Marketers who work with influential consumers through Amazon will have to find a new way to power up their product campaigns.
On Monday, the company announced that it was giving the boot to incentivized reviews—those written in exchange for free or discounted products.
Chee Chew, Amazon’s vice president of customer experience, wrote in a company blog post:
Customer reviews are one of the most valuable tools we offer customers for making informed purchase decisions, and we work hard to make sure they are doing their job. In just the past year, we’ve improved review ratings by introducing a machine learned algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews; applying stricter criteria to qualify for the Amazon verified purchase badge; and suspending, banning or suing thousands of individuals for attempting to manipulate reviews.
Our community guidelines have always prohibited compensation for reviews, with an exception – reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact. These so-called ‘incentivized reviews’ make up only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of reviews on Amazon, and when done carefully, they can be helpful to customers by providing a foundation of reviews for new or less well-known products.
The announcement was a significant change to the company’s Community Guidelines and will apply to all product categories except books.
“We will continue to allow the age-old practice of providing advance review copies of books,” Chew wrote.
Incentivized reviews will continue to be written through Amazon’s Vine program. Chew explained the program:
Here’s how Vine works: Amazon – not the vendor or seller – identifies and invites trusted and helpful reviewers on Amazon to post opinions about new and pre-release products; we do not incentivize positive star ratings, attempt to influence the content of reviews, or even require a review to be written; and we limit the total number of Vine reviews that we display for each product. Vine has important controls in place and has proven to be especially valuable for getting early reviews on new products that have not yet been able to generate enough sales to have significant numbers of organic reviews. We also have ideas for how to continue to make Vine an even more useful program going forward. Details on that as we have them.
Amazon’s policy change was probably spurred by a report that revealed incentivized reviews had an average score that was nearly a half star more than those from reviews that weren’t compensated.
The change comes after an analysis of 7m reviews by ReviewMeta, which found that the average incentivised review had a star rating of 4.74 out of five, while the average non-incentivised review stood at 4.36. That’s enough to push a product from the 54th percentile all the way up to the 94th, the site said.
ReviewMeta’s analysis didn’t include Amazon Vine reviews in the incentivised category, but a subsequent investigation revealed that that service actually had a lower average rating than even non-incentivised reviews, with the 4% of reviews that are part of Amazon Vine having an average rating of 4.2 stars. “At first glance, it seems to be much better controlled than their “review club” counterparts,” said ReviewMeta.
The policy change is not the first step that Amazon has taken in cleaning up its reviews.
Amazon has a big interest in making sure its millions of customers trust its 5-star reviews system, especially because these reviews let buyers know how good or crummy products are before making purchases online. It has been taking additional steps to crack down on fraudulent or questionable reviews that could jeopardize customers’ trust of its reviews system, suing several individuals and businesses to shut down fake reviews services.
Amazon began cracking down on fake reviews in early 2015, targeting websites and individuals selling reviews on Fiverr.com, an online marketplace. The company has filed suit against more than 1,000 defendants since the beginning of 2015 and Amazon has found hundreds of people offering to write fake reviews for money.
The move makes sense for Amazon, which is looking to bolster its brand and reputation. It can also affect marketing and PR professionals who have relied on power reviews in order to boost product awareness and buzz.
Brand managers who work with brand ambassadors should heed this policy change as a word of warning to any campaigns involving consumer reviews and feedback. Nothing is constant online, and additional platforms might follow suit.