Online Review Incentives: Smart Marketing or Asking for Trouble?

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Mar 15, 2016
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Today's blog post:

Online Review Incentives: Smart Marketing or Asking for Trouble?

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 is simply the most sensible route. And it hurts no one, even though it may technically be 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 justifiable, generally ignored, and rarely punished. Sure, it can be dangerous, 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
I think this post is more provocative, since there's no 'correct' answer when it comes to online review incentives. I'm very curious to hear how everyone feels about the practice of providing incentives for reviews.

Do you feel like this is a moral issue?

Where do you stand on incentives for reviews? Do you think they influence the trustworthiness of the review?

If you feel comfortable providing incentives, what tactics would you use?

If you found the blog post interesting, please share it with anyone that you think would find it valuable!

Don't hesitate to reach out if you ever want to discuss reputation management and if you have any requests for topics that we can cover on the Grade.us blog.

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Thank you for taking the time to read our blog!


 

Linda Buquet

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Hey Garrett,

Thanks for sharing a thought provoking post.

Since incentivizing reviews is against Google and Yelp guidelines and since it can cause ALL your reviews to be blocked by G or a public outing by Yelp, I don't think it's worth the risk. Plus if competitors find out, they'll often turn you in.

But I've heard of some creative ways of doing it that don't bend the guidelines.
Curious to hear what others think?
 
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Thanks for the reply Linda. I agree, that this topic is thought provoking. I think the biggest challenge is identifying that line where exceptional customer service and a request for a review overlap.

I also found it interesting that you have review sites like Capterra actually encouraging incentivizing reviews.

When it comes to Google, I know we recently saw penalties over the weekend for bloggers not explicitly saying they received free products for a review. I think that's a little different than an actual customer.

Does anyone have any examples of Google penalties for customer reviews? When researching, I wasn't able to find any examples.

I know Yelp is even more stringent. They don't even allow companies to ask for reviews, let alone incentivize them.
 

Linda Buquet

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Here is the creative tip I was thinking of. Just had to find the thread:

<a href="http://www.localsearchforum.com/local-reviews/11989-reciprocity-gift-keeps-giving-google-reviews.html">Reciprocity - The Gift that Keeps Giving... Google Reviews that is</a>

Jon commented there about a way you can do this with Grade.us too.
 
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Great tip Linda!

And I think it speaks to the idea of providing a little delight to customers whether they plan on reviewing your business or not. Having a review request on the coupon is a great idea!
 
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Hi Garrett, good post! Definitely an interesting topic. I personally don't feel that offering a little something for someone to take the time to write a review (good or bad) would be a moral issue, but I DO feel like it'd be a moral issue to put a client's business at risk by using a strategy explicitly prohibited by Google. You mentioned the Blogger review issue Google put out there, but said you didn't see anything about Google explicitly saying offering review bribes was a no go. Maybe I misunderstood that, but figured I'd post the guideline.

Or more specifically:
Conflict of interest: Reviews are most valuable when they are honest and unbiased. If you own or work at a place, please don?t review your own business or employer. Don?t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor. If you're a business owner, don't set up review stations or kiosks at your place of business just to ask for reviews written at your place of business.
In practice, having good reviews filtered and having bad reviews stay up even after calling support are both frequent topics on the GMB forum. Not playing by the rules won't guarantee you problems given the state of spam on maps and Google's support team, so even if a competitor sees you doing something unkosher, it could end up being a frustrating experience for them trying to get Google to bring down the hammer on you. Still, why give them the opening?

I love Linda's suggestion there. I figure it's the same as the email advertising regulations that were passed years ago, or even Google's switch a year or two ago to a few different inbox buckets. A lot of advertisers thought it was going to ruin the medium, but the truth is that it didn't at all... if anything, it slammed lazy marketers, and gave huge benefit to the savvy marketers that knew how to stay ahead of the curve.
 
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Thanks James!

I think that you make a great point in regards to the disservice to your client's. Just because you don't know whether Google has the time or the interest to penalize a company for incentivizing reviews, doesn't mean that you have the green light to cut corners.

I think the coupon trick that Linda mentioned is a more round about way to incentivize the review, and I wonder if Google would find it to be against their terms. In the post, the Dentist said:

On the coupon, I asked each patient if they liked our dental office and if they were satisfied with their visit. If so, I asked them to please leave a review on Google+, and to enjoy this tasty treat as a token of my appreciation.
Personally, I can't imagine this type of creativity being penalized, but it still walks that line. I love the idea of having a handout for every customer along with a review request.

