Paid Product Reviews

February 26, 2009 By: erik Category: Internet, Musings 840 views

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Will Review Products For MoneyA month ago, a scandal rocked the e-commerce world. A Development Rep from Belkin, a computer peripherals manufacturer, was caught hiring people to write fake reviews of Belkin products on Amazon.com. The internet tubes rattled with outrage! Everyone in the e-commerce industry knows that the latest must-have feature for your website is customer product reviews. Amazon.com has been the leader in e-commerce since the beginning, and their review system is excellent. I openly admit to being influenced by product reviews in my recent prepurchase researching. They’re really quite helpful…or are they?

The trick is getting people who aren’t angry to spend their precious time writing about your product. My employer has just begun a “review incentives program” in which we will be offering cash payments of various non-trivial amounts (depending on the price of the product purchased) in exchange for product reviews. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Our “reviews submitted per email request” ratio has skyrocketed since we started dangling the monetary carrots. As my coworker in charge of the program put it, “People like money.”

My initial reaction to the Belkin scandal was, “That rep is an idiot! Of course you can’t pay people that haven’t even used the product to leave positive reviews!” But then I took a step back and thought about it a bit more. I realized how silly my initial reaction was. A large percentage of the advertising industry is centered around product endorsements, and what are endorsements but people who have not really used the product lying and saying that they like it in exchange for money? Penelope Cruz doesn’t actually use the shampoo she’s peddling on TV. Nor does Tiger Woods actually drive that car. They are accepting money in exchange for saying they like a product.

What shocked people about the scandal is that, because the genre is so new, there was a naive and unrealistic expectation that product reviews are somehow more honest and trustworthy than the rest of the “buy this product!” noise out there.

They aren’t.

 
  • http://www.hubbers.com Hubbers

    Personally I am outraged at your climbdown on this import issue.

    We all know that celebrities get paid and that regular adversing is “up to 100%” not worth the paper it is written on.

    The whole point of mass online reviewing is that there is an assumption of no financial reward or bias. To secretly pay people to say something dishonest about something they have no knowledge of when you know people will assume it is an honest an knowledgeable review is the highest order of deceit.

    Amazon should put a warning on all Belkin product pages to say the reviews may have been tainted.

    Shame on you Erik!

    These are the best review ever btw http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/product/B000JTOYLS/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_1?_encoding=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    I agree that there are two levels here. One is what my company is doing: paying actual purchasers of product X to review product X. And another is what Belkin did: paying college kids to make up lies about how great products they’ve never seen are. I still morally object to the second because it is dishonest. But it’s important to know that it happens.

    My point is that, just like anything you read on a blog or in an internet forum, all reviews may have been tainted. I’m warning people (myself included) that reviews from random internet people should be taken with the same grain of salt as television product endorsements.

    After working with the 3rd party that is managing our product reviews, I know how relaxed their requirements are to put a “VERIFIED REVIEWER” icon next to a review. It’s a system that is very, very easy to game.

  • aquariumdrinker

    To be clear (and maybe this is what you’re saying) the “two levels” you describe are two points on a continuum (one selected by the stupid rep, the other by your boss). It’s a difference of degree, not kind.

  • http://www.erik-rasmussen.com/ Erik R.

    Well, aquariumdrinker, the important distinction between the “two levels” is that in one the reviewer has actually used the product. That’s a pretty important difference.

    Also, in theory, my company pays you whether you give a product one or five stars, but there is no doubt some psychological influence towards “if they are offering to pay me, I should give a good review to make sure they actually pay me.”

    Hubbers and ‘drinker, at what point along the spectrum does it become okay? For instance, the third party review management company we use already has a “if you leave a review you will be entered in a drawing to win $1000″ offer on the table. With the probability of payment so low, is that still morally objectionable?

  • aquariumdrinker

    I don’t mean to make a moral argument. Impartial user reviews are valuable to me as a shopper, and I’d guess that companies like Amazon seem them as valuable to their business. I imagine Amazon is thinking of paid reviews when it bans “commercial solicitation” in reviews posted to the site. Paid reviewers are likely to be kinder to a goods or services provider than the provider might deserve. These reviews decrease the usefulness of reviews for me, so I don’t like them.

    It is true that, among agents of a company posting reviews as users on sites like Amazon, there are those who have used the product and those who have not. And it is possible that the former group doesn’t do as much damage to the overall usefulness of reviews as the latter (although I don’t see why you would need to have used something in order to say nice things about it).

    But the distinction may not be worth much as a stopping point along the continuum for many businesses. I’m not sure what your company sells — maybe some tailored good or service where it is possible to know whether someone has actually used the service. House cleaners, web designers and lawyers all know who they have worked for. But for many companies, it would be hard to know whether the customer (or the person presenting herself as a customer) is the user. A more useful sanitizer would be a disclosure in the body of the review that the reviewer was compensated.

    I agree, by the way, that only the naive would assume that user reviews on a commercial site are free from purchased opinions. But you don’t have to be naive to believe that those paid reviews that aren’t disclosed as such are a drag on the value of reviews. I know that some people piss in the pool. At the same time, I have no problem with opprobrium for those caught doing it.

  • http://www.hubbers.com Hubbers

    I think the whole thing boils down to one simple question: is it fair and honest to tell customers a paid advertisement is a review?

    The answer for me is no.

    Life is so much easier when you live in a black and white world. Although it does make snooker quite a bit harder.