Online Review Incentives: Smart Marketing or Asking for Trouble?

Garrett SussmanCustomer Reviews, Fake Reviews, Reputation Management, Review Marketing, Small Business MarketingLeave a Comment

Growing up, we’re taught to look both ways before crossing the street, and to cross only at crosswalks. We have such rules in place not only to protect pedestrians and drivers, but to protect order itself.

Still, that doesn’t stop us from jaywalking. Truth be told, sometimes striding out across an empty thoroughfare to get from point A to B simply seems the most sensible route. And maybe it hurts no one, even though it’s always technically against the law.

So what does jaywalking have to do with incentivizing online reviews?

Well, jaywalking is one of those “crimes” that, like incentivizing online reviews, is sometimes dangerous, occasionally justifiable, generally ignored and rarely punished. Sure, it can be abusive and injurious, but is it always? And if it isn’t, why not do it?

In this article, I’ll present to you:

  • The current FTC laws against incentivizing online reviews and the potential penalty
  • How different online review sites address the issue
  • An examination of different situations and how they play into incentivizing reviews

The FTC Gets Down to Business


Last year, in and effort to protect consumers from misleading advertising and marketing practices, the FTC updated their Endorsement Guide.

Then the FTC leveled a complaint against AmeriFreight: “The FTC’s complaint marks the first time the agency has charged a company with misrepresenting online reviews by failing to disclose that it gave cash discounts to customers to post the reviews.”

When people look to online reviews to inform their purchasing decisions, the government wants to make sure that the endorsements are not grossly biased. When the FTC updated their guidelines, they also set out to make an example of a few businesses violating the policies.

AmeriFreight was certainly aggressive. The company not only provided reviewers a $50 discount but “increased the cost by $50 if consumers did not agree to write a review” and “provided consumers with ‘Conditions for receiving a discount on reviews,’ which said that if they leave an online review, they will be automatically entered into a $100 per month ‘Best Monthly Review Award’ for the most creative subject title and ‘informative content’.”

A note at the bottom of the AmeriFreight article explains how the FTC will proceed with these situations in the future:

“The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has ‘reason to believe’ that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000.”- The FTC on the Consequences of Review Incentives

That’s a big deal! While the AmeriFreight case has been the only one to garner attention in the last year, it does show that the FTC will pursue those types of cases.

Review Site Incentive Policies


Only a few online review sites have an explicit policy on review incentives. The ones that do tend to discourage incentives, but a few review sites actually encourage them.

Here are 4 of the major sites and how they address the issue:

Google’s policy on Incentives:

Google Review Policy

Source: Google Support

Google continually switches up the exact verbiage of its guidelines, but as of this writing their position on incentives is pretty clear, though it’s stated as a prescription for business owners and reviewers alike: “Don’t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor.”

Meanwhile, Yelp’s guidelines are notoriously stringent, prohibiting business owners from so much as asking customers to write reviews:

Yelp Review Policy

Source: Yelp Support

We can easily extrapolate where Yelp stands on business owners providing incentives to customers to write reviews.

Facebook’s policy seems to be the most laissez-faire, requiring only that reviews to be about the product or service and based on personal experience:

Facebook Review Policy

Source: Facebook Support

The Facebook community guidelines focus mostly on reporting abuse, safety, and privacy. They don’t provide many specifics in regards to how they handle review incentives.

TripAdvisor’s explanation, “Why are incentives not okay?” is perhaps the best example of a clear and to-the-point policy:

TripAdvisor Review Policy

Grayer Areas Ahead: Are All Incentives Equal?


While the FTC and these mainstream review sites offer a reasonable “consumer protection” argument against companies offering incentives in exchange for reviews, the reality is rarely so black-and-white.

Circling back to the AmeriFreight case, the company was targeted for exceptionally egregious violations of consumer trust, including penalizing customers for not reviewing them and attempting to steer the content of the reviews with a “best review” contest. What if their incentive program was a much lower-pressure ask that explicitly rewarded all reviewers: good, bad or indifferent?

