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January 25, 2016 // 2:00 PM

How I Paid for My Christmas Presents and How It May Be Ruining Consumer Trust

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ThinkstockPhotos-152134484-974436-edited.jpgThis year’s Christmas was a huge success for me on a number of different levels. Not only did I check everyone off my list with at least one heart-felt present but I was also able to do it for next to nothing. But how?

Let’s take a step back first.

Over the last 4 or so Christmas’ (the ones where I actually had money to spend on those closest to me), I have averaged right around $500 spent on presents for everyone (girlfriend, parents, sibling, extended family, coworkers, boss, friends, etc.). I enjoy finding just the right gift for the people closest to me and don’t mind at all spending a relatively large chunk of my paycheck getting them something unique.

Now, this year for me was different. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I found myself with less money than normal to purchase the types of presents that I wanted to for my family and friends. Luckily for me though, there were alternative options available that allowed me to supplement a large majority of my Christmas budget: Software Reviews.

As you well know, review sites such as G2 Crowd, TrustRadius, Capterra, Cloudswave and GetApp have grown in popularity over the last year or so and are now some of the first places both businesses and consumers go for information regarding different consumer and business software.

Much like Yelp, users create profiles (or connect their profiles to their LinkedIn accounts) and then leave product or service reviews regarding different, specific elements about the company’s offering. These reviews are then authenticated by the site’s review team before they are published on the company’s profile. Seems legitimate and something that could ultimately be helpful to consumers looking to get unbiased information regarding different solutions they are considering. There’s just one problem…

A certain, unknown percentage of these reviews have been paid for.

Now, when I say “paid for”, I don’t mean that there are people in some foreign country being paid $2/hour to write consumer product reviews. No, every review on these websites is from real consumers who have at least some knowledge and experience with the product. When I say “paid for”, I’m referring to the now-common act of exchanging product reviews for gift cards.

How it works

There are two ways that a person might be approached and solicited gift cards in exchange for reviews, one seemingly more “black hat” than the other.

Scenario 1: Review Site Reaches Out

As new review sites like Cloudswave and GetApp come online and begin to fight for search engine rankings against some of the bigger, more established sites, they will begin to reach out to people who have left product reviews on their competitor’s pages and offer gift cards in exchange for honest and helpful reviews (often establishing a word or character limit to ensure enough detail).

Depending on the site and the number of products you have knowledge of, you could make anywhere from $10 to $25 in gift cards (most likely Amazon) per review! All that needs to be done once contact is established by the review site is for the reviewer to notify the site of the products they will review, receive approval or notice on which ones will be paid for and then have the reviews be written, reviewed and approved before a digital gift card is sent.

Overall, this scenario and the review site is less worried about specific product reviews and more worried about building awareness and clout surrounding their library of real, honest and detailed reviews across a wide spectrum of categories. Reviewers are encouraged to leave honest reviews, whether positive or scathing and reviewers often have to prove their access to the different platforms they are reviewing (through screenshots of login screens or dashboards mainly).

Scenario 2: Software Company Reaches Out

More and more companies online today have noticed the power and influence that these new review sites have begun to attract and have taken quick measures to ensure that their presence on these sites are positive overall.

Much like the review sites from Scenario 1, a software company that you already work with will contact you with a proposal for a positive review in exchange for a gift card. Often times, customers will only be contacted if they are known to be power users or evangelists (often tracked within the software company’s CRM) and will be told that they will only receive gift cards if they leave the highest level and most favorable review (5 stars, 90+%, etc.) possible.

Once the review is written, reviewed and approved by the review site, the reviewer will then take their live review link and send it back to the software company for verification and payment. Since there is only one review to be made by a consumer, they are often paid anywhere from $20 to $50 in gift cards (often Amazon) for their glowing review.

Unlike in Scenario 1, most of these companies (but not all) require that the content in their reviews be favorable toward their software in order to receive payment which opens up a number of ethical questions and an overall debate surrounding this new and growing practice.

Now back to me…

Over the course of a month and a half (November-December 15th), I wrote approximately 25 reviews across 4 different review sites and received around $250 in Amazon gift cards that helped me pay for nearly all of my Christmas presents.

I was approached by review sites themselves as well as directly by companies and ultimately spent about 6 hours of my weekend time putting together honest and detailed reviews of both software that I was knowledgeable on, as well as some that I had used once over a year ago. There were some platforms that I couldn’t stop writing about when it came to functionalities and benefits and others that I had to read reviews on just to get myself to the required word limit.

How these practices may be ruining consumer trust

A recent advertising study put on by Nielson showed that only two thirds (66%) of internet users trust consumer opinions online, a statistic that is down 2% from 2013. While still a majority of consumers seem to hold trust in these B2B software review sites, recent events within the B2C review world raise questions on how long this trust will last.

B2C online review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp have seen public pushback over the past decade, thanks mainly in part to competitor review and paid review scandals. As the public began to learn more about these various scandals, more scrutiny from the public, users and businesses alike was applied to reviews, ultimately leading to the loss of consumer trust.

