An uproar hit the Web over the weekend when it was discovered an employee at consumer electronics company Belkin had offered to pay people to write positive reviews for his company’s products, even if they hadn’t tried them. The reviews may have been fake, but the outcry on the Internet over his take on online marketing practices is real and, as it turns out, very loud.
The Daily Background’s Arlen Parsa was the first to dig up the story regarding Michael Bayard, who the Background said had posted several requests to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk work marketplace Web site seeking reviewers for Belkin products. Bayard was offering to pay 65 cents per positive review.
“Write as if you own the product and are using it,” Bayard suggested. “Thank the website for making you such a great deal. Mark any other negative reviews as ‘not helpful’ once you post yours.”
When Parsa broke the story on Friday night, he posted a copy of Bayard’s request and his LinkedIn profile, which identified him as a business development employee at Belkin. Parsa, who normally writes about politics, had suddenly launched Belkin-gate on the Web; the story gained steam over the weekend, getting picked up by CrunchGear, Gizmodo, Slashdot, Engadget and other tech-related Web sites.
On Sunday, Belkin president Mark Reynoso acknowledged the incident, apologized for it and promised to “work earnestly to regain the trust we have lost.”
More From Belkin
Belkin had not responded to a request for comment from the E-Commerce Times by press time, but Reynoso’s letter — posted on the company’s Web site — expressed “great surprise and dismay” upon learning that an employee had sought positive reviews for payment.
“Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this,” Reynoso said. “We know that people look to online user reviews for unbiased opinions from fellow users and instances like this challenge the implicit trust that is placed in this interaction. We regard our responsibility to our user community as sacred, and we are extremely sorry that this happened.”
The company quickly removed all associated postings from the Mechanical Turk Web site, and was working with online channel partners to ensure that any “positive” reviews posted as a result of the requests were also removed, Reynoso said. “It’s also important to recognize that our retail partners had no knowledge of, or participation in, these postings.”
The letter does not detail any disciplinary actions regarding Bayard or any previous alleged unethical activities he may have engaged in while an employee of Belkin. The Daily Background on Monday reported that Bayard himself may have written positive reviews of Belkin products for Amazon while serving as his company’s sales representative to the online retailer.
A Company’s Currency Is Trust
The practice is called “Astroturfing:” creating an artificial grassroots initiative to advance a political or business agenda. The Internet’s rise has created new opportunities for unethical marketing behavior, Steve Rubel, senior vice president of the marketing firm Edelman Digital, told the E-Commerce Times.
“I’m still surprised that this goes on, that after a number of high-profile incidents, with brands being burned, that people would have realized you can’t do this,” Rubel said. Rubel writes the Micro Persuasion blog as part of his role as Edelman Digital’s director of insight.
“If you’re going to do any type of engagement online, the more transparent, the more open you are, the more you say what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, the more you engender trust,” Rubel said. “Trust is king right now.”
Ironicallly, it was Rubel’s parent company that was responsible for one of the previously mentioned incidents that called online marketing trust into question. In 2006, a blog supposedly written by a couple touring the U.S. in a recreational vehicle and stopping at Wal-Marts to talk with happy, helpful employees was not what it appeared to be: Wal-Mart was paying for the couple’s travel expenses. Edelman had organized the trip on behalf of a group funded by Wal-Mart.
That’s part of the reason Rubel says he is surprised in 2009 we’re still hearing about these things.
“There are people who do this maliciously and there are people who just don’t know, who may be naive. Maybe if anything the buzz on all this will educate people that this is not a best practice, not a way to operate online. This could act as a deterrent.”
Rubel gives Reynoso and Belkin high marks for acting quickly — on a weekend, no less — to address the issue. He also would like to think it won’t scare companies aware from using Web 2.0 techniques to engage customers. “If you’re talking to people reviewing your product and having a two-way dialogue, and giving them information to form their own opinion, that’s fine, it will work,” he said. “And companies should put their individuals out there — not just C-level executives, as many as possible. But if they’re going to do that, make sure it’s a clear conversation, with an understanding of the do’s and don’ts.”
In my opinion, the uproar is business as usual for our Culture of Entitlement, and "CrunchGear, Gizmodo, Slashdot, Engadget and other tech-related Web sites" are part of the problem.
What the Belkin employee did is not substantially different than what is currently happening in- and outside the blogosphere – no matter how we slice it.
As soon as an exchange of money, goods or services occurs between a buyer and supplier, how should other consumers interpret the buyer’s opinion?
Bloggers have the audacity to question mainstream media bias, or point fingers at incidents such as Belkin’s. Yet many bloggers are provided with free "review" merchandise (only some of which must be returned after the review) and others accept paid advertising on their sites. What of their opinions? If people are willing to go through the trouble of writing positive reviews for 65 cents, what might they do for $100, $50, or even $10 dollars of advertising revenue? Are we to trust their opinions? On what grounds or authority?
