Recently, we here at ReviewTrackers talked about why business organizations should not “incentivize” online reviews. The reason is simple: it’s against the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) guidelines on the use of endorsements and testimonials – of which reviews are considered a form – in advertising.
To put it simply: you can’t pay customers to write reviews. And incentives, rewards, and discounts are, technically, a form of payment.
This week, an auto shipment broker called AmeriFreight learned how serious the FTC is about getting businesses to follow its guidelines. It’s a lesson on why you shouldn’t try to manipulate customer experience and opinion by rewarding those who say something positive. The FTC has approved a final consent order that stops AmeriFreight from deceptively touting its online reviews and failing to disclose the incentives the company provided to its reviewers.
“Companies must make it clear when they have paid their customers to write online reviews,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If they fail to do that, as AmeriFreight did, then they’re deceiving consumers, plain and simple.”
Offering discounts to review writers a big no-no
According to reports, the Georgia-based automobile shipment broker had been giving consumers $50 discounts to get them to write positive reviews, while also offering these reviewers a chance to win an extra $100 if their review was selected as the winner of the “Best Monthly Review Award.”
Being able to generate positive reviews easily, AmeriFreight then touted these reviews, such as on its website, where the company claimed it had “more highly ranked ratings and reviews than any other company in the automotive transport business,” as well as in advertisements that read, “Google us ‘bbb top rated car shipping.’ You don’t have to believe us, our consumers say it all.”
According to a report on Ars Technica, AmeriFreight was very aggressive with getting customers to write reviews. The company “actually added $50 to the cost for customers who wouldn’t write a review, (and) customers who didn’t agree up front to write a review on www.transportreviews.com, an independent website, had to check a box on an AmeriFreight form saying they agreed to be billed the extra $50.”
From now on, AmeriFreight will have to stop any future misrepresentations about its online reviews and customer experience; the company will also, for the duration of the FTC’s 20-year order, need to maintain records of all its advertisements, marketing messages, and related documents.
A spokesperson for AmeriFreight said that the mistake was honest, and that it implied no requirement that a review be positive for its writer to receive a discount. In a statement, the company said, “The intention has never been to deceive consumers by posting and promoting bogus reviews. There was no requirement that reviews needed to be positive only. Compensation was provided for good or bad reviews.”