Get Rid Of Fake Consumer Reviews, Once And For All

The issue of fake user-generated content has risen its ugly head again.  The New York Times recently reported that New York State regulators have fined 19 companies a total of $350,000 for misleading consumer review practices.  Within the group of 19 were companies that create fake customer reviews (including a digital marketing agency) and businesses that buy them to promote themselves.

Customer reviews are a key part of the shopper buying life cycle, helping consumers make a better choice and helping brands and retailers increase sales.  According to Nielsen’s 2013 Global Trust Report in Advertising, recommendations from friends and family together with online consumer reviews are among the sources of messaging most trusted by consumers.  What’s more, they are the highest driver of consumer actions.

Nielsen Top 5

Source: Top 5 shown only – Nielsen Global Survey of Trust in Advertising, Q1 2013

However, the fact that consumer reviews are so powerful means the temptation to game and manipulate is high.  It is interesting in itself to note that reviews are included within a Nielsen report on advertising and messaging, almost accidentally implying that marketeers should see them as advertising.   In 2012, Gartner forecasted that by 2014, 10-15% of social media reviews will be fake.  They even predicted that increased media attention on fake reviews will result in

“…at least two Fortune 500 brands facing litigation from US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), over the next two years”.

What is clear is that the integrity and value of user-generated content must be protected.

It’s great to see the state of New York take action, which generates publicity around the issues, however too much publicity around fake reviews may result in the very decline in trust that action was trying to prevent – consumers simply gradually lose trust in the reviews.

The industry needs to start to take more responsibility and ensure that the social compact between consumers and businesses remains strong – we should not leave it to the regulators.

Organisations such as Womma have drafted best practice guidelines, though I could not find the final version on their website, whilst the UK’s Advertising Standards has also included user-generated content within its code of practice. Elsewhere, the French commerce industry got together and imposed regulations upon themselves in July (with the sexy name AFNOR NF Z74-501).  Consumer engagement businesses like Reevoo* have long championed the importance of trust and transparency, even producing a manifesto, whilst competitor Bazaarvoice also recognizes the importance of authenticity.  However, the industry including brands, retailers, agencies and advisors must go a step further in living and breathing best practice.  It is up to us.  Larger businesses can show the way for smaller.  The spotlight should be shone on those carrying out best practice.  The industry needs to act before it’s too late and trust in user-generated content is irreparably damaged.  It is all our responsibility.

Notes:  *I am one of the founders of Reevoo.  Thanks to Edwin Bos for his comments during final drafting.

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