Using another example, the literary world was in shock a few years back after it was shown that many authors were paying for "honest reviews by verified purchasers" of books on Amazon. While these authors made arguments that they were merely incentivizing people to leave reviews, the grey area they most certainly had stepped into was not well received by the public. Sound familiar?

While it is currently unclear if the "gift cards for reviews" model is erroding consumer trust of these new software review sites, history shows that the larger a review site or industry gets, the more scrutiny their reviews and practices will receive.

The final question: Is this right?

When it comes down to it, there are 4 positions that we must consider when questioning if the practice of exchanging reviews for gift cards is right or not: the review site, the reviewer, the software company and the review reader (end user).

The Review Site

From a review site’s standpoint, there is very little to question when it comes to providing gift cards for reviews so long as there are a certain number of checks and balances in place (which nearly all of these sites have). These sites often need more reviews with more detail so that they can provide their site’s users the best information possible to aid them in their purchasing decision.

Much like any other review platform out there, few people willingly leave reviews unless they are on one of the extreme sides of the customer satisfaction spectrum, leaving very little helpful information from the rest of the users. The problem is that most users of the software who fall in the middle of this spectrum are busy and require incentive to take any amount of time out of their day to leave a review.

So, in exchange for a relatively small gift, these review sites are able to bring in users with experience and knowledge surrounding the products people want reviews on and can ensure they are leaving quality advice and information thanks to their internal review process.

If done correctly, everyone connected to this practice wins. The review site gets a quality review in an area they are looking for, the reviewer gets a gift card and the review site’s users get helpful reviews that can ultimately aid them in their purchasing decision. If done poorly and with little reviewer oversite, poor or duplicate review content can slip through the cracks and ultimately hurt the end user’s experience.

The Software Company

From a software company’s standpoint, the practice of exchanging gift cards for favorable reviews lands in a moral grey area. You know that customer reviews are extremely important in today’s world and while you know that you have a number of happy customers who most likely wouldn’t mind leaving you a review on some of the major sites you also know that they are busy people who require (and deserve) incentive to take time out of their busy day to do so.

Depending on the size of your happy customer list and the amount you are willing to gift for a review, your company could be spending anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars on these reviews that will not only help you become more visible on these review sites but also allow you to gather (potentially) honest feedback that your product team can then use to improve your overall offering in the future.

Ultimately, you know that your profiles on these review sites need to have overwhelmingly positive reviews for you to see any kind of ROI on this venture, so you most likely are asking for positive feedback only (or are making it easy for your customers to read between the lines that this is what you want).

At the end of the day, the review site gets more reviews on your software which helps them, reviewers receive incentive and compensation for the time spent writing detailed, potentially honest reviews, the review site’s users may or may not have gotten helpful information to use and you received positive reviews to help establish yourself on the site.

The Reviewer

From a reviewer’s standpoint, your conscious may or may not be clear at the end of this process depending on who approached you and how helpful you believe you actually were with your review.

As a user, you most likely use a number of different products out there on a daily basis and know plenty about them but just don’t have the time or feel the drive to share your experiences with others out there. When approached by either a company or a review site, you are more likely to leave a review in exchange for some sort of compensation and will spend the necessary time to meet the requirements set so that you can walk away from the site with money to spend.

You most likely left a good review (the site approved it, right?) but the information in there may or may not have been entirely yours depending on how much you needed to write vs. how much you knew or if you had to sway your responses one way or another to meet the requirements set.

At the end of the day, the review site and the software company got their review, you got your money but it may or may not be clear as to if the review site’s users actually got a helpful review or just a generic post.

The Review Reader

From an end-user standpoint, reviews are reviews to a certain extent. Visiting a site to either look at reviews for a single company or to compare features and reviews of different options is only helpful when you have reviews to work with. But while having a library of reviews to peruse is good, your overall experience and the amount of helpful information you walk away with will only be as good as the quality of reviews left.

It can be difficult to tell whether or not a review is honest and helpful, especially if you are aware of the incentives being provided to reviewers. A sea of similar reviews and ratings can be just as unhelpful as no reviews and can call into doubt the validity of any statements being made throughout the site.

When all is said and done, the user only found this review site because they showed up well on an initial internet search. The company has a presence and reviews on the site and a number of users were compensated for their honest reviews, but it is unclear whether or not the end user will find the information they are looking for or if they will trust the information they do find.

The author’s final thoughts

Having looked at the practice of exchanging gift cards for reviews, I’ve found that the positives outweigh the negatives if and only if the proper steps are taken by the review site to fully authenticate any and all reviews. Without proper and through authentication, poor reviews can slip through and ultimately hurt the website’s reputation in the eyes of the end user. Furthermore, software companies practicing gift cards for reviews must ensure that they are requesting only honest reviews and not requiring positive reviews in return for payment.

Both the review sites and the software companies on them have a lot to risk when exchanging gift cards for reviews, especially when it comes to their reputations. Consumer trust is something that can be hard to earn back once lost, and as a resource claiming to be agnostic, reviews sites must ensure that they are promoting only practices and procedures that will ensure reviews that help the end user.

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Topics: Business

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