Or what about when review sites, eager for more review content, offer incentives themselves, as Yelp does with its “Elite” program and Angie’s List does incessantly with offers of gas cards and other freebies?

Some review sites in the B2B community even encourage businesses to provide their customers incentives to write reviews, knowing well that it’s a tough ask to get busy professionals to take the time to review a product or service they use at work.

All of these examples point to interesting contradictions and ironies in the prescription against incentivizing reviews. Moreover, they all point to one undeniable fact: incentives work! Not surprisingly, people are more likely to do something when there’s a reward for it. Carrots, once again, for the win.

Tightrope Walker

Walking the Line: Alternatives to Incentivizing Reviews

In the interest of preserving consumer trust in online reviews–and of staying off the FTC’s radar–we at Grade.us never recommend offering incentives in exchange for reviews. So when it comes to acquiring reviews for your own small business or a client’s, what should you do?

For better or worse, the answer comes down to fundamentals: (1) provide a recommendable product or service; and (2) ask for reviews. Of course, you gain an x-factor if you can find ways to surprise and “delight” customers. One of the best ways is to deliver unexpectedly good customer service.

Interestingly, customers have different expectations of service depending on the industry. If you’re a restaurant or in hospitality, your customers will expect attentive and thorough service as the baseline. But if you’ve ever had to call a phone service provider, let’s just say receiving quality service is an unexpected delight.

I recently wrote a review on dealerrater.com, praising the salesman who sold me a lease on a new car.

I knew if I didn’t find the right car at the right price, then I most likely wouldn’t write the review. If anything, I still had the stereotype of pushy car salesman in the back of my head. I connected on the lot with this great rep, who was courteous and empathetic as we went through the process. At the end, he casually mentioned the importance of reviews for his role in the company, I WANTED to write a great review for him. He exceeded my expectations.

Are Incentives Ever Okay?

It’s common practice to offer a giveaway for completing a survey. Surveys are a different animal. While the information collected helps the business performing the survey, if it’s influenced by an incentive, it hurts the business only. Influenced online reviews hurt the public’s trust.

When incentivizing surveys, monetary incentives seems to be the most effective. In fact, the reason to use incentives is to increase the response rate. The risk is that responses are more likely to be motivated by the reward and therefore expedient and of lower value.

A few types of incentives you could offer in exchange for a survey response:

  • Cash incentive
  • Coupons
  • Rebates
  • Donations to a charity of the reviewers’ choice
  • Free Product Giveaways
  • Informational Digital Giveaways

Of the options listed above, digital giveaways and charity donations seem the least likely to influence your reviewer’s opinion in a way that compromises them. And, of course, should you choose to publish the results of your survey, you’ll want to disclose any offers made to respondents in collecting it.

Takeaways


I remember as a kid, when my mother needed to run an errand at the bank, I’d get a lollipop from the teller. Imagine that the bank always gave away lollipops, but these days, the bank needs its customers to share its good work. So the bank manager has the tellers not only hand out lollipops but also let customers know how much the bank values and relies upon customer reviews.

Establishing processes to delight customers and then encourage them to share that delight is just good business: no incentive required. In fact, introducing a more explicit incentive can lead customers to revolt. After all, nobody likes to feel bribed.

Still, incentives or not, at the end of the day the business has to give in order to receive: lollipops, a recommendable product or service, and superb customer service. Exceptional customer service is perhaps the only thing that will differentiate the winners from the losers in the increasingly transparent world of local commerce.

So what’s the verdict in your opinion? Are online review incentives smart marketing or asking for trouble?

About the Author

Garrett Sussman

Twitter

After 6 years of San Francisco living, Garrett has returned to his roots in New Jersey to manage Content Marketing at Grade.us. He infuses his writing with humor, authenticity, and thoughtfulness. He also happens to be a fan of graphic novels, Philadelphia sports, and content marketing.

Get our marketer’s guide to customer reviews