It might be hard for some to imagine, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is feeling groovy. This month, the agency released two guidance documents that track best practices to prevent consumers from being misled when marketers solicit and pay for online reviews and when review platforms feature online customer reviews.
The new documents are like two sides of an old-school vinyl album. Side A is for online retailers and marketers, while Side B is for review platforms (i.e., consumer review websites). The lyrics might be slightly different, but the tunes make for a pretty good mash-up.
The hits from Side A:
In “Soliciting and Paying for Online Reviews: A Guide for Marketers,” the FTC emphasizes the importance of honest online reviews of products and services, and observes that bad actors are harming the public’s trust with fake reviews and by paying for better ratings on supposedly independent ranking websites. However, there are ways to ask and pay for reviews that improve online presence and avoid potential violations under the FTC Act.
- Marketers should know whether a platform prohibits or allows online reviews from reviewers who either received an incentive or have a financial or personal connection. (According to the FTC, any incentivized review must disclose that fact and must not be conditioned on being positive.)
- Marketers should not ask for reviews from: only customers who might give good reviews; those who have not used the product or service; friends and family who do not disclose their personal connection within the review; or employees who fail to disclose both their employment status with the company and the fact that they were asked to make any reviews.
- Marketers should also flee from comparison websites that offer ratings or reviews based on payment, take care when working with certain reputation management firms that may use deceptive techniques (e.g., using fake reviews to help a company and hurt a competitor), and clearly disclose any business relationship with a review platform.
Now let’s flip the album to Side B:
In “Featuring Online Customer Reviews: A Guide for Platforms,” the FTC gives a baseline for how online platforms featuring online customer reviews should collect, moderate, and publish reviews:
- Collection: Platforms should neither encourage positive reviews nor discourage negative ones from submission.
- Moderation: Platforms should scrutinize all reviews (positive or negative) equally, keep their intended meaning, and use reasonable processes to weed out manipulated, fake, or deceptive ones.
- Publication: Platforms should:
(1) show all “genuine” reviews;
(2) treat positive and negative reviews the same and display them with equal prominence;
(3) make incentivized reviewers clearly and conspicuously disclose their connection;
(4) clearly and conspicuously disclose the basis for overall ratings and explain how reviews are collected, processed, and displayed; and
(5) use “reasonable procedures” that detect fake reviews.
Behind these two guidance documents is the hope that marketers and platforms will work together in perfect harmony to provide consumers with truthful and honest online reviews. Companies should do their best to follow the FTC’s beat, or face the music.