eCommerce Insiders

Online Review Incentivization: is This Really a Good Idea?

An online business owner faces a quandary:

They need to generate trust and site traffic by generating more reviews, but they can’t generate more reviews due to the lack of site traffic.

Should they take short-cuts by using incentivized review generation strategies? In many cases, this doesn’t prove to be a good idea, for the following reasons:

A business could become publicly shamed by big review sites like Yelp

If there’s one thing that online business review experts agree on, it’s a warning that Yelp should not be messed with!

Yelp clearly (and expressively) warns would-be review seekers not to solicit said reviews in a manner that implies that the reviewer will be rewarded or financially compensated for their efforts.

The Search Engine Roundtable published a full article (along with photos) featuring the wayYelp punishes business owners who thumb their noses at Yelp’s rules. And business owners should also keep in mind that the other major review site players either disallow or disagree with incentivized reviews, too.

Incentivizing reviews could be perceived as bribery.

There’s a very thin line (of perception) between well-meaning incentivizing of reviews and flat-out bribery for great reviews. It’s up to each business owner to make sure that they’re not crossing that line, no matter how honest the business owner’s intentions are.

After all, they’re simply trying to claw their way to the top of categories that are flooded with competition, particularly if they’re new in a location or an industry! And while Webpagefx offers an empathetic explanation, they make one’s bottom line crystal clear:

Bribery is a strong word. But how can a business encourage patrons to leave more (positive) reviews without coming close to doing this? Is incentivizing a no-no for businesses?

Short answer: Yes. While it’s crucial to do everything you can to bring in positive reviews on a regular basis, it’s equally important to adhere to the guidelines of each review site to keep your business out of trouble.

Incentivizing reviews incorrectly can place business owners on the wrong side of the law!

Mike Blumenthal writes for the Get Five Stars blog. He’s an authority figure that assists small business owners with the intricacies of online reviews, and specifically, generating five-star reviews.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from earnest business owners. In both scenarios, they’re concerned with staying on the right side of the FTC, yet they’re desperately trying to brainstorm ways to bulk up their reviews, and generate more business and revenue.

I’ve listed the business owner’s questions plainly, and I’ve Mike’s answers:

My company wants to contact customers and interview them about their experiences with our service. If we like what they say about our service, can we ask them to allow us to quote them in our ads? Can we pay them for letting us use their endorsements?

Yes, you can ask your customers about their experiences with your product and feature their comments in your ads. If they have no reason to expect compensation or any other benefit before they give their comments, there’s no need to disclose your payments to them.

However, if you’ve given these customers a reason to expect a benefit from providing their thoughts about your product, you should disclose that fact in your ads. For example, if customers are told in advance that their comments might be used in advertising, they might expect to receive a payment for a positive review, and that could influence what they say, even if you tell them that you want their honest opinion.

In fact, even if you tell your customers that you aren’t going to pay them but that they might be featured in your advertising, that opportunity might be seen as having a value, so the fact that they knew this when they gave the review should be disclosed (e.g., “Customers were told in advance they might be featured in an ad.”).

So simply put, business owners can solicit honest reviews from their customers, but if they pay customers for reviews, then they must state this in an easy-to-read and find paragraph in the body of their website copy. Site visitors must be able to comprehend and some of the reviews were solicited in exchange for some sort of compensation from the site/business owner.

Let’s look at scenario number two:

I’m starting a new Internet business. I don’t have any money for advertising, so I need publicity. Can I tell people that if they say good things about my business in online reviews, I’ll give them a discount on items they buy through my website?

It’s not a good idea. Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions or experiences of the endorser, and your plan could cause people to make up positive reviews even if they’ve never done business with you.

However, it’s okay to invite people to post reviews of your business after they’ve actually used your products or services. If you’re offering them something of value in return for these reviews, tell them in advance that they should disclose what they received from you.

You should also inform potential reviewers that the discount will be conditioned upon their making the disclosure. That way, other consumers can decide how much stock to put in those reviews.

The FTC says that you can solicit reviews and incentivize them but ONLY if the reviewers disclose the fact. The review companies all say incentivized reviews will be taken down. You as the business are caught in a bind in which compliance is almost impossible.

And here’s a case study that features what happened when a business owner found themselves facing FTC involvement.

In closing, incentivizing online reviews can prove far more troublesome than what it’s worth. There are plenty of digital marketing strategies that sites owners could implement to organically generate reviews, and they should be used in order to keep the site owner out of legal troubles.

Terri is a content marketing storyteller and strategist. She teaches marketing and entrepreneurship through stories for marketers of all stripes. Her specialty is creating narrative and she writes essays and memoir in her spare time.

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