Earlier this month, Amazon created a tremor in the CPG marketing world when they announced the platform will no longer accept reviews from consumers who have received a free or discounted product to facilitate said review.
This was previously allowed as long as there was proper disclosure included. I’ve spoken with many CPG brand managers, in particular, in the past few weeks who have feverishly called up their Amazon reps to help understand the change.
Incentivized reviews or incentivized feedback via product sampling has long been a strategy for marketers to establish social proof and equity, especially if you’re a new or unknown CPG brand. We’re not talking about just Amazon. It is on social media networks, offline settings, brand-owned properties, ecommerce channels and many more. With the advent of social media and other online channels, brand managers could finally harness this strategy at scale and measure its power to impact to a business. There is certainly a hole in the marketplace for brands to encourage quality reviews about their products.
Unfortunately, as with most things in marketing and advertising, a shady underbelly of bad actors quickly cropped up, prompting this update. Anyone would fully support Amazon taking steps to curb disingenuous reviews on their site.
One has to wonder though if we’re throwing the baby out with the baby water. What if users rate an incentivized review as the “Most Helpful” submission? What if an incentivized video review is considered valuable to potential buyers? There is no question that there is a large cohort of consumers who take considerable pride in their ability to effectively educate other consumers in a candid and helpful way.
One of the first items most noticed in the fine print of this announcement is that reviews from Amazon’s Vine program are immune to this change. We obviously cannot speak to Amazon’s full motivation for this change, but if you’re a marketer, how could you not interpret this as a not-so-subtle cornering to use Amazon’s Vine services?
Look, the situation is not all that dire. Amazon has clarified that reviews from complementary product experiences are still allowed, as long as the reviews are not completed in exchange for the experience. And, of course, post-purchase reviews are still permissible. Now more than ever, brands will need to hyper-focus on building long-term relationships with consumers to foster this kind of content. Brands that have an owned, direct relationship with loyal advocates and the means to activate them have the ready-made opportunity to enable post-purchase reviews to sites like Amazon.
I believe there is a middle ground to this. Amazon has the opportunity to be a leader in establishing guardrails for marketers, instead of fences. Almost all major online players today such as Google, Facebook and more have comprehensive partnership programs, where they actively vet potential partners to ensure they align with the site’s value system. I think these principles could be borrowed.
Sixty-one percent of consumers read reviews while making a purchase and find them extremely useful in their product evaluations. And ignoring this is simply not an option for marketers. Time will tell what wider ramifications this will have, but it’s a conversation for the industry at large to start today.