Beyond PR

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.

7 Comments on Blog Post Title

Arthur Yann, APR, VP at PRSA 10:40 EST on Feb 18, 2011

Provocative post, Sarah. You nailed it by pointing out that the FCC is encouraging companies to do the right thing by disclosing any exchange of value with bloggers that results in product reviews. Regardless of whether it’s a legal requirement, it’s certainly an ethical one. Although the Edelman Trust Barometer shows a slight decline in consumer inclination to seek purchase recommendations from “people like them” (the proliferation of social and other non-traditional sources of information were undoubtedly contributing factors), that trend will likely continue upward over the long-term. Readers of online reviews thus have a right to know whether a reviewer was paid to offer his/her opinions, so they can gauge the information’s credibility for themselves. The disclosure onus, by the way, falls not only on the blogger, but on the company as well. If your readers are interested, there’s a good post on PRSA’s blog, “PRSAY,” on this very subject. It’s available at

Sarah Skerik 13:47 EST on Feb 18, 2011

Thanks for the note, Arthur. I think the issue of transparency around product reviews and ratings on web sites is going to get ugly before it’s resolved.

Larry Thomas 09:24 EST on Feb 21, 2011

Great read, as usual, Sarah. I agree 100%! Whether on air, online, in print or in person the name of the ‘game’ is and always has been … Transparency.

Matt Klein 11:54 EDT on Apr 13, 2011

Great Article. As an Internet Consultant, I wouldn’t advise any business owner to pay for their reviews. This couldn’t only hurt them in the end if the consumer can’t trust their reviews. I find that most business that have bad reviews are looking for a quick fix by Paying for Good Reviews. Building your online reputation from a bad one takes time, but there are ethical ways of approaching this. Not every customer thinks your bad or you would be out of business, as an owner you need to be creative on getting your most loyal customers to put good reviews out online. Make it easy! Keep it simple and someone loyal to your business would be more than happy to spend 5 minutes writing a good review.

Gilles Malkine 06:50 EDT on Mar 15, 2012

What’s the difference between a paid review and advertising? If a reviewer contacts you and says they have listened to your music and have a favorable review to post and they’ll do that for a few bucks. isn’t that the same as buying an ad? If they’re up front about the fact that it will be posted on conspicuous sites, you’re paying for their services, no? Which is worse, doing that or writing about yourself and your work in the third person, which people do for bios, and which I’ve never heard anyone complain about?

Gilles Malkine 07:42 EDT on Mar 15, 2012

Reviews which are printed are always somehow paid for. To know exactly what the writer has been paid for seems to be the issue. But even in the news media, which people (erroneously) assume is objective, the writer’s work is edited by people paid by the owner to present a certain face or philosophy to the public. This bias is undisclosed. I’m more concerned in knowing that the reviewer is up to the task, qualified to criticize the work; if the subject is my own work, I will most likely know that right away, otherwise, I won’t know until I hear or read the work that is being reviewed. It’s just as sickening to realize that a reviewer who is paid or not paid does not know whereof they write; contrarily, I’ve seen people review their own work with a critical eye much more believable than that of an “objective” reviewer, and I’ve truly appreciated it, the idea of conflict of interest notwithstanding. And, regardless of any pay, reviewers may expose some of their own other character flaws in their writings. A reader must always make up his or her own mind – that’s what education is supposed to teach us to do. So I think it’s most reasonable to judge a review be based upon its content, not the road by which it came to my attention.

Tracy 12:52 EST on Feb 25, 2013

There is an attorney in Seattle who is paying his clients to write Bing, Yahoo, Google and Avvo reviews. He appeared at a marketing conference and talked about it–teaching other lawyers how to do it. Below is a clip that I found on the web–it is really disgusting. This guy is the kind of lawyer that makes all attorneys look bad.

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