Navigating the challenging world of Amazon reviews
Amazon has hit headlines again after concerns over fake five-star reviews. It is under investigation from the CMA about whether it has broken laws designed to protect shoppers from fake reviews.
It’s more important than ever for brands to ensure genuine reviews, says Andrew Banks, CEO of Venture Forge, one of the UK’s leading Amazon marketplace specialists.
Amazon reviews have long been a way of communicating to customers that any online products they are buying are safe purchases.
By other customers reviewing their previous purchases, new buyers of a product can gain the knowledge and confidence that they are buying an item that is fit not only for the purpose and of good quality, but also appropriate for their needs, lifestyle, and value.
Let’s face it - we all look at reviews when buying an item online, and most of us would avoid buying anything with a 3-star rating or less, or a low number of reviews. If other customers are suggesting we should avoid a product, then we are much less likely to buy it.
That is all straightforward, but in the world of Amazon - and other marketplaces - reviews also play a part in deciding how visible a product is to customers when they’re searching for that product on a website.
Amazon reviews are about so much more than “will a customer buy my product?”, and fundamentally about “will a customer ever see my product, let alone buy it?”
For products new to Amazon, this is a Catch-22. If your product has no or few reviews, how is it ever going to get seen and bought by customers and how do you stand a chance of generating any reviews at all?
That is the dichotomy of Amazon. How can you sell without reviews, and how can you get reviews without selling?
Generating ethical reviews
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are various tactics to generating reviews, in a way that is above board and ethical.
A well-proven tactic, but a costly one, is to simply spend more on advertising to get your product in front of a wider audience. Even with no reviews, someone will buy a product if it’s put in front of enough people, and over time reviews will build. However, this option is the most time-consuming and costly.
There are also two schemes on Amazon that can help generate ethical reviews.
The Early Review Program allowed brands to pay £60 per item for Amazon to proactively generate reviews from the first five genuine buyers of any product enrolled in the scheme.
This was a great scheme that, for a relatively low cost, really helped generate real reviews from real customers and supported brands in getting new products launched.
As of spring 2021, this scheme has disappeared. Will it return? Who knows, but it certainly does leave a gap that brands need to find a way of filling in their Amazon strategy.
The second scheme from Amazon, which is still available, is the Amazon Vine Programme.
Amazon Vine allows brands whose products are stored in Amazon’s warehouses to gift a certain number of products to Amazon’s Vine Reviewer Panel, who in return will leave a genuine review.
These reviews are often some of the most detailed reviews you will see on Amazon, and despite the reviewers getting the goods for free, they are not incentivised to leave positive reviews and as such consumers believe in them. For many brands, Vine has provided a great platform from which to launch a new product.
Until recently, this was a trial scheme in the UK, in which only five products were allowed to be enrolled per brand, and offered free of charge. Occasionally brands would get some additional Vine Credits, so they could launch more products throughout the year.
Currently, Vine is moving to be a paid service, with a cost of £1,000 or more per product to enrol in the program. For many brands, this becomes cost prohibitive and puts them under huge pressure to find alternate ways to generate those much-needed reviews.
Of course, there are many other ways, and variations of these tactics, to generate reviews. They include automated emails to customers who have purchased, notes in their packaging asking for a review, but you still need sales to generate your first reviews.
With avenues for generating reviews at scale now becoming limited, but reviews being so fundamental to success on Amazon, it’s no surprise that many brands have turned to ‘fake reviews’ as a way of succeeding on Amazon.
The dichotomy for Amazon
Amazon is making changes to how they look at reviews in terms of how they are presented to customers and their importance in the Amazon algorithm.
Some of this makes sense, but what it does is increase the importance of generating even more reviews.
When coupled with Amazon’s removal of the Early Review Program and increasing costs of the Vine program, it creates even more pressure for brands that want to succeed on the platform with their products.
Despite Amazon’s huge crackdown on fake reviews - with fewer legitimate options to generate reviews, mounting costs for doing so, and an even greater focus on reviews in the Amazon algorithm, is it a surprise that brands are continuing to turn to fake reviews to drive success? It may not be ethical, but to them it makes commercial sense.
For many businesses, particularly smaller brands on Amazon with less to lose, the risk vs. the reward of fake reviews is a relatively one-sided equation.
But for those brands that care more about their sustainability and long-term success, what can be done?
This is an area where Amazon needs to do more to improve its own reviews situation.
While Amazon is quite rightly cracking down on fake reviews, by increasing the importance of reviews on its platform but simultaneously removing options for generating them ethically, perhaps the wrong kind of behaviour is being encouraged.
Amazon could be more successful in its crackdown on fake reviews by providing brands with more viable, cost-effective, and scalable alternatives to generating legitimate ones.
For brands who care about their sustainability, there remains only one route - and that is to maximise and exploit all available options for genuine review generation and avoid fake reviews at all costs.