seeking to do the same they should be careful about targeting right people to offer this to. Seeking the bloggers who fall into the right communities, live in the right region, and have influence to carry word of mouth to potential customers is beneficial for these emerging enterprises.

    Targeting can take many hours to do and requires a good understanding of the communities that are relevant to you. This requires the company to be deeply aware of it’s target communities or spend a considerable amount of time or money to do the research.

    Now, one may think oneself to be quite social media savvy and understand the connections themselves right? After-all, if my client wants to sell a new video game, I know I want to reach out to influencers like Joystiq, Bio Break or Kotaku. But what about clients with obscure target audiences like bird watchers?

    How are lean businesses going to target niche communities effectively and efficiently?

  6. Hi Steve.
    Agreed…Reviews can be either a deal maker, or a deal breaker. I talk to Car Dealerships everyday. It’s so amazing to see the lack of knowledge that is out there. I think the reason is because they have used traditional advertising as a crutch for so long, that the digital space is too confusing.
    I wrote two interesting blogs about this over the past month.
    ** Customer Reviews mean everything in today’s competitive market
    http://wp.me/p1Udyf-aw
    It goes into detail about my purchase of a new computer online and how reviews heavily influenced my decision.
    Another one, more auto specific is
    **Dr. Mr. Car Dealer ( This might be vulgar, but its true)
    http://wp.me/p1Udyf-cO
    I have also noticed a few companies here in Arizona that are actually posting fake reviews. I just don’t believe that an auto service center , on new years eve, could get 50 new 5 star reviews. That’s awefully obvious.
    Thanks for the great Post steve

  7. strategyaudit

    Steve,
    You concentrate on the impact of positive reviews, the reverse is also true. Never have marketers had a threat like social media aimed at them, a few bad reports, horror stories, even bad stuff dreamed up by competitors, have the potnential to destroy a brand that may have taken years to build aslmost overnight.
    Most comentators on SM leave this dark side alone, but to my mind it is a huge threat, and in time, the bean counters amongst us will start to find ways to reflect that as a contingent liability in the balnce sheets of corporations. Almost none of my director peers in Australia agree with me, which give me hope that the notion is correct, just the recognition of it is lacking.
    Cheers
    Allen Roberts

    • Hi Allen – I would just add that the negatives reviews can happen anywhere, anytime without a brand’s participation in social media at all. That said, they mine as well get ahead of it and influence positive media about their brands.

      Best,
      Steve

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