A Consumer’s Guide to Online Reviews
Consumers today have access to a ton of information about products and services online. Reviews are central to many shopping experiences on retailer websites and reviews and recommendations are readily available on websites and in social media.
This content provides consumers with a wealth of valuable information about products and services and can aid the research process tremendously. Consumers can often find information about products that manufacturers themselves never thought to provide and can help determine whether a product meets their needs without ever seeing or evaluating the physical product.
Who gets paid?
Many content providers receive some compensation for rendering their opinion on a product. The compensation may be in the form of advertising on their site, free products, or they may receive direct payments from the company that sells the product or service. Online celebrities with large numbers of followers are often paid substantial amounts to promote products online. This compensation can create conflicts of interest that might influence a reviewer to write a favorable review, recommend an inferior product or even completely fabricate their experiences with the product.
In our view, these conflicts are most pernicious if they are kept hidden from consumers. When consumers understand how a content provider is compensated, they can best evaluate their opinions and perspectives. They can weigh a statement, think critically about claims and consider how to interpret a review. Hidden relationships create greater opportunities and incentives for content authors to mislead consumers.
Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) agrees (and has long since agreed) and requires disclosure of these relationships. While the FTC has provided specific guidance for online disclosures in recent years, that guidance is built on decades of regulation to protect consumers. Their guidance on testimonials and marketing online are particularly thorough and pertinent.
What should consumers expect?
Consumers should expect that:
1. Relationships between content authors, online celebrities and other promoters and the products they are recommending or reviewing are clearly disclosed. This means that the existence and extent of a relationship should be obvious to a consumer while they are reading the content itself. These disclosures can’t be hidden, hard to find, on a different page, in the footer, etc.
2. These disclosures need to be in tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. If a tweet or post is financially connected with a brand, it should be clear in the post itself.
3. Reviews reflect the actual experiences of the reviewer. When a consumer sees a review with a disclosure they can be confident that the author isn’t making the review up – the FTC requires it.
What should consumers do if they suspect a disclosure is missing?
Consumers have a number of options if they suspect a disclosure is missing. Those include:
- Contact the content author or publisher: while an author may have accidentally failed to make a disclosure, they also may not know what is expected of them. While it certainly isn’t the consumer’s responsibility to educate publishers, many publishers would appreciate a head’s up.
- Contact the brand: brands are increasingly requiring their publishers to make clear disclosures in their content are likely to work with the publisher to correct errors.
- Contact the FTC: The FTC has a web-based form for reporting a host of concerns. Their guidance is to select ‘Internet Service, Online Shopping and Computers’ and then ‘Something else’. You can leave the details in the form itself.
Available product information, reviews and guidance has never been more plentiful and varied and consumers can greatly increase their confidence in products prior to purchasing them. Clear and visible disclosures help consumers properly evaluate claims and reviews online and grow increasingly comfortable making purchases of products and services they’ll love.
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