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Online retailers frequently solicit reviews on social media, sometimes offering incentives for consumers to provide them? Are solicited reviews legitimate, and do those incentives constitute a bribe? We think the answer is more complicated than it might appear at first glance.

This topic is very much in the news right now because several tech industry websites picked up on a blog post that Amazon published on Wednesday to address persistent criticisms about the impact of fraudulent reviews on consumers’ experience with the retail giant. The post places the blame for problems with the review system squarely on social media companies, and urges them to more assertively crack down on accounts that recruit other users to write reviews for specific sellers.

Cleaning up the review system – on Amazon or on any ecommerce website – is a worthwhile goal. However, we’re inclined to think that Amazon is being short-sighted, impractical, and a little bit hypocritical with its calls for a clean sweep of companies and individuals soliciting reviews on social media.

Companies like Facebook shouldn’t be condemned too harshly for allowing this sort of solicitation, since some of it is legitimate and some of it is surely very difficult to isolate from other forms of conversation about a product, service, or ecommerce experience. It’s one thing for a social media account to throw out a post declaring that the owners is willing to transfer money by PayPal or Venmo to anyone who is willing to life favorably about a given product. It’s something else if the account makes a post soliciting feedback about the product, then uses it to open a dialogue that leads to the creation of a new review on Amazon.

Even if that interaction ends with a small cash payment or some other compensation, it doesn’t necessarily mark the account’s conduct as nefarious. It’s entirely possible to search seek out product reviews on social media and to offer incentives to people who are willing to provide them, all without specifically enticing people to lie on a client’s behalf.

As a matter of fact, one might argue that asking for a false review is much more risky for both a marketing company and its clients than simply offering the same incentives for people to post honest reviews. The Amazon blog post is a testament to part of the danger, since genuinely fraudulent views run a risk of spurring the very sorts of crackdowns that Amazon is calling for. But even in absence of those crackdowns, soliciting fraudulent reviews on social media can be perilous in the sense that it could open a client company to greater scrutiny by individual consumers.

If you’re asking for reviews on social media, you’re not taking a very targeted approach to developing contacts. Casting a wide net is perfectly appropriate, even preferable in some circumstances. But it means that you don’t immediately know what you’re paying for, especially if you aren’t vetting the potential partner for things like their communication skills. And such vetting is an awfully difficult undertaking when you’re just offering small incentives for brief, one-off reviews on Amazon or another ecommerce site.

If you don’t know anything about a person from whom you’re soliciting reviews on social media, you definitely can’t count on them to be a good liar. But a limited capacity for writing fiction isn’t usually an impediment to someone straightforwardly sharing their experiences in an honest online review. Of course, by asking for that, you run the risk of receiving some negative reviews, but this is just part of the cost of doing business online, and it absolutely does not have to harm the overall marketing strategy for the affected company or product.

There’s value in negative reviews as well, if they’re handled properly. For some companies, they provide an opportunity for direct engagement with the author of the review on social media or on the ecommerce site itself. This sends a message to other consumers that the company is committed to customer service, and is sufficiently aware of complaints, so as to be more likely to address the underlying problems.

Furthermore, not all negative reviews are exclusively negative, and some even yield material that can be used in future promotional materials in different venues. This isn’t something that can be achieved as well with a scripted review that is provided to a random consumer who responds to requests for reviews on social media. If the same writer or team of writers handles official product descriptions, on-site content, and supposed third-party reviews, there’s a good chance of the similarity sticking out like a sore thumb and attracting the attention of savvy consumers, as well as companies like Amazon who are keen to demand crackdowns on solicitation of reviews on social media.

Scripted reviews are probably a foolish idea anyway. Even if the process of writing them is separated from the process of writing official content, it’s unlikely that one team of authors will be able to come up with meaningfully different commentary for each review while also conveying genuine information about the product. Even if they can, it’s almost certainly a costly proposition for the site owner, in which case the money that’s being dedicated to production of fraudulent reviews could probably be better spent elsewhere.

But the same is not necessarily true of offering a nominal payment many times over to actual product users who are willing to provide honest feedback. That process can be expected to yield significant data about the product, both to other consumers and to the company behind it. It can also be expected to raise the level of engagement with the product and company, which is valuable in its own right even if the resulting reviews are something of a mixed bag.

It is fortunate, therefore, that the ability to solicit product reviews on social media isn’t going away anytime soon. Even if Amazon’s appeals prove successful, the same phenomenon will just find another outlet. It has been part of the landscape of ecommerce for a very long time, and Amazon even contributed to it, allowing paid reviews to be posted openly all the way up until 2016. The ecommerce giant may have concluded that it was better to cut out this genre of online marketing altogether, but they cannot feasibly demand that that perspective be shared by the people who have benefited from it on both sides of consumer relationships.

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