Over the past few months, two different businesses I work with have told me a fascinating tale. You’re probably familiar with it. It seems their competitors have posed as customers and written negative reviews about clients’ businesses on various social media sites. It’s known as astroturfing and happens at least somewhat regularly.
A former hotel marketing intern also approached me at a conference recently and admitted her boss asked her to write a negative review online about one of their competitors (to the young woman’s credit, she talked him out of it).
Given the importance of review sites and user-generated content in many purchase decisions, it’s not surprising this sort of nonsense occurs.
But I advise my clients not to worry about this practice too much — and never to engage in it themselves.
- A few negative reviews won’t hurt you. Assuming, of course, that your regular customers regularly post positive reviews, it’s unlikely a few bad reviews — whether real or astroturfed — will hurt you. In fact, Harvard Business Review (and others) report that, given certain conditions, negative reviews actually boost sales. Companies engaged in astroturfing may be doing their competition a favor instead of the intended disservice.
- This tactic won’t be around very long. For one thing, the FTC and European Union each regard this sort of behavior as bas for consumers and business overall and each has taken steps to address it within their jurisdictions. For instance, in several cases, regulatory bodies have fined offending companies for the practice. Many review sites are working towards increasing “validated reviews” (i.e., determining whether the reviewer ever actually purchased/used the product). And some services are taking action against those posting fake reviews. Does this mean that all fake negatives will go away? Of course not. There’s always going to be some idiot who believes the benefits of trying to “beat the system” outweigh the negatives. But any of your competitors willing to take that risk — and that focused on you, instead of their customer — isn’t a competitor likely to be around for very long either.
- Your good customers are often on your side. I can’t tell you the number of reviews I’ve seen for both products and services that begin, “I have no idea what [insert reviewer’s name here], is talking about.” (I’ve personally experienced this one in one of my past lives). Give your customers something worth talking about and they’ll undermine the credibility of the “bad guys.”
Now, negative reviews — real or fake — are never fun. And none of this is to suggest that this isn’t a problem. But it’s a problem that you should give exactly the right amount of attention to — and no more.
Focus on your customers. Give them service worthy of writing positive reviews about. If you’re getting legitimate negative reviews, fix the customer’s concern and respond to the customer. And, where necessary, address the one-off fake review as appropriate. Just don’t make it your whole life.[H/T to my friend Robert Cole for his excellent “Fake Review Optimization” series on Tnooz.com (parts 2, 3, 4 and 5)]
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