It's funny too because you'd think onsite reviews would be the easiest and most sensible way for businesses to get reviews from happy customers, but I can see understand why that would be problematic for review sites. It's a tricky little topic!
 

JustinB

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Mar 7, 2016
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When you add an element of variability into the mix aka not every single person could win this for participating in this survey, but atleast x people have y chances to win z price.
Every restaurant does this, go to an Applebees, Fridays Einstein etc. and it's on the receipt and site. Could also be bigger brands getting away with this, but doubtful.
Again, as long as they introduce the element of variability in the rewards, and you're not asking them to sign up to give reviews (wouldn't want the review site to think you're spamming), you should be ok with offering incentives for "feedback" (don't say reviews).
 
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Great point Justin. Thanks for the comment!

Differentiating between feedback and reviews would be a key element in that case. In the FTC article about coming down on AmeriFreight,

  • 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?;
Now, in this case they said they would be entered in the contest IF they reviewed the company, but still tying an offer with variability to the reviews still sounds risky.

I know that I have my favorite Starbucks baristas, and when they ask me to give them feedback and mention them by name it actually helps them internally. Mainly the difference is the terminology of feedback vs. reviews.

I wonder how sketchy it would be to request 'feedback' on those receipts and then link to a review site. I bet that would be problematic as well.
 
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Ahh the fun of trying to get reviews / feedback! In Australia, the ACCC (our version of the FTC) is pretty strict about incentives:

"Offering incentives
Businesses that offer incentives to those who write positive reviews risk misleading consumers and breaching the CCA [Competition and Consumer Act]. Incentives should only be offered in exchange for reviews of your business (its products or services) if:

  • incentives are offered equally to consumers likely to be complimentary and consumers likely to be critical, and positive and negative reviews are treated the same
  • the reviewer is expressly told that the incentive is available whether the review is positive or negative
  • the incentive is prominently disclosed to users who rely on affected reviews."
(full article here: Managing online reviews | ACCC)

And this is a media release from the ACCC explaining their actions against a local company for just such a breach: True Value Solar discontinues incentives for positive online reviews | ACCC

So in Australia, we'd have to use something like:
On the coupon, I mentioned how reviews and feedback help us get better and provide a better service to our patients. I then asked each patient to please leave a review on Google+, and even if they didn't wish to leave a review, I hoped they would enjoy this teeth-friendly, yet tasty treat as a token of my appreciation.


One approach that I've seen, but not really experimented with is the "Like our product/service? Tell the world [link here to preferred review sites]. Not so happy? Please tell us [link here to a feedback form or email] so we can improve."

Not really incentive driven, but a good way to keep the negative reviews offline, whilst still getting feedback on how to improve (if that's what you're after).
 
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Thank you for the international perspective Priya! I used to work for an Australian based company, and you've reminded me how stringent Australia's policies are in general.

It's interesting that the ACCC specifically says that you can offer an incentive as long as it's offered to both potential positive and negative reviewers. Also, that you need to disclose the incentives for users who rely on affective reviews. I'm curious if you've seen this in the wild. Do you know of any examples of reviews on 3rd party sites where you can see a note about the incentive?

I wonder if we have any european experts on the forum who are familiar with any other policies for the EU. I need to do some more research!

Thanks again for the comment.
 

CodyBaird

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Jan 4, 2013
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Piyra

I love these ideas. Stealing now.

On the coupon, I mentioned how reviews and feedback help us get better and provide a better service to our patients. I then asked each patient to please leave a review on Google+, and even if they didn't wish to leave a review, I hoped they would enjoy this teeth-friendly, yet tasty treat as a token of my appreciation.

One approach that I've seen, but not really experimented with is the "Like our product/service? Tell the world [link here to preferred review sites]. Not so happy? Please tell us [link here to a feedback form or email] so we can improve."


Sent from my SM-G900V using Tapatalk
 

JoshuaMackens

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Sep 12, 2012
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Missed this thread somehow.

Honestly, I think it's a little eyebrow raising that there's even a discussion about whether incentivizing reviews is an ethical dilemma or not. Google is not your moral police and neither is Yelp. If you're incentivizing reviews I encourage you to think about the effect from a marketing perspective and not whether you're a terrible person if you decide to give somebody a gift card to Panera Bread in order to entice them to leave a review of your business. To me that just sounds and quite frankly, is ridiculous.

It also tends to remind me of the argument around whether you should abide by Google's SEO guidelines or not and if you don't, how you're looked at in the SEO world.

