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The Murky World of Paid Online Reviews

You need to get the word out about your new product or service. What if you paid someone -- or a lot of people -- to review it for you?
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You’re a new company, with a new product. You know it’s great, but what about the rest of the world? That’s where online reviews come in.

There’s one sure-fire way to get positive online comments for your product or service, and that’s to pay for them. I don’t recommend it. If you’ve got any equity in your product, service, or company name, or for that matter, any ethics, you should steer clear. But you’d be surprised how common it is – and, on the other hand, how easy it’s becoming to get found out.

The best research on this phenomenon, to my knowledge, is based on a study of Chinese e-commerce and online reviews. Given that China is often referred to as the wild wild west of raw capitalism, with legitimate companies competing against counterfeiters, and private enterprises struggling against well-funded state-owned enterprises, it makes sense to examine China as a petri dish of sorts.

An article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review shows how paid posters (known as “water armies” because they flood the internet with online commentary), are hired to tilt consumer sentiment for or against specific brands. Because consumers often rely on the opinions of online influencers or shoppers before making a purchase, the Technology Review article notes there is “no shortage of demand” for paid posters.

Don’t think this only happens in China. A simple Google search for “paid online posting” will show plenty of companies in Western countries willing to post—for a fee—manufactured reviews for blogs, chat rooms, online forums and e-commerce sites.

I hope it’s clear why ethically, paid posting is a bad idea. But it’s even a bad idea for the Machiavellian pragmatists among us. That’s because computer algorithms are increasingly making it easier for paid posting to be detected.

Researchers at the University of Victoria found that paid posters make a lot of new comments, for example, but they don’t tend to respond to others’ comments or engage in any sort of online conversation. Fifty percent of paid posters send up a ‘new’ post every 2.5 minutes – a speed that would be hard to match by anyone who isn’t working off of a template of approved ‘content,’ as paid posters often do. They also tend to cut and paste the same content, re-using it many times. That’s the sort of thing – in product descriptions, say – that search engines frown upon. But most consumers are searching for a given product or category, not for keywords in the reviews.

Getting Noticed

Of course, you still need reviews, which means you’ve got to ask for them. After your company delivers a product or service, encourage customers to send in a comment card, post reviews online, or share experiences with friends on Facebook or Twitter. As Stephen Denny, author of Killing Giants, says, “Timing is critical. There’s that moment after the customer has said, “thank you” – when they actually mean it – when they’re probably willing to help." That’s when you, or one of your employees enlists the customer to spread the word.

There are plenty of marketing professionals that have no problem paying for reviews. In addition, there are plenty that would advise companies to not offer customers a feedback forum, fearing they might encourage more negative comments than positive. But with the prevalence of social media, there’s no such thing as “controlling” customer comments. An authentic company delivering a product or service of quality—at a fair price—has nothing to fear from customer reaction.

Last updated: Dec 6, 2011

PAUL BARSCH | Columnist

Paul Barsch directs professional services marketing programs for a top ten software company. He blogs on technology and marketing at Boundaryless Marketing.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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