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Marketing strategies for handling damaging online reviews

Damage control to protect your ROI


The internet abounds with fraudulent information, including fake news and bogus product/service reviews, generally referred to as ‘review spam.’

Review spam falls into two general categories—

  • People who write bogus positive reviews to increase the rankings and product sales of a business.
  • Fake negative ‘customer’ reviews attacking a business’s products or services, originating from competitor-aligned individuals and spam networks posing as legitimate consumers.

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Online reviews are critical both for online and brick and mortar sales

As we know from continuing news of major retail chains closing stores or going out of business entirely, online purchases have been rapidly increasing. However, according to a recent Pew study, 65% of shoppers still prefer to buy from physical outlets when possible. Surprisingly, non-store purchases, despite growth, are still only 11%.

Surveys indicate that 90% of consumers read online reviews with 85% considering them equivalent to personal recommendations. A recent survey also revealed that 90% of consumers read less than ten reviews before deciding whether to do business with you or not. If potential buyers find three or more negative reviews about your business, over 60% will be scared off and go with one of your competitors. Even a few one-star negative spam evaluations will kill sales of online products and significantly reduce the number customers doing business with local service providers like, e.g., auto repair shops or plumbers. Many potential buyers focus on negative reviews, especially those with 1-star, to assess whether a product or business has serious shortcomings.

Price is the most important determiner of whether consumers purchase online and, if they do, who they choose to buy from. After selecting a specific product, consumers check comparative prices among e-commerce and brick and mortar distributors. The latter, of course, are also reviewed and ranked. Bottom line—online reviews have a critical impact on your business, whether it’s exclusively e-commerce, brick, and mortar, or a combination of both.

The many sources of review spam—

  • Reviewers are the owners, their employees, or marketers (with links to review spammer networks) which falsify positive reviews to increase product ratings and sales.
  • Reviewers who pretend they’re customers but are lying about critical details of a transaction to help or hurt a business.
  • Reviewers who are paid or otherwise rewarded for writing a favorable or unfavorable review.
  • Reviewers who knowingly or unknowingly violate platform guidelines by including hateful, obscene speech or personal attacks. This goes against all terms of service, but review platforms sometimes fail to red flag these violations. Immediately report this kind of attack so that platform administrators can remove it.
  • Reviewers who blackmail business owners with a flood of one-star ratings, communicating that they will delete them only if paid a given amount. Carefully document all such incidents!
  • Reviewers who are fired or otherwise disgruntled employees.
  • Reviewers who are internet trolls out to do damage wherever possible, whenever possible–regardless of whether they were a previous customer or not.
  • Reviewers who intend no harm but don’t understand that, e.g., asking family and friends to give their business high ratings is unethical and violates terms of service guidelines.

However, a review is not spam if—

  • It comes from real customers, never excluding those reporting genuine negative experiences.
  • It captures the details of a transaction with reasonable objectivity (without misrepresentation of facts).
  • It conforms to the review submission policies of the platform on which it’s published

Some indicators that reviews are spam–

  • Reviewers whose profiles reveal they’re in many different geographic locations over a short period.
  • Reviewers with a pattern of giving 1-star ratings to businesses contrasted with 5-star ratings to their direct competitors.
  • Reviewers with excessive praise for a business owner mentioned by name.
  • When the number of reviews for a business skyrocket from, e.g., 10 to 100 over a short period that can’t be connected to a major news event, it’s probably coming from a spam network.
  • Reviewers who make demonstrably false claims about an incident.

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Establishing a damage control policy

A Chief Marketing Officer needs to establish a clear, detailed policy to deal with all contingencies. This includes identifying spammers and holding review platforms accountable. Review spam sources range from individuals with an axe to grind to global networks comprised of individuals who are paid to hype or libel a company and its products. You may be surprised to learn that your business may be evaluated by 10 or more websites you had no knowledge of. Do a thorough internet search to locate those sites so you can respond to posted customer feedback you had no knowledge of.

To protect your reputation and ROI, you require monitoring software to capture all incoming reviews. Depending on the volume of evaluations you receive on e-commerce platforms and social media, you’ll also need to assign one or more of your employees to respond to negative reviews, one at a time. They must demonstrate outstanding communication skills before originating posts independently, mentoring them to ensure they are consistent with your established guidelines for projecting a customer-friendly, cooperative company image.

Be aware that while all major review platforms provide some support for locating and removing spam reviews, those protections are partial at best. Therefore, brands need to continue to push for better support from review platforms. Yelp, one of the best among them, is still contending with review spam at the 20% level. Unfortunately, the most important review platforms with the heaviest traffic often fail to enforce their own guidelines. This may result from inadequate algorithms or insufficient staff to monitor review spam. When spammers continue ‘to get away with it,” a platform’s reputation can be damaged over time as customers come to realize that its content is inaccurate.

Some businesses choose to turn off their notifications from a large platform if they discover that administrators are consistently failing to identify and delete bogus reviews. However, most marketing analysts caution against doing this, because you’ll also be losing valuable feedback that can help improve your products, services, and brand.

