What do 503 five-star reviews mean to you when you’re on Amazon, Wayfair or Trip Advisor or Yelp? It probably gives you some peace of mind and eases you into a making a decision. Stop: move your thumbs from your phone or take your hand off your mouse. You may need to reconsider your next move.
This article from BuzzFeed really shook my confidence in the review ecosystem.
There are three massive takeaways:
- BuzzFeed does serious journalism. It is an impressive piece.
- Many reviews are fake. The ecosystem in place to game the system is sophisticated.
- There are fake positive and even more nefariously, fake negative reviews.
We’ve all heard of fake reviews or at least wondered if they were real. Last summer one fake reviewer gamed the system by creating a fake restaurant. This restaurant was the top restaurant in London for a couple of weeks … out of 13,000 restaurants. This seemed like a bit of a stunt though, but you could easily skip over the fact that this is what the author did on a daily basis. He was a fake review writer.
As a consumer this makes me question all of my trust in reviews. I’ve always wondered who takes the time to buy a headboard and bedframe, writes a review and post a photo! The BuzzFeed article above gives me some pause and raises questions. The question to ask is not if this is just a nice person, but we now need to wonder if this a paid manipulation/review.
As a communications professional, this raised a few questions for us as an industry. How are we different from the fake review ecosystem if we pay influencers to review products?
Let’s take a step back. Amazon has created a structure to eliminate fake reviews. The reviewer has to review something that they’ve personally purchased. They cannot get the product for free. That’s just for the positive reviews. Never mind the power of competitors paying for negative reviews of those in their category.
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Meanwhile, the way our industry works with traditional or mainstream media is that we loan them products for them to review and those products are returned to us. We don’t have any editorial control on what they write or even if they decide to write something or not. You can feel pretty safe about the integrity of reviews you read in the news or see on TV.
Influencers are different. They often get paid to use the product or get the product for free, in exchange for a review. I brought the GCI team together to discuss what is the difference is between this and what Amazon considers a fake review.
There are five key areas that separate fake reviews from influencer reviews.
- Influencer reviews have standards for transparency/disclosure. The post should say sponsored and clearly state that the influencer was paid/given consideration for the post/review of the product or service.
- The influencers are known by their followers and are in the public domain. They are not anonymous or an average member of the public.
- They are experts/have notoriety in some area. The influencer whether they are a tech or fashion expert or in film, music or the arts, they have some credibility with their audiences.
- The influencers have a history of commenting and reviewing that is accessible. You can see their Instagram feeds or blog posts. Their personal brand requires authenticity.
- Celebrity endorsements have been a part of our culture whether it be George Foreman for his grill or Kim Kardashian for the fashion she wears. Peyton Manning doesn’t sing about Nation Wide insurance just because he likes them.
There is one key area that is a bit grey – that is editorial freedom for influencers. Some brands demand that influencers stay on script. We think that this is a slippery slope. We insist that influencers be given the freedom to be authentic. They should be able to talk about the good and bad. Authenticity resonates, and standard messaging will more often than not fall flat. This is hard for some brands to appreciate, and we can empathize, but it’s ultimately in their best interest.
Remember we’re talking about reviews. There is a distinction between a celebrity endorsement and a multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Editorial freedom is different in this case, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t back-and-forth for the sake of authenticity.
So what can we conclude here?
As consumers, our review literacy needs to improve. Caveat emptor still applies. We need to keep our eyes wide open. Our peers, friends and families may have more influence in the future if our trust continues to erode in online reviews.
As communication professionals we can give further weight to the value of traditional media relations with the implicit trust and editorial control that comes with it. Transparency with influencers is paramount. They must inform their fans that they have received consideration for their review. As an industry we’re pretty good at that. What we have to do better on is the editorial freedom. Authenticity and trust lie in the balance. We have to fight to maintain that.