By Chris Lee
According to industry watcher Gartner, consumers’ increased reliance on social media ratings and reviews will see enterprise spending on paid social media ratings and reviews increase, making up 10 to 15 per cent of all reviews by 2014. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could bring litigation against at least two Fortune 500 brands, analysts added.
In 2009, the FTC determined that paying for positive reviews without disclosing that the reviewer had been compensated equates to “deceptive advertising” and could be prosecuted. In the European Union, legislation came into effect on 31 December 2007 to outlaw brands from “falsely representing oneself as a customer”.
Gartner warns that with more than half of the Internet’s population on social networks, organisations are scrambling for new ways to build bigger follower bases, generate more hits on videos, garner more positive reviews than their competitors and solicit ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages.
Jenny Sussin, senior research analyst at Gartner, added: “Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews with cash, coupons and promotions including additional hits on YouTube videos in order to pique site visitors’ interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns.”
Genuine engagement is key
Given the risks, how should brands really behave when intending to generate positive reviews online?
Jim O’Hara, president of eCommerce widget company Ecwid, is not surprised about the growing problem of fake social media reviews.
“Social commerce in particular is on the rise as businesses look at platforms such as Facebook as a new route to show-off products and engage with customers,” he said. “For instance, our own data has shown that the average value for a Facebook ‘like’ is £13.53, which highlights that social commerce is a potentially profitable channel for many businesses. Fake reviews or ‘likes’ are a serious concern for those who have worked hard to engage with their customers and encourage them to leave a genuine review, as they serve to undermine their value.”
O’Hara believes that creating customer trust should be of paramount importance and was encouraged by Facebook’s announcement this month that it plans to crack down on fake ‘likes’ and remove those that aren’t genuine.
PR departments must lead
For Danny Whatmough of PR company EML Wildfire and Chair of the PRCA Digital Group (UK), PR departments have a responsibility to maintain standards for brands tempted to create artificial reviews online, instead focussing on genuine engagement as a route to generate reviews.
"It’s a sad state of affairs when companies have to resort to paying for reviews of products or services,” he told NMK. “It’s an approach that isn’t just highly unethical; it could have severe consequences for corporate reputation. Third party validation has always been a fundamental strand of building a respectable brand but sinking to these tactics merely undermines any attempt at respectability a company could look to achieve. It strikes against the heart of everything a PR professional should stand to preserve, protect and uphold."