Why it's more important than ever that brands improve their online review policing

24th Sep 2015

A recent study reveals that brands are ghost writing reviews, and quashing poor reviews, to trump the competition. Brands need to realise that a bad review isn’t always bad for business.

If you’ve consulted an online review before hitting ‘add to cart’, you’re not alone. The online review industry is estimated to be worth £23bn, with 42% of consumers leaving reviews and 95% seeking out real product experiences before committing to a purchase. A further 6% turn to bloggers and vloggers for guidance, and 61% are more likely to trust consumer reviews more than recommends from their family and friends.

In light of such impressive findings, brands and businesses are enthusiastically investing in user-generated reviews and implementing technology on-site to show-off consumer opinion. Blogger recommendations and reviews have provided a lucrative opportunity for brands to impress new audiences off-site, too.

An average star rating drives more conversion, but malicious content is never okay

Online reviews will inevitably reveal consumer gripes, but studies show that a public dressing-down isn’t a bad thing when it comes to conversion.

While slipped customer service, shaky product quality, unexpected price points and inconvenient delivery are nerve wracking for vendors, a bad review is just as valuable to consumers as a good one, and after all you can’t please everyone.

Believe it or not, constructive negative feedback is actually more trusted by consumers because it informs a more realistic standard for consumers. And, it’s not risky to encourage negative reviews because up to 26% of shoppers reported that the product or service was a little better than the online reviews had stated. The brands who embrace reviews, whether they’re good or bad, realise that conversion can be prompted by a trustworthy and honest account of the services on offer.

Brands who have struck the right balance between glowing reports and ‘could try harder’ reviews, should look closely at their takings; an average star rating drives more conversions than a five star rating. The way brands manage and respond to negative feedback can validate purchase decisions, too. Taking this into consideration, why then are some companies commissioning fake reviews?

Biased and falsified tactics are declared unlawful

A recent investigation conducted by the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) revealed that brands and businesses were suppressing opinions that they deemed to be a little too real. It’s thought that millions of fake reviews, serving to flatter brands and put down the competition, are circulating review sites and leading shoppers up the garden path. In addition, the CMA revealed that third-parties were also exchanging advertorial content for payment without declaring sponsorship, so bloggers were encouraging their audience to invest in products and services they didn’t genuinely endorse.

These disingenuous practices saw some brands actively writing their own reviews, posting fake reviews onto third-party review sites and constructing negative reviews to damage the reputation of their competitors. And for some brands, negative reviews were simply not posted at all to maintain a flawless perception. But brands weren’t the only perpetrators of misconduct. Customers and third-parties are abusing the system by employing blackmail tactics, threatening to leave negative feedback to achieve leverage or to seek revenge – see #bloggerblackmail for recent high-profile coverage - and disgruntled employees are venting their frustrations by publishing malicious content about their employers.

The falsified content culture has blurred the lines of what’s acceptable in the industry, but ultimately the effect is the same; consumers are being denied the benefit of choosing the product that would best suit their needs, and finally the poor practice has been outed as unlawful.

Review sites and brands must tighten up their endorsement policies

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and CMA have slammed the manipulative tactics in an online review and endorsements report, identifying that up to 80% of consumers believed that online reviews are genuine, and the investigation confirmed that readers relied on the review system to make faster online shopping decisions.

In a move to regulate the industry, and clamp down on untrustworthy reviews, strict guidelines have come into force requiring brands and third-parties to clearly signpost where content is advertorial and that the full, unabridged account of their services must be published to comply with the law. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 already contains rules about unfair and misleading practices, banning editorial content as paid promotion in the media, and preventing brands from masquerading as consumers. The CMA has said it will investigate any business that falls foul of law and take enforcement action where necessary, so brands need to straighten up and toe the line with any review or endorsement strategy moving forwards.

However, brands are not powerless in the face of these new regulations and have the option to challenge malicious, or false content. If reviews are inflammatory, brands can lobby to have the review removed.

Businesses and review sites are responsible for transparency

In the wake of the CMA’s findings, the pressure is placed squarely on review sites and brands to adopt a trustworthy and transparent strategy, but brands need their review suppliers to weed out fake content. If user-generated reviews are discovered to be falsified – either flagged by readers, or the channels themselves – brands not only run the risk of breaking the law, but also endangering the confidence of their shoppers, and a whopping 54% of UK adults is a big demographic to alienate.

Policing reviews to validate and celebrate the trustworthy content (whether it’s good or bad), gives the reviewee a credible authority, allowing readers to form not only an opinion of the product but also invest faith in the writer. Brands can applaud great reviews, and respond strategically to negative ones, but also invest in anti-fraud software to verify consumer reviews and stop any fake, or malicious content in its tracks.

Investing in an authentic voice of the customer online will give brands confidence that they are abiding to good practice, the law and ultimately working towards improving their bottom line. Brands need to trust that an interactive and genuine experience, both on and off-site, will drive traffic to the all-important conversion pages, and that controlling their service and not user opinion is the golden ticket for manoeuvring into this lucrative marketplace.

Anne-Marie Checcone Olsen is PowerReviews’ VP of EMEA.

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