A month ago, a scandal rocked the e-commerce world. A Development Rep from Belkin, a computer peripherals manufacturer, was caught hiring people to write fake reviews of Belkin products on Amazon.com. The internet tubes rattled with outrage! Everyone in the e-commerce industry knows that the latest must-have feature for your website is customer product reviews. Amazon.com has been the leader in e-commerce since the beginning, and their review system is excellent. I openly admit to being influenced by product reviews in my recent prepurchase researching. They're really quite helpful...or are they? The trick is getting people who aren't angry to spend their precious time writing about your product. My employer has just begun a "review incentives program" in which we will be offering cash payments of various non-trivial amounts (depending on the price of the product purchased) in exchange for product reviews. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Our "reviews submitted per email request" ratio has skyrocketed since we started dangling the monetary carrots. As my coworker in charge of the program put it, "People like money."
My initial reaction to the Belkin scandal was, "That rep is an idiot! Of course you can't pay people that haven't even used the product to leave positive reviews!" But then I took a step back and thought about it a bit more. I realized how silly my initial reaction was. A large percentage of the advertising industry is centered around product endorsements, and what are endorsements but people who have not really used the product lying and saying that they like it in exchange for money? Penelope Cruz doesn't actually use the shampoo she's peddling on TV. Nor does Tiger Woods actually drive that car. They are accepting money in exchange for saying they like a product.
What shocked people about the scandal is that, because the genre is so new, there was a naive and unrealistic expectation that product reviews are somehow more honest and trustworthy than the rest of the "buy this product!" noise out there.