Thursday 28 May 2020

ABC of Reviews: 8. Rewards and incentives, a minefield to be negotiated

First, the simple answer: never, ever, offer a reward to a customer for a review. At best your motives may be misconstrued, at worst you will be risking a breach of the law (the CMA regulations) and/or Google's terms of service (which expressly forbid incentivising customers). And this includes offering discounts on future purchases and offering vouchers.

The background and some more detail

When it was first proved that online reviews drove sales - of everything from books to holidays to financial and legal advice - businesses quickly began to 'invest' in acquiring reviews. It was the beginning of what we christened the 'Wild West' phase of reviews: there were no rules, so some businesses took shortcuts; here are just some of them...

  • they encouraged their management and staff write reviews (pretending to be bona fide customers)
  • they encouraged their staff to get friends and family to write reviews
  • they paid staff to write reviews
  • they paid customers to write reviews
  • they paid people who had never even heard of their business to write reviews*

* for many years it was as easy to buy a review as a book online. Advertisements such as these were familiar features on online auction sites and forums:

This is no exaggeration. Over the years we have kept a running file of such abuses - you would be surprised how naive some people - and businesses - can be, given that it is surprisingly easy to conduct a social media scrape and come up with evidence that would stand up in any court of law...
  • the estate agency that got each branch manager to write a review of each of their adjacent branches
  • the accountancy firm that rewarded clients with £50 of Marks & Spencer vouchers for each positive review
And how do we know about these? Often because other reviewers mention such tactics in their reviews. Here's an example...

Don't trust the web

If you search for advice on the web you will come across an endless stream of articles such as this...

And there's a very good reason the regulators forbid such incentives: they know - as does any business offering such an incentive - that the unwritten implication is 'write a positive review if you want whatever incentive we are offering'.

Think about it for a moment: what dissatisfied customer is going to be attracted by a 'free coffee for a review' or a 'future discount for a review'? So any such system is inherently biased in favour of the business, something that the law in the UK - in the shape of the CMA regulations - and Google's terms of service are expressly designed to prevent. 

Our advice to businesses

The first thing to do is to conduct a thorough audit of your current reviews. If there are any that were written - with the best of intentions, we're sure - by staff or their connections, get them deleted straight away (the individual who wrote the review will have to access their Google account to do this).

Next, explain to staff just how important it is to invite genuine reviews - from all your customers. This will beg the inevitable question: just how to do this effectively - minimising the risk of actively encouraging negative reviews - whilst at the same time complying with the law as well as Google's terms of service.

The law makes it quite clear - and it's basically the same for the UK, the EU and most states in the USA - that if you invite anyone to write a review you must allow everyone to do so. There are two ways of doing this:
  1. Email every single one of your customers inviting them to post a review to Google. If you leave any out, whatever the perceived logic, you will be breaking the law. You will also be leaving your business exposed to reviews by stakeholders other than those who have actually made a recorded purchase or other transaction: spouses/partners/business associates and so on.
  2. Embed the invitation - and your reviews - into your website: something like this...

The reasons this format works so well...
  • it allows your customers and potential customers to access all your reviews and write a review any time they wish
  • for that reason, it is fully compliant with UK and EU law - and demonstrates compliance to everyone: your potential customers and the regulators
  • the reviews are first posted to your own website - so they can be moderated, minimising the chances of an inaccurate, misleading or plain unfair review being posted (none of these benefit consumers). There's more on this vital function here
  • you will have reviews on your website for potential customers to reference - driving calls and clicks, just as they do on Google
  • anyone tempted to write a review direct to Google will have a viable alternative - there are few consumers that actively want to write a negative review straight to Google, it is invariably a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, so give them an avenue they will use in preference
  • you will have the moral upper hand if a customer does go elsewhere to write a review: they could have written the review there first, they only had to visit your site to do so, they didn't have to wait to be invited
  • last, but not least: it shows that your reviews have been independently verified* - and that sets them apart from testimonials. Readers can click on 'What is HelpHound?' for further reassurance

So: reward and/or incentivise your staff. Some businesses simply make it part of the job, some reward staff per review. And management? Lead by example: almost all our most successful clients do so.

*Independent verification:

A review is only a review if it fulfils the following criteria (otherwise it is simply a testimonial, and must, by law, be identified as such):
  • it is hosted on a platform that is independent of the business under review
  • it is 'unfiltered': there is no selection of reviews to be shown on the business's website

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