One of the great things about social media is the way that it utilises the wisdom of crowds. This concept is perhaps best known through Wikipedia, where user editing can often create some wildly inaccurate entries in the short term but over time these get corrected by the larger volume of editors who truly care about the product they are using. Somewhere else that the wisdom of crowds has made an impact is the consumer review market.
Most of my family, friends and work colleagues pretty much turn to the Internet for a quick and unbiased opinion before splashing the cash on a product or service these days. And why wouldn't they, after all the majority of reviews will be from people sharing their real world experiences of those goods rather than relying upon marketing materials and 'advertorials'.
However, according to Gartner, paid for social media ratings and reviews will account for as much as 15% of all reviews by 2014.
The fact that there are fake reviews should come as no great surprise, anyone who uses social media to scout out hotel rooms and restaurants will be adept at spotting the really quite obvious five star reviews written by the proprietor or a staff member. Most of the time they stick out like a, well, five star review in a pile of one star reviews.
However, with more than half of the Internet population now using social media in some form or other, it is inevitable that the DIY review approach had to be replaced with a more professional marketing strategy be it building a bigger follower base, generating more YouTube hits, soliciting more likes or getting a bigger percentage of five star reviews than competing product.
Jenny Sussin, a senior research analyst at Gartner, says that "Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews with cash, coupons and promotions including additional hits on YouTube videos in order to pique site visitors' interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns."
Gartner analysts do have some good news though, as they also predict that media attention on these fakes will result in some Fortune 500 brands facing litigation from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the same time frame. The FTC has already determined that paying for a positive review without disclosure concerning the reviewer receiving compensation for that review is no less than 'deceptive advertising' (well duh!) and would be treated as such with prosecutions likely.
Gartner vice president Ed Thompson warns that "marketing, customer service and IT social media managers looking to use reviews, fans and ‘likes’ to improve their brand's reputation on social media must beware of the potential negative consequences on corporate reputation and profitability. Chief marketing officers (CMOs) will need to weigh the longer-term risks of being caught and the associated fines and damage to reputation and balance them against the short-term potential rewards of increased business and the prevailing common business practice in their market, often regardless of ethics."
If you want your social media marketing campaign to work, which means that it must promote trust within the target audience, then the only strategy that can succeed is one of embracing all reviews whether positive or negative, and at the same time leveraging those negative reviews as a method of encouraging 'happy' customers to balance them with their own positive opinions. Social media is all about engagement, and companies should grasp the nettle and engage with their customers in an official capacity in order to build productive conversations with both happy and unhappy customers.