Feb 17, 2011

Paying for online reviews: good idea? bad idea?

One representation of the buying process, and all the inputs a potential customer might see.

I’m having a theoretical debate with some colleagues from other United Business Media (PR Newswire’s parent company) about the practice of paying people to review products online – and specifically, on a brand’s own web site.  It’s an interesting conversation, and is riddled with pitfalls and catch-22s.   And while I started out defending Truth And Integrity, opining that paid reviews are *never* acceptable, I’ve since moderated my tone.

Just a little bit. And for the record, I still don’t like the idea.

But paying for reviews – offering reviewers a small reward such as a $10 Starbucks or Amazon card – may actually be a good idea.

(Ugh. I can’t believe I just said that.)

Here’s why.

User-generated reviews are continuing to proliferate, as more and more web sites operators – from hyperlocal news sites to retailers to the brands behind the products and services we buy – realize the myriad benefits of encouraging user reviews on their sites, including:

  • Search engine traction.  Search engines love this sort of constantly updated content and are displaying this kind of social content prominently in search results.
  • It’s one more way to engage customers.  The rise of the interactive web (Web 2.0) has forever changed the buying process and relationships we have with customers.  People are now empowered to keep brands honest, and are very willing to share their opinions of products and services online.  Instead of the linear marketing funnel that took potential buyers through the awareness-consideration-preference actions, marketers widely believe that the buying process is now an informed loop (illustrated at the top of this post), in which a variety of inputs and data points – not all of which originate with the brand – inform and influence the buyer.
  • Digital reviews are undeniably credible and effective.  According to a study last year by eConsultancy, 70% of people trust the opinions of unknown users.

So. Online reviews are widely trusted by people and, as a bonus, deliver better visibility for brand websites that enable this kind of user interaction.

So what’s wrong with paying people to post reviews?

Grudgingly, if the brand posts all reviews it receives – the good, the bad and the meh – then I suppose the practice is OK.  I am, for the record, dead set against paying for and only posting positive reviews.  That practice seems to be risky.  At the least, it’s not an authentic representation of the service, and it could bite the brand – because disappointed buyers have ample outlets on which to vent their spleens.  And, at the worst, it’s possible that paid positive reviews could be considered misrepresentative – or worse.

I think the better practice would be to step back, enable your audiences to interact, and let the true evangelists for the products self-identify.   Reviews on a site are nice.  However, developing relationships with the people who *really* love your brand opens up different opportunities all together.  Developing and cultivating a loyal following who love and talk about your products online – authentically, organically and enthusiastically – might take a bit more time than getting some paid reviews, but will generate a lasting and more significant positive benefit.

At some point, I have to wonder if the FCC is going to wade into the online reviews fray.  They’ve already regulated bloggers, testimonial advertisements and testimonial endorsements.  I reviewed those guidelines before I wrote this, and they don’t specifically apply to or reference online, user-generated reviews.  The FCC guidelines also seem pretty vague, and in looking at some of the commentary around them, I’m not the first to believe they would be tough to enforce.

So we have the FCC essentially suggesting that companies do the right thing when it comes to compensating bloggers for reviews – bloggers are told they need to disclose any compensation (monetary, or in terms of free goods or services) in their reviews.

I can’t help but conclude that doing the right thing is ultimately the best rule of thumb when it comes to interacting with online audiences.  The risks of gaming the system are just too great for me to stomach personally, because people truly resent being duped.  What do you think? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Authored by Sarah Skerik, VP social media, PR Newswire.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Eloqua.

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