And what about the businesses that "go the extra mile"? Are they [inadvertently or not] paying a "fee" for a customer’s positive experience and reference? Why is that considered acceptable? As consumers, we enjoy when businesses go the extra mile because it benefits us even at times when we were obviously not entitled to the benefit. We don ‘t care as long as the company picks up the tab. And many companies (from the big box retailers to the mom-and-pops) now fear the repercussions of playing by the rules, even when they’re fully within their rights.
If a consumer’s warranty has expired (or she breaks the product in a manner not covered by the warranty) and the vendor still replaces the product, obviously she going to have something positive to say. She was not entitled to the replacement product or part, certainly not for free.
She "scored", got a little something extra, got the company to subsidize her situation regardless what is says in the big book of rules. We only want to enforce the rules, and drag out the rulebook, when it’s in our favor.
How is that any different than the same person receiving cash or merchandise (equivalent to the cost of the replacement part or product) to say something positive? Yet we love to justify the first example as "going the extra mile", and the second as "unethical sales and marketing practices."
Our Entitlement Culture only cares that it gets its way. Frankly, the people bashing vendors really need to look in the mirror at their own behavior and ethics. I’m certain far too many of them are not much better than their corporate counterparts. The only difference is that their private transgressions don’t make the front page news.
Having written that, I will close by saying we are not all this way, and yes, some people do have legitimate claims not honored according to the rulebook. Unfortunately, their experience is buried beneath a growing mound of utterly baseless whining emanating from the Entitlement Culture.
I fail to see the fault in information gathering for the sake of erudition. As a student just finishing my semester, I tracked the time I took in researching the weekly papers I wrote. I generally clocked about 15-20 hours/week for my E-commerce class. Certainly I could have done much less and gotten by, but because of my efforts, I was rewarded not only with an A for the course, but also with the highest grade average in the class. My professor called my work exemplary. I guess you get out what you put in. After all, caveat emptor.
Well put, Mr. Martins, well put. As a student majoring in E-commerce, ethical conundrums such as this rarely see the light of day in the classroom. Your objective lesson here is one to be taken to heart.
Soliciting positive reviews and dis’s of negative reviews for money is likely far less common than unsolicited negative reviews posted by individuals annoyed at a product or company for any reason.
Amazon is the site where I see or suspect this most often although the first site I encountered it on was Newegg.
Most often it seems someone doesn’t get satisfaction on a warranty and off they go posting negatives everywhere. However, I did identify a number of cases where the ‘reviewer’ had obviously never owned or perhaps even closely examined the product.
Some of the reviews were pretty transparent such as acknowledging the warranty had expired, that they had dropped product in water, sand or in one case from a (slowly) moving car and then were INCENSED that company refused to pick up the tab.
By checking for other posts by the same person, it became clear that many of these people seemed to post a lot in the same vein about different products. Some focused on a particular brand, but others seemed to be making a hobby of it.
Then I noticed that some of the negative posts were from ‘different people’ but worded almost identically. Multiple personalities perhaps?
Pursuing this further, I found some sites, OneStopPlus.com for example, try to ‘verify’ the poster. However, verification seems limited to validating the email address although the poster is tagged as ‘verified buyer’.
A neutral comment posted under my wife’s email was accepted even though she had not purchased the product and a similar comment posted from a ‘throw-away’ address was accepted when no purchase had ever been made under that address. At least they are weeding out the phony email addresses.
Thinking this through leads me to several questions:
Should ‘reviews’ be posted only for verified buyers, i.e. poster has purchased specific product from the site and responds to a ‘verification’ email?
Should ‘reviews’ be checked for plagiarism, i.e. identical or extremely similar text to another review from a different email address?
Should a ‘Master List’ be maintained of all offending email addresses which any review site could check against before accepting a review?
Each of these has both both associated costs and an unknown ‘chilling effect’ on legitimate reviewers. Are the downsides acceptable in the interest of establishing and maintaining the integrity and credibility of the review site?
I recently relied upon reviews in making my decision on the purchase of an LCD TV and a camera. Neither are products I AM an expert on or even highly informed about, involve substantial costs and would seriously tick me off if they failed to meet my expectations.
I didn’t think to track the time I spent ‘validating’ reviews of cameras (substantial), but did track the time I spent validating TV reviews. It was in excess of 11 hours over a period of about 10 days. This was on top of roughly 16 hours spent reading reviews and brochures and talking to friends, ‘experts’ and salespeople. If I didn’t have it logged, you could not have convinced me I spent nearly that much time ‘buying’ a TV.
The numbers are understated if anything. After all I had been ‘researching’ the purchase for over a year (none of this included in the numbers) and had formed a pretty good idea of the type (LCD vs. plasma or other), trusted brands (Toshiba, Sony, Vizio, etc.) and features (both required and desired), how much more could I need to know?
Quite a bit as it turned out and a trustworthy source of user reviews would have been ‘pure gold’ and in some respects more valuable than I consider Consumer Reports.
Good thing I AM (mostly) retired and not consumed by job, raising family, etc.