Strategies for reducing or eliminating damage from fake negative reviews

  • When possible, contact the unhappy customer directly. Calmly, respectfully listen to what they say and apologize for their inconvenience (whether it’s your fault or not) and describe how you’ll take corrective action to prevent that problem in the future.
  • The ideal outcome in this case for them to delete their negative review and replace it with a more positive one. There’s a moderate chance of success in these situations.
  • If a reviewer’s identity can’t be tracked, publicly comment on their review, hoping they’ll read your comments and contact you. You also may be successful in identifying the reviewer by comparing their pseudonym and date of the review with any received product orders issued.
  • Never respond to negative reviews with a counter-attack. This will blowback to hurt your company’s reputation. Not should you risk violating most platforms’ rules by pressuring the customer.
  • Another approach is to contact the platform’s administrator to see if they will delete a negative review (for example, if you believe the review is libelous). Unfortunately, unless a post directly violates their narrow, very specific guidelines, they generally don’t comply.
  • Carefully write and edit all your responses to unfavorable reviews that can’t be deleted. This is at least as much Public Relations as Marketing, and so the language must be precise, friendly, and diplomatic. This approach demonstrates that you take customer complaints seriously and take action to fix problems. The low rating will still be there, but your response may reduce the concerns of prospective customers. NOTE: never copy and paste the same response to subsequent reviews. Each response must stand on its own merits.

Observe the following when communicating with customers

  • Emphasize how important reviews are for you as a seller and how much damage bad reviews can cause. (I once got such a call, after posting a two-star rating for an Amazon product). After getting such feedback, many customers will then delete their low product or service rating posted when they were especially angry.
  • Some users are unaware that third-party sellers are often involved with the sale and delivery of the products they purchase. Remind them of that fact if that’s the source of their complaint and suggest they carefully read the sellers’ terms of service in the future.
  • Post FAQ page information addressing common issues that have direct, easy solutions. You can select and integrate relevant segments of that document into your online responses to help resolve customer complaints.
  • Above all, this is an opportunity to ‘flip the script’ by addressing the customer’s concerns while highlighting your business’s strengths—e.g., your growing volume of business, strong record of quality control, dedication to customer support, etc.
  • There are times when the customer will be unreceptive to any response. All you can do is tell them you wish things had turned out differently. Most potential future customers reading your online response will recognize that you have taken all reasonable measures to satisfy the unhappy customer. If the disgruntled customer continues to post critical comments you can block them, though do this only as a last resort. They can easily take their wrath to other platforms, so you’ll need to monitor their activity via a Google alert with their username and your brand name.

A complex, often inconsistent, legal framework

Some businesses have taken the extreme measure of filing meritless defamation cases against reviewers, hoping the high costs of litigation will squelch the critics and cause them to retract their comments. These baseless libel suits are known as SLAPPs – (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Legislation has been passed in over half the states to restrict SLAPPs. In one extreme 2010 case, a man who posted a negative review about a towing company was slapped with a $750,000 damage claim.

A more common technique for suppressing negative customer feedback is to write Terms of Service agreements with gag clauses, in which customers essentially sign away their rights to criticize a company. These clauses are often buried in fine print for products ranging from weight loss products to apartment complexes. Some courts consider gag clauses invalid and unenforceable, while others support them. A customer violating a gag clause thus risks paying out whatever amount was specified in the contract for breaking the gag clause.

Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Communication Act states: “Unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are hereby declared unlawful.”

This clause is cited when businesses bring charges against those posting widespread fraudulent reviews. While the First Amendment protects our right to free speech, it doesn’t protect those who make false allegations about individuals and organizations. This is the legal basis for the current proliferation of lawsuits between platforms, brands, and customers. Yelp, for example, has sued many agencies and businesses for posting fake reviews. Also, companies have successfully sued competitors for recruiting third parties to post malicious comments against them. And Amazon is among mega corporations now actively suing websites that post fake reviews. Even more surprisingly, they’ve sued 1,000 unidentified people who have sold fake reviews on its Web store.

Legitimate negative reviews now have greater legal protection under the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016. So, customers posting negative reviews complaining about an airline’s policy of bumping passengers from flights–or about getting slow, poor service at a restaurant, are expressing opinions, all of which are theoretically protected. I say, ‘theoretically’ because many jurisdictions still enforce SLAPPs. From my perspective, it seems ill-advised for a company to file SLAPPs given the negative publicity that can generate.

The Lanham Act protects you against libel from your competitors

Although marketers still have the challenge of managing the growing plethora of fake negative and positive reviews, they are protected against slander/libel from competitors by the 1946 Lanham Act which specifically prohibits false negative advertising directed at competitors. More specifically, when a competitor publishes a false review about your business online or fake positive reviews about their own company, this violates the Lanham Act. Significant damages have been awarded in such cases. In our new digital world, it’s easy to identify the culprit if they leave a traceable IP address. When proof has been established, the court issues an injunction to website(s) hosting false reviews as well as search engines to remove them.

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