“Fake news” is a term batted around on a daily basis in and on what is – purportedly – “the news.” According to a report released last year by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of American adults access news on social media, and an astounding 66 percent of Facebook users turn to the popular platform for their news. Yet who among us hasn’t fallen for the fake obituary post or wondered whether that privacy warning to Facebook cut and pasted by one of their friends is an act worth repeating or evidence of that friend’s gullibility?
Running parallel to this parade of bogus information is the fake online review, a phenomenon that bedevils marketers, especially for products where consumers are acutely focused on efficacy. Among some of the most popular direct marketing categories such as diet, skincare, fitness, and housewares, fake review sites are everywhere, acting like a plague that siphons off leads and sales, and deceives consumers. Exacerbating the problem is this startling data point: according to a survey by BrightLocal, 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. That’s right, consumers regularly lean on total strangers for advice as much as they would rely on word-of-mouth from a personal friend or neighbor! And this tendency is not just occurring among the naive. Recently an accredited investor, i.e., a very successful millionaire and highly educated individual, stated that he was surprised to discover a product he has invested in, and that we helped market, only received 2 stars – on a sham site.
Here’s how a fake review site typically works: an advertiser spends enormous sums of money advertising a product. In this case, let’s assume they are running a DRTV ad. Nearly 9 out of 10 consumers are watching TV with a second screen according to Accenture, so if an advertisement piques their interest, it’s only natural they will go online to learn more. While marketers would like for them to type their URL in the address bar, most consumers use search and Google comprises over two-thirds of all of that search.
Now, let’s examine what happens by way of illustration. Assume we’ve put the name of an anti-wrinkle remedy advertised on TV into Google search. For the sake of this example we’ll give it the fictitious name of Tinkle Wrinkle Remover. On the first page results, seven of the listings, which include one paid ad, are for review sites that featured come-ons such as this:
Tinkle Wrinkle Remover – Scam or the Real Deal?
Consumers who have viewed news reports about Tinkle Wrinkle Remover may be very
intrigued by this product. Our product experts reviewed…
Naturally any consumer who encounters headlines such as the one listed above would be enticed to check it out, especially in a category that invites skepticism to begin with, where they’ve likely tried other products only to be disappointed. Reviews are a form of social proof and a powerful factor in determining whether prospects buy or not. These review sites generally fall into three categories:
- Sites masquerading as impartial review sites that are really designed to discourage the consumer from buying the advertised and searched product. These are completely fake sites designed to sell their own competitive product. That product will get a significantly higher review rating which is contrived to persuade the Tinkle Wrinkle lead to buy the higher rated product instead of the one that drove them to the web.
- Similar to 1 are sites that review categories and hype multiple product to the disadvantage of the advertised and searched product. The owner of these sites is essentially a reseller of the hyped products that they profit from.
- Finally, there are news magazines and media companies that create a review or buy a review from a so-called independent writer that are designed to hijack the advertiser’s traffic for the sole purpose of promoting and profiting from their advertising.
While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules state that any conflicts of interest must be revealed, it usually appears in fine print or not at all. For example, in the site listed above, dermato-logicalreview.com, Tinkle Wrinkle is shown not to be in “the top three” among competitors which includes the number one rated Face Off Wrinkle Cream (another fictitious product name). At the bottom of the page in small type the following is revealed: “The owner of dermato-logicalreview.com has a material business relationship with the makers of Face Off Wrinkle Cream.” Funny how that works.
Funny that is, unless it’s your product being reviewed. It isn’t just marketers who are being harmed, it’s the public who is being deceived by what they think are credible sources of information. In some cases, marketers have allegedly created their own review sites to try and combat the scourge, but that only makes the web even more tangled. Therefore, while cleaning up the mess is seemingly impossible, one must ask: is there anything that the ERA can do as a body to help stem the tide? Here are a few ideas:
- Educate Consumers: Might the ERA undergo a campaign to enlighten consumers on what to look for to spot fake review sites? Just by heightening public awareness of the problem in general should help. wikiHow has already done the homework on a topic site entitled How to Spot a Fake Review Website.
- Work in Tandem with Regulators: By helping marketers combat this epidemic, the FTC is ultimately advancing their mission to protect consumers. Perhaps the size and placement of disclaimers needs to be more specific and prominent. Frankly, if the FTC were to make an example out of some of these bad actors by nailing them, it might just thin the herd.
- Marshal Legal Resources: The expense involved in fighting these poachers can be extremely high, so member companies who are being affected might want to consider combining resources to try and eradicate some of the most profligate abusers.
Like counterfeiters, the creators of fake review sites are essentially getting a free ride off the advertising of legitimate companies. Perhaps the two issues might be combined to create a task force to share ideas and best practices to help limit the problem. If this topic is of interest to you, please join co-author Rick Petry in Puerto Rico at The Great Ideas Summit where he will be moderating a panel entitled “Fake News, Fake Reviews & Bogus Offers: What to Do In the Age of Misinformation.” The session will be held on Tuesday, February 28 from 1:30-2:30 pm.
Photo credit: iStock/allanswart
Colleen Ferrier is a seasoned direct marketing expert who specializes in guiding integrated direct-to-consumer campaigns with an acute focus on ROI. Her broad experience has included management oversight of marketing, operations, media, and international distribution. The campaigns she has been instrumental in helping lead to success across her 15+ year career include Pillow Pets, Little Giant Ladder, Dream Lites, and Stompeez. Ferrier has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Augusta University, Georgia.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO/DoubleFlex. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with an Emphasis in Sales and Marketing from Marylhurst University.