The area you will see this pushed the most is "black hat" vs "white hat" SEO techniques of course. While at our company we tend to stay on the Google approved side of things, it's not because I feel dirty or ashamed of myself if I go against Google's policies (Google is just a company people). It's because I don't want to get my clients penalized and be responsible for their reduction in revenue and possible lay offs. I don't look down on people who "black hat" or thumb my nose up at them. And actually, that community is responsible for a lot of the knowledge, studies, and strategies that us "white hatters" put into practice everyday.

When we start applying morality to the guidelines that a publicly traded, for profit company sets in place, I think it's time some of us step back and really reexamine what morality and ethics are.

I know a lot of us think we don't look down on people who push the boundaries of what Google approves of but I think if we took a second look, we might be surprised.
 
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Happy that you found this thread Joshua! Thanks for the comment.

I 100% agree with you, and think the crux of the issues is more about the potential penalties of not following the various channels' rules more than the morality/ethics issue.

Additionally, there's the idea of authenticity of the reviews. So the fear from *some* of the online review sites is that incentives will impact the credibility of the reviews. It makes sense, but doesn't necessarily impact the companies as much as the actual review sites.
 

jaywilner

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Mar 20, 2015
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This has been a great post. Thanks for creating. It definitely seems like a really grey area when trying to find ways to get more reviews.

I was wondering what everyone thought of this idea we had to incentivize patients for our eye care practice offices.

===========================================
We hand out cards to patients when they are checking out. It says the following on the card:

"We appreciate your trust in our optometry practice and we value you as a patient. That's why we want to get your feedback on how we are doing. Please help us by writing a review on Google and/or Yelp and you will be entered into a sweepstakes drawing.


How to Enter: Complete a survey on Google and/or Yelp. To be eligible, you must ensure your full name is on the review. We will complete a random prize drawing and contact the winner. A $10 gift card will be awarded to the winner."
============================================

What does everyone think? Is this against Google and Yelp's terms of service? We feel like we are not directly asking for a transaction of review for money but rather a 'chance' of winning a sweepstakes by entering a review.


Any help would be appreciated.

thank you so much!

jay
 
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Hi Jay

In my opinion you're skating close to the edge with Google given their guidelines on asking for reviews:
"Don?t offer or accept money, products, or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor." (https://support.google.com/business/answer/2622994?hl=en&ref_topic=6001257)

Although you're not directly offering money, products or services in exchange for a review you are offering people the chance to win a gift card which is a form of incentivisation - without that chance, would the person still leave a review? Probably not, and that leaves the door open for those reviews to be removed.

As regards Yelp, you're definitely in breach of their guidelines: "Don?t ask anyone to review your business on Yelp. It?s that simple." (https://www.yelp-support.com/article/Don-t-Ask-for-Reviews?l=en_US)
 

pbarnhart

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Apr 5, 2013
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One thing to note with the Applebees, Fridays, CVS, and other receipt reviews prompts -- based on discussions with close friends in these industries. First, these reviews are used to evaluate employees and stores - not getting enough reviews, or getting bad reviews (where a bad review is defined as less than a 97% at CVS) costs employees jobs. Employees are heavily (if negatively) incentivized to solicit reviews.

Starbucks positively incentives employees to solicit reviews - but again, they can call it "reviews" or "feedback" or "praise" and it doesn't matter.

The retailers like CVS and Starbucks aren't using the reviews in marketing and promotion - its for internal use. There is nothing illegal about soliciting review participation - if you are not using the reviews in any public way.
 

JoshuaMackens

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Has Google changed their stance again on soliciting reviews? It used to be they frowned upon it, then they somewhat encouraged it. Now we're back to them frowning on it?
 

pbarnhart

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"To get reviews on Google, encourage your customers to spread the word about your business by following these best practices:

Remind your customers to leave reviews. Let them know that it’s quick and easy to leave business reviews on mobile devices or desktop computers."

https://support.google.com/business/answer/3474122


So you can "remind" them and "let them know" :rolleyes: but I'm sure there is contradictory guidance elsewhere.
 

JoshuaMackens

Local Search Expert
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"To get reviews on Google, encourage your customers to spread the word about your business by following these best practices:

Remind your customers to leave reviews. Let them know that it?s quick and easy to leave business reviews on mobile devices or desktop computers."

https://support.google.com/business/answer/3474122


So you can "remind" them and "let them know" :rolleyes: but I'm sure there is contradictory guidance elsewhere.
Good work.

Sounds like you're just not supposed to incentivize.
 

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