The Ethics of Incentivizing Reviewers
How do you decide what services to use or products to buy? Like most consumers, your decisions are shaped by the online client and customer reviews. In a digital age, reviews--- positive, negative, or neutral---have a powerful impact on buying decisions. Whatever your business, the goal is to encourage clients to write about their experiences, especially if those experiences are positive. Favorable reviews can have a greater impact on purchasing decisions than a company’s marketing and advertising efforts, which has business asking what can be done to incur more reviews, and are there restrictions on what is legally and ethically acceptable to garner reviews?
The power of online reviews
The results of a Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey found that globally, more than 70 percent of customers trust online reviews. Furthermore, Veterinary Practice News cites studies that show that 68 percent of customers form an opinion of a business by reading fewer than seven reviews, and 90% of consumers determine whether they can trust a business after reading ten or fewer online reviews.
While online reviews can pack a powerful punch, encouraging clients to write them can be more challenging. But it’s worth the effort. Positive reviews can bolster a business’s presence and enhance its reputation.
When clients visit a veterinary hospital or practice, they do so with the expectation that the services will conform to a certain standard: staff will be courteous and professional, the pet will be well-treated, and the transaction will be smooth. When services meet these expectations, clients may not be motivated to post a review. But, if services exceed or fall below expectations, clients may be more likely to dash off a review. To ensure clients are motivated to review services, regardless of whether they received excellent, good, or subpar attention---it has become more common for businesses and practices to offer incentives to encourage reviews.
The impact of incentives on reviews
Businesses that rely on financial or other incentives to encourage clients to post reviews should be aware of the legal and ethical implications of incentivizing reviewers. One argument in favor of incentivized reviews is that they merely reward the writer for taking the time to share an opinion. The counterpoint is that once you offer an incentive, the review is tainted because the reviewer may feel compelled to modify his/her reflection of the experience due to the incentive and feel obligated to evaluate the product or service more favorably because they have accepted the incentive. The incentive creates a bias.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules that govern online reviews stress truth in advertising. Although it is not illegal to offer an incentive, if an incentive is provided, clients who accept the incentive must be instructed by the business offering the inducement to clearly and conspicuously disclose that they have accepted compensation in the review. This is usually accomplished by including a button or badge on a third party administered site that reveals that the reviewer was incentivized. According to Teri Carden, Co-Founder, 100Reviews, “It doesn’t matter how small or seemingly insignificant the incentive is, the business should make provisions for disclosure.”
Carden also explained that when considering compensating reviewers, be sure to check the policies of online search agencies and business directories. Google, Facebook, and Yelp, to name a few, do not allow reviews from consumers who have been compensated. Keep in mind that compensation, which typically refers to money awarded for recompense, can also include any type of exchange for the service provided. Ethically, if the incentive isn’t disclosed, the business is not creating a trusting experience for those reading the review. This could also land the business in hot water with the FTC and increase the risk that Yelp, Facebook, and other sites could penalize or ban the business.
If you think that failing to disclose an incentive will go unnoticed, be aware that third-party sites are committed to developing and improving algorithms that are capable of monitoring and flagging behavior that is in violation of the terms of the agreement.
Framing the ask
What is the best strategy for increasing online reviews, remaining in compliance with third-party review site policies, and providing a transparent and honest experience for potential clients considering your services? According to Ben Martin, Executive Director, The Review Society, the best strategy is to just ask your clients to post a review. He does, however, caution that companies must be careful about how they frame the request.
“When asking for reviews, keep it simple…request a review. Not a good review, not a bad review, a review,” he said. He also provided several suggestions for ensuring that the review is written. Martin suggests:
- Timing is important: When a client uses your service, ask them to go online and post a review. When the experience is fresh and the client is encouraged to write it, the review may be more informative and relevant.
- Ask more than once: The first ask may not be remembered or effective. A follow-up email reminding the client to post about the visit can be the push that is needed.
- You always have a second chance to make a first impression. Even if the review isn’t complimentary, how you respond will set the practice up for future success. If the reviewer gave the practice a low score because the front desk staff was snippy, indicate that you appreciate the feedback and have implemented a program to improve the customer experience.
The review is an integral part of the online experience. To many people, writing a review is the natural outgrowth of buying products and contracting for services. When generating reviews for the practice, be sure to comply with guidelines and disclose incentives, as well as be mindful of how the request is phrased. It is critical to ask for a review, not a positive review. By adhering to this strategy, the practice will have taken the ethical high ground and created an honest experience for their clients.
Posted on behalf of the VHMA Ethics Committee