We live in a highly competitive economy, where marketing models are constantly evolving and adapting.
For local businesses, the last decade has been a rollercoaster with significant learning curves, as most everyone migrated from a traditional marketing strategy to a hybrid or fully online model. More business owners have come to embrace the importance of consumer-generated online opinion. The awareness that good performance on popular review sites can make or break a business has resulted in a significant increase in the number of business organizations willing to try unethical shortcuts, either internally or as proposed by less-than-scrupulous marketing agencies.
Among the most popular and most detrimental review management practices is the practice of astroturfing. Today, we are going to explore the risks and consequences associated with this practice.
(Check out: “9 Ways Faking Online Reviews Will Destroy Your Business”)
What Is Astroturfing and Why Does It Matter So Much?
To put it simply, astroturfing in the reputation management space is falsifying your online reputation through the creation of positive reviews that don’t originate from your customers.
An astroturfed online reputation is one where the business owners or stakeholders have intentionally supplanted the identity of customers to position messaging that makes their products or services look good on advertising, review sites, and other media.
Astroturfing includes commenting, creating reviews, adding false likes, and any online or offline sponsored activity that is not native to the customer or user, and is framed as if it is. Here in the U.S., astroturfing is a violation to the “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Astroturfing matters because it is prevalent across all industries, and business owners are very likely to fall into the trap for the sake of a quick win, without considering the long-term implications. If in the past you have purchased or generated reviews under the guise of a true customer interaction, or if it has crossed your mind as an easy option to get ahead, then please stay with us and learn why astroturfing could severely and negatively impact your small business.
Astroturfing Is Not Filter-Friendly
Just a few years ago, almost any business could have gotten away with astroturfing. With the majority of third-party review sites in their very early stages, the types of human or automated moderation algorithms were pretty limited, making a few planted, positive reviews quite beneficial and likely to stick.
Because astroturfing has become a marketing epidemic, many review sites have upped the ante by establishing highly sophisticated filters that catch reviews that may have not been created by real customers with unprompted and honest opinions. Yelp, for example, has a highly sophisticated filter that seeks to display only the most credible reviews. You can learn more about the types of reviews that trigger the filter at Yelp here.
Astroturfing Does Not Make Business Sense
Take a moment to be honest with yourself in asking the reason behind a weak or nonexistent online reputation. At its very heart, a poor online reputation is rooted in the delivery of less than satisfactory customer experiences. When you try to circumvent the natural feedback that characterizes your business, you are creating false expectations.
A five-star false review only has value if you have the certainty that you and your team are able to consistently deliver five-star service. Spending your money and time astroturfing is an uphill battle that you are unlikely to win. Every customer that tries you based on a false review is likely to be disappointed, resulting, in the best of cases, in a customer that will not come back again, and in the worst of cases in a negative review that contradicts your astroturfed content.
Selling a fantasy is not sustainable, and it puts your business at risk. Your money would be better spent on improving the issues voiced in negative reviews and seeking to deliver great customer experiences worthy of real, highly rated reviews from real customers.
Astroturfing Can Be Blinding
When you generate fake reviews, you are doing a disservice to your customers and to your own organization. Anybody who has ever astroturfed will tell you that having “good” online reviews blinds you to the reality of business, to the point where you are unable to identify and address the real problems, and you take the path of least resistance and embrace your “make believe” brand identity.
Astroturfing Does Not Help You Grow
One of the key problems with astroturfing is how it impacts customer retention. While your fake reviews may bring customers in the door, once the customer receives a misaligned customer experience, he or she is unlikely to give you a second try. If your business happens to be in a small town, then you will soon run out of new customers, and marketing-wise you will be back to square one.
Astroturfing Results Can Hurt Far More than Having No Reviews
A business profile with the telltale footprint of astroturfing is far less effective than a business with no reviews or just a few reviews. Customers and shoppers have become review-savvy and will be able to identify a cheat when they see one. Cleaning up an online reputation that has been astroturfed is hard work, and it may take many years of flawless execution and intentional reputation management. Slow, honest, and steady is always a better strategy when trying to elicit a sustainable and growing online and offline business reputation.
(Check out: “10 Savvy Ways You Can Spot Fake Reviews”)
Astroturfing Is Illegal
Whatever way you put it, astroturfing is illegal, and if you get caught you can be in a great deal of trouble. Astroturfing can be prosecuted under several variations of consumer protection laws designed to protect the end user from false and deceitful advertising.
In addition to state laws, consumers are also afforded protection at the national level from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Putting a defense together or paying the fines associated with having either the federal or state government go after your business can destroy you financially.