I’ve been following the responses to Jangro’s “Damn Marketers. Affiliate Links in Twitter” post with great interest. Today Scott has asked a semi-rethoric question: “Isn’t it really that opinions and recommendations are suspect if there’s money involved?” Websites providing hosting reviews are the first ones that come to my mind.
You’ll be surprised to learn what customers think. At least I was when asked a related question in the survey I was doing for my “Online Shopping Through Consumers’ Eyes” book.
Question: If you knew that some of the product/service comparison websites were paid (by the retailers they feature) to feature their specific products/services, would it bring the value of such websites down?
No, it wasn’t the number of those that gave the positive answers to the question that surprised me. I was surprised to see that over 15% of online shoppers do not care if there is any bios involved, and close to 1/3 answered “maybe” (i.e. maybe yes, but maybe not).
Cooper & Grutzner (2008) stress that customer reviews can be “your most powerful selling tool.” Over half of the online shoppers that were surveyed by ForeSee (their sample consisted of 10,000 shoppers from top 40 online retailers) cited product reviews “as the primary factor in their purchase decisions.” These authors write that customers “often trust peer reviews over the company’s word” and “even negative reviews help legitimize good reviews in customer’s minds.” (see “Tips and Traps for Marketing Your Business.” pp. 146-147)
However, paid reviews are different, especially if the owner of the website is economically interested in having reviews actually leading to a sale. The sincerely and authenticity of the review is then under a big question.
Additionally, Trout (2007) stresses the legal ramifications associated with undisclosed “sponsorships”:
Under the rules of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), word of mouth marketing is deceptive if potential consumers are more likely to trust the endorser of a product or service based on the assumption that the endorser is independent from the marketer. If your blog features paid product placements or paid reviews, and you fail to disclose the fact that you are getting paid for your “opinion,” these rules are going to hit you right between the eyes. If you are receiving money from a company you discuss favorably in your blog, you better be up front about the affiliation.
(see “Cyber Law: A Legal Arsenal for Online Business.” p. 39)
This certainly puts a different perspective on things.
Conclusions? My main one is: If you use reviews on your affiliate websites, make sure they are real reviews, opinions, and testimonials. You can add a product ranking system, and an option for your website’s visitors to leave reviews on the products they have previously purchased, or even services they have previously used (like you can leave your hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.com). Of course, this is more work than putting together your own reviews, but it’ll both save you from potential legal troubles, and help you build a website that actually adds value.